When new users encounter Linux, they often have a few misconceptions and false expectations of the system. Linux is a unique operating system, and it’s important to understand its philosophy and design in order to use it effectively. At the center of the Linux philosophy is a concept that we now call open source software.
Open source is a term that applies to software for which the source code — the inner workings of the program — is freely available for anyone to download, modify, and redistribute. Software covered under the GNU GPL, described in the previous section, fits into the category of open source. Not surprisingly, though, so does software that uses copyright licenses that are similar, but not identical, to the GPL. For example, software that can be freely modified but that does not have the same strict requirements for redistribution as the GPL is also considered open source. Various licenses fit this category, including the BSD License and the Apache Software License.
The so-called “open source” and “free software” development models started with the Free Software Foundation and were popularized with Linux. They represent a totally different way of producing software that opens up every aspect of development, debugging, testing, and study to anyone with enough interest in doing so. Rather than relying upon a single corporation to develop and maintain a piece of software, open source allows the code to evolve, openly, in a community of developers and users who are motivated by desire to create good software, rather than simply make a profit.
O’Reilly & Associates, Inc. has published a book, Open Sources, which serves as a good introduction to the open source development model. It’s a collection of essays about the open source process by leading developers (including Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman) and was edited by Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone.
Open source has received a lot of media attention, and some are calling the phenomenon the “next wave” in software development, which will sweep the old way of doing things under the carpet. It still remains to be seen whether that will happen, but there have been some encouraging events that make this outcome seem likely. For example, Netscape Corporation has released the code for its web browser as an open source project called Mozilla, and companies such as Sun Microsystems, IBM, and Apple have released certain products as open source in the hopes that they will flourish in a community-driven software development effort.
Open source has received a lot of media attention, and Linux is at the center of all of it. In order to understand where the Linux development mentality is coming from, however, it might make sense to take a look at how commercial software has traditionally been built.
Commercial software houses tend to base development on a rigorous policy of quality assurance, source and revision control systems, documentation, and bug reporting and resolution. Developers are not allowed to add features or to change key sections of code on a whim: they must validate the change as a response to a bug report and consequently “check in” all changes to the source control system so that the changes can be backed out if necessary. Each developer is assigned one or more parts of the system code, and only that developer may alter those sections of the code while it is “checked out.”
Internally, the quality assurance department runs rigorous test suites (so-called “regression tests”) on each new pass of the operating system and reports any bugs. It’s the responsibility of the developers to fix these bugs as reported. A complicated system of statistical analysis is employed to ensure that a certain percentage of bugs are fixed before the next release, and that the system as a whole passes certain release criteria.
In all, the process used by commercial software developers to maintain and support their code is very complicated, and quite reasonably so. The company must have quantitative proof that the next revision of the software is ready to be shipped. It’s a big job to develop a commercial software system, often large enough to employ hundreds (if not thousands) of programmers, testers, documenters, and administrative personnel. Of course, no two commercial software vendors are alike, but you get the general picture. Smaller software houses, such as startups, tend to employ a scaled-down version of this style of development.
On the opposite end of the spectrum sits Linux, which is, and more than likely always will be, a hacker’s operating system. Although many open source projects have adopted elements of commercial software development techniques, such as source control and bug tracking systems, the collaborative and distributed nature of Linux’s development is a radical departure from the traditional approach.
Linux is primarily developed as a group effort by volunteers on the Internet from all over the world. No single organization is responsible for developing the system. For the most part, the Linux community communicates via various mailing lists and web sites. A number of conventions have sprung up around the development effort: for example, programmers wanting to have their code included in the “official” kernel should mail it to Linus Torvalds. He will test the code and include it in the kernel (as long as it doesn’t break things or go against the overall design of the system, he will more than likely include it). As Linux has grown, this job has become too large for Linus to do himself (plus, he has kids now), so other volunteers are responsible for testing and integrating code into certain aspects of the kernel, such as the network subsystem.
