Just what is "Linux"?

Jack Wallen
Jan 27, 2010
Updated • Nov 29, 2012

Recently I have had several people call me on mis-stepping the nomenclature surrounding the Linux operating system. But I get this a lot, and from all points of the spectrum: From newbies to power users. The central issue that I have is that this issue causes great confusion with newbies and anger with power users. To that end, I thought I would put forth a few ideas that could solve this issue. It's confusing, it's frustrating, and it's rooted in years of heavy geek war. So read on and chime in. Your input is valuable.

I will preface this by saying I am not associated with any distribution or any developer. I am a technical writer who has covered the Linux operating system since 1998. And although I have interviewed and chatted many of the top-level developers and creators (even Linus himself), I am not in constant contact with them. Now...let's discuss this "Linux" issue.

Technically speaking...

If you look at the Wikipedia definition of Linux you will find it terms Linux as the "generic term for UNIX-like computer operating systems based on the Linux kernel." So already we have the purists up in arms. Why is that? The purists speak of "Linux" as nothing more than a kernel. But if Linux is only a kernel, what is an operating system? Again, going back to Wikipedia, the definition of an  operating system is an "...interface between hardware and user which is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of a computer." No mention of a kernel.

If you look up Microsoft Windows on Wikipedia, you find no mention of a kernel. Why is that? Why, when attempting to define an operating system is there such scare references to the kernel? I suggest this is a matter of simplification used to help the average person to understand the operating system.

Think about it...technically you can break the operating system into many constituent pieces:

  • Kernel
  • HAL
  • Desktop
  • Subsytems

and more. You can also break the human body into pieces:

  • Brain
  • Eyes
  • Skeleton
  • Nerves
  • Heart

and more. And like the operating system, each piece is worthless alone. What exactly can you do with the Linux kernel without the other pieces around it? Not much. There are plenty of desktop environments and window managers available, but none of them will run without X Windows, which will not run without the kernel.

To the purists, Linux is a kernel and nothing more. The hardest-core purists will tell you there are distributions created using the Linux kernel. So, what would the purists call Ubuntu or Fedora or Mandriva? Would you say "Ubuntu: The operating system using the Linux kernel". No, you say "Ubuntu Linux" or just "Ubuntu". The name "Ubuntu" implies Linux.

To the new users, Linux is an operating system just like Windows and Mac. And it is my opinion that is the precise way the term should be used. It removes confusion, it makes it more accessible to a broader spectrum of people, and it brings a simplicity to marketing and documentation.

And think about it this way - the human body, without its kernel (the heart) is not longer a human, but a cadaver. Ubuntu (or Mandriva, or Puppy, or SuSE), without its kernel, is nothing but a collection of code that can not be used. The pieces are, effectively, dead.

Pundits and journalists and technical writers are always getting hammered for using the term "Linux" improperly. Although that is technically correct, what most are trying to do is simplify the verbiage to avoid confusion among the masses. And for most it works. Linus Torvalds really only created one piece of the Linux operating system - the kernel. It is the most important piece of the puzzle, but still only one piece. And to say that is the only piece deserving of the term "Linux" is doing all of the other hard work an injustice.

Linux is a whole - not a piece. There is the Linux kernel, the Linux Hardware Abstraction Layer, the Linux desktop environments, the Linux sub-systems, and much more. What do you say? Do you have a take on this "argument"? If so, share your take on it here on Ghacks.


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  1. Michael Lankton said on February 15, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Linux is a kernel. It is also the word we use to describe the os, which is made of the linux kernel, the GNU userland, various pieces that have evolved from SysV and BSD, and the X windowing system. The fact of the matter is that every distribution is both it’s own os and a variant of linux. Confused? Think of the various distributions of linux as being like the various flavors of BSD. Mostly the same under the hood, but no longer binary compatible because they are different enough. And this explanation in a nutshell is not entirely accurate either.
    Oh, and don’t talk about linux desktop environments. That X crap will run on any system it will compile on, has nothing to do with linux.

  2. Anonymous said on January 31, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Wikipedia is a tertiary source of information. Us computersaurus are the primary sources of information. We’ve been doing this computing thing for decades, long before homebrew computer era of Mr. Gates and Mr. Wozniak.

    When I started in the computing industry in 1963, I learned the kernel was a program that managed the hardware resources . The “operating system” was the low level of software that makes the computer usable and provides support for the “application software”. The kernel belonged to the operating system and it was not an operating system in itself. This is the definition that RMS uses.

