The Beauty of Linux

I've been using Linux since 2002, and am absolutely convinced of the enormous potential of Linux and open source software to provide high quality, low cost, easily maintained solutions for education. But when I talk to people, I often find that they have very little knowledge about Linux, beyond the fact that it's free! To put that right, here's a 2 minute guide to Linux. It's woefully incomplete and overly simplified, but will hopefully help you understand why I'm so enthusiastic.

The Gnu Public License

Linux, and most of the software running on Linux are distributed under the GPL. This license guarantees:

  • the freedom to use the software for any purpose,

  • the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors,

  • the freedom to change the software to suit your needs, and

  • the freedom to share the changes you make.

In effect this means that Linux is free as in "free beer", and free as in "free speech" (the French would say it is  "gratuit" and "libre").

Anatomy of a Linux Distribution

Linux (or GNU/Linux as the hardcore free software crew call it) really refers to the kernel, the foundation of the operating system upon which the rest of the system is built. A full operating system based on the Linux kernel is called a Linux distribution, and includes the kernel, a desktop environment (the software that deals with windows, menus, login screens etc) and thousands of open source programs (called packages) to run on top (18733 packages in the case of Debian). These packages are stored online in repositories.

There are hundreds of different distributions. Popular ones include Debian, Ubuntu, OpenSuse, and Fedora.

One of the great delights of a Linux distribution is the ease which you can install new software and keep your system up to date. It all happens over the Internet in the simplest way imaginable. You open up a wee application and (once you have given a password to show that you have admin rights) you are presented with a searchable list of all the available packages. If you see one you like, click on install and you've got it! It downloads from the repository and installs on your machine. Since all the packages in the repository are open source, they are all free and there are no licensing issues.

Your local Linux system keeps track of what versions you have of packages, and as soon as any updates becomes available, it alerts you and allows you to update your system with a single click. Absolute simplicity.

Linux Security

Linux has always been very secure operating system, unlike Windows which began as a security nightmare and has gradually improved! The design of Linux assumes multiple users, with a "root" user that has admin rights. By default, all other users are prevented from performing any action that would affect the system, or the files of other users. For this reason, Linux viruses are simply not a problem. The first time I ever saw anti-virus software for Linux was on the eee pc!


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