Linux for Absolute Beginners

This page is a brief introduction to Linux for people who know little or nothing about it. Hopefully it will help guide some of them onto the path to becoming Linux-literate -- or even a Linux guru. It is divided into the following sections: (1) What is Linux?, (2) Why Study Linux?, (3) Prerequisites for Studying Linux, (4) How to Study Linux, (5) Installation, (6) After Installation and (7) Alternatives to Installation

What is Linux?

Linux is a high performance, yet completely free operating system that closely resembles UNIX. An operating system is the main software that operates on a computer.

UNIX was originally developed by Ken Thompson at Bell Labs, the legendary research arm of AT&T (the former U.S. telecommunications monopoly) in 1969 and was substantially improved at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) during the 1970s and 1980s. Many variations were subsequently developed, and they are collectively referred to as Unix-like operating systems. Unix-like operating systems are widely regarded as the best operating systems ever created in terms of several criteria, including stability, security, flexibility, scalability and elegance.

Linux was started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, because of his dissatisfaction with MS-DOS and his desire to obtain a free version of UNIX for his new computer. Linux quickly became a global project with programmers from around the world participating in its development via the Internet. Its performance has improved continuously, and this has been paralleled by the swift growth in its usage around the world by individuals, corporations, educational institutions and governments.

Linux is superior to other Unix-like operating systems in several respects. One is that it is completely free, in contrast to the costly proprietary (i.e., commercial) versions of UNIX. It is free both in a monetary sense (i.e., that it can be obtained by anybody at no cost) and in the sense that anyone is permitted to use it for any purpose (including making as many copies as desired for personal or business use, using it on any number of computers, modifying it in any way desired, giving away copies of the original or modified versions, and even selling such copies for a profit!). Software that is free in all of these senses is referred to as free software or open source software.

This freedom is made possible by the fact that Linux is released under the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GNU project was begun by Richard Stallman in 1983 for the purpose of developing a completely free, high performance, Unix-like operating system. It has provided many of the most critical utility programs for Linux, and thus it is sometimes suggested that the most appropriate name for Linux is GNU/Linux.

Another advantage of Linux is that it can operate on a much wider range of hardware than most other operating systems. It can run on notebook computers, desktop computers, workstations, mainframes, supercomputers, handheld devices (including some cell phones), game machines, industrial robots and even a wristwatch!

Microsoft Windows is still the most widely used family of computer operating systems. However, Linux offers also some important advantages over them, and thus its worldwide growth rate is much faster. These advantages include the facts that (1) it is free, (2) it is extremely stable (i.e., it rarely crashes), (3) it is highly resistant to computer viruses, spyware and other malware, (4) a large amount of high quality, completely free application programs are available for use on it and (5) it can run on older computers that cannot accommodate the newer versions of Microsoft Windows. A more complete list of advantages can be found in the article 25 Reasons to Convert to Linux.

Why study Linux?

There are several good reasons for becoming familiar with Linux. They are largely the same as the reasons for studying about computers in general: (1) it can be very interesting, (2) it can make life more convenient, (3) it can save money and (4) it can enhance one's career or business (and thus help make money).

Becoming familiar with Linux can result in a substantial financial savings because the software (both the operating system and the application programs) is available for free and because Linux can run on older and cheaper computers. In fact, most people who switch to Linux soon realize that they will never again have to purchase any software!

With regard to careers, it is becoming increasingly valuable to have Linux skills rather than just knowing how to use Microsoft Windows. This is because the role of Linux will continue to expand -- and many industry experts expect it to become the dominant operating system for some, or most, types of applications. More and more computers, ranging from the lowest cost and simplest to the most powerful and advanced, will be running Linux as (1) its ease of use for ordinary people continues to improve (2), more businesses and individuals become aware of its numerous and compelling advantages and (3) more professionals with good Linux skills become available to support Linux systems.

For people studying to become computer professionals, having Linux skills is already highly desirable, and it could, in fact, eventually become virtually mandatory. Moreover, Linux skills are becoming increasingly important for many other fields as well, ranging from business to biotechnology to industrial design.

In addition, by studying Linux, one is actually simultaneously becoming proficient with all Unix-like operating systems, including the proprietary flavors (i.e., versions) of UNIX such as Solaris and AIX, and Mac OS X (whose underlying operating system is a Unix-like system called Darwin). This is because of the great similarity among these systems. Proficiency with the proprietary Unixes has always been considered valuable, and it is well rewarded in the job market.

Prerequisites for Studying Linux

There are no prerequisites for studying Linux, except perhaps the most basic of computer skills, such as knowing how to turn a computer on and knowing how to use a mouse and keyboard. It also helps to know how to access the Internet and be able to do basic web searches with a search engine such as Yahoo or Google. This is largely because there is a tremendous amount of helpful (and free) information about Linux available online.

