FAQ About Learning Linux

Below are some frequently asked questions (and answers) about how to study Linux. It is divided into the following sections: Prerequisites, Study Methods, Hardware, Software, Assistance From LUGs, Certification and Miscellaneous.


Q: What are the prerequisites for learning Linux?

A: There are virtually none. The only requirements are strong motivation and access to a computer that can run Linux. Of course, the more you know about computers and the more experience you have, the easier it will be.

Q: How difficult is it to learn to use Linux for non-computer experts?

A: It is fairly easy to learn to use Linux for common tasks, such as as surfing the web, accessing e-mail, word processing, listening to music and manipulating images. If you know how to do these things on Microsoft Windows or the Macintosh, you should be able to start doing them on Linux almost immediately. Formerly, it was much more difficult for non-computer experts to learn to use Linux; however, this is no longer the case because of the tremendous progress that has been made during the past several years on making Linux more user-friendly for ordinary people.

Q: Is it true that it is necessary to know programming in order to learn Linux?

A: It no more necessary to learn programming to use Linux than it is to learn programming to use Microsoft Windows. However, as is the case with other operating systems, some knowledge of programming can be very useful if one wants to become an advanced user or a high level system administrator.

Q: I have no computer experience, but I am very interested in learning about computers and joining the 21st century. Would you recommend that I learn something easy like Windows first before trying Linux?

A: No. If you want to learn Linux, there is no advantage in studying Microsoft Windows first. Linux has become just as easy to use for basic applications. In some cases it is even easier or more convenient. For example, in contrast to Microsoft Windows, there are rarely problems with viruses, spyware and other malware. Also, system crashes are far less frequent. Moreover, Linux and most application programs are available for free because it is free software, and thus you can save a lot of money.

Q: I am very excited about learning Linux, but I am worried because I heard that it is mostly in English and my native language is not English.

A: You raise an important point. Computers were originally very biased towards the English language. This was because most development took place in the U.S. and the UK. However, the situation has been changing in recent years, and Linux as well as major application programs for it are available in a large and still growing number of other languages in addition to English.

Because Linux is free software, the source code (i.e., the version of software as it is originally typed into a computer by programmers in a human-readable programming language) is freely available to everyone, and thus it is relatively easy for people in any country or region to develop versions in their own language. There are numerous such localization projects under way around the world for Linux and other free software.

Q: I know absolutely nothing about Linux other than it sounds cool. How can I find out more before deciding whether to start studying it?

A: For a very basic introduction take a look at the page Linux for Absolute Beginners.

Study Methods

Q: What is the best way to to learn Linux?

A: There are various options, but which is best depends on a variety of factors including how you prefer to study and what your goals are. The options include (1) taking college classes, (2) going to a specialized computer school and (3) self study. It is also important to get some practical experience.

Q: How practical is self study?

A: Actually, it is quite practical, assuming that you are sufficiently motivated and have good study habits. This is because of the availability of many excellent books and other materials that are well suited for self study. Self study can have some important advantages over taking classes including (1) you can learn at your own pace, (2) there is no expensive tuition or fees and (3) it is not necessary to travel long distances to get to classes.

Q: Is it possible to learn Linux just by reading books and without a computer?

A: No. Hands-on practice is extremely important. It is no more possible to become proficient at Linux by just reading about it than it is to become skilled at dentistry or flying an airplane by just reading about it. Besides, most people involved in Linux think that it is a lot more fun to actually do things with computers than it is to just read about it.

Q: How long would it take to become proficient in Linux?

A: This is a difficult question. The answer depends on a number of things, including what you mean by proficient. There are various levels of proficiency.

For general applications such as word processing, web surfing and sending e-mail, Linux has become almost as easy to use as Microsoft Windows or the Macintosh. Learning to use it at this level should not take much, if any, longer than learning to use other operating systems for the same tasks.

Likewise, to obtain advanced Linux skills, such as those necessary to be a system administrator, extensive study and practice are required, just as they would be for Microsoft Windows or any other operating system. How long this takes depends in large part on one's background and study habits. For example, the process would be much faster for people who are already familiar with some other Unix-like operating system, such as Solaris, FreeBSD and Mac OS X. For a complete novice, it could easily take a year or two of full time study and practice.

