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Linux is the free, open source operating system of choice among Academy students. Various incarnations include the user-friendly Red Hat, Mandrake, Ubuntu and SuSE distributions, as well as Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, Arch, and Androgenous Mime.

For those who are currently using the Microsoft Windows Operating System but would like to the make switch to something a bit, shall we say, more fun the number of willing Linux geeks ( some more disturbingly hardcore than others ) makes the transition to Open Source much easier.

Besides, come on, all the cool kids are using Linux.

As an interesting side note, the Free Software Foundation promotes the name of GNU/Linux, as Linux is built around the GNU toolkit. However, as GNU tools can be used on any Unix based system (and most have been ported to Windows by now), many feel no need to engage in such pedantics.

Trying Linux[edit]

When people come to the Academy, they invariably come in close contact with other geeks. And when geeks come together, magical things happen. One of those things is the installation of Linux. This is just to really point you in the right direction, rather than a full-fledged guide of some sort.


A Linux distribution is a Linux kernel, along with all of the necessary scripts and quite often contains a large number of programs. One of the consequences of having an open source operating system is that few people want the same thing from their computer. As a result, there are over 200 distributions out there. Now among ourselves, we've tried out several distributions ranging from the insanely user-friendly to beta-stage minimalist, so we'll try to sort some of this out for you, in case you want to try out Linux, or just broaden your Linux horizons.


Trying Linux really is easy, with LiveCDs. , such as Knoppix. They allow you to try a fully-featured linux distribution in a matter of minutes, as you can just boot off the CD and go. If you want to take the next step and install linux, many LiveCDs have install capabilities, copying their entire contents to your hard drive.


Being one of the first available (if not the first), Knoppix is among most popular of the LiveCDs. Knoppix is Debian-based, with an install feature, making it one of the few pleasant Debian installs. Knoppix is highly customizable, so you can find a great many Knoppices out there.

Damn Small Linux[edit]

Originally a Knoppix variant, Damn Small Linux is a Debian-based LiveCD designed to fit on a 50 MB minidisc.


Slax is a Slackware based LiveCD, also designed to fit onto a minidisc. Because Slax is modular, you can build your own by including the modules of programs you want. As such, there are already Slax derivatives. Some don't respect the 50 MB rule, but that isn't a problem unless you're actually using minidiscs.

User-Friendly Distributions[edit]


Among the most popular distributions right now. Mandriva is known for having GUI tools for pretty much everything. If you want to be a casual Linux user, this may be a good choice, but we'd recommend against it for more hardcore users.

Mandriva uses RPMs to distribute programs, but they are often different from Red Hat packages.

Mandriva was created when Mandrake and Conectiva merged.

Fedora Core[edit]

Fedora is the free successor to Red Hat Linux, which has moved towards a corporate distribution, making it unsuitable by the home user. The current stable distribution is Fedora Core 3, but Fedora Core 4 should be available this summer.


A relatively new player. People say good things about it in terms of ease of installation and use. Uses Debian package management.


Ubuntu is a new, and very popular distro based on Debian. Noted for being extremely pretty, extremely easy to use, and secure as well. Ubuntu does not have a "root" user by default, instead opting to have users run privileged commands via sudo. And if that didn't mean anything to you, Ubuntu has reputedly excellent support on their site. This has been the recommendation for many new-comers to Linux if you're interested in converting. The ISO available from is also available on the Shared Network for awesome AcadaNetwork download speeds. Contact Doug McGeehan or go to \\Snakesonacademy\Programs\Misc. Applications\PC Customization\Linux (must be on the AcadaNetwork to access; click link for more info).


I don't think any of us have tried this, but by reputation, SUSE is an excellent user-friendly distribution. SUSE is now owned by Novell, which is said to have excellent support.

Less User-Friendly[edit]


Debian allegedly has the worst installer known to man. However, after the initial install, the idea is to never have to reinstall, but just update your programs. As such, the Debian project is the source of the apt-get package management system. Debian is supposed to be fairly comfortable to learn on, and has one of the larger user-bases, which translates into a high level of support.


