Linux FAQ

This page contains questions and answers about general Linux topics.

Q: Isn't Linux mostly text, like MS-DOS?

A: No. Linux is extremely flexible and adaptable. A Linux system can be set up so that it uses only text (referred to as a text interface or the command line) if desired. Or it can be set up so that almost everything can be accomplished using a graphical user interface (GUI). The GUI can even be configured so that it resembles Microsoft Windows or any other operating system. For people who use Linux for relatively simple tasks such as web surfing, e-mail and word processing, it is rarely necessary to use the command line.

However, Linux systems are configured by default so that users can easily switch back and forth between a GUI and the command line as desired. This is very handy for advanced users, who usually find that some tasks are more convenient to perform with a GUI and others are easier to do with the command line.

By the way, although it might appear to new users that the Linux command line interface resembles MS-DOS, the similarity is mostly superficial. The Linux command line is far more powerful and flexible; that is, it can do many more things, and it can do them much more easily.

Q: Are there many applications that run on Linux?

A: There are thousands of applications for Linux already available for use, and numerous others are in various stages of development. Many of these applications are comparable (or even superior) in performance to applications available for Microsoft Windows and other operating systems. Moreover, most of them are absolutely free, just as Linux is, and many of them are included on the same CDROMs that contain Linux and are installed by default when Linux is installed.

Q: What is meant by distributions of Linux? Is there more than one Linux?

A: There are two different definitions of the term Linux. The narrower is just the kernel (i.e., the core of the operating system) itself, which was originally developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds while he was a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

The term is more commonly used to refer to Linux distributions. A Linux distribution is a coordinated collection of software consisting of a customized version of the kernel together with hundreds of open source (i.e., free) utilities, installers, programming languages and application programs. Linux distributions are offered by a number of companies and non-commercial organizations as well as by many individuals. Some of the most popular distributions are Fedora (formerly Red Hat), SuSE, Mandrake. Debian, Slackware and Linspire (formerly Lindows).

Some people prefer to use the term GNU/Linux rather than just Linux in reference to distributions. This is because distributions contain a large amount of GNU software and even the kernel itself is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Q: What is GNU and GPL?

A: GNU (GNU's Not Unix) is an on-going project by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) for the purpose of creating a complete, high performance and freely distributable Unix-like computing environment. It was begun by Richard Stallman, a leading advocate of free software, in the latter part of 1983. Most open source software is released under the GPL. This license was carefully designed by Stallman and the FSF to provide the maximum amount of freedom for users of software (including the freedom to copy, study, modify, give away and even sell it) and to prevent software that is initially free from being taken over by any private company that might restrict this freedom.

Q: How many distributions of Linux are there?

A: Several hundred. However, only a few dozen account for the great majority of Linux usage.

Q: Which distribution of Linux is most suitable for beginners?

A: The most popular and easiest to use include Fedora, SuSE and Mandrake. Linspire has become very popular as a pre-installed operating system for people who want to buy a very simple and low cost computer and who have little technical expertise. Which distribution is most suitable is largely just a matter of personal preference.

Q: What would happen if Linus Torvalds were to stop working on Linux?

A: Linux development would continue. This is because (1) there are many other well qualified people who would be enthusiastic about taking his place and (2) the full source code is always freely available to everyone, including to all potential successors to Torvalds. Fortunately, however, Torvalds has no intention of relinquishing his role as the chief developer of the Linux kernel.

Q: How can I obtain Linux?

A: There are several ways. Linux can be downloaded from many locations on the Internet. However, this is only practical if one has DSL or other high speed Internet access and knows how to burn (i.e., write) a CDROM for an operating system.

Usually the easiest way to obtain Linux is to get a set of installation disks (CDROMs or DVDs). The disks are often included in books and magazines about Linux, which can be obtained from bookstores or the library. The largest distributors sell boxed versions of their distributions that also include instruction manuals. In addition, there are several mail order companies that offer Linux CDROMs and DVDs at very low prices.

The disks can also be borrowed from friends or obtained at a Linux users group (LUG) meeting. It is important to keep in mind that because Linux is open source software, everyone is entitled (and even encouraged!) to make as many copies as they desire and to loan, give or sell the disks to anybody and everybody.

Q: I have heard that Linux is difficult to install unless one is an expert.

A: This was true a number of years ago, but it no longer is. Linux has become increasingly simple to install and, in fact, some people say that it is even easier to install than Microsoft Windows. Among the ways in which Linux is easier to install are: (1) it is not necessary to type in any long product activation codes, (2) the person performing the installation can have extensive control over which application programs are simultaneously installed, (3) it is not necessary to call any company to have the Linux installation activated (or reactivated in the event of a reinstallation or a change in the configuration of the computer) and (4) the same set of disks can legally be used to install Linux on as many computers as desired.

Q: I have a book about Red Hat Linux 8 which contains the installation CDROMs. Would it be better to buy a new book for a more recent version of Linux, such as Fedora, before trying to install and study Linux?

