Aditya Nag
January 18, 2005

This article was first published on CoolTechZone.com

There is a new wave sweeping our world, and it has one name. Linux. Everyone, from Eskimos in Greenland, to Bedouins in the desert, has heard of Linux. As a visitor to a site of this nature, you have most probably already used Linux in some form, or toyed with the idea of setting up a Linux Box. But some questions may have plagued you. For example, when we say “Linux”, what exactly do we mean? Do we mean Red Hat? Or Suse? What is the nature of the beast? In this article, I will attempt to give a broad introduction to the world of Linux.

How did it all begin?

It all started with an innocuous email to a mailing list, fifteen years ago.

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: Gcc-1.40 and a posix-question
Message-ID: <1991Jul3.100050.9886@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 3 Jul 91 10:00:50 GMT

Hello netlanders,

Due to a project I’m working on (in minix), I’m interested in the posix standard definition. Could somebody please point me to a (preferably) machine-readable format of the latest posix rules? Ftp-sites would be nice.

This was followed by an email a few weeks later which is more explicit, and can be called the first step.

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system

Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>

Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT

Organization: University of Helsinki
Hello everybody out there using minix –

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat(same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)

Linus (torvalds@kruuna.helsinki.fi)

PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.”

This led to the Linux revolution as we know it today. Linux or GNU/Linux, to give it it’s proper name, is a result of the contribution of thousands of programmers, from all parts of the world. No one man or woman can lay claim to more than a part of the larger whole. There are various people who have contributed more than others, notably Linus Torvalds, and Richard Stallman, but still without the thousands of semi-anonymous coders,their contribution would not have amounted to very much.

From those humble beginnings, GNU/Linux has grown into the vast body of code it is today, spanning all sorts of hardware platforms. There are various “Distributions” available, which target different audiences. The applications of GNU/Linux are growing everyday. From running the websites of Fortune 500 companies to acting as a firewall and router for a small mom and pop operation, GNU/Linux does it all.

Some of you may be wondering why I am using the term GNU/Linux. There’s an interesting bit of history behind this, and Richard Stallman’s article at http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html is the best place to learn the history of GNU/Linux. You can also see http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html

Running GNU/Linux for the first time.

So now you want to join the GNU/Linux revolution. Well, that’s great. Here’s what you need to know before you start.

Why are you installing GNU/Linux?
This is one of the most important questions which you have to answer. Based on this, your choice of hardware, Linux Distribution, and many other things get resolved. Some of the most common reasons for installing GNU/Linux are:

  1. To see what this GNU/Linux thing is all about.
  2. To use GNU/Linux as a Firewall or router for a SOHO network.
  3. To run a webserver (mostly Apache, though other alternatives exist), or mail server.
  4. To replace the ageing NT file and print server.
  5. To replace the Windows OS you are currently using.

GNU/Linux can do all this and much, much more. Let’s take the points in order, and see what the hardware requirements are, and what would be the best distro for you.

a. To see what this GNU/Linux thing is all about: This is one of the most common reasons people install GNU/Linux. You have probably been hearing a lot about GNU/Linux and are curious to see what everyone is talking about.

The easiest way is to use a Linux Live CD to check it out. These CD’s allow you to boot into a fully functional Linux Desktop directly from the CD without making any changes to your current setup. Some of the best Live CD’s are Knoppix, Gnoppix, Mepis, and Slax. Download the ISO, burn it, and boot of the CD. It doesn’t get simpler than this.

After checking out the Live CD, you may want to install to your hard drive. You need to ensure that you have at least 5 GB of free space. The easiest way is to delete a partition and leave some unpartitioned space on your hard drive, though you can also use a tool like Partition Magic or FIPS to do the disk partitioning. You should have at least 128 MB of RAM, to run a graphical interface smoothly. If you have any esoteric hardware, you might want to do a google search to see if it’s supported under your distro of choice. And this brings us to the next question.. Which distro? Well, I would recommend a distro like Mandrake 10.1, or the Xandros Open Circulation Edition, or Mepis. These are all completely free, easy to use and give a newcomer to GNU/Linux a reassuring desktop.

b. To use GNU/Linux as a Firewall or router for a SOHO network.: This is a slightly more advanced use of GNU/Linux. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use Smoothwall. This is a Linux distro which is tailored to this usage. You can get this from www.smoothwall.org. If you want to roll your own firewall, some of the better distros for this purpose would be Fedora, Centos Linux, Debian, or Slackware. These are all free, and very good distros. Setting up a router and firewall yourself does require some more effort, but it’s well worth it, due to the amount you learn. You will need a dedicated PC, with at least a 200 Mhz processor ( you can use a slower one if you really want to!), at least 64 MB or RAM, and two network cards. You can get away with not using a hard drive if you use one of the CD or floppy based router/firewall projects, or you can use a ~2GB hdd.

c. To run a webserver (mostly Apache, though other alternatives exist), or mail server:The hardware requirements will vary depending on your perceived demand. If you expect to be serving hundreds of web pages per minute, you will need a lot of RAM and preferably a multiprocessor machine. If you are running a personal home page then any old machine will do. The distro can be Mandrake, Fedora, Centos, Debian Slackware, or whatever you wish. Apache can be installed as a standard option with all of these and the configuration is mostly similar.

d.To replace the ageing NT file and print server.: This is one of the best features of GNU/Linux. Using Samba ( www.samba.org) a GNU/Linux box can provide all the functionality of a NT server, including domain logons, roaming profiles, file and print serving, etc. It can act as a Primary Domain Controller and your users will never know the difference. With Microsoft retiring windows NT from the 1st of January, GNU/Linux becomes a very good alternative to buying one of the more expensive Windows Server OS’s which would have higher hardware requirements. GNU/Linux will run just fine on your current NT server hardware, and is practically virus free. Microsoft has suspended security hotfixes for NT, so now is the time to move to GNU/Linux!

e. To replace the Windows OS you are currently using: And finally, the Holy Grail of GNU/Linux evangelists everywhere! Removing Windows completely from your HDD and moving over to GNU/Linux. Before you do this however, make sure you are willing to learn new things. Do not expect everything to be like Windows. You WILL be disappointed. Keep an open mind, do not get disheartened when things get confusing. There is a wealth of information available on GNU/Linux and many useful resources for troubleshooting. Use them. Get in touch with the Linux User Group in your community. Remember, GNU/Linux is NOT Windows, even though it may sometimes look a lot like Windows…

Welcome.

Well, that was a bit of a primer to the world of GNU/Linux. I hope you enjoyed it. As the weeks pass, I will be writing detailed articles dealing with all the situations mentioned above. Guides, Howto’s, reviews, it’s all coming in the Linux section at Cooltechzone. I hope that you will walk with me as we enter the wide and wonderful world of GNU/Linux. It is a place that, once entered, you’ll never want to leave. If you like to tinker with hardware, and software, if you find Windows boring, if you assemble your own computers, you will love GNU/Linux. If the DIY spirit lives in you, and you’ve never tried GNU/Linux, then you have a treat in store.