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What is Linux?

James Gallagher - January 04, 2021

“What is Linux?” is an incredibly common question, asked not just by code newbies, but by people who just happen to encounter the term in their day-to-day lives.

No wonder this question is so common—Linux is everywhere. From powering the back end of smartphones like the iPhone, to being the architecture upon which smart thermostats are built, Linux can be found all throughout our lives.

But, what is the Linux kernel, and how does it work? In this guide, we answer that question and discuss why Linux is so popular. We also explore why there are so many types of Linux operating systems.

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What is Linux?

Linux is a kernel that powers all the other software on a computer.

An operating system is the core set of software that keeps everything running. An operating system will communicate with the device’s hardware, and provide a series of instructions for that hardware to execute. Without an operating system, the hardware on a computer would not be able to do anything.

Operating systems handle everything, from how your keyboard works to how information and images are displayed on your screen.

But, in order for operating systems to work, they need a kernel. The kernel is the lowest level of the operating system. It manages the hardware used to power the computer.

Although many people think Linux is an operating system, it is actually a kernel. Linux provides the basic functions that allow you to control the CPU, memory, and other parts of a computer. Other developers have used this kernel to build their own operating systems.

Operating systems are essential. Computers are very complex—to work, a wide variety of operations need to come together. Here are a few features of operating systems built upon Linux:

  • Initialization system: This system initializes a computer and prepares it to launch applications.
  • Graphical server: This server allows you to see graphics on your monitor. On Linux devices, the graphical server is called X.
  • Desktop environment: This is the place where users typically interact with a computer. On Linux, graphical servers like Mate, KDE, and GNOME are used to provide a desktop environment.
  • Applications: The Linux operating system includes many different applications that allow you to perform basic functions on your computer. Linux also handles how applications are installed and managed on a computer.

These are only a few of the components of the Linux kernel. Linux is complex—it consists of many different parts, like any operating system.

Who Uses Linux Today?

Now that you know the basics of Linux, you may be asking yourself: who uses Linux?

Well, whether you know about it or not, it’s almost certain that you use Linux on a daily basis. While exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that between one and two thirds of web pages on the Internet are delivered to computers by servers that run Linux.

That’s not all. If you’ve ever used a Raspberry Pi, you have used Linux. Or if you’ve ever owned a “smart” device like a smart light bulb or a smart thermostat, it’s likely that the code powering that device is run on Linux. Smart cars often use Linux, too.

Linux is also the operating system upon which Android phones and tablets are built, as well as other Android-powered devices. Given how many phones are powered by Android, you can imagine just how widespread Linux is.

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Who Created the Linux Operating System?

The Linux operating system was created by Linus Torvalds in 1991. At the time, Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki, and was using an open source operating system called Minix for his work. Minix was primarily used in academic settings, but lacked many of the features Torvalds was looking for.

During the early 1990s, Torvalds proposed a number of changes to the designers of the UNIX OS, upon which Minix was built. However, his suggestions were rejected. This encouraged Torvalds to think about what his ideal operating system would look like—one that was open source, and receptive to changes from programmers.

Linux is “Open Source.” What Does That Mean?

Linux is distributed under an open source license, which is one of the main reasons Linux has become so prominent.

Open source means it can be used by anyone. Anyone can run Linux, for any purpose. Anyone can study how it works or create their own copy. The term “Linux” itself is trademarked by Torvalds, and the source code for the main project is under copyright.

What is a Linux “Distribution?”

Because it is open source, anyone can create their own operating system on top of the Linux kernel. In the programming community, these versions are known as distributions (or “distros”).

Some distributions out there include Debian, Ubunto, Fedora, Raspbian, Linux Mint, and OpenSUSE. Each of these distributions have their own features and desktop working environments, and were created with different principles in mind.

Why Should I Use Linux?

Now that you know the basics of Linux, you may be wondering why you should use an operating system based on Linux.

That’s a great question. One of the main reasons people use Linux is because its kernel is open source, and so anyone with programming knowledge can contribute to the kernel. Not only can you see exactly how the kernel works, but you can also propose changes if you find ways in which the kernel can be improved.

While this may not matter much for the average developer, it does give you a level of customization that you don’t have with other operating systems such as macOS, Windows, and iOS.

In addition, Linux is highly customizable. There are millions of programs and applications you can run on Linux, and there are many distributions you can use. You can create the exact desktop experience you want to have without relying on a company like Microsoft or Amazon.

Today, Linux is commonly used for server environments due to its stability, reliability, and scalability. Among millions of other companies, Oracle, Amazon, Google, IBM, and Dell use Linux in their services,

How Can I Start Using Linux?

There’s a strong chance you already use Linux everyday. However, if you want to try out a Linux-based operating system, there are a few things you can do.

First, choose the operating system you want to run. There are thousands of distributions out there. If you’re just getting started, you may want to use one like Ubunto, Fedora, or Elementary OS, which are widely supported and good for beginners.

Once you’ve chosen the operating system, install it on your computer. If you are not comfortable installing Linux on your main machine—which would involve backing up all your data—you can install it on an older computer or on a device such as a Raspberry Pi .

The Bottom Line

Linux is an open source kernel and the foundation upon which many modern operating systems are built. Android, for example, is built upon Linux.

The Linux kernel makes it easy for a computer to interact with its hardware—the CPU, hard drive and memory, for example—and provides a wide range of crucial system-related functions for operating systems.

Many people call Linux an operating system, but that’s a mistake. It’s actually a kernel that powers many operating systems.

Now that you understand the basics of Linux, you can explore how it works in more depth.

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James Gallagher

About the author: James Gallagher is a self-taught programmer and the technical content manager at Career Karma. He has experience in range of programming languages and extensive expertise in Python, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. James has written hundreds of programming tutorials, and he frequently contributes to publications like Codecademy, Treehouse,, Afrotech, and others.

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