    You will find books today that define OS as the kernel. I guess that’s ok.

  3. darryl said on January 29, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Common usage is what determines the meanings of words, not necessarily what you want them to mean.

    It’s a bit of a worry that after 20 years we are still struggling with basic terminology.

    Etymology says the common usage for a word is it’s true meaning, the definition of words is not up too a commitee or an interest group. If you talk to someone who is aware of the IT or computer industry, and you say “It’s Linux” they will know exactly what you mean.

    As the article states, an operating system is a chunk of software that allowes applications to run on you’re computer. This is what MS windows does, it is what VMS does, what OSX does, what linux does even what DOS does.

    Users use applications, Applications use the operating system, and the Operating System works with the hardware to provide the functions and services the Applications require.

    The only blurring of the lines is that Linux is a bare bones operating system, and with only command line support, it’s left up to other parties to create a “windowing” or GUI system for the raw kernel of linux.

    With MS or OSX that is not the case, just like Linux though the linux operating system (minus a GUI windowing system) is a ONE VENDOR deal.
    You get you’re raw kernel from Linus and you build you’re Windowing GUI (Gnome, KDE…) ontop of the operating system. Making Gnome/KDE type software APPLICATIONS that run on you’re linux operating system just was Open Office does.

    MS is different in that it’s GUI is fully intergrated withing the “kernel” and is not a seperate applications.

    In the begininning, Linux wanted to be able to run UNIX applications on his 386 without having to purchase a UNIX license.
    RMS just about at that time, was cloning UNIX CC compiler and calling it GCC.

    Linus wanted Linux to get to the state where he could run UNIX CC or it’s clone GCC without having UNIX.
    Linux even asked if anyone would give him the POSIX specifications to help him, as he would not purchase it.

    So RMS had GCC and Linux was close to getting Linux to run GCC.

    SO was born GNU/Linux, both born from a desire to duplicate and close an application and a Operating System. UNIX is an operating system.

    It would be no different to MS windows being completely skinable, so you could create you’re own GUI’s and windowing system. And thats exactly what is happening with KDE type ports to Windows.

    The OS should be transparent, and largely irrelevant.

    Bu tif you ask someone what Linux is, if they know at all they will say it’s that operating system people give away.

  4. Edwin said on January 29, 2010 at 9:46 am

    I’m just wonder how many people installed Gentoo Linux. Looking at google trend, this isn’t a popular distro, as compared to Ubuntu or Fedora. I got it installed once many years back. Installation process was tedious, and it took me about 3 days and nights to build up to desktop, KDE and Gnome. I used it for about a year, and decided to tear down the OS to resume Win XP, instead.
    Gentoo Linux does have a very steep learning curve if one read all the details and hands-on installation. However, I do experienced I spend more time on coding, tweaking and optimizing Gentoo, than fully use its tools and office applications for work purposes.
    This time round, I’m trying to do the same installation again from minimal CD. Im a Gentoo enthusiast, doesn’t go to the extend of a developer.
    Does anyone consider Gentoo a good choice?

  5. kingpin said on January 28, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Any anybody idea How Red Hat Compares To Linux?

  6. Edmundo Carmona said on January 28, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I think nobody has brought it up so…. here I come:

    So you think it should be called linux for simplicity/marketting, right? That’s ok… and I hate to break this news to guys who only get to make the name call based on simplicity, but it won’t get _any_ simpler when you start seeing more GNU distros (hopefully) that have no Linux (like what debian is like now). Think of:


    What will people call them for simplicity’s sake? Debian non-linux?

    So there you go… you have the full OS… and _no_ linux. It’s not like I don’t like linux (I like it a lot) but I do recognize that linux is not the whole thing. Linux is the lowest part of it… but it can be replaced… but it will be GNU in all three instances (linux-based, hurd-based or bsb-based). Now tell me it doesn’t make sense to call it GNU.

  7. Anonymous said on January 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    If you look up Windows in wikipedia you’ll find no mention of a kernel not because it’s not there but because in Windows the kernel, the GUI and the rest of the system is interweaved (hope i used this one right) and cannot be seperated…
    And because in the minds of the rest of the people OS = windows, it is very diffucult for them to understand how the Linux OSes differ…

  8. The Mighty Buzzard said on January 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm




  9. userzero said on January 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    My understanding is that in the Unix world (at least, in the BSD world) people usually consider the “operating system” to be just the basic system, which allows users to boot the system and do some very simple tasks, such as editing configuration files with a text editor. Then you’re supposed to install extra applications on top of that base Unix system, so you can do more complicated tasks with your computer.

