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Monday, September 01, 2008

Entering the world of GNU/Linux

Linux is a UNIX like operating system and has been one of the most popular proponents of free open source software. Even though popularly GNU/Linux is called Linux operating system, but the name is somewhat misleading because Linux is the name of the kernel of the operating system, which was created by Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds as a hobby project, infact in the first message posted on newsgroup announcing his project he had the following view about Linux becoming big: “It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.” . The entire GNU/Linux operating system is based upon host of open source tools and libraries of which GNU tools and libraries form a significant chunk (started by Richard Matthew Stallman (rms) one of the most popular MIT based hacker and founder of free software foundation, rms has iconic status in free and open source world), hence the name GNU/Linux.

Since traditionally UNIX operating systems have been used mostly in servers and by developers/hackers/and students, and Linux being similar to UNIX proved to be no exception. Linux began as an operating system that started replacing UNIX on the server side, and it did particularly well too (with the latest figures putting Linux market share in server market to be around 13%). Desktop Linux however did not take of like the server versions of Linux, partially due to lack of availability if quality window manager , lack of high quality software and inertia of users from moving to entirely different environment in comparison with Windows or Mac OS.

However, over the past decade there has been considerable development in the desktop front for the Linux operating system with the emergence of user friendly desktop environment in form of Gnome and KDE, and a number of other robust free open source software, extremely user friendly Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora and big corporate (IBM, Novell, Dell and even most staunch rival of Linux Microsoft) supporting GNU/Linux. Linux is slowly but surely making strides on desktop front with latest estimate pegging its market share to 4% of overall desktop market (making it almost at par in terms of market share with Macintoshes).

Let’s look at some of the advantage Linux enjoys over its popular closed source commercial counterpart Microsoft Windows:

Security: This is probably one of the most important advantage of Linux over windows, being open source any vulnerabilities detected are patched almost immediately as opposed to windows. Also like UNIX because of its extremely robust architecture and not granting root level access to all the users, there are very few viruses (almost non existent) to worry about unlike Windows on which hundreds of new viruses are created almost everyday.

Customizable : Being based on a number of different open source projects and libraries , a number of different distribution of GNU/Linux operating system exist from which one could chose distribution to use according to one’s need. Also it is very easy to customize a GNU/Linux system, which is not possible with closed source Windows operating system. E.g if you have a really old hardware you could easily customize Linux distribution, stripping all the fancy features and producing a basic rudimentary system that works well on your old hardware or maybe you might like making your desktop interface look like Mac OS .

Stability: - GNU/Linux is one of the most stable operating system around, and this is probably due to layered design of the operating system, where if one component fails entire operating system does not crash unlike Windows operating system. People have actually managed to run GNU/Linux operating system for months altogether without rebooting.

Excellent Development Platform: GNU/Linux is a programmer’s paradise with host of free open source tools, libraries, compilers, IDE etc available and the best thing is you don’t have to worry about licensing since almost everything in GNU/Linux is free, open source under GPL or LGPL license.

No Licensing restriction: Unlike Microsoft Windows which impose host of licensing restriction on you e.g. you cannot install windows on more then one computer , Windows is loaded with all kind of restrictions like DRM(digital rights management) preventing you from playing a number of different audio/video files . You don’t have to worry about such licensing restrictions on Linux you can play all the audio/video formats (provided you have codecs installed) out of the box and you can install Linux on as many computers you want, infact it is encouraged to share Linux media free of cost and some distributions like Ubuntu actually ship CD/DVD’s free of cost of the installation media.

Free :- This is probably one of the most important advantage of GNU/Linux over Windows especially for developing countries like India .Almost everything in Linux is free , you don’t have to pay a single penny for operating system , office suite , development platform ,software’s etc . Though commercial software also exist for Linux but sheer number of free open source software alternatives available on Linux overshadows them , providing you with alternatives to almost all the commercially available software on Windows platform. Infact there are tools available (WINE) which actually allows you to run Windows application on Linux free of cost without purchasing license of windows operating system.

Impressed, here is a short guide on how to start using Linux:

Picking right Distribution

Hundreds of Linux distributions exist, so the task of picking right Linux distribution becomes even more difficult. However based on my experience of using and installing Linux, I would suggest the following Linux distributions (though I would still suggest that you look into Distrowatch (http://distrowatch.com) for right distribution that suits your need) :

Desktop : - Ubuntu (or any derivative of Ubuntu) because of extremely user friendly interface , easy access to online documentation and support forums , huge number of packages available in repositories and easy installation method and finally solid debian based architecture.

