Chapter 1. Why Run Linux?

Welcome to Linux, the operating system that everyone’s talking about. Unlike the weather—which proverbial wisdom says you can’t do anything about—you can do something about Linux. You can run it on your own PC, so that you can see firsthand what the talk is about. This chapter is the first leg of your journey into the land of Linux. Here, you’ll learn whether this particular journey is right for you and what you can expect down the road. If you’re impatient to get started, you can jump ahead to the next chapter, which helps you prepare your PC for installing Linux. But if you’d like to know more about the history and capabilities of Linux, read on.

What Is Linux?

Linux is an operating system, a software program that controls your computer. Most PC vendors load an operating system—generally, Microsoft Windows—onto the hard drive of a PC before delivery; so, unless the hard drive of your PC has failed, you may not understand the function of an operating system.

An operating system solves several problems arising from hardware variation. As you’re aware, no two PC models have identical hardware. For example, some PCs have an IDE hard drive, whereas others have a SCSI hard drive. Some PCs have one hard drive; others have two or more. Most PCs have a CD-ROM drive, but some do not. Some PCs have an Intel Pentium CPU, whereas others have an AMD Athlon, and so on. Suppose that, in a world without operating systems, you’re programming a new PC application—perhaps a new multimedia word processor. Your application must cope with all the possible variations of PC hardware. As a result, it becomes bulky and complex. Users don’t like it because it consumes too much hard drive space, takes a long time to load, and—because of its size and complexity—has more bugs than it should.

Operating systems solve this problem by providing a standard way for applications to access hardware devices. Thanks to the operating system, applications can be more compact, because they share the commonly used code for accessing the hardware. Applications can also be more reliable, because common code is written only once—and by expert programmers rather than by application programmers.

As you’ll soon learn, operating systems do many other things as well; for example, they generally provide a filesystem so you can store and retrieve data and a user interface so you can control your computer. However, if you think of a computer’s operating system as its subconscious mind, you won’t be far off the mark. It’s the computer’s conscious mind—applications such as word processors and spreadsheets—that do useful work. But, without the subconscious—the operating system—the computer would cease breathing and applications would not function.

Desktop and Server Operating Systems

Now that you know what an operating system is, you may be wondering what operating systems other PC users are using. According to the market research firm IDC, Microsoft products account for about 92 percent of sales of desktop operating systems. However, bear in mind that, because Linux is a free operating system, Linux sales are a mere fraction of actual Linux installations. Unlike most commercial operating systems, Linux is not sold under terms of a per-seat license; a company is free to purchase a single Linux CD-ROM and install Linux on as many systems as they like.

Later in this chapter you’ll learn how Linux is distributed, but notice that Linux was termed a free operating system. If you have a high-speed Internet connection, you can download, install, and use Linux without paying anyone for anything (except perhaps your Internet service provider, who may impose a connection fee). It’s anyone’s guess how many people have downloaded Linux, but estimates indicate that between 7 and 10 million computers now run Linux.

Linux is primarily run as a server platform—not as a desktop system. Linux servers can be powered up and online 24/7, connected (at least occasionally) to the Internet, and ready to provide services to requesting clients. For example, many Linux users run web servers, but the number of desktop Linux users—those who power on their computers and then power them off when they’re done—is rising.

This book focuses on how Linux can be used on the desktop. However, if you’re unfamiliar with Linux and Unix, this book is right for you even if you plan to set up a Linux server. This book will take you through the basics of setting up and using Linux as a desktop system. After you’ve mastered what this book offers, you should consult Running Linux, by Matt Welsh, Matthias Kalle Dalheimer and Lar Kaufman (O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.), a more advanced book that focuses on setting up and using Linux servers. You might also enjoy Linux in a Nutshell, by Ellen Siever, Stephen Spainhour, Jessica P. Hekman, and Stephen Figgins (O’Reilly); this book puts useful Linux reference information at your fingertips. LPI Linux Certification in a Nutshell by Jeffrey Dean (O’Reilly) is a concise summary of Linux system administration information and procedures that’s useful whether or not you’re interested in seeking certification.

How Linux Is Different

Linux is distinguished from other popular operating systems in three important ways:

  • Linux is a cross-platform operating system that runs on many computer models. Only Unix, an ancestor of Linux, rivals Linux in this respect. In comparison, Windows 95/98 runs only on CPUs with the Intel architecture. Windows NT runs only on CPUs with the Intel architecture or the Compaq Alpha. And Windows 2000 runs only on CPUs with the Intel architecture, although Microsoft originally announced that Windows 2000 would be available for the Compaq Alpha as well.

