What You Can Expect From a Linux Distribution

Posted on 2011/01/09. Filed under: Computing General, Linux General, Operating Systems, Uncategorized |

There are some things that you can expect with a new installation of a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu or Fedora that you would not get with an OS such as Windows 7 or OS /X.

Free of Cost

The OS is without cost for the operating system or the applications that run on it. Free does not mean poorly written. Most developers work for major companies in IT and computer related work. Many are paid to work on Linux on company time and the rest do it because they are users too. They want something that they or their company would like to use. They like the collaborative atmosphere and are excited about what they do. It is not just a job for them.

Freedom

The OS can be given away, changed or even sold provided that you abide by the conditions of the GPL. Anyone can fork any distribution and can build on the work of others. Every distribution is standing on the shoulders of giants who pioneered Linux and made it what it is today. It is part of what makes Linux unique. That is why we have well over 300 distributions. There is rivalry among the distributions but they are held loosely together by a bond of respect for free and open software.

Applications

When you install most distributions you get with it most of the applications that many people would expect to run. You should get a web browser, email client, instant messenger, music manager, photo editor and manager, office suite and plus all of the applications needed to manage the distribution. You do not need to download applications from web sites or search for them online. They are found in an application called a package manager that displays the applications in a menu with a description of each.  They are stored securely in locations maintained by the distribution called repositories. The package manager takes care of downloading the application, checking dependencies,  installing the application, creating an icon in the menu and removing the application and its dependencies if that is your choice. Many applications are high quality and compare favourably with ones that you would pay for.

Control

The operating system allows you to control updates including the interval and frequency. It never forces you to re-boot after an update. At most it will advise you that an update is available and that a re-boot will allow you to take advantage of that change. It will never nag you to re-boot. You can safely run a Linux computer for months or years without re-booting.

If you are a power user then you can edit many of the settings and take full control of the OS. If you are inclined to you can even build your own distribution from scratch or use a distribution that is intended to be built like a do it yourself kit.

Choice

Linux is all about having choice. That starts with a choice of over 300 distributions. However, choice is not limited to that. Many distributions come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, desktop and server editions, and versions for different architectures. Once installed you have a choice of several desktop environments, window managers, compositors and window decorators. Some distributions have over 35000 packages in their repositories. Choice is seemingly endless and it may boggle the mind of new users, but Linux veterans would not have it any other way.

Drivers Included

In many other OSes you need to insert a driver disk for the hardware to work. In Linux this is the last resort. For the most part drivers are installed automatically or selected from a list supplied with the distribution. Given that many OEMs do not support Linux directly it is surprising to most users that most hardware works out of the box. Sadly people seem to remember the old days when most hardware did not work. It is hard to lose an image once it is established. Today’s Linux is compatible with most hardware.

Confidence and security

Security is built in. There is no need for antivirus or anti malware applications. Some people choose to run AV software in Linux out of courtesy to Windows users in order not to spread viruses to friends and colleagues who use that operating system. There are very few Linux viruses and those that do exist do not propagate if the user follows established Linux protocols. At first it will seem like an annoyance when you are prompted for passwords, but they suddenly it reaches a point where you decide that the OS has your back covered and you see it as a benefit. You can have confidence that applications are virus free and work as advertised because they are in maintained secure repositories by developers or people trained in package management. Data loss is rare because file systems are journalled and robust. You have to be very disorganised and actually go out of your way to mess things up. It can happen, but it is rare. For that reason Linux file systems are trusted on servers for many of the largest corporations in the world. It is the backbone of the internet. Many people use them without realising that Linux is behind it all.

Low maintenance

There is no need to defragment the hard drive or registry. The file system allows for file growth and works silently in the background to keep it efficient. There is no registry to corrupt or maintain. Uniformity of package management means that applications aren’t messing up your system because developers are all working from the same set of rules and protocols. When you install something it never makes an icon on the desktop or tries to run from the system tray. Icons are added to pre-determined groups. It never creates its own group in your menu and the menu does not usually need to be cleaned up manually.

