by Bill Ball
That's right, folks. Yet another Linux FAQ! Writing a FAQ for an operating system that has generated more FAQs than you can count on a dozen persons' fingers and toes is hard. And the amazing fact is, considering that Linux is free, with no royalties or licensing fees, that people all over the world devote countless hours in writing, programming, and supporting such a system.
To keep things simple, in this FAQ I try to answer common questions for the curious and leave the hard questions to the experts who write the HOWTOs.
You can find answers to these questions:
Linux is a UNIX-like operating system that runs on computers using CPUs from Intel, Motorola, Sun, Digital Equipment Corporation, and others. Vilified by some, praised by many, Linux is either a toy or the greatest thing since sliced bread. Linux, despite being owned and controlled by no one, is nevertheless spreading steadily, gaining acceptance among the corporate, academic, and hobbyist ranks.
Although Linux refers specifically to the Linux kernel, most users think of Linux as the operating system and its collection of software. In fact, many of the programs accompanying Linux come from BSD or the Free Software Foundation's GNU software suite.
First "officially" released on October 5, 1991, by its author, Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki, Linux has spawned a legion of users and contributors around the world. Originally written as a hobby, Linux supports multitasking, multiple users, virtual consoles, numerous filesystems, nearly every type of protocol, including, but not limited to the following: TCP/IP, UUCP, SMTP, SMB, X.25, IPX, NetBEUI, NNTP, SLIP, CSLIP, PLIP, PPP, NFS, and LocalTalk. Melding SysV and BSD features with POSIX.1 compliance, Linux has something to appeal to all users' tastes--it's a candy and a breath mint!
Linux may not be the Rebel Force in the fight against the Dark Side, but its image of guerrilla computing and not being for stuffed shirts hasn't hurt its reputation. Although being one of the newer kids on the block is hard, Linux sports powerful ammunition in the OS wars with its brand of distribution, availability, and licensing. Programmers of nearly every nationality have contributed to its success as a personal UNIX, and Linux is used around the world every day, from Antarctica to the Space Shuttle.
Some people say Lie-nucks, whereas others say Lih-nucks (as in linen).
At least one AIX systems administrator in the Washington, D.C., area, a closet Linux user who works for U.S. Customs, has a disconcerting habit of pronouncing Linux as Lie-knew.
Of course, this being the computer age, why not hear Linus Torvalds pronounce it himself? Here's an exercise if you who enjoy using Web search engines: Find and download the .au files of his voice and then hear Linux by typing
# cat english.au > /dev/audio
# play english.au
Hint: You can find at least several copies in Finland.
Why not? Chances are, you can perform tasks under Linux that you can't with your commercial operating system. Many computers and file systems support multiple operating systems, but not all operating systems support all computing needs. Many expensive workstations provide special services or support specialized tasks, but at great cost.
As a personal computer UNIX, Linux can adequately support and fulfill many needs of the world's diverse computing community--at a lower cost and many times without a penalty in speed.
A nice feature of Linux is that it has collected the best features of other versions of UNIX. Whether it's tweaking your X GUI or configuring a network, you can find several of your favorite tools ported from other operating systems or several unique Linux utilities. Not everyone is a programmer, but we all like our computing experience to look and run the way we want. With Linux, you can tailor and customize your environment.
Freedom of choice and creativity is another feature of Linux. Don't like the way a program runs? Change it! Because you have the source code, you are free to make improvements and then share your changes.
Good question, and your guess is as good as mine. One difficulty in trying to figure out how many people is that no registration is required. Some vendors have figures on the numbers of CD-ROMs shipped, but you really have no way of knowing because anyone can get a copy or upgrade over the Internet.
While marketing wags ponder figures like 2 to 10 million users worldwide, many manufacturers, companies, and consultants are making money with Linux, and governments, universities, and organizations are saving money using Linux.
At last count, according to the Linux Documentation Project, 125 commercial servers and ISPs and nearly 80 government, academic, and organization offices were using Linux. This number includes companies such as Cisco Systems and Erol's Internet; universities in Texas, Mississippi, and Gdansk; and government agencies such as the United States Coast Guard and the National Science Foundation.
Thanks to Linus Torvalds and the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License, Linux is "copylefted," and can be distributed and used free of charge. Although Linus Torvalds has copyright dibs on the kernel, Linux can be modified and sold for profit, but only under terms of the GPL. Many of the programs that come with a Linux distribution are also covered by the GPL.
