A GNU/Linux primer

i all,

While I do not like to write entries back-to-back I had been thinking of a long long time to write a basic GNU/Linux primer for non-geeks and that just been pushed away for long. So rest of the post would be about some pointers for people who are new to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and GNU/Linux .

Q1 . What is this FOSS ?

A1. FOSS stands for Free and Open Source Software. Its a philosophy, its way of life for many, its an ecosystem for others. Its what you make of it.

Q2. What do you mean by FOSS?

A2. Well everybody has their take on it for what it means. The best way to describe it is using an analogy of some driving vehicle say a Car or a Motorcycle or whatever you dream of.  Its also about choices which we will touch in the example as well.

Let us assume or presume there is such a vehicle for which one has to go to only an authorised dealer, one cannot open up the bonnet or whatever to see what makes it tick, one cannot modify the vehicle to suit how one is built or how one wants it just because he is more comfortable with it in a certain way. One can use the vehicle only in a certain way which is prescribed by the manufacturer. One can only have one person to ride in that vehicle (another rule by the manufacturer) In essence one is restricted in more ways than one.

This is essentially true of some softwares which exist. We call these kind of softwares as proprietary software.

Now we have similar vehicles, similar body types, similar functioning, similar in lots of ways and different in some ways, but we have all the rights and all the freedom to

a. Get it fixed from the nearest repair shop

b. Open up the bonnet to actually see how it functions

c. Modify the vehicle to oneś heart content. This is how DC or Dilip Chabbria makes his money. While he is one famous example there are countless others who make their money by modding.

d. Sell or gift the vehicle to somebody else.

e. One is not restricted to how the vehicle should be used or how many people are there on the vehicle. One has the driving license so one is presumed to have enough maturity about the matter. Also its one ownś life and oneś own vehicle.

This is precisely how free and open source software works. It works on the basics of being open and sharing information with each other.

While there is much confusion on what is FOSS the simplest way to define it would be :-

1. The user can run the software for any purpose

2. The user can modify the software to suit it to his purpose.

3. The user can make copies and distribute the software either free-of-charge or ask payment for the same.

4. Study and improve the software.

Q3. How does one do all of the above?

A3. One assumption/presumption/condition is that access to source-code is available. Source-code is simply like the blueprints of any vehicle or any appliance. Without source-code it makes things much more harder.

Q4. Oh, this is all greek to me, why should I care?

A4. Well, that is your choice, of course. But there are plenty of reasons you may want to think of this software :-

a. The software is FOSS, so the tenets of sharing, of being charitable, of learning of one another can be learnt .

b. The software gives better error outputs and is more verbose. If something does not work it will not give stupid error messages.

c. It is more graceful when handling with hardware and software failures.

d. Updates for the software are free

e. You can buy the software or you can buy services for maintainence and stuff.

Q5. I hear a word called Distribution , what is this distribution ?

A5. Distribution is analogous to flavours. What is the difference between Vanilla or Chocolate or for that matter between Chocolate and Mango or any of the number of varieties. GNU/Linux is blessed with around 400 odd distributions in active use at any given point in time and this might grow.

Q6. My god, 400 you say, why so many?

A6. The answer is simple as it is complex. There are various reasons for it. Some of them are :-

a. Running on hardware :- While GNU/Linux can run anything from a small embedded device to a big datacenter where thousands of machines are, its a good idea to have a distribution which works specifically for that. So you have special distributions which target those platforms .

b. Innovation and Competition :- The oldest and greatest reasons in the world. My bike/car/whatever does not have this feature. People have an almost insane itch to improve or work on it as their baby. Its the intensity of the developers, the users and the marketplace which actually decide the winner.

c. Languages :-  While almost all the distributions have most of the major languages there are and might be distributions whose looks and feel is more intimate to a certain geographic region, people, culture etc.

d. Showoff :-  Just like guys like to showoff their modded bikes and stuff, people like to showoff their coding skills.

Q7. Ok, I want to see it first? Is there a way to see some thing before I make up my mind?

A7. Well while there are many places, the best way would be to google up . One of the best resources I know though is something called linux screenshots

Q8. Ok, I want to try this out, what or where should I start?

A8. Try any of the recent GNU/Linux distributions.

Some of the ways are listed below :-

a. One of the ways to get hold of it is to buy the latest issue of the only GNU/Linux magazine in India Linux for you (till date)

b. Get in touch with your GNU/Linux Groups and FSUGs :-  There are groups which will help you with fixing and finding things. Be aware though, most of the people are professionals though and you are supposed to have done little bit of homework before you ask a query .

A list of LUG and FSUG in India

c. Buy from commercial dealers like Linux Bazar and Zyxware .

d. Order from the distribution of your choice.

e. Most of the GNU/Linux distributions would have a place where from where you can download and burn it on a CD/DVD .