Q: Because of my schedule it would be difficult for me to take university classes. Do you think that I should enroll in an online university?

A: Some people have had good experiences with them and others have not. It is important to do some serious investigation of any school before enrolling, regardless of whether it is online or it has actual classrooms. If you are highly motivated and have good study habits, you probably do not need any type of classes.

Q: I really want to study Linux, but I am unemployed and am on a very tight budget. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can do it without spending anything?

A: Yes. It is quite possible to become a Linux guru on a shoestring. The most important thing to do with your limited funds is to stay healthy so that your brain can be in the best possible condition to focus on what can be a very complex topic.

Your expenditures on software should be zero, in contrast to the high costs for some proprietary (i.e., commercial) operating systems and applications for them. One of the great things about Linux is that it can be acquired for free, as can all free software (by definition). Linux and application programs for it can be obtained from friends, downloaded from the Internet or installed from CDROMs contained in computer books borrowed from the library.

If you do not already have one, the biggest expenditure might be for a computer. Another of the many advantages of Linux is that it can be operated on old and inexpensive computers that are not suitable for newer versions of Microsoft Windows. Fortunately, it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain older computers that are suitable for Linux at little or no cost (e.g., from friends or local businesses that are upgrading to new computers).

Books about Linux and other computer topics tend to be quite expensive. However, this expense can be avoided by borrowing books from libraries and using the books and other reference materials that are available free online.

Q: The answers in this FAQ say that Linux is easy to learn, but they also say that it is a very complex topic. I am confused. Isn't this inconsistent?

A: No. For ordinary tasks such as word processing, surfing the web and sending e-mail, even persons with no computer background can start to become productive in as little as just a few hours. But to become a system administrator or a true Linux guru can take years of study and experience. This is the same as for any other operating system, such as Microsoft Windows or the Macintosh.

Q: How important is it to learn the command line operations on Linux?

A: For people just wanting to use Linux for basic applications such as word processing, e-mail and surfing the web, the command line (i.e., the all-text user interface) is no longer as important as it used to be. This is because of the tremendous progress that has been made in recent years on improving the GUI (graphical user interface). But for people wanting to become a power user or a system administrator, becoming skilled with the command line is extremely important. This is because the command line provides tremendous power and versatility, much more than is available on operating systems that do not have true command line operation (such as the Microsoft Windows systems). Although it may at first seem troublesome, most people have found that command line operation becomes quite easy, and even somewhat intuitive, with practice.


Q: What kind of computer is best for studying Linux, and how much would it cost?

A: The first step is to see if your existing computer is suitable. Chances are that it is. This is because one of the features of Linux is that it can run on a very wide range of hardware, not only on computers with Intel processors (i.e., x86) but also on Macs and virtually everything else. Some older computers do not have sufficient memory or hard disk capacity to run Linux with a GUI, but usually they can still be used to run a command line version of your favorite Linux distribution (i.e., version), such as Debian, Mandrake, Red Hat (Fedora), SuSE or Ubuntu.

As an example of what would be needed to run Linux with a GUI, Red Hat 7.2 (which is an older but still useful version of Red Hat) recommends a minimum of a 200MHz Pentium microprocessor, 2.5GB of hard disk drive (HDD) space (plus additional space for file storage) and 96MB of RAM (random access memory). 4.5GB of hard disk space is recommended for full installation, but full installation is usually not necessary because it includes numerous rarely used programs. These minimums would probably be sufficient for more recent versions of Red Hat as well.

If you do not already have a computer suitable for running Linux with a GUI, it is quite possible to build or buy a new one for well under US$400. It certainly does not need to be a top-of-the-line model with a multi-gigahertz processor or lots of fancy accessories. A 1GHz processor is more than sufficient as is a 20GB HDD (if you can still find one that small). The one place not to skimp is on memory; it is best to have at least 256MB of RAM, or 512MB if possible.

Q: Is it possible to run Linux on the same computer that Microsoft Windows is already installed on?

A: Yes. It is not only possible, but it is quite practical and very common.

Q: How is this accomplished?