It is also important to have a computer, a copy of Linux itself and a strong desire to learn. A good introductory Linux book can also be useful, but it is no longer absolutely necessary.

The computer does not have to be an expensive, state-of-the-art model. There is no problem with using an older computer, for example, an elderly 500MHz Pentium PC with as few as five gigabytes of hard disk space and 128 megabytes of memory. Moreover, even older and simpler machines can be used to study Linux without a graphical user interface (GUI), i.e., with only text and no images on the display screen. Although initially intimidating for many inexperienced users, using an all-text mode, also referred to as a command line interface (CLI) or a shell, can provide valuable experience for those who want to become truly proficient at Linux.

Moreover, the computer does not even have to be a standard PC with an Intel-compatible CPU (central processing unit). It can also be a Macintosh or almost any other type of computer. The reason is that versions of Linux are available for almost any type of computer. A CPU is a small but powerful semiconductor device that can be considered as the brain of a computer.

How to Study Linux

Linux is a topic which is equally suitable for study in the classroom (such as at a university or a specialized computer school) or at home. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

Studying in a classroom environment can be the best choice for people who (1) prefer classes to self study, (2) do not have their own computer, (3) are lacking in motivation or study skills or (4) receive some type of tuition assistance or other grants to cover the costs of the classes. However, classroom study can have the disadvantages of (1) requiring tuition and/or other fees, (2) requiring costly and/or time-consuming travel to get to the classes and (3) not moving at an appropriate pace (i.e., either to fast or too slow).

Self study has the advantages that (1) there is no tuition or other fees, (2) it is possible to study at home (or anywhere) and (3) the pace and content of study can be easily adjusted according to the goals and situation of the individual student. Actually, it is often far less expensive to purchase a computer just for studying Linux than it is to pay the tuition and other expenses for attending Linux classes.

Linux (as well as many other areas of information technology) is particularly well suited for studying at home because (1) no equipment is needed other than an ordinary personal computer and (2) there is a large amount of free or modestly priced study material that is available from bookstores, in libraries, on the Internet, etc.

The key to success with studying at home is strong motivation. Good study habits also help. Many of the best Linux experts are self taught and do not possess a single computer certification. They have invariably been highly motivated because they have found the subject matter to be extremely interesting.

For self study it can be useful to have a good introductory book. One of the best is Teach Yourself Red Hat Linux Fedora in 24 Hours, by Sams Publishing. This book is well written and easy to understand, even for absolute beginners. In addition, it comes with CDROMs (read-only compact disks) that contain Red Hat Linux Fedora, one of the most popular of the many Linux distributions (i.e., versions). Moreover, it is relatively inexpensive. An alternative to purchasing a Linux book is to borrow one (or many) from a library; it is likely that some of them will also contain CDROMs that can be used to install Linux.


Many people have found that the best way to start learning Linux is to practice installing it on a computer. Fortunately, basic installation has become very easy in the past few years, particularly for major distributions such as Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake and Ubuntu. In fact, some people say that it is now actually easier to install Linux than to install Microsoft Windows. (One of the joys of installing Linux is that there are no long product codes to type in nor are there any mandatory product registration procedures).

Perhaps the most confusing thing about installing Linux for new users is the large number of options that are available to choose from. This is actually a very good thing, as it is the result of the fact that Linux is highly customizable according to the user's preferences and the the type of computer. Some of the choices are very easy, such as the language to be used on the installation and the time zone of the user. In most cases, good results can be obtained by just using the default options.

The most difficult part of the installation process is, without a doubt, partitioning the hard disk drive (HDD), i.e., dividing it into several logically independent sections. Fortunately, this can now be done automatically (usually) for most of the main distributions of Linux. Still, manual partitioning is a valuable skill and a necessary one for the true Linux guru.

It is possible to install Linux on the same computer (and on the same HDD or on a second one) as Microsoft Windows or any other operating system(s). This is often a good idea, because it allows use of both operating systems (although not simultaneously), and it also allows Linux to access files on the other operating system. However, the installation procedure can be a little confusing for those without some computer experience, and thus it is wise to make one's initial installation attempts on a computer which is no longer needed for another operating system. This is because there is a risk of accidentally disabling, or even erasing, the original operating system during installation.

For people wanting to become more than just casual users, it can be instructive to install Linux several times, each time trying different combinations of options. Installation can take a while, depending on the speed of the computer and the options selected. Thus, it is usually best to have something else to do while the installation is taking place and just look over at the computer occasionally to see what is happening.

