Selecting an Operating System - Beck-Shop

Selecting an Operating System - Beck-Shop
Chapter 1
Selecting an
Operating System
The fact that you’re reading this book means you want to learn about the
IIWhat is an OS?
Linux operating system (OS). To begin this journey, you must first understand what Linux is and what an OS is. This chapter is therefore devoted to
these basic issues. I describe what an OS is, how users interact with an OS,
how Linux compares to other OSs with which you may be familiar, and how
specific Linux implementations vary. Understanding these issues will help
you make your way as you learn about Linux and switch between Linux-based
systems and other computers.
IIInvestigating user interfaces
IIWhere does Linux fit in the OS world?
IIWhat is a distribution?
What Is an OS?
An OS provides all the most fundamental features of a computer, at least from
a software point of view. An OS enables you to use the computer’s hardware
devices, it defines the user interface standards, and it provides basic tools that
begin to make the computer useful. Ultimately, many of these features trace
their way back to the OS’s kernel, which is described in more detail next.
Other OS features are owed to additional programs that run atop the kernel,
as described later in this chapter.
What Is a Kernel?
An OS kernel is a software component that’s responsible for managing various
low-level features of the computer, including:
and so on)
with hardware devices (network adapters, hard disks,
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
memory to individual programs
CPU time to individual programs
Many programs run
on multiple kernels,
but most need
OS-specific tweaks.
Programmers create
binaries—the program files for a particular processor and
kernel—for each OS.
programs to interact with each other
When you use a program (say, a Web browser), it relies on the kernel for many
of its basic functions. The Web browser can only communicate with the outside
world by using network functions provided by the kernel. The kernel allocates
memory and CPU time to the Web browser, without which it couldn’t run. The
Web browser may rely on plug-ins to display multimedia content; such programs
are launched and interact with the Web browser through kernel services. Similar
comments apply to any program you run on a computer, although the details
vary from one OS to another and from one program to another.
In sum, the kernel is the software “glue” that holds the computer together.
Without a kernel, a modern computer can do very little.
Kernels are not interchangeable; the Linux kernel is different from the Mac
OS X kernel or the Windows kernel. Each of these kernels uses a different internal design and provides different software interfaces for programs to use. Thus,
each OS is built from the kernel up and uses its own set of programs that further define each OS’s features.
Linux uses a kernel called Linux—in fact, technically speaking, the word
Linux refers only to the kernel. Other features that you might associate with
Linux are provided by non-kernel programs, most of which are available on
other platforms, as described shortly, in “What Else Identifies an OS.”
A student named Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel in 1991. Linux has
evolved considerably since that time. Today, it runs on a wide variety of CPUs
and other hardware. The easiest way to learn about Linux is to use it on a desktop or laptop PC, so that’s the type of configuration that’s emphasized in this
book. The Linux kernel, however, runs on everything from tiny cell phones to
powerful supercomputers.
What Else Identifies an OS?
The kernel is at the core of any OS, but it’s a component that most users don’t
directly manipulate. Instead, most users interact with a number of other software components, many of which are closely associated with particular OSs.
Such programs include the following:
Command-line shells Years ago, users interacted with computers exclusively by typing commands in a program (known as a shell) that accepted such
What Is an OS?
commands. The commands would rename files, launch programs, and so on.
Although many computer users today don’t use text-mode shells, they’re still
important for intermediate and advanced Linux users, so I describe them in
more detail in Chapter 6, “Getting to Know the Command Line,” and subsequent chapters rely heavily on your ability to use a text-mode shell. Many different shells are available, and which shells are available and popular differ from
one OS to another. In Linux, a shell known as the Bourne Again Shell (bash or
Bash) is popular.
Graphical user interfaces A graphical user interface (GUI) is an improvement
on a text-mode shell, at least from the perspective of a beginning user. Instead
of using typed commands, GUIs rely on icons, menus, and a mouse pointer.
Windows and Mac OS both have their own OS-specific GUIs. Linux relies on a
GUI known as the X Window System, or X for short. X is a very basic GUI, so
Linux also uses desktop environment program suites, such as the GNU Object
Model Environment (GNOME) or the K Desktop Environment (KDE), to provide
a more complete user experience. It’s the differences between a Linux desktop
environment and the GUIs in Windows or OS X that will probably strike you
most when you first begin using Linux.
