Penguins and Buffalos - An Introduction to GNU and Linux

from the February 2002 Newsletter

by John Anderson

Thanks, John, for your article. John Anderson works on the Actrix help desk, and hopes to contribute articles to the newsletter over the next few months. -Ed.

"Have you seen it? Free software isn't simply a pastime for programmers, its a productive contributor to people and businesses all over the world. From ornamental ribbon makers, to scientific researchers, free software aids hundreds of thousands of people in their everyday work. Its development continues at blazing speed to fill the insatiable needs of users in all types of applications." - Free Software Foundation (www.gnu.org)

"Some people have told me they don't think a fat penguin really embodies the grace of Linux, which just tells me they have never seen a angry penguin charging at them in excess of 100mph. They'd be a lot more careful about what they say if they had." - Linus Torvalds (www.linux.org)

If you have any questions about this article, please e-mail me on janderson@actrix.co.nz.

Last month we talked about "open source" and what it means. To recap, "open source" is where the code of a program is available for all to see, this means that many eyes can check the work that has been done, meaning that software is more reliable and stable, and often develops more quickly than in a closed development.

While Windows remains the most popular operating system, due to shrewd and aggressive Microsoft marketing, the purpose of this month's article is to introduce an alternative to Windows - GNU/Linux. This combination is one of several other alternatives, but we've all got to start somewhere, right?

The name GNU/Linux may not be immediately recognisable to you. The story of GNU/Linux really starts with GNU. GNU and the Free Software Foundation were founded by Richard Stallman in the mid 80s. Stallman had been involved in Operating System development during the 70s, and had enjoyed the spirit of sharing and community that generally characterised the period. Software was often shared between various development groups, both academic and commercial. However increasingly software was becoming proprietary (claimed and copyrighted). This meant that often software users were at the mercy of the vendors for upgrades and fixes, because the source code was unavailable to users. Unix was an operating system that began its life as a project in Bell Labs. The purpose of this operating system was to write it in code that was re-useable and had an elegant design. Unfortunately, Unix itself was also proprietary, so Stallman decided "to develop a complete Unix-like operating system which is free software". For Stallman the phrase "free software" did not relate to price, but freedom. He laid out this ideas in his definition of the term.

You have the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
You have the freedom to modify the program to suit your needs.
You have the freedom to redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee.
You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.

Interestingly, the curious term "GNU" means "GNU's not Unix," but anyway, GNU grew from what Stallman started to include many other people who contributed openly to the project. By the early 90s the Free Software Foundation had put together the whole system aside from the kernel. The kernel is the core of the operating system which provides the essential services required to run other programs and the computer's memory and storage. Essentially it is the living, beating heart of the system. As mentioned previously in the article, GNU was to be a complete system for running a computer. Work had been done on the HURD kernel, which proved to be more difficult to implement than first thought when work began. In fact it is only now that the HURD is available for some hardware.

It was at this point that Linux enters from stage right. Linus Torvalds began work on creating a Unix-like kernel in 1991. Torvalds opened the project up to the widest possible group of participants - the entire Internet. This project took until the mid 90s when Linux 1.0 was released.

It is over this time that GNU and Linux formed into what now should be called GNU/Linux. As an operating system it offers everything most users would want from a Microsoft based system. The installation and maintenance of the software that can be used on GNU/Linux is improving in user friendliness all the time. The state of GNU/Linux today is that it clearly has found a place in the business environment for running cheap and reliable servers. The desktop environment, like what you're using at the moment, is also improving all the time.

Still, to start using Linux right now takes time. There are concepts which are often new to users of other operating systems and with freedom comes responsibility. I believe, though, that the additional time and effort it takes to get to know GNU/Linux is worth it. This will get easier in time, although already easy to use systems have been developed like this one:

www.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=02/01/10/1922249.

Often it is best to start on an old 486 or Pentium computer. You can also set up a computer to dual boot both GNU/Linux and other systems. In my opinion the power of GNU/Linux systems seems always to have been their flexibility. However the downfall for some can be the apparent complexity that comes with this. Over the next few articles I will introduce some of these ideas and then work towards how to install your own GNU/Linux system.

I hope the concepts of "free software" and "open source" are now introduced. If you want to experience the concepts come to life then try the web browser Mozilla (www.mozilla.com) and the free software program called gnuChess (www.gnu.org/software/chess/chess.html). If you want to cut loose and just try it, I suggest the Debian Distribution of GNU/Linux as it is easy to install and has good documentation. You can find out more about it at the Debian site (www.debian.org).