  • Linux is free, in two senses. First, you can pay nothing to obtain and use Linux. On the other hand, you may choose to purchase Linux from a vendor that bundles Linux with special documentation or applications or that provides technical support. However, even in this case, the cost of Linux is likely to be a fraction of what you’d pay for another operating system. So, Linux is free or nearly free in an economic sense.

    Second, and more important, Linux and many Linux applications are distributed in source form. This makes it possible for you and others to modify or improve them. You’re not free to do this with most operating systems, which are distributed in binary form. For example, you can’t make changes to Windows or Office—only Microsoft can do that. Because of this freedom, Linux is being constantly improved and updated, far outpacing the rate of progress of any other operating system. For example, Linux was the first operating system to support Intel’s Itanium 64-bit CPU.

  • Linux has more attractive features and performance. Free access to Linux source code lets programmers around the world implement new features and tweak Linux to improve its performance and reliability. The best of these features and tweaks are incorporated in the Linux kernel or made available as kernel patches or applications. Not even Microsoft can mobilize and support a software development team as large and dedicated as the volunteer Linux software development team, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, including programmers, code reviewers, and testers.

The Origins of Linux

Linux traces its ancestry back to a mainframe operating system known as Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). Multics was one of the first multiuser computer systems and is still in use today. Participating in its development, which began in 1965, was Bell Telephone Labs, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and General Electric.

Two Bell Labs software engineers, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, worked on Multics until Bell Labs withdrew from the project in 1969. One of their favorite pastimes during the project had been playing a multiuser game called Space Travel. Without access to a Multics computer, they found themselves unable to indulge their fantasies of flying around the galaxy. Resolving to remedy this, they decided to port the Space Travel game to run on an otherwise unused PDP-7 computer. Eventually, they implemented a rudimentary operating system they named Unics, as a play on Multics. Somehow, the spelling of the name became Unix.

Their operating system was novel in several respects, most notably its portability. Most previous operating systems had been written for a specific target computer. Just as a tailor-made suit fits only its owner, such an operating system could not be easily adapted to run on an unfamiliar computer. In order to create a portable operating system, Ritchie and Thompson first created a programming language called C. Like assembly language, C let a programmer access low-level hardware facilities not available to programmers writing in a high-level language such as FORTRAN or COBOL. But, like FORTRAN and COBOL, a C program was not bound to a particular computer. Just as a ready-made suit can be altered here and there to fit a purchaser, writing Unix in C made it possible to easily adapt Unix to run on computers other than the PDP-7.

As word of their work spread and interest grew, Ritchie and Thompson made copies of Unix freely available to programmers around the world. These programmers revised and improved Unix, sending word of their changes back to Ritchie and Thompson, who incorporated the best improvements in their version of Unix. Eventually, several Unix variants arose. Prominent among these was BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) Unix, written at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. Bill Joy—one of the principals of the BSD project—later became a founder of Sun Microsystems, which sold another Unix variant (SunOS) to power its workstations. In 1984, AT&T, the parent company of Bell Labs, began selling its own version of Unix, known as System V.

Free Software

What Ritchie and Thompson began in a distinctly noncommercial fashion ended up spawning several legal squabbles. When AT&T grasped the commercial potential of Unix, it claimed Unix as its intellectual property and began charging a hefty license fee to those who wanted to use it. Soon, others who had implemented Unix-like operating systems were distributing licenses only for a fee. Understandably, those who had contributed improvements to Unix considered it unfair for AT&T and others to appropriate the fruits of their labors. This concern for profit was at odds with the democratic, share-and-share-alike spirit of the early days of Unix.

Some, including MIT scientist Richard M. Stallman, yearned for the return of those happier times and the mutual cooperation of programmers that then existed. So, in 1983, Stallman launched the GNU (“GNU’s Not Unix”) project, which aimed at creating a free, Unix-like operating system. Like early Unix, the GNU operating system was to be distributed in source form so that programmers could read, modify, and redistribute it without restriction. Stallman’s work at MIT taught him that, by using the Internet as a means of communication, programmers could improve and adapt software at incredible speed, far outpacing the fastest rate possible using traditional software development models, in which few programmers actually see one another’s source code.

As a means of organizing work on the GNU project, Stallman and others created the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a nonprofit corporation that seeks to promote free software and eliminate restrictions on the copying, redistribution, understanding, and modification of software. Among other activities, the FSF accepts tax-deductible charitable contributions and distributes copies of software and documentation for a small fee, using this revenue to fund its operations and support development activities.