Utility programs Modern OSs invariably ship with a wide variety of simple
utility programs—calculators, calendars, text editors, disk maintenance tools,
and so on. These programs differ from one OS to another. Indeed, even the
names and methods of launching these programs can differ between OSs.
Fortunately, you can usually find the programs you want by perusing menus in
the main desktop environment.
Libraries Unless you’re a programmer, you’re unlikely to need to work with
libraries directly; nonetheless, I include them in this list because they provide
critical services to programs. Libraries are collections of programming functions that can be used by a variety of programs. For instance, in Linux most
programs rely on a library called libc. Other libraries provide features associated with the GUI or that help programs parse options passed to them on the
command line. Many libraries exist for Linux, which helps enrich the Linux
software landscape.
Productivity programs Major productivity programs—Web browsers, word
processors, graphics editors, and so on—are the usual reason for using a computer. Although such programs are often technically separate from the OS, they
are sometimes associated with certain OSs. Even when a program is available
on many OSs, it may have a different “feel” on each OS because of the different
GUIs and other OS-specific features.
You can search for
Linux equivalents
to popular Mac OS
X or Windows programs on Web sites
such as http://
or http://www​
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
In addition to software that runs on an OS, several other features can distinguish between OSs, such as the details of user accounts, rules for naming disk
files, and technical details of how the computer starts up. These features are all
controlled by software that’s part of the OS, of course—sometimes by the kernel
and sometimes by non-kernel software.
Investigating User Interfaces
Earlier, I noted the distinction between text-mode and graphical user interfaces.
Although most end users favor GUIs because of their ease of use, Linux retains a
strong text-mode tradition. Chapter 6 describes Linux’s text-mode tools in more
detail, and Chapter 4, “Using Common Linux Programs,” covers basic principles of Linux GUI operations. It’s important that you have some grounding in
the basic principles of both text-mode and graphical user interfaces now, since
user interface issues crop up from time to time in intervening chapters.
Using a Text-Mode User Interface
To try a text-mode
login, you must first
install Linux on a
computer. Neither the
Linux Essentials exam
nor this book covers
Linux installation;
consult your distribution’s documentation
to learn more.
If you see a GUI login
prompt, you can
obtain a text-mode
prompt by pressing
Ctrl+Alt+F1 or
Ctrl+Alt+F2. To
return to the GUI
login prompt, press
Alt+F1 or Alt+F7.
In the past, and even sometimes today, Linux computers booted in text mode.
Once the system had completely booted, the screen would display a simple textmode login prompt, which might resemble this:
Debian GNU/Linux 6.0 essentials tty1
essentials login:
The details of such a login prompt vary from one system to another. This
example includes several pieces of information:
OS name and version—Debian GNU/Linux 6.0
computer’s name— essentials
name of the hardware device being used for the login—tty1
login prompt itself—login:
To log in to such a system, you must type your username at the login: prompt.
The system then prompts you for a password, which you must also type. If you
entered a valid username and password, the computer is likely to display a login
message, followed by a shell prompt:
[email protected]:~$
Investigating User Interfaces
In this book, I omit most of the prompt from example commands when they
appear on their own lines. I keep the dollar sign ($) prompt, though, for ordinary
user commands. Some commands must be entered as root, which is the Linux
administrative user. I change the prompt to a hash mark (#) for such commands,
since most Linux distributions make a similar change to their prompts for the
root user.
The details of this shell prompt vary from one installation to another, but you
can type text-mode commands at the shell prompt. For instance, you could type
ls (short for list) to see a list of files in the current directory. The most basic
commands are shortened by removing vowels, and sometimes consonants, in
order to minimize the amount of typing required to execute a command. This
has the unfortunate effect of making many commands rather obscure.
Some commands display no information, but most produce some type of output. For instance, the ls command produces a list of files:
$ ls
106792c01.doc f0101.tif
This example shows two files in the current directory: 106792c01.doc and
f0101.tif. You can use additional commands to manipulate these files, such as
cp to copy them or rm to remove (delete) them. Chapter 6 (“Getting to Know the
Command Line”) and Chapter 7 (“Managing Files”) describe some common file
manipulation commands.
Some text-mode programs take over the display in order to provide constant
updates or to enable you to interact with data in a flexible manner. Figure 1.1,
for instance, shows the nano text editor, which is described in more detail in
Chapter 11, “Editing Files.” Once nano is working, you can use your keyboard’s
arrow keys to move the cursor around, add text by typing, and so on.