A: There are several approaches: One is to divide the HDD into partitions (i.e., logically independent sections) so that the two operating systems can coexist without interfering with each other. This is referred to as dual booting, as the computer can boot (i.e., start up) into either operating system. A second approach is to use a Linux distribution that can reside in a directory in Microsoft Windows, thereby eliminating the need to create one or more separate partitions for Linux. A third approach is to use a distribution that can run directly from a CDROM or floppy disk (such as Knoppix or muLinux).

Q: I want to get some experience with Linux, but my computer does not have enough hard disk space to install it. What do you suggest?

A: There are several options if the HDD does not have several gigabytes of free space.

One is to use a distribution that can be run without having to be installed. The most popular of these is Knoppix, which operates from its CDROM. Another is muLinux, which fits on a single floppy disk and runs from that floppy. Both of these are free and can be downloaded from the Internet.

A second approach is to use a small distribution that can be installed in a directory in an existing Microsoft Windows partition rather than requiring a multi-gigabyte partition of its own. The most popular of these is Cygwin, which is also free software.

The third approach is to add a second HDD and then install Linux on that drive. Prices of HDDs have continued to drop in recent years, and it is often possible to obtain used ones at little or no cost. Installing a second drive is fairly simple and is also a good learning experience.

Q: I have an older Mac. Can I run Linux on it?

A: There are a few distributions that are available for Macs with m68k processors, including Debian and Linux/mac68k. If you have a more recent Mac with a PowerPC processor, the choice of distributions is substantially greater, including Debian, Mandrake, SuSE and Yellow Dog.


Q: What software is best for studying Linux?

A: All that is needed is a set of Linux installation disks. Disk sets for major distributions contain nearly everything that is necessary for all levels of students of Linux, including the operating system itself and hundreds of free application programs as well as a wide variety of diagnostic and security tools.

Q: Somebody gave me an older Linux book with a set of disks for Red Hat 7.2 in it. Is this obsolete, and should I buy a newer book with a newer version of Linux?

A: No, Red Hat 7.2 is not obsolete. Although it was released several years ago, it was an excellent version and it is still in widespread use. It could be a good idea to begin studying with 7.2 and then upgrade to a newer version at some convenient time in the future.

Starting with an older version can have several advantages: (1) it can let you use the software that you already have instead of having to buy or otherwise acquire a new version, (2) older versions are still in widespread use and many businesses want people who are familiar with them and (3) it can provide good insight into how Linux (as well as other programs included in the distributions) is evolving.

Q: Is there any recommendation for the best distribution for new users, such as Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake or Ubuntu?.

A: No, they all excellent and each has its advocates. Actually, there are several hundred distributions from which to choose.

Q: With so many distributions, how does one decide which one to select?

A: Part of the fun of Linux is that are so many choices. It can be a good learning experience to try various distributions and compare them. Keep in mind that if you become truly proficient with one distribution, it will be very easy to adjust to any other distributions. This is because they are basically very similar except for superficial appearances (e.g., the GUI and the language). Also to keep in mind is the fact that the large number of distributions is consistent with the Linux philosophy that it is better to provide numerous choices rather than to restrict choices.

Q: I have a very old computer with only 16M of RAM, and Microsoft Windows occupies the entire hard drive. Is there any way that I could use it for Linux practice?

A: Yes. You could use muLinux. This distribution fits on a single floppy disk and does not have to be installed on the hard drive. 8MB of RAM is sufficient memory.

Q: I tried muLinux, but it only has text and no images.

A: That is correct. The single floppy version is a command line version and it does not contain a GUI. A muLinux GUI is available with the multiple floppy version, but it requires more memory. If one really wants to understand Linux, the command line version itself can be extremely useful and is worthy of extensive study. In fact, the single floppy version of muLinux is so highly regarded that some educational institutions use it for their Linux training classes instead of the more complete distributions.

Assistance From LUGs

Q: I want to learn Linux, but I know almost nothing about it except that it is free. Also, I want to study it at home. Can my local LUG help me get started?

A: Yes, LUGs (Linux User Groups) can provide some very valuable assistance for learning Linux, regardless of your level of experience or proficiency. That is one of the main reasons that they exist.

Q: How specifically can a LUG help?