    If a Unix-like “operating system” consists of just the rudimentary base system, then the Linux kernel plus GNU tools make together such an operating system. So perhaps the correct term for this OS is “GNU/Linux”.

    But GNU is more than just programs, it is a project that advocates the idea that computer users should have a choice available to them, where they are free to share, modify and control all the programs that they use. This ideal is spelled out in the preamble of the GNU GPL license, and it’s this ideal that makes it easy for programmers to improve GNU/Linux and to write cool new applications on top of GNU/Linux. Also many users who have switched from proprietary operating systems to GNU/Linux have found it liberating that, once they get used to the Unix-like way of doing things, they are actually in control of their OS and not the other way around.

    So, although kernel is the most important part of a Unix-like OS, GNU is just as important as Linux. Also, historically speaking, Linus Torvalds would probably never have been able to create the Linux kernel if the free GNU programming tools weren’t available to him. And the Linux kernel would have been merely of academic interest to others, if there weren’t already all those GNU programs available, so people could start using Linux plus GNU right away as a working operating system. So, if GNU never existed, we wouldn’t have today a Unix-like system that is based on the Linux kernel.

  10. YankDownUnder said on January 28, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Yet another reason why linux doesn’t get very far in the eyes of Mac or MS Windows users. Even when we’re ON THE SAME SIDE OF THE FENCE, there’s nothing but frivolous bantering about really nothing much of anything – just a show of “I know more than YOU! Nyah!”. This is also one of the reasons why “linux newbies”, first-timers, get thrown for a loop when trying to ask for support from “the community”. Maybe energy should be saved by shutting up, stowing the egos and actually applying some true knowledge and wisdom? To the real issues at hand and to the better marketing of GNU/linux to the public?

    I personally love to just state to folks “I don’t run Microsoft Windows.” They then say, “You use a Mac?”. And then I say, “No, I use something that I know I can depend on.” – and they know I’m an IT consultant and then they ask further – and I tell further. Easy peasy.

    1. Genisis said on January 29, 2010 at 4:21 am

      Very well stated and my feelings on the matter as well. Nothing else really needs to be said.

    2. Ross Regabliati said on January 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

      Maybe energy should be saved by shutting up, stowing the egos and actually applying some true knowledge and wisdom?

      Most of the things you say sound good on the surface and probably gave you some serious wood but they are mindless.
      You seem to think that this ‘energy’ can be transferred and that its a zero sum game.
      Spending less time writing redundant articles ( hey, how about something original and rating the desktops?) or going around comment sections telling people to shut up wont results in more newbies taking up GNU-Linux (I keep Linux for newbies and the GNU-Linux for tech oriented people).
      Doing less of one WILL NOT increase more of the other.

      But then again logic always takes a back seat when one can pump their chest out dishing out savvy ‘burns’.

      There are a lot of things that get beaten to death (anything fruit related) in tech.
      Stick around for more than a few years and you will see the cycles repeat and the stories recycled. But what might be old news to you will be new news to others and you can keep on telling these kids to get off your lawn.

  11. FreeBooteR said on January 28, 2010 at 9:59 am

    I call it GNU/Linux, if anyone wants to punch me in the face about it they are welcome to try.

  12. Yngve said on January 28, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Have to agree with Dotan here. The problem with using the term “Linux” is that it scares a lot of people because it is associated with complicated, geeky, problematic (hw compability issues etc) and so on amongst the layman. I’d rather say Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE and so on. I mean, you don’t say “Unix” when talking about OSX now do you? You say OSX, and then if you want to be more specific, you say “.. which is based on Unix”.
    @Pascal You are missing the point. It is correct that it is somewhat “incorrect” to just name it Linux, but the point is to avoid confusion. The common user don’t really need to know what a kernel, window manager and a desktop environment is. He just needs to know it works and how to operate his applications. The power user on the other hand, would want to know. But no need to scare off the common man by a lot of tech-words he has no understanding of!

  13. Dotan Cohen said on January 28, 2010 at 8:25 am

    I recommend just not using the word “Linux” at all. If I am referring to a particular distro, I say it. Who cares what kernel it uses? If fact, some distros can run multiple kernels, such as Debian. So when talking about Ubuntu, just never use the term Linux. Nobody cares what kernel it has.

