The open-source operating system, Linux is named after Linus Torvalds who started working on it in 1991 when he was a graduate student in Helsinki. Bell Labs had already developed the UNIX operating system in the 1970s and this was:
• Simple and elegant
• Written in the C programming language instead of assembly code
• Able to recycle code
UNIX was initially found only in very large environments with mainframes and minicomputers (PCs were considered "micro" computers). Typically, those who worked at universities, government organizations or large corporations could get to use the UNIX systems. But smaller computers were being developed, and by the end of the 1980's, many people had computers at their homes. By that time, there were numerous versions of UNIX available for the PC architecture, but none of them were truly free. Moreover, all these systems were extremely slow and so most people chose to purchase MS DOS or Windows 3.1 for their home PCs.
Linus thought that it would be a good idea to have some sort of freely available version of UNIX, and promptly started to code. The development of Linux as we know it today involved the hard work of thousands of authors who concentrated on networking and services in the beginning and later developed useful office applications.
Applications of Linux
Linux joined the desktop market and offers an easy user interface and MS compatible office applications including word processors, spreadsheets and presentations.
On the server side, Linux proved as a stable and reliable platform providing database and trading services for organizations like Amazon (the online bookshop), US Post Office and German Army among others. Clusters of Linux machines were used to create the special visual effects in well known movies like Titanic and Shrek.
It is also worth mentioning that at present Linux not only runs on workstations, mid and high-end servers, but also on other devices such as PDAs and mobile phones, a shipload of embedded applications and even on experimental wristwatches. This makes Linux the only operating system in the world covering such a wide range of hardware.
The Stigma of ‘Difficult User Interface’
Computer users who extensively work on Windows and Microsoft based programs characterized Linux as ‘difficult to understand and use’. However experienced UNIX users deny this and consider Linux as an ideal operating system power users and programmers.
Everything that a proficient programmer can wish for is available with Linux – compilers, libraries, development and debugging tools. These packages are available with every standard Linux distribution. The C-compiler is included free of charge as against numerous UNIX distributions that demand licensing fee for this tool. All the documentation and manuals are also provided and these help new users to get started on time.
Due to its free nature, Linux is sometimes behind the curve when it comes to new hardware compatibility. Though kernel contributors and programmers work hard at keeping the kernel up to date, Linux does not have as much of a corporate backing as alternative operating system.
RedHat, SuSE, and Mandriva were some of the companies that provided packaged Linux distributions suitable for masses. These companies integrated a great deal of graphical user interfaces with Linux in order to ease management of programs and services.
Linux users can now log in graphically and start all required applications without having to type a single character, while they still have the ability to access the core of the system as and when required. Due to its structure, Linux allows a user to grow into the system – its user interface is suitable for both new and experienced users.
Being an Open Source Software
The idea behind Open Source software is quiet simple – programmers can read, distribute, and change code and this helps the code to mature. People can adapt it, fix it, debug it and can do it at high speeds. Such software is more flexible than the ones developed using conventional channels. This is because more people have tested it in different conditions than the closed software developers can.
Linux has already grown past the stage where it was almost exclusively an academic system, useful only to a handful of people with technical backgrounds. At present, Linux provides more than an operating system: there is an entire infrastructure that supports:
• The chain of efforts for creating an operating system
• Making and testing of programs for operating system
• Supplying maintenance, updates, support and customization for operating system
Advantages of Linux
The known advantages of Linux include:
Cost – This is probably the most obvious advantages of using Linux – it is free to obtain. As against this, Microsoft products are available for a fee which may also be recurring. Microsoft licenses are usually allowed to be installed on a single computer, whereas a Linux distribution can be installed on several systems without paying a single penny.
Security – The security aspect of Linux is also much stronger than that of MS Windows. There is no need to spend extra money for the installation of a virus protection software. Linux has been in use since the early 1990s and managed to stay secure in the realm of widespread viruses, spyware and adware.
Flexibility – Linux allows the users to control just about every aspect of the operating system. The desktop look and feel as also the kernel can be controlled in a very flexible manner. As against this, with Windows operating system users are stuck with only a default desktop theme. Installation of a third party shell can risk corruption or failure of the entire system.
Software – There are numerous choices of software while performing any task on Linux. Regular users and programmers develop new applications all the time. Also, software on Linux is packed with more features and greater usability than Windows based software. The users have free-of-charge software and have the option to modify the source code and add more features if they understand the programming language.
In the domain of office applications, a choice of MS Office clones is available. Linux is still acceptable in the desktop market because users do not require very extensive training to understand and work upon the system. The specific requirements of users that are going more intricate day by day can be effectively met by Linux operating system.
About the Author
This article by Frank Johnson is the first in his series on ‘Linux Insider’. Frank is a regular editorial contributor on technology products and services that help small to mid size businesses. To know more about Linux as an operating system, you may interact with him here