A: No, not necessarily. It might be better to save the money, especially if the immediate goal is mainly to study Linux rather than to use it for advanced multimedia applications. Although Linux continues to improve with each new version, the fundamentals remain basically the same. The differences are largely superficial, such as more refined graphics, support for newer hardware and improved usability for new users.

This is because, as is the case with all Unix-like operating systems, Linux is already a highly mature (and very elegant) work of engineering that has been skillfully crafted by the collective efforts of thousands of the best minds in the computer field. There is no planned (and little unplanned) obsolescence, so nothing learned while using an earlier version will become useless.

There are additional reasons that it might be preferable to install an earlier version in some cases. One is that it can be useful for people who want to study Linux in depth; that is, by initially becoming accustomed to earlier versions, it is easier to understand how Linux has been evolving. Also, many businesses and other organizations still use earlier versions, so that familiarity with such versions can be useful if Linux is used at work.

Q: I have tried a number of times to install Red Hat Linux on my computer, but I cannot get it to install correctly. What should I do?

A: Installation is usually pretty simple, even for beginners, and not much can go wrong. When problems do occur, however, they are often with regard to partitioning when attempting to install Linux on a hard disk drive (HDD) that already contains another operating system, such as Microsoft Windows. Partitioning means dividing up the HDD into logically independent sections for use by different operating systems or by different parts (i.e., partitions) of Linux. Partitioning occurs automatically when installing Linux, but occasionally things can go wrong.

The best solution is to carefully reread the instructions and attempt installation a few more times. Then, if there are still problems, if practical, bring the computer and the installation disks to a local LUG meeting where some experienced member(s) will likely be delighted to help with the installation. If there is important data already on the computer, it is important to make a full backup of that data on to CDROMs, floppies or other removable media before coming.

Q: Does Linux have any advantages over the Macintosh?

A: The answer is complicated. Although the superficial appearances are rather different, Linux and Mac OS X are actually fundamentally quite similar. This is because both are Unix-like operating systems. OS X is a version of BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution), which was developed at the University of California Berkeley and which is a free, direct descendant of the original Unix. Linux is a Unix clone, which means that it was designed to resemble Unix in terms of commands and behavior but was written entirely from scratch rather than incorporating Unix source code (i.e., the original code that operating systems or application programs are written in by humans using a programming language).

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Macintosh operating systems require the use of specialized Macintosh hardware, whereas versions of Linux are available for almost any type of computer hardware imaginable, including ordinary PCs, Mac systems, mainframes, mobile phones and industrial control equipment. Thus, Linux can be more affordable because existing hardware (such as an old PC) can be used and it therefore is not necessary to buy a specialized computer.

A major advantage of the Macintosh is that it is probably still easier to use for absolute beginners than Linux is, although the gap is rapidly narrowing. This greater ease of use is particularly important for advanced multimedia applications (such as editing movies). Also, the Macintosh's unique Aqua GUI is truly elegant, and Linux (as well as other operating systems) have a ways to go to catch up.

Another similarity between the two operating systems is that both feature high stability and security and they are rarely affected by viruses. Also, many of the same application programs are available for both operating systems.

Q: What are the advantages of Linux as compared with Microsoft Windows?

A: There are many. Probably the most important is that Linux is truly free, not only in a monetary sense (i.e., no cost) but also as far as usage is concerned.

This means that it is legal (and even encouraged!) for anyone to install Linux on as many computers as desired with no payment to anybody. It also means that anyone may make any number of copies of Linux and do anything with them desired, including giving them away to friends and even selling them. It additionally means that anybody is entitled to modify Linux in any way desired and to give away or sell (with a few minor conditions) the modified version(s).

Another major advantage of Linux is that it is extremely stable. That is, it is highly resistant to viruses and it rarely crashes or needs rebooting. Also, it can operate on older hardware that is unsuitable for newer versions of Microsoft Windows. In addition, it is well suited for customizing (e.g., for the requirements of a particular business or for a particular language) because all of the source code is freely available and is permitted to be modified in any way desired.

Q: I have heard that there are studies showing that the total cost of ownership (TCO) is actually higher for Linux than for Microsoft Windows. How can this be true is Linux if free and Windows retails at several hundred dollars?

A: Several highly publicized studies claim to reach this conclusion. However, there is clearly more to this than meets the eye.

Such studies claim that it is more expensive to operate Linux than Microsoft Windows in large part because the compensation for Linux system administrators is higher than for Windows administrators. It is indeed true that the compensation is higher, but this is only part of the picture.

What is rarely mentioned however, is that Linux system administrators can be much more productive because computers operating Linux are much easier to maintain. That is, they rarely crash and need rebooting, viruses are infrequent and security patches are not needed at frequent intervals.

The studies also do not appear to include the very substantial costs of forced upgrades for proprietary (i.e., non-free) software. Such costs include not only the license fees for the new versions, but also training and dealing with backward compatibility issues. Moreover, each new version of Microsoft Windows generally requires that new hardware (i.e., new computers) be purchased, whereas this is usually not necessary when upgrading to newer versions of Linux.

