Introduction to Linux and


Author: JT Smith

By the staff is an independent Web site that provides Linux information, news, tips, and reference material. Our goal is to provide all the information necessary to make your use of Linux a success. The following article answers most of the Linux questions we get. Please read it to get an overview of Linux — and to learn how and where you can get answers to almost any Linux question.

What is Linux?

Linux is an operating system. An operating system is the basic
set of programs and utilities that make your computer run. Some other common
operating systems are Unix (and its variants BSD, AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, and
others); DOS; Microsoft Windows; Amiga; and Mac OS.

Linux is Free Software. Now, just because it’s Free, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free. Think
“free” as in “free speech,” not “free beer,” as we in the Free Software/Open
Source community like to say. In a nutshell, software that is free as in
speech, like Linux, is distributed along with its source code
so that anyone who receives it is free to make changes and redistribute it. So, not
only is it ok to make copies of Linux and give them to your friends,
it’s also fine to tweak a few lines of the source code while you’re at it — as
long as you also freely provide your modified source code to everyone else. To learn more about
free software and the major software license it is distributed under,
called the General Public License (GPL), go here. In addition to the
GPL, there are many other software licenses that allow you to modify the
source code. The Open Source Initiative approves these licenses and keeps a current list of

Linux is not owned by anyone. One misconception many first-time readers have is that this site,, is similar to, which is owned and controlled by the
company that produces the Windows operating system.

Not so!

No one company or individual “owns” Linux, which was developed, and is
still being improved, by thousands of corporate-supported and volunteer
programmers all over the world. Not even Linus Torvalds, who started the Linux ball
rolling in 1991, “owns” Linux.

(However, the trademark “Linux” is owned by Linus Torvalds, so if you
call something “Linux” it had better be Linux, not something else.)

How to get Linux: When you “get Linux” you are usually getting a “Linux distribution” that contains not only the basic Linux operating system, but also programs
that enhance it in many ways. Anyone who wants to put together his or her own
Linux distribution is free to do so, and we know of more than 200
different Linux distributions that fill special “niche” purposes. But we advise new users to stick with one of the five or six most popular general-purpose Linux distributions until they know a little about what Linux can and can’t do.

You can get Linux from a number of online software repositories,
including the official Web sites for each distribution. For example, at you’ll
find the Mandrake distribution; at you’ll find Red Hat Linux.

It helps to have a fast connection and a CD burner so you can quickly
download an .ISO image of the distribution and burn it onto a CD. You then can load the bootable installation programs that lead you, step by step, through the process
of getting Linux on your computer.

If you don’t have a CD burner, you’ll be better off if you buy a CD
pre-loaded with the distribution (or distributions) of your choice. The
more popular distributions are available in many computer stores and directly from each distribution’s publisher. They sell full boxed sets of CDs or DVDs
that come complete with a fancy user manual and official technical support.
The average price is $25 to $80 USD. The convenience of a distribution on CDs, including manuals, generally makes your first installation
so much easier that it is well worth the money, and even if you pay full
retail price for a Linux distribution you will still get an incredible value.

Adv: Our own page is an excellent place to find the lowest prices on major Linux distributions and Linux software.

One editor tried to figure out how much he would have had to spend to get Windows software equivalent to the software that came with his USD $70 Mandrake 8.0
“PowerPack Edition,” and stopped counting when he reached USD $1,500. He was only
adding up the desktop software he used every day, and didn’t count the server
packages that were included and he didn’t need. If they had been
included in his tally, he probably would have concluded that his USD $70 investment in
Mandrake Linux was the equivalent of $5,000 or more in Windows software.

And when comparing Linux to Windows, don’t forget that Linux is a better
match for “commercial grade” Windows 2000 or XP Pro than it is for “consumer
grade” Windows 95, 98, ME or XP when it comes to stability and networking
ability — except that Linux is generally more stable than Windows, and will run
on less expensive or older hardware than current Windows versions.

If you’re on a tight budget, and feel you are skilled enough that you don’t need documentation or support to get started with Linux, you can pick up Linux CDs from any number of
online shops that burn them and sell them for just a few bucks each. Here
are four of many, in no particular order:

Get help before, during, and after you install Linux. Take advantage of some free, expert technical support: the Linux Users Group,
or LUG. The heartbeat of Linux support, and of Linux itself, is the LUG. There are LUGs in almost every country in the world, where you can get Linux advice and help from people who live near you, speak your language, and are willing to donate their time so that new users (like you!) can learn about Linux without going through any more head-scratching than necessary.

You can find some LUGs here, but there is no “LUG central” any more than there is a
single company that controls Linux. Each LUG operates independently and has its
own style and meeting schedule. Note that if there is no LUG close enough
for you to conveniently attend meetings, most LUGs maintain email lists you can
join and use to get answers to any Linux questions you have.

One very good reason to make contact with a LUG before you install
Linux, or even decide which distribution to use, is that your nearest LUG’s
members may have accumulated experience with one particular distribution and may be most helpful with that one. If this is the case, you would be wise to choose the
distribution most popular with local LUG members, because you will get better and more accurate answers to any questions you may have.

So please, try to find a LUG and ask your questions there, because that
is what a LUG is for. You may also find that a LUG in your area holds
“installfests,” which are special events where LUG members will sit down with you, in person, and help you install Linux on your computer if you “LUG” it with you to the LUG meeting location. (Maybe this is why they’re called LUGs, eh?) This is the
absolutely best and easiest way to get Linux going. If there is a LUG near you,
and they do not have an installfest scheduled, ask anyway. Many LUGs will help you with an install at any meeting, anytime.

