Linux from the Beginning

A preview and summary of the March 7 episode of Phil Hughes' weekly radio program featured on Wall Street Newshour.

A little over a year ago, I started doing my weekly radio segment on Biz Soup. The segments varied from five to fifteen minutes and were available on stations in about 20 venues. We started at the beginning of Linux and have covered what Linux could do, along with the evolution of Linux into what it is today.

Over that year, there have been changes in the radio program as well as in Linux. The program name recently changed to "The Wall Street News Hour", the number of venues has grown and the audience has evolved.

With all these changes, it's time to go back to the beginning and help the newcomers get up to speed on Linux evolution. While the weekly article here is usually just a quick look at what will be covered on the radio program, this one is more detailed so it can act as background in helping new listeners get up to speed.

What Is an Operating System?

For most computer users, a computer is a tool to do a job. Most of those users understand that you have to purchase an applications program to make a computer capable of doing the job. An example of a general purpose application is a word processor which could be used to write anything from a letter to a book. A program to figure your income tax is an example of an applications program designed for a more specific task.

You, the computer users, want to use the capabilities of various application programs. The computer is the platform on which the application program runs. But there is still a missing piece, called the operating system. It could be thought of as the piece which makes the computer smart enough to run the application programs.

Here is an analogy that may help you understand what I'm talking about. Visualize a new office building being constructed. When the construction crew is done, you have what looks like a complete building. It has walls, doors, windows, lights and elevators. But, it isn't ready to be used. That is, in order to function as offices, it needs directories, signs and all the other extras that make it possible for the occupants to use the space.

An operating system is much like the extras in the example above. The operating system takes an inventory of what equipment is available (RAM, disk storage, video card and monitor, mouse, modem, etc.) and then makes this equipment available to the application programs. Also, much like the extras in the office building, the operating system permits sharing of the computer by keeping track of who is using what resource.

This isn't intended to be a lengthy course on operating systems, but hopefully you now understand where the operating system (or OS) fits in the picture.

Linux Is an Operating System and More

The most popular operating system out there is Microsoft Windows in its many flavors. Its popularity was guaranteed, because Microsoft managed to get all PC vendors to bundle their operating system with the hardware. This is similar to the way all Apple Macintosh systems ship with Apple's own OS. This doesn't mean a PC will run only MS-Windows, or a Mac will run only the MacOS. It just means that when you get the hardware, you have already bought an OS.

One alternative operating system is Linux. It will run on PCs, Macs and a lot of other platforms including Sun's Sparc, best-known for being the most significant hardware platform on the Internet. Another alternative OS is BeOS from Be, Inc. And there are more.

Besides being available for multiple hardware platforms, there are other characteristics making Linux stand out from the alternatives. These include:

  1. It is available from more than one source

  2. It is free

  3. The source code is available

  4. It comes with a whole host of application programs

Looking at the first two points together, an assortment of companies put together different Linux distributions. A distribution is the Linux operating system bundled with other programs, including installation software and applications. This bundled package may include documentation and support. Each of these distributions starts with the same basic Linux OS, but the different vendors will offer different bonuses.

While the vendors sell these packages, Linux itself is free because it is licensed under what is called the GNU Public License (GPL). Because of this license, you can share your copy of Linux with as many people as you want, or even make copies and sell them. (Note that some distributions contain other licensed software, so while Linux is free, there could be software on a commercial distribution which cannot be redistributed.)

The source code being free means you have the ability to customize Linux itself. While most users will never want to do this, there are two reasons why this is important. First, you don't have to worry about losing support for your particular distribution. If the manufacturer of your distribution goes out of business or decides to go into another business, there are no secrets as to what you bought. A consultant or another distribution vendor can pick up where your vendor left off.

Finally, Linux distributions include a whole lot more in the form of plenty of other software. While Linux refers to the operating system itself, it is also used to refer to complete distributions. Today, most distributions include thousands of other programs. While hundreds of these are the typical utility programs you have come to expect with an operating system (file manipulation and other basics), there are many more. Here is a partial list of the program areas included:

  • Software development tools, including language compilers, interpreters and debuggers

  • Systems administration tools, including backup utilities

  • Web-related programs, including browsers and web servers

  • Networking and connectivity tools

  • Graphical user environments

  • Databases

  • Office suites

You may have noticed each line above was plural. That was not a mistake. For example, there are multiple windowing environments available, so you have a choice. Even multiple web servers, and more than one way to network with other systems, are offered.


Phil Hughes