Free and timely upgrades and patches

There are vulnerabilities in any operating system, including Linux. Because Linux is open there is transparency and collaboration. Vulnerabilities are discovered quickly and patched often the same day. There is no denial as the existence of a problem, blaming the user or waiting for patch Tuesdays. When the OS is upgraded to a new version you can upgrade for free. Many distributions have a new version every six months. Some are constantly being renewed in what is called a rolling release.

Power

Power users can geek out all they want. They can compile source code and run from the commandline as they choose. That does not mean that everyday users need to do it as well. Most distributions can be run from the GUI from installation to every day use. The commandline is not to be feared, but it can be avoided entirely for those who choose. It is there as a reminder that the GUI sits on top of a powerful OS and if you know the right commands and how the operating system works then you have more control and way more fun.

Save time

Linux takes less time to install, maintain and it usually boots faster than competing operating systems. In addition you do not lose productivity by having to re-boot and wait for updates to finish installing. In Linux updates take place in the background while you keep working and it you can keep working as long as you want before you decide to re-boot. Some updates will only take affect after you re-boot, but updating will not limit your use of the computer in the meantime.

Easier on the environment

When many users might be tempted to buy an new computer, Linux users can just switch to a lighter desktop environment or switch to distribution that is low on resources. That way you can use the same computer for years longer and not get caught up in the need to upgrade.

Community

I alluded to this briefly, but it is worth separating out. GNU/ Linux is not just an operating system. It is a community and within it there are sub communities. Linux users tend to congregate together to discuss, problem solve, collaborate, and humour one another along. Linux has developed with the community. Some distributions are more community driven than others, but all have community in common. Some communities transcend the differences between distributions and others are peculiar to a distro. There are developer communities and user communities and places where they meet. You can develop your skills by getting involved in the community because Linux users love to mentor and strengthen whatever they are working on. By joining an IRC channel for example you could find yourself talking directly to the developer of an application that you use every day. They are interested in hearing from you and helping you. Many package managers start out in IRC as newbies and are helped along, until soon they are mentoring others. Not many users start out as experts. We all learn to walk before we can run.

Downside of Linux

Not everything is perfect in Linux. We need improvements and it is up to the community to test and give feedback to developers. They also need your financial support. Many developers accept donations to help pay for servers and the on going cost of making their work available to us. Also you can help spread the word as Linux has no advertising budget. It is spread by word of mouth. Linux users can appear to be evangelists because they know that this is the only way to get the word out. You will have to forgive them if they seem to be inordinately enthusiastic at times. If you know more than one language you can translate or if you are good at just one you can help with documentation. There are many ways to get involved and along the way you will learn much about community. Linux relies on its community and you will quickly find that this is part of the appeal.

Linux has some shortcomings. Games and commercial applications are few. That is changing slowly. The biggest impediment is not technical. Linux could run Photoshop or World or Warcraft if the developers wanted it to run on Linux. Usage is on the increase particularly in Europe and Asia but the commercial market is not developed. Once the demand is enough then commercial vendors should respond and Linux users have been willing to pay for games and good software.  The other big issue is that unlike Macs and Windows PCs, Linux does not come pre-installed. The user has to take the initiative and decide that they want an alternative.

Many of the things that at first seem to be negatives are actually positives. Linux is different. It is meant to be. The key to being successful is to forget most of what you know and embrace the way Linux does things. A second key is to manage your expectations. Separate the hype from meeting your actual needs. If you really want powerhouse or hyped applications such as Photoshop or iTunes, then perhaps Linux is not for you or at the very least you are a good candidate for dual booting or virtualisation.

While the community is an asset, it can also be an impediment. Some distributions tend to attract purists and they can be a turn off. There is only one way for them and if you don’t accept that then you can be told to take a hike. However, many distributions welcome newbies and are genuine in their interest in helping you. If you encounter the wrong type of Linux user then try to remember that it takes all kinds.

Note: Linux is not an operating system strictly speaking, but I have used is generically that way rather than specifying specific distributions which more correctly are operating systems. Linux refers to the kernel. The operating system includes the Linux kernel, GNU libraries and various parts added by specific distributions to enable the user to interact with the computer. I am just trying to keep it simple.


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