And now, let’s talk about Linux distributions.

Many flavors of Linux: Windows and Mac only have one or two current versions each. Linux is about freedom and choice, so you have plenty of freedom to choose — and until you have some experience with Linux, it is almost impossible to decide which of the many Linux distributions best fits your needs. All we can do here is give you a basic list and some information based on staff members’ own experience with different Linux distributions.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux
The best-known corporate GNU/Linux distribution. Sold by annual subscription, including well-regarded automatic update utilities. Offers comprehensive fee-based support, training, certification, and customization.

Mandrake Linux
This was the first Linux distribution that worked hard to make Linux easy for ordinary desktop users. The company that produces it, MandrakeSoft, has had many ups and downs since it was founded in 1998, and some releases have had quality control problems, but Mandrake Linux is now stable and workable for users at all levels, not just beginners. Freely downloadable version available; commercial versions have pre-integrated sofware packages and are easier for first-timers to set up than the download edition.

The Fedora Project
This is a community-developed, freely downloadable distribution that replaces the old no-charge version of Red Hat Linux but is still sponsored and supported by Red Hat. It is generally targeted more toward hobbyists and experimenters than desktop computer users.

The Debian Project
Debian is a true free (in both senses of the word) software project. Generally command-line-oriented, but some GUI system tools available. The Debian “apt” package management system is commonly regarded as one of the best, simplest, and most reliable ways to install and uninstall Linux software. Over 10,000 free software packages are available for “apt get” install through the volunteer-maintained Debian servers.

A bootable CD based on Debian that includes a fine collection of free GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI and USB devices, and other peripherals. Freely downloadable, free updates, use Debian servers and “apt-get” to install additional software. An excellent way to test Linux on your computer without having to install it.

SUSE Linux
SUSE is a division of enterprise networking leader Novell, Inc., and while there is a downloadable version of SUSE available you must purchase a copy to get all of SUSE’s proprietary system tools and a full selection of pre-integrated software. SUSE places a heavy emphasis on corporate sales, but is excellent for individual users, too. A well-integrated package, suitable for both new and experienced users.

Slackware Linux
One of the oldest continuously-published Linux distributions. Generally aimed at hobbyists and Linux sophisticates, not desktop or corporate users. You will use the command line quite a bit if you run Slackware.

A newcomer that, like Knoppix, can be run from your CD drive without installation. Also like Knoppix, it is based on Debian. Where MEPIS shines is its easy, 100% “point and click” installation, and automatic detection of not only “normal” computer hardware but also popular webcams, the latest wireless network cards, “Winmodems” that usually work only with Windows, digital cameras, scanners, and other devices. Freely downloadable, paid registration or subscription updates available but optional.

Gentoo Linux
A completely free Linux distribution geared towards developers and network professionals that uses a unique package management system called Portage instead of the more common RPM and DEB systems.

An excellent desktop distribution that grew form the old Corel Linux OS. Debian-based, works well, easy to install and upgrade. There’s an “Open Circulation” edition available for free download, but if you want all the bells and whistles (and a manual) you’ll need to spend close to $100 for the full-featured “Deluxe” edition. Restrictive license limits sharing.

A rather new Live CD distribution initially based on Mandrake Linux but rapidly coming into its own. Installs easily, runs very well, attractive default and utility screens.

Features simple, basic installation and easy installation of additional software. Most Linspire software is the same software you find in other Linux distributions with changed names, and it is not obvious how to switch from Linspire’s Click-N-Run subscription software service to the free Debian servers or other free software sources if you don’t want to keep paying Linspire for updates. Great packaging and looks. No free downloads regularly available; restrictive license prohibits sharing outside of immediate family.

Lots of other distributions: has a huge list of available Linux distributions for all tastes
and purposes. No one list of Linux
distributions can possibly be complete, because almost anyone can decide
to make his or her own Linux distribution, and many people do. It can all
be a bit bewildering until you get used to having this huge cafeteria of software available to you, which again is why we recommend getting advice from a LUG full of experienced users, then beginning your Linux experience with one of the popular
distributions that offers professional and/or volunteer support to help you get going.

A Linux distribution contains more than just the operating system. You need more than an operating system to do anything useful with your computer. You need applications. Software that works with or on top of the operating system is what makes Linux useful. Fortunately, distributions package dozens, even hundreds of Linux tools and programs together — office suites, text editors, games, spreadsheets,
PIMs, email programs, graphics applications, scientific programs, documentation,
digital camera applications, Web editors and browsers, and others — so that you
can install all of them at once and be assured that they will all work
together efficiently without worry or any great effort by you. These are not the same programs you may have used with Windows or Mac, but since almost all of them are free, they are well worth your time to learn. You may be surprised to find that many free Linux programs included in the distribution you choose are better and more stable (less likely to crash) than expensive software you have used with other operating systems. After you have used Linux for a while, you will get used to this — and once you do, it is very hard to go back to the world of high-priced Windows or Mac software!

Learn more at
For specific information on how to do things with Linux, please check around, we have a lot of different articles and tuning tips to help you learn “how to do it.”

As we mentioned at the beginning of this page, the one thing we can’t
offer is one-on-one support. In the near future, we’ll be adding resources to help you get the one-on-one support you need. In the meantime, please make contact with that local LUG. It truly is your best source for individual Linux help.