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What Is Linux? An Operating System, Software, Program, and More

Linux is an open source operating system that is widely used as an alternative to Windows and macOS. Learn about Linux features, how it works, and more.

Table of Contents

1. Why Should I Use Linux?

2. How Does Linux Work?

3. Who Uses Linux?

4. FAQs

Linux is an open source operating system that can be run on PCs, desktops, and network servers. It is often used as an alternative to operating systems such as Windows and macOS.

Why Should I Use Linux?

An organization might run Linux for many reasons. Several of the more compelling reasons include the following.

1. Linux can be user-friendly

Although Linux has a longstanding reputation for being difficult to use, that tends not to be the case for Linux desktop operating systems. Linux desktops are almost always equipped with a point-and-click graphical user interface (GUI) that functions similarly to other desktop operating systems. As such, even first-time Linux users can navigate the operating system with relative ease.

2. Linux is secure

Linux is widely regarded as an extremely secure operating system. In fact, Linux tends to suffer fewer malware infections than competing operating systems.

The Linux kernel includes numerous security mechanisms such as UEFI secure boot support and a packet filter. Perhaps more importantly, Linux is based on open source code, which means that anyone can examine the operating system’s source code. When vulnerabilities are found in the code, they can be quickly resolved.

3. Linux is lightweight

Linux deployments vary in size based on the distribution and the use case. Generally, however, Linux servers tend to avoid running any unnecessary code, thereby making the operating system lightweight.

4. Linux is flexible

Linux is an extremely flexible operating system. Those that deploy Linux can choose from a variety of distributions, each with its unique way of doing things. Additionally, Linux can perform a countless variety of roles. Linux servers, for example, can act as file servers, web servers, database servers, virtualization hosts, container hosts, DHCP servers, and the list goes on and on. Likewise, Linux is often used as an embedded operating system on IoT devices simply because the operating system is so versatile and flexible and can be configured to match a device’s exact needs.

5. You can use Linux from the command line or GUI

Linux servers tend to be command line-only environments, much like Windows servers that run a Server Core configuration. While it is possible to manage a Linux server solely from the command prompt, any number of graphics-base utilities can make management easier.

In contrast, Linux desktops are almost always equipped with a GUI. Users can run desktop applications that are similar in appearance to those used on Windows and Mac computers. It is worth noting, however, that applications must be compiled to run on a given Linux distribution. Linux desktops cannot natively run Windows applications, although third-party tools such as Wine enable some Windows applications to run on a Linux desktop.

6. Linux is open source

Linux is an open source operating system, meaning that the source code for the operating system and most applications is readily available to anyone to inspect or even modify. Additionally, many Linux distributions are available for free.

How Does Linux Work?

If an organization wants to use Linux, they need only to download and install a Linux distribution. Many of these distributions are free, but some, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux, come at a cost.

It is worth noting that Windows 10 and 11 desktops support a feature known as the Windows Subsystem for Linux that allows the installation of a Linux distribution on top of Windows. It can be used to run a command line or GUI-based Linux environment alongside Windows without the need for dual booting.

Additionally, Windows users can run a Linux distribution inside of a Hyper-V virtual machine. Windows 10 and 11 Hyper-V include a Quick Create feature that simplifies the process of deploying an Ubuntu virtual machine.

Who Uses Linux?

At one time, Linux was a very niche operating system, used primarily by IT pros and hobbyists who wanted an alternative to Windows. Over time, Linux matured into a mainstream OS that runs on desktops, laptops, and network servers. Additionally, Linux is often the operating system of choice for IoT devices, though some IoT devices run Windows IoT Enterprise. There are even some smartphones that run Linux (e.g., Ubuntu Touch) as an alternative to conventional mobile operating systems such as Android and iOS.

Just as various platforms support Linux, virtually all industries tend to use Linux. Organizations that frequently use Linux include software companies, manufacturing facilities, data centers, and cloud computing providers.

While it is true that many data center servers continue to run competing operating systems such as Windows Server, Linux is often preferred for its hardened kernel, simple licensing, and small footprint. Some types of workloads are better suited to running on a Linux platform. For example, containers were originally intended for use on Linux servers. While Windows Server does support container use, organizations that run containers in their data centers tend to use Linux.


Who created Linux?

Linux was created by Linus Torvalds in conjunction with the Free Software Foundation.

What is the history of Linux?

Linux can trace its origins to the GNU project, which started in 1983. That project sought to create an operating system like UNIX. While that project never gained mainstream popularity, it succeeded in developing many of the foundational components used today.

Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel in 1991 at the age of 21. Torvalds soon realized, however, that the kernel alone was of limited usefulness. Making the Linux kernel useful required several GNU tools. In 1992, Linux was integrated with various GNU components to form the first Linux operating system. Since that time, many Linux distributions have been created, all of which can trace their roots to the original 1992 release.

What is the difference between Linux and other operating systems?

Although Linux does have some similarities to other operating systems, Linux’s main differentiators include that it is free and open source (although commercial distributions are common). Anyone can download and use Linux for free. Likewise, developers can create their own Linux distributions.

What are the different distributions of Linux?

There are many Linux distributions in use today. Some of the most popular distributions include the following:

  • Ubuntu
  • Red Hat
  • Debian
  • CentOS
  • Fedora

What are the different desktop environments for Linux?

Unlike other operating systems, Linux users can choose from various desktop environments.

A desktop environment is what controls the look and feel of the Linux desktop. Whereas all Windows 11 deployments look more or less the same, Linux desktop deployments can have many different appearances based on the desktop environment used.

Some of the most popular Linux desktop environments include:

  • KDE
  • Deepin
  • Mate
  • Cinnamon
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