A friend of mine with decades of experience in tech made an apt comment that I’ve been thinking about lately.
When discussing how to overcome a complex technical hurdle that most desktop OS users have been hindered from addressing, he quipped that Linux was easily up to the task because “Linux is a Real Operating System.”
Immediately, I knew exactly what he meant. But I found that expressing it was a whole lot more challenging. After battling with it, I thought I’d give it a go.
Kevin Garnett of Operating Systems – Anything Is Possible!
Linux is the most widely deployed desktop OS which provides full operation of the system to the users with ease. True to its Unix heritage, everything is a file, and nothing is locked or hidden. You can access the UEFI firmware registers as files without any difficulty. For example, if you have installed a Linux system on a device that shipped with Windows, you can dump the Windows license key without any problems.
Linux also lets you read and write files representing input/output hardware devices. For example, your laptop screen brightness appears as a file containing an integer value, and you can change the backlight intensity immediately by changing the value in the file.
Because everything is a file, you can feed the output of one file into the input of another, practically linking any two functionalities together. Want to play audio on video call? Simply take the file representing audio playback and re-route its output to the file representing the microphone input.
We’ve only scratched the surface, but hopefully, this gives a good sense of how versatile Linux systems are.
This penguin: reproduces rapidly and without natural predators
Linux is by no means the only Unix-y OS, but it has the distinction of unexpectedly taking over the world.
I don’t find it all that surprising that a Unix-like system became so prolific. Unix has stood the test of time because of its elegance and flexibility, and has formed the backbone of our digital architecture along the way. But by a strange confluence of historical, technical, and legal reasons, Linux — and not the more central branch of the Unix family tree — took root and flourished like an invasive species.
The result is that Linux has arguably become the most widely used OS today. Every Android device is Linux. Reliable figures are difficult to find, but estimates suggest that anywhere from one in eight to four in five server installations are Linux. On top of that, 100% of the top 500 supercomputers run on Linux.
Cloud deployment figures are even harder to come by, but Linux’s market share should be much higher, as the vanilla OS for AWS’s cloud compute service, EC2, is “Amazon Linux.” Linux has seen a massive uptake for installation in cars and has also entered the gaming space with Valve’s Steam Deck.
many relatives, one family
In its many guises, Linux is Linux: if you (deeply) know one, you know them all.
It is easy to mistake the external appearance of a thing for the thing itself. Beginning Linux desktop users usually begin by perceiving the desktop environment, the clicky desktop UI, as “Linux”. I’ve definitely gone through this phase. Then when users start to delve into the Unix-like structure beneath the desktop via the Bash shell (the most common default shell for Linux desktops), He What often happens to Linux users. I have been there too.
But Linux is really the structure and contents of the filesystem, the myriad kernel modules available, and how everything works together. Granted, the composition can vary a fair amount from distribution to distribution. For example, is init system systemd? Sis V? anything else? Where are executable binaries stored? Are they under /usr/local? Are they directly in the /bin? Both (and do they use symbolic links)?
Once you understand these differences, you’ll be at home on any Linux system. Does it have zsh when you prefer bash? Annoying, but manageable (just kidding, my zsh friends). A shell is a shell is a shell. You’ll probably have to break out the man pages for systemd, but you’ll survive (no systemd fan to apologize, so I’m good there). Snap will fill your block device with virtual entries when you run lsblk, but that’s what grep -v does.
Reading the manual doesn’t make a system foreign to you. If you know Linux, you know what you should look for in a Linux system to work. Worst case, you have to load a kernel module. But because Linux is the kernel, from an architectural point of view, it is always open to you if you have root access.
compatibility in its DNA
By now, it should be clear that Linux is not one thing, but it is. Its ability to adapt itself to your hardware and use case context while maintaining a consistent internal structure Is what is linux
Adaptability is part of its DNA. In short, not all Linux systems are created equal, but they are all Linux equally.