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Linux for your Homebuilt Computer

 

Why Is This Section Included?

A lot of people ask why I include information about Linux on this site. It's a good question, and it deserves an answer.

When I first built this site, Windows 98 was the current consumer version of Windows -- and frankly, it was less than wonderful. It wasn't very stable, and most users encountered the "blue screen of death" or other serious errors requiring reboots on a regular basis.

It also was very vulnerable to viruses and other malware. In addition, it required what was, by the standards of those days, a fairly powerful computer to run decently.

And finally, it was fairly expensive by the standards of those days.

Windows 98 SE ("Second Edition") attempted to correct the problems with Windows 98, and succeeded to some extent, but added new problems in the process.

There was another version of Windows known as Windows NT, but it was used mainly by businesses. It was much more stable than Windows 98 and used a much better and more robust file system, but it was unsuitable for most home users because it had limited multimedia and game support, and didn't support "virtual device drivers" (which were part of what made Windows 98 unstable). In addition, a lot of consumer-grade peripherals like inexpensive printers wouldn't work with NT.

So although businesses users could enjoy the stability of NT, home users were pretty much stuck with Windows 98. Worse yet, Windows 98 SE was followed by a home version of Windows called Windows Me (for "Millennium Edition") that was so truly horrible that it quickly became known as the "Mistake Edition," and soon after disappeared into well-deserved oblivion. (Business users got the excellent Windows 2000 Professional, but it was expensive and had no home user edition.)

Because of all these factors, there was quite a bit of interest in Linux back then. There were new Linux distributions coming out all the time from major players in the PC industry, as well as non-profit organizations dedicated to building a better Linux. And it was starting to catch on. Corel Linux, for example, came with the then-popular WordPerfect suite, ported for Linux, at a fraction of the price that the Windows OS would cost just by itself.

A lot of us who switched over to Linux did so because we just wanted a computer that would do what we needed it to do without crashing several times a day. Others liked the fact that it was free. Still others liked the fact that it was essentially immune to viruses. Add all of us up, and there were millions of people making the switch to Linux. So I really had to include a "Linux section." It was that popular.

Well, after the colossal failure of Windows Me, Microsoft finally got around to building a consumer OS that actually worked right and had good multimedia support. Windows XP Home Edition was so far and away better than anything else they'd ever released for home users that it sold like hotcakes, and interest in desktop Linux began to die down.

Building a Linux Computer

That being said,there are do-it-yourself computer builders who still choose Linux as their operating system, either because they support the Open-Source movement, or simply because they happen to like Linux. And indeed, there's a lot to like about Linux.

Linux is fast, stable, versatile, and (in most cases) free. With very polished Linux distributions available for the asking, and with thousands of community-maintained software projects for Linux, you can find Linux software to do pretty much anything you'd ever want to do with a PC.

Building a Linux PC really isn't very different from building a Windows PC. The main difference is that when designing a homebuilt Linux box, you have to be sure that the parts you select will work well with your particular Linux distribution.

Before getting into the technical stuff, however, let's talk a little bit about Linux itself. (This is a very brief introduction; you can find more information here, here, here, and in the other links on this page.)

 

Who Wrote Linux?

Linus TorvaldsLinux was invented in 1991 by Linus Benedict Torvalds (the guy in the picture on the right) while he was a student in Finland. Linus wanted a Unix-like operating system that he could run on an Intel 386/486 platform, and that didn't require taking out a mortgage to obtain. Ideally, in fact, he wanted it to be free.

So Linus went about looking at other Unix-like systems (especially Minix); and learning as much as he could about POSIX, which basically is a set of standards defining things like shell commands and application interfaces in Unix systems.

What Linus wanted was a free, POSIX-compliant Unix system that could accept standard Unix commands and run Unix programs, but whose code wouldn't infringe on anyone's copyrights. This meant writing the whole system from scratch -- quite an undertaking, even for a bright kid like Linus.

So almost immediately upon writing his first kernel, Linus encouraged others to not only look at its source code, but also to critique and improve it. Over time, a worldwide community of programmers became involved in the project; and today, Linux stands as the foremost example of the ability of the open-source movement to produce high-quality, stable, secure software, with Linus providing general oversight and guidance over ongoing Linux development in his official role as Benevolent Dictator for Life.

Linux is widely respected as a mature, fast, stable, secure operating system that's ideally suited for mission critical tasks requiring high uptime and low maintenance. In fact, the majority of the world's Web servers and dedicated servers (including the server hosting this site) are powered by Linux machines running another free, open-source application, the Apache Web server.

 

What is a "Linux Distribution?"

Linux is open-source software, meaning that anyone with the knowledge and wherewithal is free to use it, change it, and redistribute it, as long as they comply with the provisions of the General Public License. This means that anyone (including you) is free to gather together the source code and compile a Linux system from scratch, if they so desire.

Most people, however, purchase or download a Linux distribution. A distribution (or distro to those in the know) is a complete, pre-compiled Linux system that includes the most recent stable release of the Linux kernel, as well as a large number of core applications and utilities that have, for all practical purposes, become so closely associated with Linux that they may as well be considered part of it.

In addition, most Linux distributions also install pre-selected applications that are chosen based upon their likely usefulness to the distro's intended users.

For example, distributions intended to be used as server operating systems install Apache and a wide variety of other servers; while desktop distributions install productivity software, multimedia apps, and so forth. Most distributions also include many additional programs that are not installed by default, but which can be installed if a user wants them.

 

Next: Desktop Linux

 


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