F igu r e 1 . 1 Some text-mode programs take over the entire display.
Chapter 13,
Users and Groups,”
describes Linux
accounts, including
the root account, in
more detail.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
Even if you use a graphical login, you can use a text-mode shell inside a window, known as a terminal. Common Linux GUIs provide the ability to launch
a terminal program, which provides a shell prompt and the means to run textmode programs.
Using a Graphical User Interface
Some Linux GUI
login screens don’t
prompt you for a
password until after
you’ve entered a
valid username.
Most users are more comfortable with GUIs than with text-mode commands.
Thus, many modern Linux systems start up in GUI mode by default, presenting
a login screen similar to the one shown in Figure 1.2. You can select your username from a list or type it, followed by typing your password, to log in.
F igu r e 1 . 2 Graphical login screens on Linux are similar to those for
Windows or Mac OS X.
Unlike Windows and Mac OS X, Linux provides a number of desktop environments. Which one you use depends on the specific variety of Linux you’re using,
what software options you selected at installation time, and your own personal
preferences. Common choices include GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and Unity. Many
other options are available as well. In Figure 1.2, you can see a selection option
for the desktop environment in the lower-left corner of the central dialog box.
It reads GNOME in Figure 1.2, meaning that if the item is left unchanged, the
computer will launch GNOME when the user logs in.
Investigating User Interfaces
Linux desktop environments can look quite different from one another, but
they all provide similar functionality. Figure 1.3 shows the default KDE on an
openSUSE 12.1 installation, with a couple of programs running. Chapter 4
describes common desktop environments and their features in more detail, but
for now, you should know that they all provide features such as:
F igu r e 1 . 3 Linux desktop environments provide the types of GUI
controls that most users expect.
Program launchers You can launch programs by selecting them from menus
or lists. Typically, one or more menus exist along the top, bottom, or side of the
screen. In Figure 1.3, you can click the openSUSE gecko icon in the bottom-left
corner of the screen to produce the menu that appears in that figure.
File managers Linux provides GUI file managers similar to those in Windows
or Mac OS X. A window for one of these is open in the center of Figure 1.3.
Window controls You can move windows by clicking and dragging their title
bars, resize them by clicking and dragging their edges, and so on.
Multiple desktops Most Linux desktop environments enable you to keep multiple virtual desktops active, each with its own set of programs. This feature is
very handy to keep the screen uncluttered while you run many programs simultaneously. Typically, an icon in one of the menus enables you to switch between
virtual desktops.
Logout options You can log out of your Linux session, which enables you to
shut down the computer or let another user log in.
Logging out is very
important in public
computing environments. If you fail to
log out, a stranger
might come along
and use your account
for malicious
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
You may need to
install extra desktop
environments to use
them. This topic is not
covered in this book.
As you learn more about Linux, you’ll discover that its GUI environments are
quite flexible. If you find you don’t like the environment that’s the default for
your distribution, you can change it. Although they all provide similar features,
some people have strong preferences about desktop environments. Linux gives
you a choice in the matter that’s not available in Windows or Mac OS X, so feel
free to try multiple desktop environments.
Where Does Linux Fit in the OS World?
As described later,
in “What Is a
Distribution?,” Linux
can be considered a
family of OSs. Thus,
you can compare
one Linux version to
another one.
Open source software is software
that you can not
only run, but modify
and redistribute
yourself. Chapter 2,
Linux’s Principles
and Philosophy,”
covers the philosophy and legal issues
concerning open
source software.
This chapter’s title implies a comparison, and as this book is about Linux, the
comparison must be to non-Linux OSs. Thus, I compare Linux to three other
OSs or OS families: Unix, Mac OS X, and Microsoft Windows.
Comparing Linux to Unix
If you were to attempt to draw a “family tree” of OSs, you would end up scratching
your head a lot. This is because OS designers often mimic each other’s features,
and sometimes even incorporate each other’s code into their OSs’ workings. The
result can be a tangled mess of similarities between OSs, with causes ranging from
coincidence to code “borrowing.” Attempting to map these influences can be difficult. In the case of Linux and Unix, though, a broad statement is possible: Linux
is modeled after Unix.
