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1.5. Linux Flavors

1.5.1. Linux and GNU

Although there are a large number of Linux implementations, you will find a lot of similarities in the different distributions, if only because every Linux machine is a box with building blocks that you may put together following your own needs and views. Installing the system is only the beginning of a longterm relationship. Just when you think you have a nice running system, Linux will stimulate your imagination and creativeness, and the more you realize what power the system can give you, the more you will try to redefine its limits.

Linux may appear different depending on the distribution, your hardware and personal taste, but the fundamentals on which all graphical and other interfaces are built, remain the same. The Linux system is based on GNU tools (Gnu's Not UNIX), which provide a set of standard ways to handle and use the system. All GNU tools are open source, so they can be installed on any system. Most distributions offer pre-compiled packages of most common tools, such as RPM packages on RedHat and Debian packages (also called deb or dpkg) on Debian, so you needn't be a programmer to install a package on your system. However, if you are and like doing things yourself, you will enjoy Linux all the better, since most distributions come with a complete set of development tools, allowing installation of new software purely from source code. This setup also allows you to install software even if it does not exist in a pre-packaged form suitable for your system.

A list of common GNU software:

  • Bash: The GNU shell

  • GCC: The GNU C Compiler

  • GDB: The GNU Debugger

  • Coreutils: a set of basic UNIX-style utilities, such as ls, cat and chmod

  • Findutils: to search and find files

  • Fontutils: to convert fonts from one format to another or make new fonts

  • The Gimp: GNU Image Manipulation Program

  • Gnome: the GNU desktop environment

  • Emacs: a very powerful editor

  • Ghostscript and Ghostview: interpreter and graphical frontend for PostScript files.

  • GNU Photo: software for interaction with digital cameras

  • Octave: a programming language, primarily intended to perform numerical computations and image processing.

  • GNU SQL: relational database system

  • Radius: a remote authentication and accounting server

  • ...

Many commercial applications are available for Linux, and for more information about these packages we refer to their specific documentation. Throughout this guide we will only discuss freely available software, which comes (in most cases) with a GNU license.

To install missing or new packages, you will need some form of software management. The most common implementations include RPM and dpkg. RPM is the RedHat Package Manager, which is used on a variety of Linux systems, eventhough the name does not suggest this. Dpkg is the Debian package management system, which uses an interface called apt-get, that can manage RPM packages as well. Novell Ximian Red Carpet is a third party implementation of RPM with a graphical front-end. Other third party software vendors may have their own installation procedures, sometimes resembling the InstallShield and such, as known on MS Windows and other platforms. As you advance into Linux, you will likely get in touch with one or more of these programs.

1.5.2. GNU/Linux

The Linux kernel (the bones of your system, see Section is not part of the GNU project but uses the same license as GNU software. A great majority of utilities and development tools (the meat of your system), which are not Linux-specific, are taken from the GNU project. Because any usable system must contain both the kernel and at least a minimal set of utilities, some people argue that such a system should be called a GNU/Linux system.

In order to obtain the highest possible degree of independence between distributions, this is the sort of Linux that we will discuss throughout this course. If we are not talking about a GNU/Linux system, the specific distribution, version or program name will be mentioned.

1.5.3. Which distribution should I install?

Prior to installation, the most important factor is your hardware. Since every Linux distribution contains the basic packages and can be built to meet almost any requirement (because they all use the Linux kernel), you only need to consider if the distribution will run on your hardware. LinuxPPC for example has been made to run on Apple and other PowerPCs and does not run on an ordinary x86 based PC. LinuxPPC does run on the new Macs, but you can't use it for some of the older ones with ancient bus technology. Another tricky case is Sun hardware, which could be an old SPARC CPU or a newer UltraSparc, both requiring different versions of Linux.

Some Linux distributions are optimized for certain processors, such as Athlon CPUs, while they will at the same time run decent enough on the standard 486, 586 and 686 Intel processors. Sometimes distributions for special CPUs are not as reliable, since they are tested by fewer people.

Most Linux distributions offer a set of programs for generic PCs with special packages containing optimized kernels for the x86 Intel based CPUs. These distributions are well-tested and maintained on a regular basis, focusing on reliant server implementation and easy installation and update procedures. Examples are Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE and Mandriva, which are by far the most popular Linux systems and generally considered easy to handle for the beginning user, while not blocking professionals from getting the most out of their Linux machines. Linux also runs decently on laptops and middle-range servers. Drivers for new hardware are included only after extensive testing, which adds to the stability of a system.

While the standard desktop might be Gnome on one system, another might offer KDE by default. Generally, both Gnome and KDE are available for all major Linux distributions. Other window and desktop managers are available for more advanced users.

The standard installation process allows users to choose between different basic setups, such as a workstation, where all packages needed for everyday use and development are installed, or a server installation, where different network services can be selected. Expert users can install every combination of packages they want during the initial installation process.

The goal of this guide is to apply to all Linux distributions. For your own convenience, however, it is strongly advised that beginners stick to a mainstream distribution, supporting all common hardware and applications by default. The following are very good choices for novices:

Downloadable ISO-images can be obtained from LinuxISO.org. The main distributions can be purchased in any decent computer shop.