Understanding Linux - A Linux Beginner's Guide

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The purpose of this Linux for “newbies” guide is to help you adjust to the philosophy and structure of this free operating system and to open source software in general. You’ve learned that most of these operating systems are based on the GNU/Linux kernel. Unlike Windows which is closed source and, consequently, very standardized (an explanation of why there’s only one version of each Windows release), there are many “versions” of Linux. You may hear the terms “distribution” or simply “distro.” You may also hear the word “flavor.” This is just simply a way of saying that there are many different operating systems based on one kernel.

A beginner’s guide would be incomplete if it didn’t explain what a kernel is. A kernel is the core of an operating system; it’s the heart of the software upon which much more code is built to create what you receive when you download or purchase a particular distro. I remember hearing someone compare the kernel to pasta to better explain what it is. Pasta can be formed into many different shapes to make spaghetti, macaroni, fettuccini or linguini, but it’s still pasta made from the same ingredients. You can further modify the dish by choosing which sauce you’ll use to cover it. That sauce may be tomato-based, cheese, or some other. Nevertheless, the core or “kernel” remains the same–pasta. The Linux kernel is to the operating system what pasta is to an Italian dish.

The source code for the Linux can be obtained by anyone via download and used to build the distro of his choice. This can only be done by someone who’s an accomplished programmer preferably in the C and Python languages, but the option is at least available. Fortunately, this has already been done hundreds of times over giving birth to hundreds of different distros ready for use on the desktop.

Some of the more popular distros include Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, and Suse, but, there are many more from which to choose. We need to stress that you should select a distro that suits your needs and one with which you’ll be able to work comfortably. This can be a daunting choice for a newbie. If you need help in this area, you may want to read the article entitled, “Choose a Linux Distribution (Operating System) That’s Right for You.”

Another thing to which newbies to this free operating system may find hard to adjust to is the way in which you obtain and install programs. Open source software isn’t sold in the stores like proprietary closed source software is. That’s why you need to know how a repository works. The name itself explains that it’s a store house. Linux users obtain most of the software they want, that didn’t come bundled in their distro, via the repository for their particular flavor.

Keep in mind that, unlike Windows, the popular distros of Linux come bundled with a host of useful software programs. You’ll be able to do word processing, connect to and browse the Internet, use an email client, chat via Instant Messaging (IM), play your music and watch TV and video. This is just the tip of the computing power you’ll enjoy without ever connecting to a repository.

Please note that there are some distros such as Fedora and Debian that are composed entirely of open source software. Therefore, you will not have the same multimedia options as when using a distro that included proprietary codecs. But, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do things like play your DVD’s under them. It just requires some additional steps that a newbie may not be comfortable with handling.

If this Linux beginner’s guide has inspired you to forge ahead with the use of open source software, I wish you the best.

This post is part of the series: Understanding Linux

These articles serve as an introduction to Linux (part I), and a beginner’s guide to understanding Linux (part II). They will help those who are interested in using or are newbies to this free operating system. Your most basic questions are answered in clear and concise language.

  1. An Introduction to Linux for the Complete Novice
  2. A Linux Beginner’s Guide for Newbies