Many distributions require the use of a set of two or three CDROMs for installation. Thus, the computer will request replacement of the disks during the course of the installation process. Linux is also increasingly available on DVDs, which do not require replacement but which cannot be used on older computers without DVD drives (i.e., devices that can read DVDs).

After Installation

After installation has been completed, the next step should be to start exploring some of the numerous application programs that are automatically included in the installation. Some of these will seem bewildering, but others will be very easy and intuitive. Among the easiest to try at first are the text editors, word processors, image viewers, calculators and games. It is also relatively easy (and fun) to practice modifying the appearance and performance of the highly configurable GUI.

A choice of at least two excellent word processing programs is usually built into major Linux distributions. One is AbiWord, a standalone word processor that is both comparable to and compatible with Microsoft Word. The other is part of OpenOffice, a full-fledged office productivity suite that is comparable to and compatible with Microsoft Office. OpenOffice also contains accounting (similar to Microsoft Excel), calculation, drawing, project management and slide show (similar to Microsoft PowerPoint) programs.

Connecting to the Internet with Linux is fairly simple. All that is required is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) account, along with knowledge of one's user name, password and the modem dial-up number for the ISP. Connection is likewise simple for broadband service, i.e., DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable. Frequently it is best to select a small local ISP rather than a large, nationwide one. This is because the service can be more personalized and flexible and because the rates are often lower.

Probably the easiest way to connect to the Internet is to use KPPP, an Internet dialer utility which is included in Linux distributions that contain the KDE desktop environment (one of the two main desktops in Linux, the other is GNOME). Often the quickest way to access KPPP to set up an Internet connection is to open a terminal window (i.e., a text-only window in a GUI) and type kppp and then press the ENTER key. Another to access KPP is by navigating through the menus, which can be accessed by clicking on the menu icon (a red hat in the case of Red Hat) that is typically in the lower left hand corner of the display screen and then clicking on the Internet item.

Once connection has been made, any of the (usually) several browsers available can be used to start surfing the Web. Particularly popular and easy to use are Mozilla and Firefox, both of which feature fast downloading, high security, tabbed browsing and the ability to block all pop-up advertisements.

Just as there is no version of Microsoft Office available for Linux, there is no version of Internet Explorer available for it either -- and there probably never will be. However, this is definitely no loss. Mozilla and Firefox are significantly more advanced technologically, more compliant with international Internet standards, easier to use, and far less vulnerable to viruses, spyware, pop-up adds and other malicious code.

For many people, the next step will be to carefully read a good introductory book on Linux and work through the examples. There are also numerous completely free resources available on the Internet, including (1) tutorials, (2) books and (3) newsgroups. Another excellent source for assistance (and encouragement) is a local Linux Users Group (LUG).

A good source of online information for students of Linux at all levels is The Linux Information Project (LINFO), a project of Bellevue Linux Users Group. Although still far from complete, LINFO already provides extensive information about a wide variety of topics related both to Linux in particular and to computer science in general. It is especially useful for people who have little or no access to computer text books and other reference material and to formal computer classes.

Among the pages on the LINFO website that are particularly useful and interesting for absolute beginners are:

Alternatives to Installation

Although installation can be very useful in helping to understand Linux, it might not be practical or even desirable in some cases. For example, some people might not have sufficient spare HDD space on their computers, or they might not want to risk damaging the existing operating system and data already on their HDD. Others might just be interested in learning to use Linux at home without installing it because they already have, or will have, it installed for them at work by an experienced Linux systems administrator.

An alternative to installing Linux on the HDD is to use a liveCD distribution such as the highly regarded Knoppix. A liveCD is an operating system that can run directly from its CDROM and the computer's memory and thus does not need to be installed on the HDD. As is the case with most other distributions of Linux, Knoppix can be downloaded for free from the Internet, and a CDROM version can be purchased on the web (and sent through the mail) for a nominal fee. Although Knoppix is designed to run from its CDROM, it can, in fact, be installed on a HDD for enhanced performance.

Another popular alternative is muLinux, which is a miniature version of Linux that can fit on a single floppy disk! Despite its small size, this single floppy can immediately (and temporarily) turn any computer that has an Intel-compatible processor and contains a floppy drive into a powerful Linux computer without having to install anything and without interfering with the operating system and data already on the HDD. The main disadvantage of the single floppy version of muLinux for some people is that it lacks a GUI; however, this is not a serious disadvantage (and perhaps it is even a big advantage) for people who want to become truly proficient in Linux.

Another alternative, for people and organizations who want to experience Linux application programs without immediately jumping into Linux itself, is to try the versions of such programs that are in many cases available for the Microsoft Windows operating systems. These versions are likewise generally free and can be downloaded from the Internet.

Created March 8, 2004. Last updated October 5, 2006.
Copyright © 2004 - 2006 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.