Unix was created in 1969 at AT&T’s Bell Labs. Unix’s history is complex and
involves multiple forks (that is, splitting of the code into two or more independent
projects) and even entirely separate code rewrites. Modern Linux systems are, by
and large, the product of open source projects that clone Unix programs, or of
original open source code projects for Unix generally. These projects include:
The Linux kernel Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel as a hobby programming project in 1991, but it soon grew to be much more than that. The Linux
kernel was designed to be compatible with other Unix kernels, in the sense that it
used the same software interfaces in source code. This made using open source
programs for other Unix versions with the Linux kernel easy.
The GNU project The GNU’s Not Unix (GNU) project is an effort by the Free
Software Foundation (FSF) to develop open source replacements for all the core
elements of a Unix OS. In 1991, the FSF had already released the most important
such tools, with the notable exception of the kernel. (The GNU HURD kernel is
now available but is not as popular as the Linux kernel.) Alternatives to the GNU
tools include proprietary commercial tools and open source tools developed for
the BSD Unix variants. The tools used on a Unix-like OS can influence its overall
Where Doe s L inu x Fit in the OS World ?
“flavor,” but all of these tool sets are similar enough to give any Unix variety a
similar feel compared to a non-Unix OS.
Xorg-X11 The X Window System is the GUI environment for most Unix OSs.
Most Linux distributions today use the Xorg-X11 variety of X. As with the basic
text-mode tools provided by the GNU project, choice of an X server can affect
some features of a Unix-like OS, such as the types of fonts it supports.
Desktop environments GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and other popular open source
desktop environments have largely displaced commercial desktop environments
even on commercial versions of Unix. Thus, you won’t find big differences between
Linux and Unix in this area.
Server programs Historically, Unix and Linux have been popular as server
OSs—organizations use them to run Web servers, e‑mail servers, file servers,
and so on. Linux runs the same popular server programs as do commercial Unix
versions and the open source BSDs.
User productivity programs In this realm, as in server programs, Linux runs
the same software as do other Unix-like OSs. In a few cases, Linux runs more
programs, or runs them better. This is mostly because of Linux’s popularity and
the vast array of hardware drivers that Linux offers. If a program needs advanced
video card support, for example, it’s more likely to find that support on Linux
than on a less popular Unix-like OS.
On the whole, Linux can be thought of as a member of the family of Unix-like
OSs. Although Linux is technically not a Unix OS, it’s similar enough that the
differences are unimportant compared to the differences between this family as
a whole and other OSs, such as Windows. Because of its popularity, Linux offers
better hardware support, at least on commodity PC hardware. Some Unix varieties offer specific features that Linux lacks, though. For instance, the Zettabyte
File System (ZFS), available on Solaris, FreeBSD, and some other OSs, provides
advanced filesystem features that aren’t yet fully implemented in Linux.
C o d e Ty p e s
Human beings write programs in a form known as source code. Although source
code can seem arcane to the uninitiated, it’s crystal clear compared to the
form a program must take for a computer to run it: binary code. A program
known as a compiler translates source code to binary code. (Alternatively,
some programming languages rely on an interpreter, which converts source
code to binary code “on the fly,” eliminating the need to compile source code.)
GNU is an example
of a recursive acronym—an acronym
whose expansion
includes the acronym itself. This is
an example of geek
Mac OS X, described
shortly, is a commercial Unix that
eschews both X and
the desktop environments that run on it
in favor of Apple’s
own GUI.
A ZFS add-on for
Linux is available,
but it’s not fully
integrated into the
OS. A Linux filesystem known as Btrfs
offers many ZFS
features, but Btrfs
isn’t yet complete.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
C o d e Ty p e s (Continued)
The term open source refers to the availability of source code, which is
generally withheld from the public in the case of commercial programs and
OSs. A programmer with access to a program’s source code can fix bugs,
add features, and otherwise alter how the program operates.
Comparing Linux to Mac OS X
The X in X server is
a letter X, but the X
in OS X is a Roman
numeral (10), denoting the tenth version
of Mac OS.
Mac OS X is a commercial Unix-based OS that borrows heavily from the BSDs
and discards the usual Unix GUI (namely X) in favor of its own user interface.
This makes OS X both very similar to Linux and quite different from it.
