I’d thought I’d use today to launch a new series of articles I’m calling Jargon Jam. As you can probably guess from the title, the basic idea is to try and explain some of the jargon terms we Linux geeks use everyday, often without even thinking about it. The idea arose a few weeks ago at a tech conference when I realised that although I was talking to intelligent and technically savvy people, they had no idea what I meant by terms like Linux and Open Source, let alone the more complex terms. Someone asked me “should I install Ubuntu or Linux?”, I replied “Ubuntu is Linux” but this didn’t help a lot. There’s a lot of terminology we take for granted. It can put people off and I want to demystify some of it if I can. I’m not an expert or a guru by any stretch of the imagination but perhaps I can point you in the right direction if you’re new to all this. The basic premise is to focus one word each time and explain it in basic terms as quickly as possible. It’s a crash course if you will, for people who want and/or need it. I thought the best word to get us started would probably be the one I use most.
Contrary to popular belief Linux is not an operating system, at least not on it’s own. It’s a actually a kernel, which is the backbone of a system but needs to be bundled together with other things to make it truly useful. You can think of it as the core of a system. When most people use the word Linux these days – and I’m guilty of this myself – they actually mean a Linux distribution of some sort. Red Hat, Ubuntu, Debian and so on. Names you may well have heard. The distributors package together the Linux kernel with other things to make it into a final product. The classic example being the GNU toolchain which lots of Unix or Unix -like systems use for basic functionality. They interact with the kernel. The Free Software Foundation would like everyone to use the name GNU/Linux when describing these Linux distributions to give credit. I can understand their position and I really appreciate the work of the GNU project, but in every day use it’s just easier and quicker to say Linux. People also remember it a lot more readily. That’s just the reality.
The Linux kernel was created in the early 90’s by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds. It’s a pretty obvious play on his name but not one he was overly keen on. He thought it was pretentious but unluckily for him the name stuck. Today the Linux kernel is used for all kinds of things, not just on desktop computers and servers as you might expect. It’s embedded on devices such as mobile phones, Internet tablets, GPS devices and multimedia players (Tivo). In fact the chances are good that some electronic device in your house already runs on a Linux kernel and you don’t even know it. Linus still works on the kernel along with many others contributors, some paid by their employers to develop Linux and some who do it on a volunteer basis. Anyone can download the source code to the Linux kernel, take it apart to see how it works, modify it and submit those changes back to the group. This is the power of open source software. The kernel is licensed under version 2 of the GNU General Public License. The Linux kernel has a cute mascot in Tux the penguin, you will probably have seen him around any time Linux is mentioned.
I’ll talk more about distributions, GNU and some of the other things I’ve referred to in future. For now just try to remember that the word Linux technically means the kernel at the core of the system. However a lot of people use it to refer to their operating system. There’s nothing wrong with that in my eyes but it’s really just a blanket term.
Hopefully that’s enough information to help you bluff your way on what Linux is, I’ll expand more in the coming weeks. If you’d like to read up more on the background please do by all means. Wikipedia is a great resource for this:
Thanks for reading, I hope this is of use to someone. If you’d like to suggest a term you hear used often but don’t fully understand please drop me an email or leave a comment here and I’ll be happy to look at it 🙂