If you find it peculiar that the FSF charges a fee—even a small fee—for “free” software, you should understand that the FSF intends the word free to refer primarily to freedom, not price. The FSF believes in three fundamental software freedoms:

  • You can copy GNU software and give it away to anyone you choose.

  • If you’re a programmer, you can modify GNU software any way you like, because you have access to the source code. In return, your modified code should be available for others so they can enjoy the privileges of learning from and modifying it.

  • You can distribute improved versions of GNU software. However, you cannot charge anyone a fee for using your improved version (although you can charge a fee for providing a user with a physical copy of your software).

The Linux Kernel

By the early 1990s, the FSF had obtained or written all the major components of the GNU operating system except for one: the kernel. About that time, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer science student, began work on a kernel for a Unix-like system. Linus had been working with Minix, a Unix-like operating system written by Andrew Tannenbaum primarily for pedagogical use. Linus was disappointed by the performance of the Minix kernel and believed that he could do better. He shared his preliminary work with others on Internet newsgroups. Soon, programmers around the world were working together to extend and improve his kernel, which became known as Linux (for Linus’s Minix). As Table 1-1 shows, Linux grew rapidly. Linux was initially released on October 5, 1991, and as early as 1992, Linux had been integrated with GNU software and other open source software to produce a fully functional operating system, which became known as Linux after the name of its kernel.

Table 1-1. The History of Linux



Estimated users

Kernel size (Kbytes)






Linus Torvalds writes the Linux kernel.





GNU software is integrated with the Linux kernel, producing a fully functional operating system.





High rate of code contributions prompts Linus to delegate code review responsibility.





First production kernel is released.





Linux is ported to non-Intel processors.





Linux supports multiple processors, IP masquerading, and Java.





Linux growth rate exceeds that of Windows NT.





Linux invades the enterprise as major companies begin using it.

However, work on Linux did not cease. Since the initial production release, the pace of development has accelerated as Linux has been adapted to include support for non-Intel processors and even multiple processors, sophisticated TCP/IP networking facilities such as IP masquerading, and more. Versions of Linux are now available for such computer models and architectures as the PowerPC, the Compaq/DEC Alpha, the Motorola 68k, the Sun SPARC, the MIPS, and many others. Moreover, Linux does not implement an obscure Unix variant: it generally complies with the POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface) standard that forms the basis of the X/Open specifications of The Open Group.

The X Window System

Another important component of Linux is its graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced “gooey”), the X Window System. Unix was originally a mouseless, text-based system that used noisy teletype machines rather than modern video monitors. The Unix command interface is very sophisticated and, even today, some power users prefer it to a point-and-click graphical environment, using their video monitors as though they are noiseless teletypes. Consequently, some remain unaware that Unix long ago outgrew its text-based childhood and now provides users a choice of graphical or command interfaces.

The X Window System (or simply X) was developed as part of MIT’s Project Athena, which it began in 1984. By 1988, MIT released X to the public. MIT has since turned development of X over to the X Consortium. The XFree86 Project, Inc., in cooperation with the X Consortium, distributes a version of X that runs on Intel-architecture PCs.

X is a unique graphical user interface in three major respects:

  • X integrates with a computer network, letting users access local and remote applications. For example, X lets you open a window that represents an application running on a remote host: the remote host does the heavy-duty computing; all your computer needs do is pass the host your input and display the resulting output.

  • X lets you configure its look and feel to an amazing degree. To do so, you run a special application—called a window manager -- on top of X. A variety of window managers are available, including some that closely mimic the look and feel of Microsoft Windows.

  • X is optional. Systems used as servers are often configured without a GUI, saving resources to serve client requests.

Linux Distributions

Because Linux can be freely redistributed, you can obtain it in a variety of ways. Various individuals and organizations package Linux, often combining it with free or proprietary applications. Such a package that includes all the software you need to install and run Linux is called a Linux distribution. Table 1-2 shows some of the most popular Linux distributions.

Table 1-2. Popular Linux Distributions and Their Home Pages


Home page

Debian GNU/Linux


Red Hat Linux

Slackware Linux

SuSE Linux

Red Hat, Linux-Mandrake, SuSE, and Slackware are packaged by commercial companies, which seek to profit by selling Linux-related products and services. However, because Linux is distributed under the GNU GPL, you can download these distributions from the respective companies’ web sites or make additional copies of a Linux distribution you purchase. (Note, however, that you cannot necessarily make additional copies of proprietary software that these companies may distribute with their Linux distribution.) Debian GNU/Linux is the product of volunteer effort conducted under the auspices of Software in the Public Interest, Inc. (, a nonprofit corporation. This book is bundled with a copy of Red Hat Linux, which you can install and run on your PC and redistribute freely under the terms of the GPL.