Linux is not freeware or shareware, and some programs included in a distribution may not fall under the GNU General Public License; always check your program's documentation or read the manual page.
For more information, see your /usr directory, tape, CD-ROM or floppy; you can find a copy of the GPL there. Want to look for it? Try entering the following:
# find /usr -name *LGPL* -print
Nearly anywhere! You can find a Linux distribution on CD-ROM with a book at your nearest national bookseller. If you search on the Web, you can find a number of vendors selling the Debian, Slackware, or RedHat distributions. If you're really intrepid and have the hard drive space, try searching one of these FTP sites (or certainly the nearest mirror):
You should probably use the one that came on your CD-ROM. Some vendors use only the latest "stable" release as the default kernel to be installed, whereas others provide the latest version available. In many cases, you also get the source to the next version.
Before Linux reached a stable version 2.0, the classic stable release was 1.2.13. Currently, the latest version is 2.1.43, with a version 2.2 release imminent.
Because Linux and the majority of ported Linux software are released under the GNU GPL, companies can modify and sell the software (under certain restrictions). These vendors collect the software and then usually put it on a CD-ROM, along with install scripts, as a distribution.
Most Linux vendors, along with collecting, collating, compiling, organizing, and updating Linux, include "extras" to make their distribution more enticing. Many include specialized scripts to automate installation. Some include commercial software, specialized drivers, or customized graphical interfaces for X or the console.
You might want to use a commercial distribution for one of these reasons. Some companies provide a subscription service, so you have regular delivery of the latest software. Other companies promise technical support, or include enhanced backup software or a nifty editor.
Here's a list of some of the companies creating, marketing, and selling distributions:
Your usual assortment of basic commands, utilities, word processors, spreadsheet programs, telecommunications programs, programming languages, programming utilities, X, Web browsers and servers, and most importantly, games.
You can find all the GNU software, such as the binary, file, text, shell, and diff utilities. The essential GNU C and C++ compiler suites and programming libraries are included, as are many programs from the last 4.4BSD release. X servers and software from The XFree86 Project, Inc., provide network and graphical interface support.
You get the venerable Emacs, along with a half dozen other editors, and a spelling checker, ispell. Although a public domain dictionary is available on the Net, it has not been included in any distributions--yet.
For graphics, you get gnuplot, gs, ghostview, xpaint, xv, pbm, ImageMagick, the pbm utilities, and even morphing and animation programs.
If you want to learn programming, you have a choice of compilers, languages, shells, and tools: Ada, assembler, awk, bash, BASIC, C, C++, csh, FORTH, FORTRAN 77, gdb, LISP, Pascal, pdksh, Perl, python, Smalltalk, Tcl, and Tk.
In other words, you get just about anything you need!
This question is important because, as everyone knows, games are the real reason people buy and use computers. Most of the original or variant BSD curses-based games, such as atc, are included in distributions. Cult arcade fans of Doom or Quake find Linux versions. You can also find puzzles, card games, GNU chess, and backgammon. New games are released nearly every week, and the most popular usually find their way into distributions.
Here's a partial list: abuse, acm, arithmetic, atc, backgammon, bcd, bog, caesar, canfield, cribbage, doom, factor, fish, fly8, fortune, hack, hangman, hunt, lizards, maze, mille, monop, morse, NetHack, number, paranoia, pom, ppt, primes, rain, robots, rogue, sail, sasteroids, shanghai, snake, spider, tetris, trek, wargames, worm, worms, wump, xbill, xboard, xboing, xchomp, xgal, xgammon, xlander, xlincity, xmahjongg, xpat2, xroach, xtetris, xvier, and many more.
The list of computers that can run Linux is extensive. Linux currently supports these CPUs:
Work is being done on a port to the VAX.
You can find flavors of Linux for nearly any computer, although 386 or better CPUs are more commonly supported. If your computer runs DOS, it should run Linux. Whether X will work on your computer depends on how much memory you have and if your graphics card and monitor are supported.
If you're curious about installing and running Linux on your Intel-based PC, and have an ISA, VESA Local Bus, PCI, or EISA box with a 3.5-inch floppy, an MFM, RLL, or IDE hard drive, IDE or ATAPI CD-ROM player, and a Super VGA monitor, you shouldn't have any problems. SCSI hard drives and CD-ROM players are also supported.