You can open an OS X Terminal window and type many of the same commands
described in this book to achieve similar ends. If a command described in this book
isn’t present, you may be able to install it in one way or another. OS X ships with
some popular Unix server programs, so you can configure it to work much like
Linux or another Unix-like OS as a network server computer.
OS X differs from Linux in its user interface, though. The OS X user interface
is known as Cocoa from a programming perspective, or Aqua from a user’s point
of view. It includes elements that are roughly equivalent to both X and a desktop
environment in Linux. Because Cocoa isn’t compatible with X from a programming perspective, applications developed for OS X can’t be run directly on Linux
(or on other Unix-like OSs), and porting them (that is, modifying the source
code and recompiling them) for Linux is a non-trivial undertaking. Thus, native
OS X applications seldom make the transition to Linux.
OS X includes an implementation of X that runs under Aqua. This makes the
transfer of GUI Linux and Unix programs to OS X relatively straightforward. The
resulting programs don’t entirely conform to the Aqua user interface, though.
They may have buttons, menus, and other features that look out of place compared to the usual appearance of OS X equivalents.
Apple makes OS X available for its own computers. Its license terms forbid
installation on non-Apple hardware, and even aside from licensing issues,
installing OS X on non-Apple hardware is a non-trivial undertaking. A variant
of OS X, known as iOS, runs on Apple’s iPad and iPhone devices, and is equally
non-portable to other devices. Thus, OS X is largely limited to Apple hardware.
Linux, by contrast, runs on a wide variety of hardware, including most PCs.
You can even install Linux on Macintosh computers.
Where Doe s L inu x Fit in the OS World ?
Comparing Linux to Windows
Most desktop and laptop computers today run Microsoft Windows. Thus, if you’re
considering running Linux, the most likely comparison is to Windows. Broadly
speaking, Linux and Windows have similar capabilities; however, there are significant differences in details. These include the following:
Licensing Linux is an open source OS whereas Windows is a proprietary commercial OS. Chapter 2 covers open source issues in greater detail, but for now
you should know that open source software gives you greater control over your
computer than does proprietary software—at least in theory. In practice, you
may need a great deal of expertise to take advantage of open source’s benefits.
Proprietary software may be preferable if you work for an organization that’s only
comfortable with the idea of software that’s sold in a more traditional way. (Some
Linux variants, though, are sold in a similar way, along with service contracts.)
Costs Many Linux varieties are available free of charge, and so are appealing if
you’re trying to cut costs. On the other hand, the expertise needed to install and
maintain a Linux installation is likely to be greater, and therefore more expensive, than the expertise needed to install and maintain a Windows installation.
Different studies on the issue of total cost of ownership of Linux vs. Windows
have gone both ways, but most tend to favor Linux.
Hardware compatibility Most hardware components require OS support, usually in the form of drivers. Most hardware manufacturers provide Windows drivers for their devices, or work with Microsoft to ensure that Windows includes
appropriate drivers. Although some manufacturers provide Linux drivers, too,
for the most part the Linux community as a whole must supply the necessary
drivers. This means that Linux drivers may take a few weeks or even months to
appear after a device becomes available. On the other hand, Linux developers
tend to maintain drivers for old hardware for much longer than manufacturers
continue to support their own old hardware. Thus, a modern Linux may run
better than a recent version of Windows on old hardware. Linux also tends to be
less resource-intensive, so you can be productive on older hardware when using
Software availability Some popular desktop applications, such as Microsoft
Office, are available on Windows but not on Linux. Although Linux alternatives,
such as or LibreOffice, are available, they haven’t caught on in
the public’s mind. In other realms, the situation is reversed. Popular server programs, such as the Apache Web server, were developed first for Linux or Unix.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
Although many such servers are available for Windows, they run more efficiently
on Linux. If you have a specific program you must run, you may want to research
its availability and practicality on any platforms you’re considering.
Microsoft is making
major changes to its
user interface with
Windows 8. The
new user interface,
Metro, works the
same on everything
from cell phones to
desktop computers.
User interfaces Like Mac OS X, Windows uses its own unique user interface.
This fact contributes to poor inter-OS portability. (Tools exist to help bridge
the gap, though; X Window System implementations for Windows are available,
as are tools for running Windows programs in Linux.) Some users prefer the
Windows user interface to any Linux desktop environment, but others prefer a
Linux desktop environment.
Configurability Linux is a much more configurable OS than is Windows.
