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The newbie's guide to Linux

Posted: 17 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Linux? open source OS? operating system?

Love it, hate it, heard lots about it, but still don't have enough of a handle to form a firm opinion? Then we must be talking about Linux, the open-source OS that's alluring because it's heavy duty and it's free. Simultaneously, it's intimidating to newbies because it's typically more difficult to install and configure than Windows.

If you plan on giving the open-source OS a whirl, but, like the Georgia bride-to-be, got cold feet at the last minute, we've ferreted out six useful facts that'll ease your path when you decide to take the plunge.

1) How many versions of Linux are there?
Lots. At least 350, according to the list maintained by the enthusiast site The site skews toward smaller distributions, with current flavor of the month Ubuntu listed as the most popular among the site's readers. Ubuntu has gained traction recently, garnering an endorsement from Sun Microsystems chief executive Jonathan Schwartz.

Ubuntu also appears to be gaining legitimacy via heavy grass-roots support. User-spawned Web resources include a blog devoted to the distro, a quick-start guide for dummies and a more advanced (how to install anything!) manual. (However, as What PC? points out, despite its funky name, Ubuntu is not noticeably simpler to get going than any other implementation of the OS.)

Ubuntu has a great back story: Its development was funded by South African Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth as an outgrowth of his efforts to offer improved educational opportunities to his nation's young people.

Another distribution much in demand is SUSE, available for free under the program sponsored by Novell or in a for-pay version that comes with end-user support from Novell. Originally developed by German vendor SUSE Linux, the software has been heavily marketed to enterprise users ever since SUSE was acquired by Novell in 2004. Since that time, Novell has positioned itself as the main alternative to Red Hat, which is widely considered to be the leader in the enterprise Linux market. (In that regard, Novell CEO Jack Messman predicts that his company will emerge as one of the two dominant corporate suppliers of Linux, alongside Red Hat, as the market for paid open-source shakes out over the next two to five years.)

Other popular distros include Mandriva, Debian, and Fedora. (The latter is a free offering spun out of Red Hat. Don't forget Slackware, Knoppix, Gentoo Mepis, and others too numerous to mention.)

For those disinclined to deal with challenging installs, the easiest path may be Linspire. The eponymous company was founded by billionaire Michael Robertson, who made his money with the early Internet download service Robertson has positioned Linspire as consumer-friendly Windows alternative that costs a lot lessit's $50and is bundled with many drivers and a bunch of applications.

2) What applications are available for Linux? And what the heck is LAMP?
The open-source app that gave Linux PCs a raison d'etreand the one you need to set yourself up with if you expect to do anything usefulis

Based on Sun's StarOffice, is a suite that's positioned as a free alternative to Microsoft Office (indeed, a Windows version is available). It's outfitted with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation (i.e, Powerpoint-style slides), and graphics programs. OpenOffice comes bundled with many Linux distros, including those from Red Hat and Novell. For roll-your-own types, some CD-ROM versions are available, but the easiest route is to just download the software.

While OpenOffice is the single most important Linux productivity package extant, the rap on the suite is that it has lingering issues regarding compatibility with MS Office file formats.

Other free, though far less popular, Linux office suites are GNOME Office and KOffice.

For the Web browser, Mozilla's Firefox and its companion Thunderbird e-mail client are a safeand goodchoice. They're even available on CD (for $6). Konqueror is another popular browser that's bundled with many distros.

The LAMP acronym that's kicked around so often refers to a "stack" of packages. Along with Linux, LAMP encompasses the Apache Web server and the MySQL database. The "P" is variously taken to refer to the PHP, Perl, or Python scripting languages. However, with the exception of the OS itself (and possibly MySQL), all those programs are of interest to developers, not average desktop users.

3) How can I listen to some tunes?
For many home users, once you get past word processing, the most important app is a music player. RealPlayer, famous for burrowing its way deep into Windows systems, is one of the few major players to offer a version for Linux. (It would hardly be fair to expect the same for programs named Windows Media Player and Winamp, though an open-source clone of the former is in the works.)

The Linux RealPlayer is based on the open-source Helix player, which offers downloads here. (However, since the Helix page also points to the Linux RealPlayer, it's easiest just to get that.) Another free player is amaroK from the KDE group.

Where to go to buy music is a tougher question. Neither iTunes, Yahoo Music nor Urge run under Linux. As for Rhapsody, users can get a subset of the service (basically, online music playing) but you can't buy songs online and you can't install the full version of Rhapsody on a Linux box. Most vexing is that, without persistent searching, it's hard to figure out precisely which pieces of the service work and which don't. A Rhapsody customer service answer attempts to explain; so does this Newsforge article.

One of the few operations that is set up to run under Linux is, the 88-cent-per-song online music store set up by the aforementioned Michael Robertson. If you're into artists off the beaten path, another service, called Mindawn, may be for you. While Mindawn doesn't have much music you've heard of, it does eschew DRM and offers its downloads in the FLAC format favored by PC audiophiles in the know.

Folks who store MP3s on their PCs are also often in charge of the family's digital photos. For them, there's word that Google's Picasa image management and sharing software has just been released on Linux.

4) What "desktop" environment should I use with my distro?
It's important to understand that when Linux people say "desktop," they don't mean your desktop. They're talking about your computer's user interface (UI). Given Linux's historical do-it-yourself culture, it's not surprising that the open-source UI was originally a separate element from the basic operating system. Today, nearly all distros come already packaged with one or both of the two main desktop environments for Linux: Gnome or KDE.