The most obvious savings, of course, results from the fact that the cost of acquiring Linux can be essentially free, in contrast to the hefty license fees for each user of proprietary software. For a large company with thousands of employees this represents a huge savings.

It is crucial to look at who sponsors these studies and who conducts them. They are invariably sponsored by Microsoft. And they are often conducted by organizations that might have some special relationship with Microsoft. Of course, this tends to bias the results.

Probably the most convincing evidence that the TCO of Linux is, in fact, substantially lower than that for proprietary software is the fact that independent studies by businesses, governments and universities around the world are persuading these organizations that it is cheaper (and otherwise more beneficial) to use Linux, and they are acting accordingly.

Q: What are forced upgrades?

A: Developers or vendors of proprietary software often stop supporting any particular version after a few years. Support refers to helping businesses and other users when they encounter problems that they cannot solve themselves, supplying patches for users to apply in order to combat new viruses, etc. Also, developers often design new or upgraded application programs so that they will not run well on older versions of operating systems. Thus, many users feel that they are being forced to upgrade to new versions, usually at considerable expense and inconvenience.

Q: Our company wants to study the possibility of gradually converting its IT infrastructure from a certain proprietary operating system to Linux. What are the arguments in favor of such a conversion.

A: There are many, and they are enumerated on the page Reasons to Convert.

Q: What are the disadvantages of Linux?

A: One is that there are some types of specialized application programs that are not yet available for Linux. However, this problem is gradually being solved as the number and variety of programs continues to increase. Others are that further refinement is needed for the GUI and user friendliness needs to be enhanced; fortunately, however, good progress is likewise being made on both of these fronts.

Q: Is it true that Linux is mainly suitable for use on high-performance servers by large organizations but that it is not well suited for desktop or notebook computers?

A: This was formerly the case. However, major progress has occurred during the past few years on making Linux suitable for use on desktop and notebook computers by people who are not computer experts (including by beginners and casual users). For example, applications have become better integrated with each other, operations have become more intuitive, fonts have improved (i.e., are less jagged and more closely resemble printed text) and installation of the operating system and application programs has become easier. This trend is resulting in a growing number of individuals, businesses and government agencies using Linux as their main computer operating system.

Q: If Linux is so good, why isn't it being adopted faster?

A: Actually, the use of Linux has been growing quite rapidly. Use has been soaring by businesses, government agencies, educational institutions and individuals worldwide. However, the available statistics on Linux likely underestimate its usage because they are based largely on the number of downloads and disk sets sold. They tend to undercount the situations in which Linux is installed on multiple computers from a single set of CDROMs, such as within a business or by friends sharing disks.

Q: What are the obstacles to the faster growth of Linux's market share?

A: There are several. One is the huge investment that organizations and individuals already have in other operating systems and applications. A second is the perceived complexity of transitioning to Linux. A third is the difficulty that many people still have comprehending the fact that something that is free can be superior to something that is expensive. In addition, there is a shortage of Linux specialists, such as system administrators.

However, all of these obstacles are diminishing. For example, more and more businesses and other organizations are deciding to replace their existing software due to obsolescence and security problems. They are increasingly looking at Linux as a replacement, and they are often discovering that the transition can be far easier than had been feared and that sometimes free is, in fact, better. Also, the number of Linux specialists is continuing to grow as more and more people realize that acquiring Linux skills can be an excellent career-enhancing move.

Q: How can something that is free be better than something that is produced and sold by a business for a profit?

A: The answer is rather lengthy and could occupy an entire book. Perhaps it is best to illustrate with a simple example. Most people who are exposed to the Internet think that it is truly amazing and extremely useful. Yet the Internet is completely free. No company invented it, no company produces it and no company sells it. Nor could any company. It has been developed mostly by volunteers, by people who take great pride in creating and developing new concepts and in enabling everybody to benefit from them. Yet, individuals and businesses, including its developers, still manage to make a great deal of money from the Internet despite the fact that it is free.

Q: Our economy here in the Seattle (Washington state) area is very dependent on Microsoft. Thus won't the growing importance of Linux eventually begin to adversely affect both Microsoft and our local economy?

A: The rise of Linux and other open source software is the result of powerful economic and technological forces. These forces cannot be stopped, nor should they be. This is because the open source software development model produces a superior product at a far lower cost.

That said, the open source movement will not necessarily spell doom for developers of proprietary software. In fact, a number of the largest computer companies have adjusted nicely to open source, and it is even helping them thrive. Examples include IBM, Oracle and HP.

Actually, the rise of open source could eventually be good for Microsoft as well. Of course, it will require some adjustment, just as it did for IBM and others. Microsoft has tremendous resources and many very talented people. It has made major adjustments before, such as its shift from its MS-DOS command line operating system to its Windows GUI operating systems and its shift from emphasis on standalone computers to emphasis on the Internet.

Q: What is the correct pronunciation of Linux?

A: The i is a short, as in Finland, and it should not be pronounced as in Microsoft. Likewise, the u should not be pronounced as in sucks. Linux rhymes exactly with cynics.

Created March 2004. Updated January 15, 2005
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