Note :- Download the .iso image and burn it at 8x on a CD or 2x on a DVD and make sure nothing else is working at that time.

One thing though when doing whatever ask for a Live CD/DVD rather than the alternate one as its easier for new-comers.

Q9. Ok, I am not a programmer, why or how it is useful for me?

A9. Who are you, a student, a doctor, an engineer, whatever your profession might be, there is probability and possibility that GNU/Linux has the software to scratch your itch (your hobby/passion/profession) . You do not need to be a programmer, you just do what you want.

Q10. Is there any chance of a career using GNU/Linux?

A10. Well, the sky is the limit. Its upto you to select what or where you want to make your mark. Some of the ways you could make money are :-

a. GNU/Linux webhosting :- There are many many companies who make money by giving hosting to websites.

b. Web application hosting :- A much more granular form of Web hosting. This is basically for Enterprises and the complexity and understanding required is much more.

c. Networking :- GNU/Linux has a strong networking base. It derives from the Unix culture and hence is pretty strong in networking.

d. Multimedia :- One can makes movies, make radio, make music, there are specific distributions and movements to make this more and more possible.

e. Testing and Security :-  This is another growth area. With Internet becoming more and more available, there is a need of security professionals for the same. GNU/Linux has lot of tools which fulfill this niche as well.

f. Training and Certification :- One can make good money by giving Training and Certification courses.

g. Documentation or publishing books :- Another big area. One can publish books on a certain topic and make some money there.

h. Photography :- Some of the best photographers who use GNU/Linux are awardees at some of the international events. Apart from their skills , a part of the achievement is also to the tools they use.

The main thing, if there is a niche or need one has and the drive one can do it. Some of the things which I said might be an oversimplification but yes, people are doing it (point f and g in particular)

Some use-cases :-

a. Intel has moved all their operations from proprietary Unix to GNU/Linux.

b. Amazon, one of the biggest electronic book-sellers uses GNU/Linux

c. ICICI bank , a multi-national bank have moved all their operations to GNU/Linux.

d. In fact there are lots of companies and Banks who want to move their operations to GNU/Linux, there is a dearth in some senses of number of professionals needed to fill in the area. Atleast, in India 😉

e. Lots of the newer portable devices use GNU/Linux as an OS. Intelś Moblin, Intelś Classmate PC , OLPC and many others are hardware devices which use a GNU/Linux in some form or the other.

f. Some of the companies who contribute to the cause of GNU/Linux :-

a. Red Hat

b. Intel

c. Sun

d. Novell

e. Tungsten Graphics

f.  AMD

g. IBM

h. Apple

i. Google

j. HP

k. Analog

l. NSA and many others.

Almost all the companies which are listed above are listed companies having proven track records. (except the last one NSA which is an American Government agency)

An update (29/09/08 23:20 hours IST)

This is from a friend Parthan who has given another analogy :-

I used to use a simple household analogy – “We buy rava from the shop and we can make a lot of things using it, for example upma or kesari.
The shopkeeper or the manufacturer of the rava doesn’t inflict any
restriction on what to do with the rava. Think of a situation if he does so, saying what you can do with the rava and what you can’t do. To make things worse, think if he says that you can not share the upma or kesari you make with your neighbours and friends. This might sound very stupid but the same exists with software as well.” But the problem with this analogy is that you have to also bring down a justifiable relation between the role rava plays in your life with the role a software plays with your life. Actually you can live without rava in this world but not without software. In fact software impacts our lives more seriously than what rice or wheat or rava can do. Software, in this modern world, controls our bank accounts, controls medical equipments which save our lives, it is present in everything we use from calculator, to mobile phone, to television, to refrigerator, to automobiles, to security systems, and the list goes. Thus, who controls software we use has more
importance. Rather how much we control the software we use is important.

** I developed this analogy based on numerous times I heard Raman speaking on this topic. Perhaps the later half is a bit revised version of what he tells usually 😉

Well thatś about it. Just one thing though, this Post is published under the Creative Commons – Non-commercial, Attribution License.

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11 thoughts on “A GNU/Linux primer

  1. thanks for putting this up… we are trying to do sessions in colleges in blr and this will be useful to us …..how does the cooking recipe analogy fit in comparison to the car analogy .. but it has its own disadvantages…as no one buys a “cooking recipe” .. but of course it fits programming very closely

    also with each of this if we can have a example : i mean video example – that may make it more interesting – i mean a video of blender – elephant dream – and then illustrate one point u are making – or show the place elephant dream source files are available and then explain one aspect and so on – show a clip of stallman making a effective point

    yes i too agree that we should put in the analogy of ‘fishes and loaves’ used by eben moglen – we have the power to make once and feed humanity – whether we are going to charge endlessly is a moral question – if let rome go hungry – who is responsible – maybe is a nice point

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