Conceptually, the desktops descended from the X Window system, a 1980s-era GUI from the Unix world.

At their current advanced stage of development, the differences between Gnome and KDE may be more political than technical. KDE is typically said to have more Windows-like bells and whistles, while Gnome is said to run faster. (Here's one user's perspective.)

Gnome benefits from its association with the Linux GNU Project, founded in 1984 by free-software advocate Richard Stallman. KDE, short for the K Desktop Environment, is considered a good choice for beginners.

Here's a list of distros that ship with KDE. Gnome is cagier and doesn't seem to provide a consolidated list. Many Linux distributions allow you to choose either one. That's the case for major Linux vendors Red Hat and Novell, even though both are members of the Gnome Foundation. Some distros do skew toward a single desktop. For example, Ubuntu ships with Gnome; Slackware packages KDE.

5) Linux on the server, Linux on the desktopwhich is it?
Honestly? The server. Linux on the desktop hasn't taken off to the extent its adherents had hoped for. Perhaps it never will, according to noted analyst Rob Enderle, who told ComputerWorld that it's hard to out-compete Microsoft.

According to most authoritative estimates, Linux usage on the desktop hovers beneath 3 percent of all PCs.

However, that hasn't dimmed the expectations of the faithful, who predict wider desktop adoption is imminent. (Here are some presentations from the recent Desktop Linux Summit, which puts some technical meat on the bones of that optimism.)

Apart from the fact that most vendors can make more money with Windows, there are two major reasons more users haven't been convinced to take the Linux plunge. Most importantly, Windows is a one-stop operating system in a box. It ships complete with nearly all the drivers any user could every need, and can be up and running with several mouse clicks, a half-hour wait, and the entry of an annoying license code (which then has to be verified again online within 30 days to prove you didn't steal the thing).

However, for all its "free-ness," installing Linux usually requires more tweaking than most workaday PC users can handle. More of a stumbling block is the fact that drivers in the Linux world still aren't as widely available, nor are they as plug-and-play as their Windows counterparts. However, that situation continues to improve, which in turn accounts for the continued optimism of Linux pundits, who mostly believe that, as the driver and application-availability issues dissipate, users will come.

Perhaps surprisingly, Linux is seriously gearing up in one arena that usually escapes the attention of computer users. That's in the embedded sphere, where Linux is being used to power everything from smart phones to digital video recorders.

"The most visible example of Linux design wins in this area is TiVo and a range of television and video devices from Sony," said Bill Weinberg, senior technology analyst at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in Beaverton, Ore.

Linux is appearing on some surprisingly diverse embedded platforms. For example, Sony's upcoming Playstation 3 will run Linux, in an apparent bid to encourage youthful developers to create games for its console.

Linux is also firmly entrenched as the operating system for point-of-sale terminals (aka cash registers). And here's a lightweight Linux computer for the wrist.

6) You've given me lots of facts, but not much advice. How do I get started?
One pain-free way to go (OK, it'll set you back $16, plus shipping) is by reading Test Driving Linux. The book, by David Brickner, includes a CD that allows you to boot Linux on a Windows computer without destroying the Windows install. On the downside, the book's Linux is, like the title says, a "test drive" that runs only off the CD; it won't permanently install the OS to your hard drive. (A further caveat is the CD is a bit fussy; it won't run if you can't get your PC to boot first from the CD drive. It didn't like my old Compaq desktop, for reasons unexplained, but it ran like a champ on an HP Pavilion laptop.)

If you're ready to give Linux a more permanent whirl, go back to Question 1, above, or to this list of distros. (The Wikipedia offers a "Which distro is right for you?" quiz.)

Alas, picking a distribution is easy compared to getting hold of the actual install. Parsing even the simplest Web page offering a free download of Linux is a major pain. The most effective way to download is to grab an ISO image, which is a file that you can burn directly onto a CD-ROM; most disk-authoring programs have an option to handle this. An ISO image to create an Ubuntu install CD is here. Scroll down almost to the bottom of this page and you can get an ISO image of an OpenSUSE boot CD. ISO images for 14 other distros, including Knoppix, Red Hat, Fedora, FreeBSD, and Slackware, are available here. (Many require multiple CDs.)

You can download an evaluation copy of Novell Linux Desktop 9 here.

If you want to avoid the download dance entirely, you can always spring for hard media, though disks are surprisingly difficult to find. A Debian distro is on CD for $10, here. The easiest route is to stop in at LinuxWorld Expo, where a spin through the show floor will net you dozens of free CD-ROMs.

When you're ready to do your install, the most important piece of advice I can provideand one that you're unlikely to read upfront in most tutorialsis DON'T install Linux on the same hard drive on which your copy of Windows XP resides. Why? Because Windows is notoriously fussy about living alongside another OS. It might decide not to work. Plus, you risk erasing Windows entirely if your Linux CD engages in a session of drive formatting gone wild.

Better to dig up a second hard drive, and unplug the drive containing Windows for the duration of your Linux experiment (and, conversely, unplug the Linux drive when you're ready to return to Windows). Of course, if you're firing up Linux on an old machine that comes to you without an OS, this warning doesn't apply.

The other suggestion for prospective new users is to connect with others who are in the process of dipping their toes in the Linux waters. That's not as easy as it sounds. For some reason, Linux experts often can't seem to help themselves from adopting a schoolmarmish tone.

Of course, if you knew which darn distro to use, you wouldn't be trolling a newbie forum, would you?

- Alexander Wolfe

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