A Look at Linux … part 1


Q: What do Amazon, this fridge and the Hadron collider have in common?


A: They’re all run on Linux.


We all know that one person, right?  That one person who has more computers than they surely need, who says derogatory things about Microsoft as often as possible (and you learnt AGES ago to not even mention Steve Jobs to them…) and they probably hang out with Anonymous every Friday night and write indecipherable things on a black computer screen with green writing.  When someone drops into conversation that they run a Linux machine, you think to yourself “Ahhh, one of them; I won’t possibly understand anything they say about computers” and direct the conversation to The Office/Peep Show/Stewart Lee instead in search of common ground.

However, really, Linux is all around us. It’s not as unusual as you might think. Linux is no longer just the toy of those who, you know, know how to make computers from scraps of metal and cables. Linux dominates the world of supercomputers and is the backbone of many major services that we all use on a daily basis such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

But what is Linux, where did it come from and what can we do with it?

Officially speaking, Linux isn’t an operating system (it’s what’s called a kernel) but it’s most easily described as one, standing in defiant opposition to Mac OS and Windows. It was developed by a Finnish chap called Linus Torvalds back in 1992 – see where it got its name?

Pronunciation is worthy of a paragraph all to itself, but I’ll stop at just mentioning that a) no-one is really sure how they should say it the first time they do so in knowing company, and go “Hey, do you use Linnux, Lie-nux, Lee…” until they go “Linnux, yeah, why?” and b) there’s actually no official line on this and c) his name gets pronounced Lee-nus, and it’s not generally pronounced Leenux, so d) it’s generally agreed to be Linnux.

So the kernel was created and then let loose; Torvalds intended Linux to be a free and unrestricted basis for developers to work from and have almost total creative license to make of it what they wanted. Let’s put it this way – Torvalds grew up in a radical left-wing household and whilst he doesn’t ascribe to any politics himself, Linux is the computing world’s socialist against Microsoft’s capitalist. Linux has created a community of impassioned developers who work, across the world, to change the way that people can not only access but create the computing world around them.

Line User Interface

Command Line User Interface

If you want to use Linux, you get hold of what’s called a ‘distro’ – and that’s shorthand for distribution, which is in turn some sort of code for something you can use which looks like some manifestation or another of an operating system. Ubuntu you might have heard of, and that’s a distro. It’s often debated, but Android is also really a Linux distro. The distro can have a graphic interface, so it will look like a desktop that you and I regular computer users are accustomed to; you will have icons of things that are clickable, menus, windows and so on. Alternatively, the distro can have a command line user interface, so something that operates via commands typed line by line. That’s an extremely powerful tool for computer users as it gives you huge flexibility with what you can get your computer to do.

That said, the Linux community now often puts the hard work in for us by preempting the things we’d like to be able to do so the average computer user can now, without too much fuss, use a Linux-based computer in the same way as you would a Windows machine, and you’re going to be able to do quite a lot with it very cheaply.

So what can you do with it?

Well, those above-mentioned regular computer users (I should call us RCUs; it sounds good) might be a little reluctant to get on board, but running Linux is not as daunting as it sounds.  Firstly, we’ve all had those laptops which have just ground to a halt, or become really frustratingly slow.  A good thing about Linux is it can run from a CD, so if you can still get your laptop on, you can run Linux and rescue files that might be drowning in the quagmire of a dying laptop.

The next thing you can do is … carry on using the laptop!  Run Linux, use Linux, immediately have a working laptop again.  It’ll look a bit different and won’t be able to do everything the old one can do, possibly, but it will still be able to do a whole lot.  You can download a lot of open source software such as OpenOffice (free software that does much of what Microsoft Office does for you), media players to listen to music and watch movies, web browsers, email clients, PDF readers.  You’re good to go, basically.

If you’re feeling adventurous, or you have more technical knowledge than us RCUs (it might catch on, you know), there’s very almost, nearly, no limits to what can be done with a Linux machine because it provides the blank page – and the big world wide internet harbours the instructions – to create anything from basic to absolutely not basic automated devices.  If you combine the versatility of a Raspberry Pi – something that looks like a tiny computer that went to school without putting its clothes on, and is very, very cheap) and a good Linux distro you have something that you can program to water your garden, feed your pets while you’re away or you know, make your own smart phone.

What do we do with it?

SAGA (GIS software) running on Linux

SAGA (GIS software) running on Linux

We have a lot of Linux users on campus, and here in ITS we have a growing department dedicated to looking after our Linux systems.  Our main users dwell in the realms of maths and physical sciences, so chemistry, physics, life sciences, astronomy and so on.  We’ve also got some Linux users popping up in geography now as they make use of GIS (geographic information systems) to capture and analyze data.

We deploy CentOS v6 as the distro on campus, but some of our more widely used services such as Lecture Capture run on Ubuntu 14.  CentOS is more associated with scientific functions, whereas Ubuntu is a popular distro with a more comfortable user experience, as it’s more straightforward.  (As an aside: we’re considering deploying Ubuntu 14.04 lts on campus more widely, so please contact us if this would be of interest to you…)

Our high performance cluster is run on Linux servers, as is our central database.  Around 80% of all of our servers in our data centre are running Linux which includes our home directory (where your files are stored), the campus directory and our application delivery service, Exceed onDemand.

Linux commonly forms the backbone of IT Services delivery like ours as it’s basically a more customisable way of doing things; we have more scope of control to adjust things to work exactly how we need them to.  Also, by having a Linux server at the back end of things, it means that we’re able to have them work in such a way that they can communicate with Mac, Windows and Linux systems.

What can *I* do with it?

Now that’s a very good question.  In the not too distant future I’ll publish part 2 of this article, in which I detail what happens when an RCU meets Linux and attempts to restore an old laptop to a decent state, and depending on how I get on, I may or may not try and do something interesting with a Raspberry Pi.

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