Although both OSs provide means to run specific programs at startup, change
user interface themes, and so on, Linux’s open source nature means you can
tweak any detail you want. Furthermore, you can pick any Linux variant you
like to get a head start on setting up the system as you see fit.
Security Advocates of each OS claim it’s more secure than the other. They
can do this because they focus on different security issues. Many of the threats
to Windows come from viruses, which by and large target Windows and its huge
installed user base. Viruses are essentially a non-issue for Linux; in Linux, security
threats come mostly from break-ins involving misconfigured servers or untrustworthy local users.
For over a decade, Windows has dominated the desktop arena. In both homes
and offices, users have become familiar with Windows and are used to popular
Windows applications, such as Microsoft Office. Although Linux can be used in
such environments, it’s a less popular choice for a variety of reasons—its unfamiliarity, the fact that Windows comes pre-installed on most PCs, and the lack
of any compelling Linux-only applications for most users.
Unix generally, and Linux in particular, on the other hand, have come to dominate
the server market. Linux powers the Web servers, email servers, file servers, and so
on that make up the Internet and that many businesses rely on to provide local network services. Thus, most people use Linux daily even if they don’t realize it.
In most cases, it’s possible to use either Linux or Windows on a computer
and have it do an acceptable job. Sometimes, though, specific needs dictate use
of one OS or another. You might need to run a particular exotic program, for
instance, or your hardware might be too old for a modern Windows or too new
for Linux. In other cases, your own or your users’ familiarity with one OS or the
other may favor its use.
What Is a Distribution?
What Is a Distribution?
Up until now, I’ve described Linux as if it were a single OS, but this isn’t really
the case. Many different Linux distributions are available, each consisting of a
Linux kernel along with a set of utilities and configuration files. The result is a
complete OS, and two Linux distributions can differ from each other as much
as either differs from OS X or even Windows. I therefore describe in more detail
what a distribution is, what distributions are popular, and the ways in which distribution maintainers keep their offerings up to date.
Creating a Complete Linux-Based OS
I’ve already described some of what makes up a Linux OS, but some details need
reiteration or elaboration:
A Linux kernel A Linux kernel is at the core of any Linux OS, of course. I’ve
written this item as a Linux kernel because the Linux kernel is constantly evolving. Two distributions are likely to use slightly different kernels. Distribution
maintainers also often patch kernels—that is, they make small changes to fix
bugs or add features.
Core Unix tools Tools such as the GNU tool set, the X Window System, and
the utilities used to manage disks are critical to the normal functioning of a
Linux system. Most Linux distributions include more or less the same set of
such tools, but as with the kernel, they can vary in versions and patches.
Supplemental software Additional software, such as major server programs,
desktop environments, and productivity tools, ships with most Linux distributions. As with core Unix software, most Linux distributions provide similar
options for such software. Distributions sometimes provide their own “branding,” though, particularly in desktop environment graphics.
Startup scripts Much of a Linux distribution’s “personality” comes from the
way it manages its startup process. Linux uses scripts and utilities to launch
the dozens of programs that link the computer to a network, present a login
prompt, and so on. These scripts and utilities vary between distributions, which
means that they have different features and may be configured in different ways.
An installer Software must be installed to be used, and most Linux distributions provide unique installation software to help you manage this important
task. Thus, two distributions may install in very different ways, giving you different options for key features such as disk layouts and initial user account creation.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
The UNetbootin tool
can copy the files
from a Linux installation disc image file to
a USB flash drive.
Typically, Linux distributions are available for download from their Web sites.
You can usually download a CD-R or DVD image file that you can then burn to
an optical disc. When you boot the resulting disc, the installer runs and you can
install the OS. You can sometimes download an image that can be copied to a
USB flash drive if your computer lacks an optical drive.
Some Linux installers come complete with all the software you’re likely to
install. Others come with only minimal software and expect you to have a working Internet connection so that the installer can download additional software.
If your computer isn’t connected to the Internet, be sure to get the right type of
A Summary of Common Linux Distributions
Depending on how you count, there are about a dozen major Linux distributions
for desktop, laptop, and small server computers, and hundreds more that serve
specialized purposes. Table 1.1 summarizes the features of the most important
T a bl e 1 . 1 Features of major Linux distributions
Administrator skill
Intermediate to
Red Hat
What Is a Distribution?
