definition, explanations on the Linux kernel

In the world of micro-computing, Microsoft Windows has dominated the operating system market almost forever, so to speak. However, if we take into account all the computers on the planet, including servers, supercomputers, nano-computers and all the rest of the bestiary animating this ecosystem, this statistic is far from being so obvious and clear-cut, even if it is very difficult to have precise figures. Among the alternative systems to Windows, there are some, based on Linux, which are used extensively to run computer servers, among others.

Tux, the Linux kernel mascot. (c) Larry Ewing

Linux is not an operating system.

Before explaining what Linux is, it is worth remembering what an operating system is. Very schematically, it is a set of software working together to make a computer work, allow it to interact with its user (s), and to manipulate data. Many people confuse Linux with the operating system, when they are two different things.

Linux is a kernel.

It is an essential component of an operating system, but it is not sufficient to run a computer.

It is the heart of the system.

Indeed, it is the kernel that takes charge of all the hardware components that make up a computer: the processor, RAM, persistent memory, components managing the display, input devices such as the keyboard or the mouse, the network card are some examples.

He’s the conductor.

As it manages the hardware components, it is its responsibility to distribute the resources to the various programs running on the computer. When a program requests memory, to store data to be processed for example, the kernel allocates it.

But he can’t do it all on his own.

The kernel supports input devices like the keyboard, but it does not provide the software in which the user will enter his instructions. It is the role of shell than to provide an environment for interaction with the user. In the world of Linux distributions, bash is a very widely used shell. The shell is just one example among thousands of others, and depending on the function of the computer, the operating system will also consist of a graphical environment, software allowing the user to configure certain kernel functions (such as the firewall for example), or a system supporting the installation of additional software.

But then, what is the name of the operating system using Linux?

We usually talk about distribution Linux, or even distribution GNU/Linux, but the subtlety between the two names, although significant, is subject to expert debate.

The Linux kernel is open source, as are most of the software commonly used to build a distribution (the proportion varies from one distribution to another, but frequently approaches 100%). This property implies that many distribution projects have seen, and continue to see the light of day, and the ecosystem thus constituted is extremely rich and varied. So there is not just an operating system using Linux.

Are there a lot of Linux distributions?

There are some tens. The exact number is difficult to determine, because many projects are born all the time, others disappear. To get an idea, the site currently has more than 200 distributions. However, they all have in common that they are powered by the Linux kernel, in different versions and customized / configured in different ways.

Some of the best known and most used distributions include:

For a presentation of some of them, we recommend reading our article on some of the main Linux distributions.

An example of a Linux distribution with the Ubuntu desktop.
The desktop of the Ubuntu Linux distribution that is very suitable for the general public

Who uses these Linux distributions?

The image that the collective unconscious of the user of Linux distributions has is a bearded man, shaggy, eater of pizza. It was barely a caricature for a long time, but now it is no longer true.

Almost everyone uses Linux distributions. More precisely, everyone now has access to one or a multitude of services hosted by a server running a Linux distribution, such as for example a majority of sites populating the internet (more than 60%). For example, by viewing this page, the reader is using a Linux distribution, running the nginx web server that powers this site.

In recent years, the number of users of operating systems using the Linux kernel has exploded: through the field of telephony, with the rise of smartphones running Android. Indeed, this system designed by Google is built around a Linux kernel, certainly highly customized. In this area, we can therefore say that there are tens of millions of direct users of this kernel. It is notable that the choice made by the web search giant shows how much the Linux kernel is a product to be trusted.

In the personal computer field, however, the proportion of Linux distribution users to operate their personal computers is very low, compared to that of Microsoft Windows or even Apple Mac OS users. The reasons for this weak presence in the world of microcomputing are more historical than technical or functional, because there are many Linux distributions offering a complete desktop environment that is interoperable with other systems.

Who creates and maintains these distributions?

Professionals for many of them, who carry out this activity within the framework of their main job for some, and on their free time for a large number of others.

A Linux distribution is a collection of software created elsewhere, within other projects. Very often, especially in the most important distributions, those responsible for integrating applications into the distribution are also active contributors to the development project of these applications.

Who programs the Linux kernel?

A community of several thousand developers, often on a voluntary basis, headed by the original creator of the Linux kernel, Linus Torvalds. It is still this one who has the last word when it is necessary to decide on a direction to be taken for the project for example.

Can I install a Linux distribution on my personal computer?

Yeah, probably. There is a good chance that all the hardware composing the computer will be recognized and functional at the end of the installation as the support for a large number of peripherals has grown in recent years. No need to know essential Linux commands anymore, the installers have also been perfected to make them easy to use and within reach of the greatest number. Also note that there is a way to test Linux without installing it by using a Live CD or a Live USB (ex: presentation of the Ubuntu Live CD).

Is Linux Free?

Absolutely. Althoughopen source is not necessarily synonymous with free, the linux kernel is completely free, as well as many of the distributions built around. Not all are, however, and in the case of those that are paid, it is not the integrated software that we pay most of the time, but the assembly and optimization of the package of the different elements as well as technical support provided by the company marketing its distribution.

Last updated: 10/14/2020

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