Linux is growing in popularity but unless you’re up to speed with its jargon the open source operating system could make no sense. We offer a short, plain-English guide to some of the key concepts used by Linux users.
Unlike Windows and OS X, Linux doesn’t just have one interface but many. Users can switch between these various interfaces based on how they prefer to use their computer. These various interfaces are known as “desktop environments” and can range from the very experimental to the minimalist to the full-featured.
The most popular of the desktop interfaces are Gnome and KDE and it is most often one of these that ship with various releases of Linux. There are also many others, however, including the lightweight XFCE environment. Each environment is a collection of tools and presentations to display on-screen information.
X Window System
The X Window System is the underlying windowing system used on desktop Linux. It provides the basic functionality of opening and closing windows and managing information. It is essentially a layer that allows applications to talk to the underlying hardware. A desktop environment such as Gnome or KDE runs on top of the X Windows System to provide the additional features and graphical appearance.
Linux comes in many flavours, or distributions. Each “distribution” provides a collection of applications, tools and interfaces to make its own version of Linux. Much of the software is common across different distributions but is packaged in a different way. Typical examples of a distribution are OpenSuse, Ubuntu, Red Hat and Fedora.
Different distributions may include, for example, their own software management tool, or networking tool or even their own application format. Different distributions are packaged to appeal to different markets: home users, power users, businesses and so on.
The kernel is the heart of a Linux system. The kernel is present in all Linux releases and controls the core ways in which the software and hardware interact. The kernel also defines what Linux is: any operating system built on top of it is known as Linux, even if it has a different distribution name.
A Live CD is a version of Linux that can be run directly from a CD without needing to be installed to a hard drive. It can be used to test-drive a version of Linux or even used as is to run the OS on different hardware temporarily.
Applications on Linux are distributed in a range of formats. Package management formats are important to Linux because they have different features and affect the way software is installed. Most Windows software is distributed as .exe files. On Linux software can be distributed in a range of formats including Deb, RPM, Yum and many others.
Unlike “source” formats, which need to be compiled by the user before being used, these packaged formats are already compiled for specific distributions. Examples are Ubuntu which uses the .deb format and RPM which was created by Red Hat. Users wanting to install applications for their distribution need to use the correct format so that applications can be tracked and upgraded properly.
The Linux shell is a way of interacting with a Linux computer using text commands rather than a graphical interface. For some users, particularly Linux server users, this is still the preferred way of controlling a computer. For desktop users the graphical interface does much the same but doesn’t require a user to know all of the appropriate commands. The terminal is an application on a graphical desktop that gives users access to the underlying shell.
Ext4 is a filesystem, itself a way of organising files on a hard drive. Microsoft’s Windows uses filesystems such as NTFS and FAT32. Most current Linux systems the ext4 filesystem for managing files. BTRFS is widely considered to be the successor to ext4 and is already being included alongside ext4 in many Linux distributions.
Linux jargon << You know of any other basic Linux terms?