If you're one of the unfortunate miscreants still using a PS/2 machine, take heart--you can find support, too.
Chances are, it will. Potential Linux laptop users, however, face questions and problems that don't affect desktop users. The following are some of these questions:
Luckily, a wealth of information about installing, configuring and using Linux on laptops is available. If you're having problems, you can probably find answers at the following site, or its mirrors below:
Some people say Linux can run with as little at 10MB or, if the kernel is small enough, from a diskette. However, most installations run from 150 to 500MB. Plan to use at least a 200MB main partition with maybe another 16 or 32MB for swap space. Depending on the filesystem, Linux can handle up to 4 terabytes, but unless you're independently wealthy, a 1GB hard drive is fine.
Linux can run in as little as 2MB, and a filesystem is even available for installing Linux on a ROM chip. If you want to use X, you need at least 8MB and swap space, 16MB and swap space for a responsive system, with 32MB being even better. The maximum amount of RAM Linux can use depends on the CPU, but for Intel-based machines, up to 1 gigabyte. Not many home PCs can use that much memory!
Usually, you install from a CD-ROM. More than a dozen distributions are available from different companies. Although you will discover differences among the distributions, you'll find Linux the same across distributions with like versions.
Until recently, the traditional method of installation was to search the CD-ROM for the kernel file configured for your computer's CD-ROM hardware. This step was followed by creating a bootable and auxiliary floppy, rebooting from a floppy, and finally, installing from the CD-ROM.
You also have to partition (make room on) your hard drive to support the Linux file system. (Okay, you really don't have to, but the system will run better.) If you're a little queasy about partitioning your drive, consider using a commercial program such as Partition Magic.
Some newer distributions, such as S.u.S.E., not only allow you to boot or run Linux directly from the CD-ROM, but they install on a DOS partition without partitioning headaches.
Don't have the time or don't want to bother installing Linux? One solution is to buy a preloaded hard drive or a custom system. The fact is, however, that installation is generally easy and proceeds smoothly.
You definitely should read Eric S. Raymond's Installation-HOWTO first. This nifty document covers all the bases, and you can find a copy at
The answer depends. Until recently, installing new hardware or configuring Linux for your computer's peripherals involved recompiling the Linux kernel. However, now that Linux supports loadable modules, new devices are being added every day. For specific information, see the Hardware HOWTOs under /usr/doc.
PC card users should peruse the PCMCIA-HOWTO. If you want to install or use a tape drive, look at the Ftape-HOWTO. Have a Jaz or Zip drive? Look at the mini-HOWTOs under /usr/doc.
Although no kernel support is available for Plug-and-Play hardware just yet, some people report success in getting a troublesome device, such as a sound card, to work by booting Linux through DOS, which configures the device for use. Look on your CD-ROM for BOOTLIN.EXE or LOADLIN.EXE.
PnP devices can be irksome, but recent efforts in the Linux community show promise for PnP hardware support. For the latest information, a FAQ, kernel patches, and configuration software, check the following:
Linux uses the BSD spooling daemon, lpd, and associated programs such as lpr, lpq, and lprm to handle printing chores. The printer database, which is in /etc/printcap, contains definitions of the capabilities of the printer devices. These devices, named lp0, lp1, and lp2, can represent different types of printers.
Most PC Linux users have a printer attached to the computer's parallel port. First, look at /etc/printcap; then pick a printer and try entering the following:
# cat myfile.txt >/dev/lp0
If you run into the "staircase" effect of missing carriage returns or linefeeds, see the file Printing-HOWTO under /usr/doc. You learn how to correct this problem by adding a filter to the /etc/printcap entry for your printer. RedHat Linux users can use the printtool program, but another great solution is the printing filter package called apsfilter, by Andreas Klemm and Thomas Bueschgens.
Installing apsfilter is a snap, and using it is even easier. You can not only avoid the staircase effect, but you can also turn your cheap color inkjet into a color PostScript printer! After you install apsfilter, printing color Web pages from Netscape, .TIF graphics from a scanner, or X window dumps is easy.
Look for this program and others at
sunsite.unc.edu under /pub/Linux/system/Printing
Any software released under the GNU GPL must include source, or have the source available. This important restriction has definitely contributed to Linux's popularity. You'll generally get the source for nearly every program, including the Linux kernel.
