Linux: The Penguin Inside

Date: Nov 2000

We all know Linux is does infinite loops in 5 seconds. -- attributed to Linus Torvalds

I'm sure that anyone even remotely interested in computers must have heard of Linux by now. Some have wondered what it is, others have tried installing it, yet others play with it now and then. Some people bless it and some curse it. Some are scared of the apparent need to learn arcane commands. Others would rather type `find / -name -print' than search through a GUI file browser.

But there are many who wonder just what is Linux. Linus Torvalds, the man behind Linux, says that it is not the cure for world hunger. It is an operating system, somewhat similar to Unix. What most people call Linux is actually a core (the Linux kernel, which is all that Linus really develops) and a whole bunch of utilities, applications, TSR's, and what-not.

These things are usually packaged as a distribution. There are many distributions available, called RedHat, Slackware, Caldera, Suse, Mandrake, Zipslack... the list is endless. See

These "distros" typically have a version number which has nothing to do with the kernel version. For example the RedHat 6.0 distro comes with kernel 2.2.5. The kernel version is the actual Linux version and new releases typically take place at intervals on the order of a week or two -- meaning quick bugfixes.

Linux's strong point is the open-source nature, which means that the kernel source code (which just happens to be C) is open for all to view and modify. According to proponents of the open source method, this is good because the bugs are caught quickly, and anyone who can read C can understand what the system is doing.

Many of the applications and utilities are distributed under the GNU GPL ( which means that they are also open. This is why a Linux system as a whole is often referred to as "GNU/Linux". Open Source (yes, capitals) and Linux often go hand-in-hand, to the extent that GNU/Linux is one of the first platforms for which any new Open Source program is written.

Those who are daunted at the prospect of learning countless arcane commands have a choice. Linux may be used via a CLUE (Command Line User Environment, or Interface (CLI) -- white-on-black screen, and a prompt where one types commands) or a GUI (graphical user interface with a mouse or other pointing device).

The GUI doesn't completely insulate the user, though. A certain amount of clue is always helpful when using Linux. Hard-core Linux users report using the X Windowing System merely to get multiple terminals on the same screen -- and literally tens of virtual terminals on various virtual desktops. Most tasks are faster and easier from the command line anyway.

As for the arcane commands, not to worry. Most full distros come with a set of electronic documentation. Type `info' (without the quotes) to get started. More documentation is in `/usr/doc/' and man pages are always available. New software comes with its own documentation.

A local Linux User Group (LUG) is a good place for new as well as old Linux users to find help. An India-wide LUG exists, and several cities have their own LUG.

Speaking of software, Linux supports almost every type of software anyone might want. From programming to word-processing, from games to web development, we have it all.

For the programmers, a C and C++ compiler called the GNU C Compiler (man gcc) is available. One can also get compilers or interpreters for Pascal, Fortran, Perl, assembler, and even basic. Java runtimes are also available.

For the office desktop system, we have a full office suite called Staroffice, developed by Sun Microsystems. Many other word processors, spreadsheets, and other similar packages are available.

The TeX typesetting language and its macro package LaTeX may be used for professional quality typesetting. If learning a new language just to write a project (it's worth it, though) daunts you, use the LyX front-end. It's a GUI.

Databases are supported, from the simple but powerful MySQL to the heavyweight Oracle. MySQL is sufficient for desktop users. Few home users would actually need a full database management system, but it is a useful thing to have around. Besides, some good programs require MySQL.

Games. Every home user wants games. Umpteen timy games, many text-based, including some classics. Commercial packages like Quake. Everything in between. But there are so many other interesting things, that games are often neglected.

Multimedia is a weak point with Linux. Sure, sound works after a few tries. You can even watch the odd VCD and record your own CDs (with a CD recorder drive installed, of course). The capability is there, but it needs to be coaxed along.

Web development? Sure. Install Apache. it's probably installed already. Surf over to http://localhost/. Install an ftp daemon and upload your CGI scripts; or simply copy them over. Perl is ready to use. Make sure you get all necessary modules from Java. A variety of browsers: Netscape, Opera, Lynx, and others. PHP. Database support with MySQL.

The strong point of Linux, as with any other Un*x-like OS, is the networking. This thing is *built* for multi-user networked use. Jumping through hoops is rarely required for connecting to a network. A full set of networking tools is available -- traceroute and ping are just the tip of the iceberg.

Many services can be hosted off a home Linux box. A mini-server is sitting on your desktop in the guise of a PC running Linux. With a working webserver and a good internet connection, you can host your own website right off your desktop!

Security is always an issue. One becomes more aware of security because there are so many possible users on this single machine, let alone all those who can access the box when you're online. There is no such thing as a perfectly secure box, but Linux will let you set up certain things so it will be quite secure.

Another weak point is the second extended file system, ext2fs. That's how the files are stored on disk. The FS needs to be kept consistent, which means a proper shutdown is imperative -- you can't just hit the power switch. Power failures are every Linux user's nightmare (literally, for those who leave their boxes on at night). A hard reset is almost never required, however, as the thing is quite stable.

Users who wish to try out Linux are encouraged to get hold of Redhat and install it. Modern distributions automate installation almost to the level to which users of the popular Windows software are accustomed. Contact your local LUG.

Copyright (c) Satya 1999. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright (c) Satya 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Back to Satya's articles list