Friday, February 3, 2012

"So What's Linux?"

Quite a while ago, I thought up an idea to start a wiki for Linux newbs. The main goal of it would be not to necessarily be a vast array of information, but rather just a simple definition of terms. Imagine somebody coming in fresh, hearing about Qt and GTK and Ubuntu and kernels and distros and fstab and man and....well the list goes on and on and on. And while a lot of these can be answered by Googling, it's usually rather difficult to find a succint answer to what it is, not what it does. For example, if someone did not know what "root" was, they might come across this definition on, which might be technically accurate, but if someone does not know what "root" is, I doubt they will know what "file permissions" are. Basically, it's too technical. What about the newb?

I started creating a very, very basic wiki called "So What's Linux?" using Wiki-on-a-stick (which is, coincidentally, licensed under the GPL). The idea behind it is not to be a complete compendium of man pages and definition of the GPLv2 vs the GPLv3, but rather answers to a question who might ask "So what's linux?". The idea is to create a succinct, (mostly) correct definition on each page that a user can understand without having to follow a ton of links to other pages.

It's (kind of) a work in progress, partially because I myself don't know everything, but also because it's just hard to THINK of everything. I don't know the best way to make sure I get everything other than just create entries as I come across them in day to day use. Otherwise, I guess someone could e-mail me, or leave a comment below, or even try to collaborate with me; I'm open to any of those.

To give an example of an entry, here's a sample page:

So what's Linux?
Official pronunciation: "LINN-ucks"
Other pronunciations: "LEEN-ucks", "LINN-icks"

Linux is an operating system, just like Windows or Mac OS, only instead of being owned by one particular entity (like Microsoft or Apple), it's developed by people all over the world. The way this is possible is that Linux is open source, which means that its programming code (or 'source code') is "open", meaning that anyone can look at it, modify it, and do almost whatever they want with it. This leads to people and companies all over the world creating their own varieties of Linux (commonly called "Linux Distributions" and also helping to contribute to the development of the Linux kernel itself.

Many times you might hear about the "Linux kernel." A kernel is the part of the software that deals directly with the hardware; it tells the hardware how to act, down to what bytes to use in the RAM. The software you run (like Mozilla Firefox) talks to the kernel, and the kernel in turn talks to the hardware, like "Use this section of RAM" or "Read these bytes off the hard drive". (Every operating system has a kernel, including Windows and Mac OS.) Even with all of the different distributions out there, they all use the same Linux kernel. While "Linux" as we know it today includes more than the kernel, it could be said that the Linux kernel is Linux, literally.

The kernel is only half of the Operating System though. In addition, you need software. Much of the fundamental software that is core to Linux was developed by The GNU Foundation. The Linux Operating System would not be possible without the contributions of GNU, so formally Linux is called GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux. But that's rather a mouthful, so most people just shorten it to "Linux."
A very brief history lesson 
Back in the day, before Windows, before Macintosh, and before personal computers even, there was an operating system created in 1969 called UNIX. As it got more and more popular, people began to make their own versions, including BSD, but many of them were very expensive. Finally in 1991, a Finnish student by the name of Linus Torvalds tinkered around and ended up semi-accidentally creating a new kernel, and thus Linux was born. To this day, Linus still is the main overseer of the Linux kernel.

Torvalds has an autobiography titled "Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary" that tells more about where he came from and his actions behind writing Linux, as well as his reactions to the revolution it started.

Things to remember about Linux
  1. Linux is an open source operating system
  2. Linux has many different 'flavors' called "distributions"
  3. The Linux kernel is synonymous with "Linux"
  4. "Linux" is really "GNU+Linux"
  5. Linus Torvalds created Linux

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