However, a number of authors or organizations, such as XFree86, do only binary releases of beta versions of programs. When the program or collection of software inspires a measure of confidence, then the source is released.
When you're in doubt about a program's status, always check its manual page or accompanying documentation.
Yes. XFree86, version 3.3, is the latest release of the most common X distribution for Linux. This release is based on X11R6.3, the final release from the X Consortium.
X continues to evolve, even though the MIT X Consortium has now disbanded. The X Window System, Mach, Motif, POSIX, and the UNIX trademark have been passed off to The Open Group. X is the default windowing interface for Linux, and nearly all Linux distributions include the latest "stable" release of XFree86's suite of X servers and software.
Your most important consideration is if the latest XFree86 or commercial X server release supports your monitor and graphics card. Newer distributions attempt to set up your hardware for X sessions during an initial installation. You should read the documentation carefully, especially specific documentation for your video card after setting up your system. Incorrect settings can damage your monitor!
For XFree86, look in /usr/X11/lib/X11/doc, and see whether your video card has a corresponding readme file.
I hope that the XFree86 people or other commercial companies will incorporate X's next incarnation, Broadway, into X for Linux. Broadway promises, using a new low-bandwidth X protocol called X.fast, new graphic and audio features during X sessions, even using a dial-up Internet connection.
If you find that your graphics card and monitor do not work with the XFree86 servers, you can also buy a commercial X server, such as Metro-X 3.1 from Metro Link, Inc. Some companies, such as Red Hat, provide a commercial X Server with their Linux distribution.
For more information about XFree86, see the following:
Unlike the Xfree86 distribution of the X Window System, if you want Motif, you must buy it from a vendor who has done a port for Linux (and who certainly paid the licensing fees for the source). Several companies are marketing Motif for Linux. Each Motif port has a different, sometimes strange, name such as Moo-Tiff, Moteeth, or Swim.
If you must have Motif, be sure to buy at least version 2.0 or higher. If you do not want to spend the money, you can try a somewhat less compatible Motif clone called Lesstif. According to its developers, "It is going to be source level compatible with Motif 1.2," and is distributed under the terms of the GNU GPL.
Lesstif requires XFree86 and the compiler gcc. It currently builds 26 different applications, including the Web browser Mosaic and a nifty editor called nedit. For more information, see the following:
The list of commercial programs available for Linux is growing daily. As Linux's popularity grows, more and more manufacturers are porting software to Linux. But don't expect source code for these programs. Additionally, support for Linux may be minimal.
Database, CAD, OCR, development, financial, network, text processing, and commercial hardware drivers and software are being marketed for Linux; just because the operating system is free doesn't mean companies can't make money writing software for Linux!
Here are just some of the programs available at this time: 3DGO, AcctOnIt, Across Lite, Adobe Acrobat, Applixware Office Suite, ARKEIA, BB Stock Pro, BRU, Cactus Utilities, Cliq, Clustor, Corel WordPerfect 7, CRiSP, Deluxe American Heritage Dictionary, Edith Professional, Executor, Faircom c-tree Plus, FlagShip, Freedom Desktop, Ishmail, LjetMgr, Mapedit, MATCOM, Mathematica, Matlab, MARC Designer, Megahedron, Metro-X, Microstation 95, MpegTV Player, NetZIP, NExS, Power Boot, PowerGraph, Raima Database Manager++, Silent Messenger, StarOffice, SuperScheduler, SoundStudio, PerfectBACKUP+, HotWire EasyFAX, VBIX Visual Basic, TeamWave Workplace, TEAMate, and Wabi.
If you're willing to invest the time, troubleshoot your own problems, and have the ability to ask the right technical questions, you shouldn't have any problems with your ISP. Most ISPs have ready-to-use diskettes for Windows 95 or Macintosh users but aren't really prepared to handle Linux users.
Most people use PPP for connecting to the Internet. One approach is to first make sure that your modem is working correctly by using kermit, cu, pcomm, or minicom. Then, armed with the following information, you can set up your PPP connection.
You need to know
After that, all you have to do is add the domain name servers addresses to /etc/resolv.conf, add your news server name to /etc/nntpserver, edit two files in /etc/ppp--ppp-on and ppp-on-dialer--to reflect your ISP's phone number and your login and password. Then try entering
to start your PPP connection. Be warned, however; this simplistic and direct approach assumes root access. You should invest a little more effort and learn how to set UID as root, or use a root task program.