T a bl e 1 . 1 (Continued)
Administrator skill
2–3 years
Novice to
These features require explanation:
Availability Most Linux distributions are entirely open source or free software; however, some include proprietary components and are sold for money,
typically with a support contract. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE
Enterprise Linux are the two most prominent examples of this type of distribution. Both have completely free cousins. For RHEL, CentOS is a near-clone that
omits the proprietary components, and Fedora is an open version that serves as
a testbed for technologies that may eventually be included in CentOS. For SUSE
Enterprise, openSUSE is a free alternative.
Package format Most Linux distributions distribute software in packages, which
are collections of many files in one. Package software maintains a local database
of installed files, making upgrades and uninstallations easy. The RPM Package
Manager (RPM) system is the most popular one in the Linux world, but Debian
packages are very common, too. Other packaging systems work fine but are distribution-specific. Slackware is unusual in that it uses tarballs for its packages. These
are package files created by the standard tar utility, which is used for backing up
computers and for distributing source code, among other things. The tarballs that
Slackware uses for its packages contain Slackware-specific information to help
with package management. Gentoo is unusual because its package system is based
on compiling most software from source code. This is time-consuming but enables
experienced administrators to tweak compilation options to optimize the packages
for their own hardware and software environments.
Release cycle I describe release cycles in more detail shortly, in “Understanding
Release Cycles.” As a general rule, distributions with short release cycles aim to
provide the latest software possible, whereas those with longer release cycles strive
Tarballs are similar
to the zip files that
are common on
Windows. Chapter 10,
Extracting, and
Archiving Data,”
describes how to create and use tarballs.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
to provide the most stable environments possible. Some try to have it both ways;
for instance, Ubuntu releases long-term support (LTS) versions in April of evennumbered years. Its other releases aim to provide the latest software.
Don’t be scared off
by the “intermediate”
classification of most
distributions. This
book’s purpose is to
help you manage the
essential features of
such distributions.
Android is best
known as a cell
phone OS, but it
can be used on
other devices. Some
e-book readers,
for instance, run
I recommend you
download Parted
Magic, or a similar
tool, to have on
hand in case you run
into problems with
your main Linux
Administrator skill requirements The final column in Table 1.1 provides my
personal estimation of the skill level required to administer a distribution. As
you can see, I’ve described most Linux distributions as requiring “intermediate”
skill to administer. Some, however, provide less in the way of user-friendly GUI
administrative tools, and so require more skill. Ubuntu aims to be particularly
easy to use and administer.
Most Linux distributions are available for at least two platforms—that is, CPU
types: x86 (also known as IA32, i386, and several variants) and x86-64 (also known
as AMD64, EM64T, and x64). Until about 2007, x86 computers were the most common variety, but more recently, x86-64 computers have become the standard. If
you have an x86-64 computer, you can run either an x86 or an x86-64 distribution on it, although the latter provides a small speed improvement. More exotic
platforms, such as PowerPC, Alpha, and SPARC, are available. Such platforms are
mostly restricted to servers and to specialized devices (described shortly).
In addition to the mainstream PC distributions, several others are available
that serve more specialized purposes. Some of these run on regular PCs, but
others run on their own specialized hardware:
Android Many cell phones today use a Linux-based OS known as Android. Its
user interface is similar to that of other smart phones, but underneath lies a
Linux kernel and a significant amount of the same Linux infrastructure you’ll
find on a PC. Such phones don’t use X or typical desktop applications, though;
instead, they run specialized applications for cell phones.
Network appliances Many broadband routers, print servers, and other devices
you plug into a local network to perform specialized tasks run Linux. You can
sometimes replace the standard OS with a customized one if you want to add features to the device. Tomato ( and OpenWrt
( are two examples of such customized Linux distributions. Don’t install such software on a whim, though; if done improperly, or on
the wrong device, they can render the device useless!
TiVo This popular digital video recorder (DVR) uses a Linux kernel and a significant number of standard support programs, along with proprietary drivers
and DVR software. Although many people who use them don’t realize it, they
are Linux-based computers under the surface.
Parted Magic This distribution, based at, is a Linux
distribution for PCs that’s intended for emergency recovery operations. It runs
What Is a Distribution?
from a single CD-R and you can use it to access a Linux or Windows hard disk if
the main installation won’t boot.
