Computers And Technology: What Is Linux?

Linux is an operating system much like Windows and MacOSs, but is free and adaptable by any of its users.

Linux is an operating system, a piece of software that interfaces with the computer's hardware on one side and the user (or programs being run by the user) on the other. Two common examples of operating systems are the ubiquitous Microsoft Windows and Apple's MacOS.

Linux is a member of a family of operating systems based on one developed in the early 1970's at Bell Labs. This ancestral operating system was referred to as UNIX (a thinly veiled pun on a previous multi-organization operating system project Bell Labs was part of called MULTICS). UNIX was originally not a commercial product and was spread throughout governmental agencies, educational institutions, and other areas freely. The fact that the system was open (i.e. anyone running it could examine the inner workings, learn from them, and modify them as needed) gave rise to a culture of computer users accustomed to freely available, powerful tools.

Once the inevitable effort began to commercialize UNIX, non-corporate groups arose to keep the open nature of the early UNIX community alive. The foremost group, formed in the early 1980's by Richard M. Stallman (more commonly referred to as RMS) was the GNU organization (Gnu's Not Unix, so named to avert potential legal trouble from the owners of the UNIX trademark). The GNU organization began efforts to create a fully compatible "Unix-like" operating system and suite of tools.

In the early 1990's, a young Finnish computer science graduate student studying in Helsinki named Linus Torvalds decided to create his own implementation of the UNIX operating system. As he was a graduate student with limited fiscal resources, his implementation was designed to run on the cheap computer hardware he had available (an Intel 80386-based machine), and he used the tools made by the GNU organization to build the foundation for his new operating system (which was named Linux, for Linus's Unix). Linus soon posted to various newsgroups on the Internet about his new project and opened the source to outside participation. Linus's kernel of an operating system, with the contributions of thousands of computer enthusiasts across the world collaborating through the Internet and using the freely available GNU tools, blossomed soon into a fully featured UNIX implementation running on many kinds of hardware (Intel, PowerPC, Sparc, and many others).

Linux has all the industrial strength operating system features honed over the thirty year lifespan of UNIX, including very stable operation, high performance networking facilities, the ability to multitask efficiently across many programs and many simultaneous users, finely-tuned security mechanisms, and many others. In addition to Linux's numerous technical strengths, it possesses a large and very active user community that tends to be very supportive of new users.

Linux is used today on machines ranging from handheld computers, to embedded instrumentation, to personal workstations, to the largest mainframes available from IBM. It is available free of charge through the Internet, or for a modest fee on other media (most frequently CD-ROM disks). Thousands of applications ranging from web servers to database engines and programming tools, to word processors to 3d first person shooter games and the popular Netscape web browser, are also available for Linux, many at no cost like their host operating system. Companies and volunteer organizations package up the many components of Linux and a broad selection of the available software into convenient ``distributions'', each of which has it's own individual flavor (analogous to British English and Texan English, each is English, but each has slight differentiating nuances).

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