Gentoo comes in three stages, allowing you to build a very customized system. In Stage 1, you compile your entire system yourself, and install a bootloader, such as LILO or GRUB. In Stage 2, you compile your base system yourself. In Stage 3, the base system is precompiled. Gentoo uses an imitation of the BSD ports package management, known as portage (with the emerge command line interface). Most or all packages are compiled from source. A great feature is USE flags, which let you easily select which features are to be compiled in to your packages. Also has an extensive installation guide and documentation, and a helpful troubleshooting forum.


If you learn Red Hat, you know Red Hat. If you learn Slackware, you know Linux. - Ancient Slacker Proverb.

Slackware is known for being a vanilla Linux distribution. While it has a very user-friendly (albeit commandline) installer, there is a notorious learning curve. You log into the command line and beyond the Slackware book that comes on the installer discs, you're left to your own devices. This makes it ideal for learning, because you do not have the crutches that other distributions have, but it also frightens off new users. Has a minimal packaging system that notably does not check for dependencies.

Arch Linux[edit]

Arch is a minimalist distribution based on the ideas of Crux, with some attributes of RedHat (mostly in the form of file placement). Includes the pacman package management and ABS ports system (will not work at Northwest). All packages are compiled for i686 processors (Pentium II and above, as well as pretty much all AMDs). Combined with its minimalist philosophy, this makes Arch a very speedy distribution. Arch is still in beta, though it is surprisingly stable.

Choosing a Window Manager/Desktop Environment[edit]

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An OS X themed Linux desktop

Choosing a Desktop Environment and/or Window Manager is another big choice. You should try different ones to see which suits your style.

A Desktop Environment is program or set of programs that provide all the necessary tools for a complete graphical user interface. A DE will often provide a default set of desktop icons, toolbars, a window manager, a toolkit, a theme manager, and features to allow programs to work together more successfully. An advantage of Desktop Environments is that programs can often share code, for example file browsers are usually the same across different KDE or Gnome apps. Often programs that are written for a particular Desktop Environment begin with the same letter, 'k' for KDE apps and 'g' for gnome apps. (note: KDE/Gnome does not need to be used in order to run KDE/Gnome apps)

A window manager is the program that actually controls how windows are displayed on the screen. They take care of how windows are moved, resized, created, and destroyed. Often WMs that are not associated with a DE will provide man unique features to aid in window grouping, placement, and navigation. WMs that are associated with DE's tend to have fewer features, leave things up to the DE, and generally act similar to Microsoft Windows.

While it is possible to run programs with neither a DE or a WM it is extremely inefficient and often very difficult. The choice to either run a DE or only a WM depends greatly on taste. For the more adventurous users parts of different DEs and WMs can be combined. Most often this is done by combining a non-default WM such as fluxbox with a DE such as KDE, but may also be reversed to add features such as application theme support or desktop icons to a WM.

Desktop Environments[edit]


KDE is the most popular desktop environment, but is decidedly bloaty and resource intensive. However, it does contain the Konqueror file browser, which might as well be a direct port of Windows Explorer, as it views files, web pages, Samba shares, FTP shares, and probably more.

  • Uses the qt toolkit
  • Default Window Manager: kwin

GNOME is a desktop environment done by the GNU guys, and was notably used in most versions of Red Hat Linux. While less bloaty than KDE, GNOME is no lightweight.

  • Uses the GTK toolkit
  • Default Window Manager: Metacity

XFCE uses GTK and their own C++ classes to achieve a fast, and reputedly pretty, desktop environment.

  • Default Window Manager: xfwm4

Window Managers[edit]

  • Enlightenment - The E17 version looks very promising. Possibly the window manager with the most Eye Candy. Can be confusing at first.
  • Fluxbox (Blackbox and Openbox) - Fluxbox and Openbox are based off of Blackbox. Provides good support for applications, the 'slit', and a tool/icon bar.
  • IceWM
  • Window Maker
  • Sawfish
  • FVWM - Very customizable, but takes effort.
  • Ion - All windows are set up in frames that do not overlap. Very easy to use with out a mouse (good for programing) but can be annoying for everyday use. Provides it's own scripting language (lua).
  • TreeWM - Allows windows to be grouped in desktops, and desktops to be grouped within other Desktops. Designed with function above looks.
  • wmii - Tries to combine the advantages/features of many window managers all into one.

Helpful Links[edit]

See Also[edit]