Android, Linux-based network appliances, and TiVo are examples of embedded
systems that use Linux. Such devices typically require little or no administrative
work from users, at least not in the way such tasks are described in this book.
Instead, these devices have fixed basic configurations and guided setup tools to
help inexperienced users set critical basic options, such as network settings and
your time zone.
Understanding Release Cycles
Table 1.1 summarized the release cycles employed by a number of common Linux
distributions. The values cited in that table are the time between releases. For
instance, new versions of Ubuntu come out every six months, like clockwork.
Most other distributions’ release schedules provide some “wiggle room”; if a
release date slides a month, that may be acceptable.
After its release, a distribution is typically supported until sometime after the
next version’s release—typically a few months to a year or more. During this
support period, the distribution’s maintainers provide software updates to fix
bugs and security problems. Once the support period has passed, you can continue to use a distribution, but you’re on your own—if you need updated software, you’ll have to compile it from source code yourself or hope that you can
find a compatible binary package from some other source. As a practical matter,
therefore, it’s generally a good idea to upgrade to the latest version before the
support period ends. This fact makes distributions with longer release cycles
appealing to businesses, since a longer time between installations minimizes
disruptions and costs associated with upgrades.
Two of the distributions in Table 1.1 (Arch and Gentoo) have rolling release
cycles. Such distributions have no version numbers in the usual sense; instead,
upgrades occur in an ongoing manner. Using such a distribution makes it unnecessary to ever do a full upgrade, with all the hassles that creates; however, you’ll
occasionally have to do a disruptive upgrade of one particular subsystem, such as
a major upgrade in your desktop environment.
Prior to the release of a new version, most distributions make pre-release versions available. Alpha software is extremely new and very likely to contain serious
bugs, while beta software is more stable but nonetheless more likely to contain
bugs than is the final release software. As a general rule, you should avoid using
such software unless you want to contribute to the development effort by reporting bugs or unless you’re desperate to have a new feature.
Chapter 1 • Selecting an Operating System
T h e E s s e n t i a l s a n d B e yo n d
Linux is a powerful OS that you can use on everything from a cell phone to a supercomputer. At Linux’s core is its kernel, which manages the computer’s hardware. Built atop
that are various utilities (many from the GNU project) and user applications. Linux is a
clone of the Unix OS, with which it shares many programs. Mac OS X is another Unix OS,
although one with a unique user interface. Although Windows shares many features with
Unix, it’s an entirely different OS, so software compatibility between Linux and Windows
is limited. Linux comes in many varieties, known as distributions, each of which has its
own unique “flavor.” Because of this variety, you can pick a Linux version that best suits
your needs, based on its ease of use, release cycle, and other unique features.
Suggested E xercises
a list of the programs you run as an ordinary user, including everything from
a calculator applet to a major office suite. Look for equivalents at http://www​ or
Is there anything you can’t find? If so, try a Web search to find an equivalent.
more about two or three Linux distributions by perusing their Web pages. Which
distribution would you select for running a major Web server? Which distribution
sounds most appealing for use by office workers who do word processing and email?
Review Questions
Which of the following is not a function of the Linux kernel?
A. Allocating memory for use by programs
B. Allocating CPU time for use by programs
C. Creating menus in GUI programs
D. Controlling access to the hard disk
E. Enabling programs to use a network
Which of the following is an example of an embedded Linux OS?
A.Android D.Debian
The Essentials and Beyond
T h e E s s e n t i a l s a n d B e yo n d 3.
Which of the following is a notable difference between Linux and Mac OS X?
A. Linux can run common GNU programs, whereas OS X cannot.
B. Linux’s GUI is based on the X Window System, whereas OS X’s is not.
C. Linux cannot run on Apple Macintosh hardware, whereas OS X can run
only on Apple hardware.
D. Linux relies heavily on BSD software, whereas OS X uses no BSD software.
E. Linux supports text-mode commands, but OS X is a GUI-only OS.
True or false: The Linux kernel is derived from the BSD kernel.
True or false: If you log into a Linux system in graphical mode, you cannot use
text-mode commands in that session.
True or false: CentOS is a Linux distribution with a long release cycle.
A Linux text-mode login prompt reads _________ (one word).
A common security problem with Windows that’s essentially nonexistent on Linux
is _________.
Pre-release software that’s likely to contain bugs is known as _________
and _________.
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