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Linux - An Alternative Operating System

An Experiment with Linux
Several years ago I became interested in an alternative operating system to that of Apple's OS X. The operating system is "Linux", and unlike systems made by Apple or Microsoft, it is a community driven project which is offered free to anyone who wishes to use it. Linux was first released in 1991 in an attempt to produce a free Unix like OS that would run on a regular PC. Astonishingly the Linux operating system is today running 95% of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers! Ubuntu, one of the leading versions of Linux recently topped UK government security assessment, beating ten other consumer operating systems in their tests.

Linux can never be owned and sold commercially as is Apple OS X or Microsoft Windows. Linux is provided under the conditions set by the GNU General Public License. The GNU 'GPL' guarantees the end user (individuals, organisations, companies) the freedoms to use, study, share (copy), modify, repackage and redistribute the software as long as the modified code is shared back into the community accompanied by the GPL. And so it goes. A version of Linux you choose can be downloaded at any time from the Internet and installed on any machine, for free and without any catches.

As a consequence of these freedoms, many different versions or 'distributions' of Linux have emerged. This can be confusing, especially for beginners but it is worth sticking with. Distributions vary in flexibility and scalability. On one hand a simple and compact version may be required, such as the "Raspian" distro used by the tiny "Raspberry Pi" computer, which is very popular in education. The Raspberry Pi doesn't have a hard disk, so the system and all the software comes on an SD card, similar to what you find in a digital camera. On the other hand, a powerful, industrial strength distribution such as Red Hat Linux, could be used by a data centre server. Red Hat, although still free is usually supplied together with a commercially based technical support package. Search for popular Linux distributions on Google and you'll be overwhelmed by what is available. My experience of Linux is limited by the amount of research time I have available so I cannot go into depth studying and comparing many distributions. I do however have sufficient experience to recommend 'Ubuntu', 'Xubuntu' and 'Linux Mint'. As an Apple centred business my favourite is Xubuntu 15.04 which "straight out of the box" is easy to use, very stable and connects seamlessly with all my other systems.

Ubuntu Down
Mint Down

Why Choose Linux?
Behind the face of Mac OS X sits a core Unix operating system called Darwin. Darwin is itself a development of another UNIX version called BSD. The original objective of the creators of Linux was to build a "Unix like" operating system. So it follows that OSX and Linux have some strong similarities. It was on account of my curiosity about this relationship I first investigated Linux.

I began using Ubuntu version 8.04 (2008) and I was immediately surprised by it's speed and efficiency, particularly noticeable when running on older PCs that had difficulty running more recent versions of Windows. Realising this, I began advising owners of old PCs that by converting from Windows to Linux they could breath new life into their machines. In 2008 Linux was becoming a usable system for the everyday person. Linux may have lacked some of the familiar applications associated with Windows or Macs but by making a few adjustments one could quickly become used to the new environment. These are still good reasons for considering a switch to Linux but today the offerings are streaks better. Distributions such as Ubuntu 14.04 and Linux Mint 17 are competing head to head with Apple and Microsoft.

Irrational Fears
Despite my enthusiasm I must confess I've had limited success persuading other people to switch to Linux. Most people I deal with remain wary, thinking it might be either too difficult to understand, or figure that in their confusion, they might lose their important data. So instead they stick with whatever devil they know best, even if that devil is famously prone to security breaches and plagued by viruses. I reckon one of the hardest things to swallow is the bit about it being FREE. The word 'free' in relation to a product, is often perceived negatively - "You get what you pay for" is how we're conditioned. Free Software and Open Source are terms widely misunderstood.

To quote the GNU website - "Free software" is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer." Go here for a complete explanation.

The examples I gave at the top of this page verify that Linux is hugely powerful and safe, it is trusted throughout industry, commerce and Universities. If it's good enough for these guys it's very possibly good enough for you too.

There is a version of Linux out there that will run on the computer you are using now, although, as I have discovered there is diminishing support for the PowerPC. Whatever your machine, download the software with a broadband connection, burn it to a CD or memory stick and it's ready to install. If you require help there is a wealth of advice waiting online. If you don't want to install immediately you can boot up and try the OS directly from the CD, without risk of any permanent change to your machine. As a matter of fact I began by running a copy of Ubuntu Linux on a iMac from within an OS virtualisation software called Virtual Box.

Linux On Imac
Ubuntu running on a 24" iMac, with the GIMP Image Editor and Firefox Browser open.

Watch a YouTube clip explaining some more about GNU/Linux


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