Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Windows user’s guide to Linux

Don’t know your DEB from your RPM? We offer a short guide to Linux for the Windows user.

If you pay any attention to IT at all you’ll have heard of Linux.

[Linux refers to the family of Unix-like computer operating systems using the Linux kernel. Linux can be installed on a wide variety of computer hardware, ranging from mobile phones, tablet computers, routers and video game consoles, to desktop computers, mainframes and supercomputers. Linux is a leading server operating system, and runs the 10 fastest supercomputers in the world.

The development of Linux is one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration; typically all the underlying source code can be used, freely modified, and redistributed, both commercially and non-commercially, by anyone under licenses such as the GNU General Public License. Typically Linux is packaged in a format known as a Linux distribution for desktop and server use. Some popular mainstream Linux distributions include Debian (and its derivatives such as Ubuntu), Fedora and openSUSE. Linux distributions include the Linux kernel, supporting utilities and libraries and usually a large amount of application software to fulfill the distribution's intended use. ]

You’ll probably also have heard from the some that Linux is complicated, ugly and incomplete. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Linux is now a full-fledged member of the operating system club and can do just about anything that any other OS can do and, in many cases, do a lot more than many other OSes can do.

So, if you’ve ever considered giving Linux a try then now is the time. Here are a few tips to get you smoothly onto the Linux road.


This is your first step. Linux is not homogeneous like Windows or OS X. Linux comes in a range of different versions, called “distributions”. The majority of the underlying code in each of these distributions is the same with most of the differences being in the interface and some of the management tools. Choosing the right distribution can be tricky, especially as there are literally hundreds of versions of Linux available. Fortunately most of those you can forget about, for now. What you need is an easy to use version of Linux, which leaves you with a short-list of Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuse, Mandriva and Linux Mint. Picking one of these will make you life easier as they are all easy to install and pretty simple to maintain.

Desktop Environment

Again, unlike Windows or Mac OS X,

[ Microsoft Windows is a series of operating systems produced by Microsoft. Microsoft introduced an operating environment named Windows on November 20, 1985 as an add-on to MS-DOS in response to the growing interest in graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Microsoft Windows came to dominate the world's personal computer market, overtaking Mac OS, which had been introduced in 1984. As of October 2009, Windows had approximately 90% of the market share of the client operating systems for usage on the Internet. The most recent client version of Windows is Windows 7; the most recent server version is Windows Server 2008 R2; the most recent mobile version is Windows Phone 7.]

[Mac OS X is a series of Unix-based operating systems and graphical user interfaces developed, marketed, and sold by Apple Inc. Since 2002, Mac OS X has been included with all new Macintosh computer systems. It is the successor to Mac OS 9, released in 1999, the final release of the "classic" Mac OS, which had been Apple's primary operating system since 1984.
Mac OS X, whose X is the Roman numeral for 10 and is a prominent part of its brand identity, is a Unix-based graphical operating system,[8] built on technologies developed at NeXT between the second half of the 1980s and Apple's purchase of the company in late 1996. From its sixth release, Mac OS X v10.5 "Leopard" and onward, every release of Mac OS X gained UNIX 03 certification while running on Intel processors.]

Linux is not limited to just one desktop interface. There are dozens of different interfaces available, each with their own unique capabilities and drawbacks. Much like choosing a distribution, most of them can be ignored, for now. Whichever distribution you choose to install will include its own default desktop interface. In most cases it will be either KDE or Gnome. In Ubuntu’s case it will be its own Unity. The beauty in this process is that if you don’t like the interface you have then you can easily swap to another one.


This is worth mentioning because one of the great contributions of Linux to the world is the idea of LiveCDs. Most versions of Linux have a LiveCD available which can be downloaded and used to test the OS before installing. Some even run from a USB drive which makes it even easier. With a LiveCD the entire OS is run from the CD without touching your hard drive and is a great way to test if you like the OS before installing it. In most cases the LiveCD doubles as the installer as well.


Linux applications are shipped in various formats. What’s important to remember here is that not all packaged applications will install on every version of Linux. Sounds complicated but it’s not really that difficult, especially as now most Linux versions have their own repositories which contain all the applications in the right format for that distribution. You may occasionally come across applications on the internet that you want to install and then you’ll have to choose the right version to download. Ubuntu, for example, uses .deb files which is among the most popular of the formats. Fedora on the other hand uses RPM. Fortunately all major distributions include an application manager that worries about all of this for you.

Windows applications

Perhaps the biggest challenge when moving to Linux is getting used to living without your Windows applications. Fortunately there are multiple ways around this. The easiest way is to install Linux alongside your Windows installation. This dual-boot approach means you can switch between Windows and Linux when you need to. The downside is that you have to log-off one OS to use the other. The other approach is to install something like VirtualBox which is a fantastic piece of virtualisation software. Using VBox you can install a copy of Windows, or Linux, on top of your main OS. You can then simply open your VBox window when you want to use your second OS without needing to log off the first. The downside is that it’s not entirely painless to get the two working in harmony but it’s also not impossible. The third option is to investigate Wine. Wine is a Windows compatibility layer that makes it possible to run many Windows applications directly on Linux. Not all applications are supported but most major ones are.


Although there are many ways to mimic Windows on Linux it does sort of defeat the point of trying Linux in the first place. Especially as there are many fantastic native Linux applications already available. The Linux Alternative project is just one of many lists of applications for Linux that can be use to replace Windows ones. Applications such as, Gimp and Inkscape are not only suitable alternatives to many Windows applications but in some cases are even better that the originals.

With Linux improving at a rapid rate it’s now easier than ever to use, so there is no better time to give Linux a try.