Linux is an operating system like any other you may be familiar with (Windows, MacOS). The main difference is that Linux is an open source operating system. This means that the source code of the OS as well as (most) the software that you install is publicly available and licensed in a manner that allows anyone to see, edit and share the code. But why is this important? From a security standpoint, this means that a large community of developers (and hackers) are able to review the code, find vulnerabilities and fix them much more rapidly than the typical patch cycles offered by major OS vendors. It also allows for those that are so inclined to participate in the development process and associated community.
So is Linux for you? That really depends on each individual. Those that are ambitious and have some technical prowess will likely enjoy the experience, and those that are highly interested in security, flexibility and control will most definitely benefit. Linux on the desktop has become much more robust over the years. There was a time when Linux was only for the super nerdy, but today the installation, maintenance and operation of Linux has become far easier for the average user. With that said, it will be a major shift for anyone that has been locked in the world of mainstream operating systems.
What can I expect? The first thing to note is that Linux is not compatible with Windows/MacOS applications (including games!), though there are many that are cross-platform. You will no longer be able to run *most* of the Windows applications you may be used to natively on your computer. This means no more Microsoft Office (Word/Excel/PowerPoint etc.). But don’t let that deter you. There is an open source alternative to almost every application that you are used to. An example is the Libre Office suite – which is the open source counterpart to Microsoft Office. It is fully compatible and operates in the same way as Microsoft Office so there is a very small learning curve. In addition to this, Microsoft Office (Office 365) offers online applications for their office suite – which look and function almost exactly as the desktop office suite does and can be used in your browser on Linux. As an aside, Microsoft has been becoming more Linux friendly in recent years, so more and more Windows native applications are coming to Linux – but don’t hold your breath on the flagship apps.
What about security? On the topic of security, there is no doubt than Linux is a more secure operating system than Windows, and MacOS is actually based on an OS similar to Linux called BSD, making it very secure (but on expensive hardware). Now, folks in the tech world have come to blows regarding why Linux is more secure than Windows – so I will not dive too deep into the topic, other than pointing out one simple fact. There are far more Windows users in the world than there are Linux users. What does this have to do with security? The motivations of the adversary target the masses because it offers better odds of successful exploitation. Apart from that fact, Linux as an OS operates completely differently (more securely) than Windows does. More of a ‘Linux: trust nothing’ rather than ‘Windows: trust everything’ situation.
I want to try Linux, where do I start? This is not a technical write up on how to install Linux so I will not go through that in this article. Here I will go over some of the high-level terms/components that will get you on your way.
Linux: Linux is not really the right term to describe the operating system. Linux is really the kernel, but don’t let this confuse you – calling the OS Linux is appropriate.
Distribution: Linux as an OS has many distributions. These are basically flavors of the operating system. Each offer a different look and feel, base software, package managers and more. Some are even purpose-built for specific use cases.
ISO Image: Linux is installed using an ISO image that has to be placed on a USB key (or burned to a DVD if you are old school 🙂 ) and made bootable. You can boot to this ISO image and choose not to install – but rather try Linux – which is where you should start and is highly recommended before installing.
Etcher: Etcher is a small application that will allow you to make a bootable USB drive with the ISO that you download. It is simple, fast and free.
Okay, I REALLY want to get started. What distribution is best for beginners? This depends if you want to go full steam on something new or you want to try to make your first experience with Linux as close to what you are used to on Windows as possible. Below are a few great options to get you started, but there are far more options to choose from out there. I have listed the distributions from most Windows-esque to least – though most Linux distributions should not pose a challenge in learning once you begin to poke around.
Kubuntu: This distribution has become one of my favorites recently (I am writing this article on my Kubuntu desktop). If offers a simple and elegant environment that is easy to use and easy to adapt to for new windows converts.
Linux Mint: Linux Mint is another good distribution to start with if you are coming from the windows world. It offers a simple and familiar interface with great performance, even on older hardware.
Ubuntu: Ubuntu is one of the most popular distributions on the market. It offers a powerful platform that is well documented and holds the title for the most widely used desktop Linux distribution (coincidentally, both of the above mentioned distributions are based on Ubuntu). The interface will be unfamiliar coming from the Windows world but is easy to adapt to and once accustomed, has a very robust workflow.