The system itself is designed with a very open-ended, feature-rich approach. A new version of the Linux kernel will typically be released about every few weeks (sometimes even more frequently than this). Of course, this is a very rough figure; it depends on several factors, including the number of bugs to be fixed, the amount of feedback from users testing prerelease versions of the code, and the amount of sleep that Linus has had that week.
Suffice it to say that not every single bug has been fixed and not every problem ironed out between releases. (Of course, this is always true of commercial software as well!) As long as the system appears to be free of critical or oft-manifesting bugs, it’s considered “stable” and new revisions are released. The thrust behind Linux development is not an effort to release perfect, bug-free code; it’s to develop a free implementation of Unix. Linux is for the developers, more than anyone else.
Anyone who has a new feature or software application to add to the system generally makes it available in an “alpha” stage — that is, a stage for testing by those brave users who want to bash out problems with the initial code. Because the Linux community is largely based on the Internet, alpha software is usually uploaded to one or more of the various Linux web sites (see Appendix A), and a message is posted to one of the Linux mailing lists about how to get and test the code. Users who download and test alpha software can then mail results, bug fixes, or questions to the author.
After the initial problems in the alpha code have been fixed, the code enters a “beta” stage, in which it’s usually considered stable but not complete (that is, it works, but not all the features may be present). Otherwise, it may go directly to a “final” stage in which the software is considered complete and usable. For kernel code, once it’s complete, the developer may ask Linus to include it in the standard kernel, or as an optional add-on feature to the kernel.
Keep in mind these are only conventions, not rules. Some people feel so confident with their software that they don’t need to release an alpha or test version. It’s always up to the developer to make these decisions.
What happened to regression testing and the rigorous quality process? It’s been replaced by the philosophy of “release early and often.” Real users are the best testers because they try out the software in a variety of environments and in a host of demanding real-life applications that can’t be easily duplicated by any software Quality Assurance group. One of the best features of this development and release model is that bugs (and security flaws) are often found, reported, and fixed within hours, not days or weeks.
You might be amazed that such a nonstructured system of volunteers programming and debugging a complete Unix system could get anything done at all. As it turns out, it’s one of the most efficient and motivated development efforts ever employed. The entire Linux kernel was written from scratch, without employing any code from proprietary sources. A great deal of work was put forth by volunteers to port all the free software under the sun to the Linux system. Libraries were written and ported, filesystems developed, and hardware drivers written for many popular devices.
The Linux software is generally released as a distribution, which is a set of prepackaged software making up an entire system. It would be quite difficult for most users to build a complete system from the ground up, starting with the kernel, then adding utilities, and installing all necessary software by hand. Instead, there are a number of software distributions including everything you need to install and run a complete system. Again, there is no standard distribution; there are many, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. In this book, we describe how to install the Red Hat, SuSE, and Debian distributions, but this book can help you with any distribution you choose.
Despite the completeness of the Linux software, you still need a bit of Unix know-how to install and run a complete system. No distribution of Linux is completely bug-free, so you may be required to fix small problems by hand after installation. While some readers might consider this a pain, a better way to think about it is as the “joy of Linux” — that of having fun tinkering with, learning about, and fixing up your own system. It’s this very attitude that distinguishes Linux enthusiasts from mere users. Linux can be either a hobby, an adventure sport, or a lifestyle. (Just like snowboarding and mountain biking, Linux geeks have their own lingo and style of dress — if you don’t believe us, hang out at any Linux trade show!) Many new Linux users report having a great time learning about this new system, and find that Linux rekindles the fascination they had when first starting to experiment with computers.
Installing and using your own Linux system doesn’t require a great deal of background in Unix. In fact, many Unix novices successfully install Linux on their systems. This is a worthwhile learning experience, but keep in mind that it can be very frustrating to some. If you’re lucky, you will be able to install and start using your Linux system without any Unix background. However, once you are ready to delve into the more complex tasks of running Linux — installing new software, recompiling the kernel, and so forth — having background knowledge in Unix is going to be a necessity. (Note, however, that many distributions of Linux are as easy to install and configure as Windows 98 and certainly easier than Windows 2000.)
