The Small Biz Guide to Understanding Linux & Open Source

Doubtless you’ve heard of Linux, free software, and open source software. It’s important for small business owners to understand the finer points of these, because knowing what they are, and what role they play, is crucial to developing a smart business strategy.

Let’s start with a quick overview: Linux is a computer operating system, like Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Unix. In fact, Linux is a clone of Unix. Unix is the venerable, battle-tested operating system that has powered the world’s servers—from mainframes down to small department servers—since the early 1970s. There are many different variants of Unix. Some are open source and free of cost, such as FreeBSD and OpenBSD, and some are closed-source commercial systems such as IBM’s AIX and Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX. Apple’s Mac OS X is a certified Unix variant, while Linux is a non-certified Unix-like operating system.

Who Uses Linux? You Do

Linux has displaced Unix, and to a lesser degree Windows, all over the planet. Linux literally powers the Internet. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Netflix are all Linux-powered. The world’s 500 fastest supercomputers are 96 percent Linux. What else runs on Linux?

  • Your Android smartphone or tablet
  • Your set-top TV box
  • Computer networking routers, firewalls, and Internet gateways
  • Automotive entertainment systems
  • Factory automation
  • The Large Hardon Collider
  • The London Stock Exchange
  • IBM mainframes

And much, much more: all Linux. Linux is main stream and has been for several years. It runs on everything from tiny embedded devices to the world’s biggest and busiest datacenters.

The biggest recent technological advance—the Cloud—runs on Linux. I know, you’re sick of hearing “cloud,” and it’s true that the marketing peeps have beaten the word to death. But it really is a giant leap forward in managing the datacenter, and it opens up a world of flexible, efficient possibilities that reduces costs while offering more and better functionality.

The single arena where it does not dominate is the PC desktop, which is still owned by Microsoft Windows. Which is a shame, as Windows remains a big security risk, and Linux makes a great PC and laptop operating system. It’s stable, secure, and you can download a wealth of high-quality applications with a click.

The Many Flavors of Linux

Unlike the restrictive monocultures of Windows and OS X, there is a lot competition in the Linux world. Linux comes in hundreds of different variants (which are called “distributions”), and they offer something for everyone. UbuntuRed Hat, and SUSE are enterprise Linux distributions with commercial support. Ubuntu is also available for free, and some of the other top free-of-cost distributions include FedoraMageiaMintopenSUSE, and Debian. You can learn more about these distributions at Distrowatch

You can freely download and install just about any Linux distribution, and it’s pretty easy. But what if you want to buy computers with Linux preloaded? Take a look at 5 Top Linux Computer Vendors for Small Business to learn where to get Linux already installed and configured on computers.

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