A Beginner's Guide to Linux

Linux isn’t a word frequently spoken outside computing circles, yet this open source operating system has had a seismic impact on the world. From humble beginnings in Finland in the early 1990s, Linux has evolved from a basic text-based kernel to become the world’s third biggest operating system. Its market share is trumped only by Microsoft and Apple, while the Linux Foundation has become a major voice in the computer industry since its inception in 2000.
Linux underpins the cPanel content management system, and stable network functionality has seen it become the preferred OS for servers around the world. It’s a cornerstone of the modular LAMP stack, where four complementary software tools are used to assemble websites and apps. Linux also powers the Android operating system used by almost 90 per cent of smartphones – not bad for open source software developed by a community rather than a corporation.

Linux Evolution, Not Revolution

Windows periodically undergoes radical changes – Windows 8 is almost unrecognizable from 7, and few users of 3.1 transitioned smoothly to 95. By contrast, Linux founder Linus Torvalds developed a more organic, customer-driven approach. Frustrated by the University of Helsinki’s inflexible UNIX OS, he designed an operating system that could evolve in response to suggested improvements and new developments. The first version of Linux was a text-based interface requiring significant computing knowledge to operate, whereas today’s versions can be mastered in minutes by a Windows or OS X user. Stunning graphical user interfaces and extensive compatibility with software and peripherals have made Linux a mainstream rival to Microsoft and Apple, after many years in the wilderness.
However, this evolution hasn’t been linear. Because anyone can edit open source software, Linux splintered into different versions when major disagreements arose about future approaches. Each Linux distro shares the basic kernel architecture, yet has adopted divergent approaches to software and the user experience. Competition between Linux distros can be as fierce as the rivalry with its corporate rivals, as enthusiastic amateurs champion their own version and decry rival factions.

Linux Distro Cousins: CentOS, Debian and Ubuntu

Each Linux distro has its own merits and drawbacks. CentOS’s corporate ownership has resulted in excellent technical support, with patronage from industry giants like Oracle and HP. Periodic major updates can become challenging, though, compared to the rolling patches of arch-rival Debian. This Linux distro has an extensive portfolio of plugins, despite lacking the corporate software support provided by the broadly similar Ubuntu. Biannual updates keep Ubuntu fresh, and it’s the preferred distro for desktop PC users. Nonetheless, it’s less technically proficient than Gentoo, which is unsuitable for beginners but ideal for developers and programmers. Gentoo coding tends to be free from glitches, with other key merits including security and scalability.

Getting Started with a Linux Distro

Choosing your preferred Linux distro ultimately comes down to personal preference and likely future requirements. Perhaps you need a supported version for an older computer, or a compact footprint that’ll use less hard drive space than Windows 10. Linux can even be trialed on a DVD or memory stick before it’s installed. And though the installation process varies between distros, most are comparable to adding new peripheral drivers in terms of simplicity.
There are various Linux desktop environments like KDE and Cinnamon, which are all contemporary GUI interfaces with extensive customization options. Conventional icons indicate programs or tools, such as the network function that guides users through establishing internet connectivity using mainstream browsers like Chrome and Firefox. And while some functions differ from Windows and OS X (installing software is usually done through a package manager, for instance), Linux will feel comfortably familiar nonetheless. As a customizable community-driven alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach of Windows and OS X, or as a platform for building bespoke tools, Linux has few equals.

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