Fortunately, by running your own Linux system, you will be able to learn the essentials of Unix necessary to perform these tasks. This book contains a good deal of information to help you get started. Chapter 4 is a tutorial covering Unix basics, and Chapter 5 contains information on Linux system administration. You may wish to read these chapters before you attempt to install Linux at all; the information contained therein will prove to be invaluable should you run into problems.
Just remember that nobody can expect to go from being a Unix novice to a Unix system administrator overnight. No implementation of Unix is expected to run trouble- and maintenance-free, and you will undoubtedly encounter hang-ups along the way. Treat this as an opportunity to learn more about Linux and Unix, and try not to get discouraged when things don’t always go as expected!
Even those people with years of Unix programming and system administration experience may need assistance before they are able to pick up and install Linux. There are still aspects of the system Unix wizards need to be familiar with before diving in. For one thing, Linux is not a commercial Unix system. It doesn’t attempt to uphold the same standards as other Unix systems you may have come across. But in some sense, Linux is redefining the Unix world by giving all other systems a run for their money. To be more specific, while stability is an important factor in the development of Linux, it’s not the only factor.
More important, perhaps, is functionality. In many cases, new code will make it into the standard kernel even though it’s still buggy and not functionally complete. The assumption is that it’s more important to release code that users can test and use than delay a release until it’s “complete.” Nearly all open source software projects have an alpha release before they are completely tested. In this way, the open source community at large has a chance to work with the code, test it, and develop it further, while those who find the alpha code “good enough” for their needs can use it. Commercial Unix vendors rarely, if ever, release software in this manner.
Even if you’re a Unix ultra-wizard who can disassemble Solaris kernels in your sleep and recode an AIX superblock with one hand tied behind your back, Linux might take some getting used to. The system is very modern and dynamic, with a new kernel release approximately every few months and new utilities constantly being released. One day your system may be completely up to date with the current trend, and the next day the same system is considered to be in the Stone Age.
With all of this dynamic activity, how can you expect to keep up with the ever-changing Linux world? For the most part, it’s best to upgrade incrementally; that is, upgrade only those parts of the system that need upgrading, and then only when you think an upgrade is necessary. For example, if you never use Emacs, there is little reason to continuously install every new release of Emacs on your system. Furthermore, even if you are an avid Emacs user, there is usually no reason to upgrade it unless you find that a missing feature is in the next release. There is little or no reason to always be on top of the newest version of software.
Keep in mind that Linux was developed by its users. This means, for the most part, that the hardware supported by Linux is that which users and developers actually have access to. As it turns out, most of the popular hardware and peripherals for 80x86 systems are supported (in fact, Linux probably supports more hardware than any commercial implementation of Unix). However, some of the more obscure and esoteric devices, as well as those with proprietary drivers for which the manufacturers do not easily make the specifications available, aren’t supported yet. As time goes on, a wider range of hardware will be supported, so if your favorite devices aren’t listed here, chances are that support for them is forthcoming.
Another drawback for hardware support under Linux is that many companies have decided to keep the hardware interface proprietary. The upshot of this is that volunteer Linux developers simply can’t write drivers for those devices (if they could, those drivers would be owned by the company that owned the interface, which would violate the GPL). The companies that maintain proprietary interfaces write their own drivers for operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows; the end user (that’s you) never needs to know about the interface. Unfortunately, this does not allow Linux developers to write drivers for those devices.
Little can be done about the situation. In some cases, programmers have attempted to write hackish drivers based on assumptions about the interface. In other cases, developers work with the company in question and attempt to obtain information about the device interface, with varying degrees ofsuccess.
 Our definition of “hacker” is a feverishly dedicated programmer — a person who enjoys exploiting computers and generally doing interesting things with them. This is in contrast to the common connotation of “hacker” as a computer wrongdoer or an outlaw.