Development: - Fedora because of sheer number of development tools available out of the box on the fedora platform, plus fedora is one of the oldest and most well supported Linux distributions available.

Installing: -

Installing Linux especially partitioning disk is probably one of the most difficult step for Linux newbies or Windows converts, though over the years with the development of user friendly graphical installers even installation has been simplified to a considerable degree. Still there are few things that you could keep in mind while partitioning your disk while installing Linux:

• Backup your data: It is imperative that you backup your important data from windows drive as there is a real possibility that you could unknowingly corrupt your partion table losing all your precious data.

• Create separate partitions (logical) for /home , / , /usr (if possible) and swap : This helps you while upgrading or installing a new Linux distribution keeping your old data intact.

• Create Swap partition double the size of your Physical Memory

However if you find partitioning difficult , it is possible to install Linux without partitioning on your windows partition (though this is not recommended ) few Linux distributions like Ubuntu , provide installer that allows you to install Linux easily like any normal Windows program without having to worry about partitioning.

Using Linux:-

Even though a number of really good graphical desktop environment exist inform of KDE , GNOME and XFCE, but sooner or later you will find your self using terminal (Bash :P ) so it would be really helpful one learns if not all some basic terminal commands and if possible bash scripting.

Here are few links that might help you learn basic Linux commands:
1. http://linuxondesktop.blogspot.com/2007/12/newbies-guide-to-linux-console.html
2. http://www.linuxcommand.org/index.php


Getting and Installing applications:-

This is probably one of the most fun part of using Linux, finding and installing software from a number of freely available alternatives each good enough to compete with popular commercially available counterpart. If you are using Ubuntu just fire up “Synaptic’ package manager or better still use console based “apt-get” command , and install right application from thousands of freely available software. There are third party repositories available too like CNR (click and run) which offer a huge collection of free, closed and commercial software for Linux platform which could be installed easily with a single click.

However, being open source many times you would find need of compiling application from source (may be binary is not available) or just for purpose of producing optimized binary according to your system’s configuration.

Here are few links you might help you in installing applications on Linux:

1. Getting debian binary package for Ubuntu(or any other debian based distribution): http://www.getdeb.net/
2. Gnome/GTK+ Applications : http://www.gnomefiles.org/
3. Guide to Installing applications: http://linuxondesktop.blogspot.com/2006/08/installing-applications-under-linux.html
4. Another useful forum post on installing applications under Linux: http://www.linuxforums.org/forum/linux-tutorials-howtos-reference-material/64958-how-install-software-linux.html

Getting Help:

Even though Linux does not provide over the phone support like some of the commercially available operating systems provide, still it is relatively easy to get support for your Linux problems easily from number of online forums available and freely available documentation. These forums are quite active and you can expect satisfactory solution to your problem within few hours of posting problem. I have tried listing some of the sources I have found useful below:

Ubuntu Forums : http://www.ubuntuforums.org/
Linux Forums : http://www.linuxforums.org/forum/
Linux Questions : http://linuxquestions.org/
How to Forge : http://www.howtoforge.com/forums/
Linux Documentation Project : http://tldp.org/


Article by : Ambuj Varshney
Author is an undergraduate student at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute for Information and Communication Tech , Gandhinagar , India and a pro-blogger who blogs about Linux related issues at http://linuxondesktop.blogspot.com , you can reach him at : blogambuj@gmail.com
© 2008 Linux on Desktop blog


Linux gets 13 % Market Share : http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS21399008
Linux gets 4% Markey Share : http://ca.biz.yahoo.com/ibd/080807/tech.html?.v=1

2 comments:

Become a Smart Techie said...

I totally agree with you on using Linux. After MS came up with Vista and by using it for a while (since I already use XP), it compelled me to move totally to Linux. As of now I am using Ubuntu Hardy and can say that the community has been of great help in resolving queries and feel nothing sort of missing MS 'things'. The only reason I am with Windows (Dual boot) is because of games, else personally I see no other reason for Windows to be on my PC.

desktop software development said...

Linux Rocks n will rock alwayz...

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