A: (1) When you attend meetings, LUG members can reassure you of what an excellent decision you have made to start studying Linux. Most people familiar with Linux have no doubt that it is the wave of the future. You will be making a wise investment.

(2) Members can give you some suggestions about what to study, as a vast selection of books and topics is available. (3) They can also give you some advice about how to study.

(4) Members can also answer specific questions that might arise during your studies. For example, you might not understand some concept no matter how many times you read it or try it. (Don't feel bad, it happens to all of us.)

(5) LUGs often provide free copies of Linux disks as well as other software at their meetings. (6) And members occasionally have extra computers and other hardware that they are happy to give away.

(7) Finally, after you have completed your studies, the local LUG might be able to help you get a job. One reason is that the meetings are often a good place to make useful contacts. (Actually, as is the case with most professional and technical fields these days, one's studies are never completed.)

Q: That's real nice. But why do LUGs do all of this? What do they get in return?

A: There has always been sort of a missionary zeal among Linux advocates. It ties in with the free software movement and its desire to create and promote first class software that is freely available for everyone to use and modify (and hopefully improve). Similar attitudes are probably seen in a number of other fields as well.

As for what LUGs get in return, LUG members get the satisfaction of helping people help themselves. In addition, it is a good learning experience for them too.


Q: I need help in trying to decide whether I should go for Linux certification or try to get a computer science degree from a four year university.

A: If you want to study computer science in depth and have the opportunity to go to a university that has a good computer science department, then going to such university might be an excellent choice. Computer science places emphasis on theoretical skills, whereas certification emphasizes practical skills and is mainly for people who have not studied computer science in a university.

Certification is not necessarily advantageous for a career in computers despite what you might read in advertisements for certification courses. This is because many employers are much more interested in practical experience than certificates. If you want to become certified, the best approach is to study Linux either at home or at school, next get several years of experience using it on the job, and then finally decide whether certification will really benefit you or not.

Q: I have heard that it is best to get an MCSE before tackling Linux because it gives you a good introduction to computers and also lets you start making some income quickly. Would you recommend this?

A: No. It does not make any sense. It can take a long time and cost a good deal of money to get an MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer) certification. And the MCSE is not very useful for Linux because the content of the study is very different. There are also other problems with the MCSE, including that it expires in a few years and it is thus necessary to periodically take new exams to keep certified. Also to keep in mind is the fact that the title of this certification is an exaggeration and that it does not make one a real engineer, merely a technician.

Q: I heard that the compensation is higher for UNIX experts than for Linux experts. So would I be better off studying UNIX?

A: No, not necessarily, even assuming that your only motivation was to make a lot of money. It is true that UNIX specialists are frequently very well paid, often more so than for Linux gurus. However, demand for Linux experts is growing rapidly and compensation could rise to or even exceed the level of that for UNIX experts in the near future. Also, remember that when you study Linux, you are simultaneously learning much about UNIX, as they are very similar.

Q: I already have considerable Linux experience. Would you recommend certification?

A: In such case it could be useful, particularly if (1) your employer would pay for any courses and exams and/or (2) if you were assured that it would result in a promotion or improved compensation.

Q: What do you think of the RHCE?

A: The RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) is a highly regarded certification, and it could look very impressive on your resume. This is because the exams are difficult and expensive and the number of holders is relatively small. It is definitely more valuable than an MCSE.


Q: What is a newbie? I couldn't find it in the dictionary.

A: A newbie is someone who is new to some system, including the Internet, computers in general, or Linux. The term originated as a slang variant of new boy in schools and the military in the UK, and it became popular in a computer context after it appeared in a newsgroup.

Q: Computers are evolving rapidly. If I go to all the trouble of learning Linux, is there not still the prospect that all that I have learned will become obsolete in a few years?

A: Almost every branch of technology is evolving rapidly. But Unix-like operating systems have been in use for more than 35 years. Although there have been many improvements (e.g., more sophisticated GUIs and better application programs), the core skills have remained relatively stable over the years, and they are likely to continue to do so well into the future. Fundamental changes are not made to new versions of Linux and other Unix-like operating systems just for the sake of inducing more sales (i.e., there is no planned obsolescence or forced upgrades), but gradual changes are made if they represent definite improvements.

Created October 12, 2004. Updated February 20, 2006.
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