Want to get your mail? If you use the pine mailer, edit the file .pinerc in your directory and add your ISP's mail server and domain. Assuming your ISP supports the POP3 protocol, connect and try typing
# popclient -3 -u your_login -p your_password your.isp.com
Yes, but several other browsers are available for Linux, such as Arena, Chimera, Lynx, Mosaic, and RedBaron, so why limit yourself?
If you must have Netscape, the current version is Netscape Navigator Gold, version 3.01. If you're downloading over a 28.8 connection, go have a cup of coffee while you wait. If you want to listen to music and news from around the world over the Internet, you can also get the RealAudio 3.0 Player for Linux. Unfortunately for TV junkies, a version of RealPlayer isn't available for Linux just yet.
To download these applications, browse to
http://home.netscape.com/download/index.html for Netscape Navigator
The obvious answer is to use your mailreader's search function, but here's a list (of interest to U.S. readers):
This isn't a Linux question, but the answer is yes. You can use LILO, and have your choice. You also can use commercial OS handlers, such as V Communications, Inc.'s System Commander, which lets you run as many as 32 different operating systems on a single PC.
Sorry. Again, the answer is yes. You can buy Caldera's Wabi emulator or try Wine. The latest Linux DOS emulator, DOSemu, is reported to be able to boot Windows 3.1.
Sun's Wabi Windows emulator, ported to Linux by Caldera, lets you run applications such as Microsoft Office, Lotus SmartSuite, CorelDRAW, Quicken Deluxe, ProComm Plus, Harvard Graphics, Microsoft Access, Adobe PageMaker, Microsoft Mail, Lotus Organizer, and WordPerfect (although you can get a Linux version of this program).
Wine, on the other hand, is distributed under the GNU GPL. It also runs a number of Windows applications such as Word for Windows, Paint Shop Pro, and CorelDRAW--nearly 80 programs at last count.
For more information about Wabi for Linux, try
For the latest copy of Wine, see
Yes, if your modem supports your software's fax protocols. Sending and receiving faxes under Linux involves graphics translation of both received files and files you want to send. Most Linux distributions come with fax programs, such as HylaFAX, efax, or mgetty, sendfax, and vgetty. Read your modem's documentation and the man pages carefully.
If you're having a problem with an application, first RTFM! But if you're having a problem installing or updating software, and you purchased a commercial distribution, you should have a short period of free technical support, or you might have to pay a fee for technical support. A quick check of the company's Web site may reveal the answer.
If you don't want to pay for tech support, don't worry; you can find several good sources of information. The first place to look is under /usr/doc for a pertinent FAQ. If that doesn't work, try to find a copy of Ian Jackson's Linux FAQ with Answers. You can find this FAQ at
It is also regularly posted to comp.os.linux.announce and comp.os.linux.answers.
If you're trying to get a piece of hardware to work with Linux, you should arm yourself with as much technical information about the hardware as possible. Call the manufacturer or check its Web site. If you can't find a device driver to make the thing work, let the manufacturer know! A number of companies now regularly support Linux after having received waves of requests from users.
Whatever you do, don't immediately hop on your mail system and post to a Linux newsgroup with a message like My @#$%& from #$%@& won't work! It's a piece of $@#*!. Not only will you alienate someone who may have the answer you need, but you'll appear juvenile and will probably be flamed.
Remember, Linux is more than just an operating system; it's an evolving, worldwide project. Tomorrow's software version may fix your problem.
At this point, considering Linux's popularity, the problem is not finding information about Linux, but finding specific answers about specific problems. The definitive Internet source for most computer-related questions is rtfm.mit.edu, and you should find most of the answers in your installed system under /usr/doc in the form of FAQs and HOWTOs.
One of the best sources for the latest Linux information is the Linux Documentation Project, or LDP. If you browse to
you can find plenty of information, including the following books:
Also, don't forget about the value of your local Linux User Group. Many of these groups meet regularly to share news, sponsor guest speakers, discuss installation tips, or talk about new software. More than 75 Linux User Groups are active in the United States.
If you enjoy magazines, you can try Linux Journal, a monthly publication about Linux, published by Specialized Systems Consultants, Inc. SSC occasionally offers a sample copy to interested subscribers.
For more information, mail to
The following is a partial list of books about Linux or about various aspects of Linux (note that you might find some of them on the Internet):
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