What Is Linux Operating System?

By Matthew Skiffington

Linux, the least popular of the three primary computer operating systems, is primarily developed by the Free Software Foundation under its preferred name of GNU/Linux. All parts of Linux are open source, and Linux itself is distributed freely under the GNU GPL license. Most commonly used for its Apache server kernels, Linux has also been installed on a wide variety of systems ranging from supercomputers to netbooks. Popular "distributions," or user-developed versions of Linux, include Fedora, Red Hat, Ubuntu and Linux was originally just a kernel that, over time, has grown into an entire operating system.

Types of Linux

Originally developed by Linus Torvalds in August 1991, Linux consisted of the simple kernel and some open-source GNU tools. Over time, other independent developers added an increasingly diverse set of tools and applications. Eventually, even university students and corporations began distributing Linux packages with customized applications, all built around the original Linux kernel. The different types of Linux packages became known as "distributions." As of 2009, developing and marketing Linux distributions has become a billion-dollar business. Companies such as Fedora, MandrakeSoft and Red Hat market their own customized distributions for profit, and many individuals and organizations often offer their own personal distributions as a free download. These distributions have an exceptionally diverse array of uses, from firewalls to wireless transmitters to even powering digital video recorders.


Linux has a diverse array of features, customized to the needs of every individual distribution. But all distributions of Linux generally have a few features in common.Users can choose to operate Linux through a command-line interface, similar to MS-DOS, through a graphical user interface, like Vista or XP, or through hardware controls on Linux-embedded systems. The most common interface is the GUI, which is found on the majority of desktop computers with Linux. Linux GUI setups are generally based on the X Window System, a display protocol that provides for network transparency and allows an application in one machine to be controlled from another. User-developed additions to the X Window System can allow the window manager to control the placement and appearance of individual application windows as well as personalized styles. Most GUI systems also have a secondary command-line interface in case the GUI fails, and some server distributions (such as Apache special) even run primarily off of them. Some of these server distributions can even be operated without a monitor, controlled remotely through SSH or Telnet remote protocol.

Advantages of Linux

In addition to general purpose distributions such as those that operate desktops and servers, distributions may be customized for specific purposes such as stability, localization, security, real-time support and Linux-driven embedded hardware systems. Furthermore, some Linux "distros" (distributions) intentionally only include free applications and utilities. As of January 2009, there were more than 300 Linux distrubutions in active development, with roughly a dozen highly popular distributions for general use. Linux runs on an exceptionally diverse range of computer systems, from the handheld iPAQ and the IBM z9 to something as everyday as a mobile phone or a cable box. Linux can even be adapted to function on architectures that were originally intended to be used with their manufacturer's choice of software, such as a Macintosh PC or even a video game console.

Disadvantages of Linux

Although Linux is compatible with just about any kind of hardware, it suffers from a lack of third-party support. Mainstream application developers will often overlook Linux when programming compatibility. This means that many popular applications cannot function on Linux or require a huge amount of effort on the end user's part to install. Even massively popular games such as World of Warcraft or exceptionally popular tools such as WinRAR do not run natively in Linux. Also, even though Linux is compatible with many machines, it can sometimes require a great deal of computer knowledge and skill before it can be made to function. Linux is not for everyone. Often, it requires users to configure a great deal of the GUI themselves, and being at least UNIX-proficient is the only way to avoid the hindrance of having someone else do it for you.


The future of Linux, at present, is uncertain. Although it is widely popular among the computer-literate "elite," widespread acceptance or even recognition has yet to catch on. It may be that Linux requires too much familiarity and background knowledge to appeal to the public, or that its competitors are simply too well-established in the markets. However, Linux has the potential to take the market by storm because of a few key factors. Linux is open source and can be developed by anyone. There are many free applications you could improve on, and, as previously mentioned, Linux works on a wide variety of systems. You could go to the store, purchase a copy of Linux that adds the ability to use your computer as a router or to turn your Xbox 360 into a stereo system.