Linux Features and Performance

The origins of Linux and the availability of its source code set it apart from other operating systems. But most users choose an operating system based on features and performance—and Linux delivers these in spades.

Linux runs on a wider range of hardware platforms and runs adequately on less costly and powerful systems than other operating systems. Moreover, Linux systems are generally highly reliable.

But this impressive inventory of selling points doesn’t end the matter. Let’s consider some other technical characteristics of Linux that distinguish it from the pack. Foremost in the minds of many is the low cost of Linux. Comparable server operating systems can cost more than $100,000. On the other hand, the low cost of Linux makes it practical for use even as a desktop operating system. In that mode, it truly eclipses the competition.

Many desktop systems are employed as servers. Because of its design and heritage, the features and performance of Linux readily outshine those of desktop operating systems used as makeshift servers. Moreover, Microsoft’s software license for Windows NT/2000 restricts the number of authenticated client connections; if you want your Windows NT/2000 server to be able to handle 100 authenticated clients, you must pay Microsoft a hefty license fee. However, Linux imposes no such restriction; your Linux desktop or server system is free to accept as many client connections as you think it can handle.

Again, because of its design and heritage, Linux provides more reliable data storage than competing desktop operating systems. Most Linux users store their disk data using the ext2 and ext3 filesystems, which are superior in performance and reliability to filesystems (partition types) provided by Microsoft operating systems, including FAT, FAT32, and NTFS. Of course, Microsoft claims that its NTFS filesystem is so reliable that you’ll probably never need special software tools to recover lost data—truth is, Microsoft provides no such tools. Despite Microsoft’s ambitious claims, some Windows NT users report that NTFS reliability is less than satisfactory. Here’s a case in point:

When my Windows NT workstation crashed a little over a year ago, I discovered that its NTFS filesystem was damaged. I searched the Microsoft web site for recovery instructions and tools and found nothing that helped. So I went to my local software store and purchased a third-party disk recovery tool for Windows NT. When I opened the box, I was angered to discover that it supported recovery of FAT and FAT32 data, but not NTFS data.

Eventually, I recovered 95 percent of my data by using a free Linux utility that was able to open the damaged NTFS partition and copy its files. If I’d been without Linux, I’d be without my data.

Like other server operating systems such as Windows NT/2000, Linux supports advanced disk management, known as a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID), which makes it possible to automatically duplicate stored data on several hard drives. This greatly improves the reliability of data storage; if one hard drive fails, the data can be read from another. Competing desktop operating systems, such as Windows 95/98, do not support this capability (though several third parties sell drivers or hardware devices that let you add this capability to your desktop operating system).

If you’re an old computer dog who remembers the days of MS-DOS, you may have a fondness for what’s now called the MS-DOS Prompt window or the Command Line Interface (CLI). However, if you’ve worked exclusively within the Windows point-and-click environment, you may not fully understand what the MS-DOS Prompt window is about. By typing commands in the MS-DOS Prompt window, you can direct the computer to perform a variety of tasks.

For most users, the MS-DOS Prompt is not as convenient as the GUI offered by Windows. That’s because you must know the commands the operating system understands and must type them correctly if you expect the operating system to do your bidding.

However, the MS-DOS Prompt window lets you accomplish tasks that would be cumbersome and time-consuming if performed by pointing and clicking. Linux comes with a similar command interface, known as the shell. But, the word similar fails to do justice to the Linux shell’s capabilities, because the MS-DOS Prompt provides a fraction of the capabilities provided by the Linux shell.

You may have used the MS-DOS Prompt and, finding it distastefully cumbersome, forever rejected it in favor of pointing and clicking. If so, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how easy it is to use the Linux shell. You’ll certainly be pleased—perhaps amazed—by the enormous power it offers. Moreover, you can customize the operation of the Linux shell in an almost limitless number of ways and even choose from among a variety of shells. You’ll learn more about the Linux shell in Chapter 7.

If you’re a programmer, you’ll also admire the ease with which it’s possible to develop portable, Unix-compliant software. Linux comes with a suite of software development tools, including an assembler, C/C++ compilers, a make application, and a source code librarian. All of these are freely distributable programs made available under the terms of the GNU GPL.

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