Most people have heard of Linux, even if they don’t know what it really is. But what IS it? In this article, I’ll cover what it is, how you can use it, software, drivers, and touch on security and antivirus, or I should say, why you don’t need antivirus.
Technically, Linux is just a kernel, the core component of the operating system that interacts with your hardware and various running processes. What you see when looking at desktops like this is really called GNU/Linux, where GNU stands for GNU Not Unix. GNU is a free and open-source collection of software. There’s controversy on the whole Linux and GNU/Linux naming, and both have valid points, but for simplicity, we’ll just call the general OS Linux here. The kernel as I mentioned, is the core. It talks to your hardware and includes built-in drivers, networking, and power management among many other things. Then, what you see and interact with are the display managers, and desktop or window managers, which are highly customizable.
You’ll notice when seeing various Linux desktops that there’s a vast variety of how they look and operate. That’s because it can be configured however you like, in a very modular way, and mix and match whatever components you wish to use. There’s lots of theming on top of all this as well.
Common desktops you’ll see are Gnome, KDE, Cinnamon, Xfce, and many more (LIST). You can also customize each of these to make them look and behave however you wish by reconfiguring them, adding additional components, or mixing and matching different desktop components together. You can even make one desktop environment look like another. Each has its own way of helping manage your workflow, and none are really the “Best”, it’s just a matter of preference. So if you’re looking to try Linux for the first time, it’s best to try different things in Virtual Machines first to see what you prefer. It’s also possible to install multiple desktop environments at the same time, and then you can switch between them when you log in.
But what to download to get started, and what software can you run? First of all, because of the nature of Linux being free, anyone can take one version, and customize it to create a new one with a different name, even you and me. Provided you have the time and resources that is. These versions, or “flavors”, are called distributions, or distros for short. You may have heard of Ubuntu, and this is what is known as a distro. It’s a specific collection of software packages that create the operating system and is managed by teams of developers and maintainers. There’s also Linux Mint, which is built based on Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is based on another distro called Debian. Debian is what’s called a root distro, meaning it is independent and was built from scratch, not built from anything else.
But hundreds of distros are based on it. Each distro has its own community, forums, chat sites, etc. There’s a lot more to cover on distros but that’s something I’ll cover in another Article. So just like desktop environments, distros are a matter of personal preference. I encourage you to try out several distros and see what you prefer. This is commonly known as distro hopping. You can even install multiple Linux distros on your computer at the same time, and choose which one you want to load when your computer boots up. This is called dual-booting, or multi-booting, and you can also even keep Windows as well.
As for software and gaming, there are plenty of applications to choose from, and they’re all free. All the basics you need to run a desktop are available. You have file managers, which have all the same basic functions of Windows Explorer or Mac’s Finder, and they can also access USB sticks or other partitions on your computer, even if they are formatted for use in Windows. You have the familiar home directory with the usual Documents, Downloads, and so on, but if you venture outside of that and browse the drive, you’ll find it very different from Windows.
There are lots of media players which support almost all video and audio formats, and you can even install Spotify. You also have common web browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Brave, and Opera and you can even run the new Microsoft Edge browser which is currently available as a preview build. There is also a way to run an older version of Internet Explorer if you really need it.
Unfortunately, Windows or Mac software doesn’t run out of the box, but you can use something called WINE to install Windows software like Microsoft Office. Of course, not everything runs perfectly using WINE, but Linux has alternatives for almost anything. Instead of Microsoft Office, for example, you can use LibreOffice or OnlyOffice. These are free applications that can open, edit, and save documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the Microsoft Office file format. Steam has a native Linux client, and its library has plenty of games that natively support Linux, just look for this icon. And even if games are available natively for Linux, Steam has been developing software called Proton, which allows you to play the Windows versions of games in Linux. More and more titles are supported every day, allowing more games to run on Linux.
The software is easy to install in Linux. It is organized into what’s called packages. So Steam or LibreOffice are packages, and so is pretty much every component of the operating system. A package is a collection of files and applications. In almost every distro, you’ll have a package manager. This is like an App Store like you would find in Windows or on a Mac.
So what about drivers for your hardware? Well, the good news is that almost all hardware is supported out of the box without the need to install any drivers. The kernel and its modules take care of all of this for you. The most common devices that require drivers to be installed are Nvidia graphics cards because Nvidia does not release their code for Linux developers to work with. Most distros, like Ubuntu and Mint, have easy ways to load the proprietary drivers if you really need that extra performance. But out of the box, the open-source Nouveau drivers will work pretty well for most cards and games.
What about security and viruses? Well, one thing you’ll notice is that people who run Linux don’t run antivirus software, and there are a few reasons for that. Linux is built securely from the ground up. Your regular user account can’t do much to damage the system. So any malicious software that does get into your system can’t do much. In order to access system files, and install or uninstall software, your system will prompt you for your root password. The root password is what you set when you install Linux. This password is what gives a running process elevated permissions to do things. Without it, you can’t do a whole lot.
Linux is also very compartmentalized, so processes only have limited permissions, unless you specifically grant them. Even downloading an executable program from a shady website doesn’t mean it can do anything unless you’ve given that file permission to be executed. This is where using the package manager or software center, gives you yet another advantage of knowing that whatever software you’re downloading is safe and secure. All these reasons above are why viruses are almost non-existent for Linux. Trying to make a working virus to attack Linux is much too hard and usually pointless. You will however see antivirus software that can run in Linux, but this is usually made for people who are running file or mail servers that will be accessed by Windows machines, and are intended to protect the Windows machines that are accessing those files, and not really required to protect the server itself.
So why doesn’t everyone use Linux if it’s so great? Well, some people don’t like change. Others need specific software that is only available in certain operating systems. And some people just find Linux to be overwhelming and complicated. We’ve all seen the movies where someone is hacking away on a supposed Linux machine that’s spewing out all this code in multiple windows and someone is typing away furiously. Well, you CAN set something up like this if you want to. But the reality is that Linux has come a long way in recent years. It’s really quite easy to install and set up. Everything is all graphical menus and easy to navigate. Back in the 90’s when I installed Linux, it was not so easy and needed a lot of manual work to get it up and running. But that’s all changed. Perhaps it would surprise some to know that Linux is actually all around them, and they use devices that run Linux every day. Things like your internet router, printer, smart TV, Smartwatch, Amazon and Roku devices, your car’s infotainment system and navigation, and even your Android phones and tablets, since Android is based on Linux. It’s also used in Air Traffic Controllers, the Large Hadron Collider, and by big corporations like Lockheed Martin, NASA, and the Department of National Defence.
It also powers many supercomputers and website servers around the world. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to try out Linux on a Windows or Mac computer is to use Virtual Machine software such as VirtualBox or VMWare. Then it’s just a matter of downloading some. ISO files and loading them in your VM. An ISO file is simply a file that is an image of a disk and can be loaded as a CD or DVD in a virtual machine to simulate loading a disk into a real machine. Or, you can just use a program like Rufus in Windows to write an ISO file to a USB stick, and boot off of it to try out the live version on your hardware without installing it, and then see if you like it, while ensuring that it will run on whatever hardware you’re using.
In summary, Linux is a robust operating system that caters to a diverse range of users and applications. Its kernel-based architecture, combined with desktop environments and a wide range of software choices provides users with flexibility. The emphasis, on security, inherent compartmentalization, and reduced vulnerability, to viruses make Linux an attractive option. As it continues to develop Linux embodies the spirit of open source collaboration and innovation providing a platform that enables individuals and organizations to fully leverage technology.