  14. Tom said on January 28, 2010 at 7:35 am

    “makes it more accessible to a broader spectrum of people” – I think this point is the key. Saying “Linux” may not be the most precise thing, but who cares? When I see “Linux” in the navigation tab on this site, I know what it means. Linux has gained a lot of popularity so there’s bound to be people less familiar with the terminology. No need to make it more complicated than it is. People who need to refer to the kernel can do so. Not likely people are going to walk around saying they use GNU/Linux.

  15. The Mighty Buzzard said on January 28, 2010 at 2:30 am

    See, I’ve got a solution to the whole Linux vs. GNU/Linux debate. Whenever someone says GNU/Linux to me, I politely ask if they’d like a punch in the GNOSE/Face.

  16. Pascal said on January 28, 2010 at 2:21 am

    I don’t agree

    What you call “the Linux desktop environments” are not Linux specific

    GNOME runs on Solaris (and is default environment there) or BSD
    KDE too

    That’s because they are set applications, which can be replaced

    Or you can see it the way around, X GNOME, KDE can be run on other kernels

    Debian can run on Hurd and FreeBSD kernels, in addition to Linux, for example

  17. lefty.crupps said on January 28, 2010 at 1:01 am

    No mention of GNU in the article, but of the “Linux desktop environments” and the “Linux sub-systems” ? Thats a bit odd, since some (most?) of those DEs run on the BSDs, and KDE4 is working to run on Windows even.

    Linux is the kernel, but some distros refer to themselves as DistroX Linux. Debian is the only one that I can think of, off the top of my head, who does it right with Debian GNU/Linux; you can also now run Debian GNU/kBSD using the BSD kernel.

    So, I’d say that a “Linux OS” would be a Linux kernel with tools and apps and whatnot from all kinds of people and organizations; if someone asks what a is a Linux OS or a Linux Distro, it is Free Software put together to make an operating system. Because its Free, there can be a million variations on this single theme, which makes it very very different from “an operating system just like Windows and Mac.” With those, you have one option and you use it; with GNU/Linux distros, you have a lot of options which you, as a user, can decide how it works together (if you so choose).

  18. Linerd said on January 28, 2010 at 12:09 am

    I mostly find myself just saying Linux, but I can see where RMS is coming from when he insists on it being called GNU/Linux. He really did get the short end of the stick with it always being called Linux. Linus basically took the GNU OS, stripped out the Hurd kernel and replaced it with the Linux kernel and now everyone calls it Linux. The vast majority of those handy command lines tools that we Linux geeks like to use are from the GNU userland. Both Linus and RMS have made huge contributions to the community and deserve recognition for it.

    Regarding all the distributions; should we always say Ubuntu Linux, RHEL, Slackware Linux, etc.? It was always quite common to just use the broad term Unix, but if you spent much time working with the different versions you know that HP-UX, IRIX, Solaris (and SunOS), etc. were all a good bit different from each other. On one you’d list processes with ps -elf and then you’d get onto another machine and have to use ps -aux to get the same type of output. There are many more examples of these idiosynchacies.

    So to be politically correct, I think GNU/Linux is fine.

    1. TGM said on January 28, 2010 at 10:24 am


      Linus did not take “the GNU OS, stripped out the Hurd kernel and replaced it with the Linux kernel”. He built Linux from Minix, and ported some GNU parts himself. Get your history right.

  19. Otto said on January 27, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I was going to say that “kernel” is a Unix specific term. However, Windows is based on VMS and VMS had a kernel too. Always quick to innovate, Microsoft renamed it the MSKernel(tm).

    1. Steve said on January 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm

      V+1=W M+1=N S+1=T VMS+1=WNT
      H+1=I A+1=B L+1=M HAL+1=IBM

  20. Transcontinental said on January 27, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    In other words, Linux is more of a species, when Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, Puppu, SuSE would be breeds. A poodle is a dog, but not all dogs are poodles.
    I just got to learn a few things. Linux based OSs frighten many of the non-techies because of what appears to be less automatic in procedures (how often do I not hear, “with Linux you’ll have to use a script?) and because of lack of applications.

    1. darryl said on January 29, 2010 at 3:20 pm

      One of the lead developers moved from DEC to MS and was one of the lead developers for Windows NT, so you would assume there would be some techniques that he would have brought with him. But if you have used VMS and Windows NT, you would know that the two operating system are not the same, windows NT is *NOT* a port of VMS.

      VMS is an excellent operating system, and is streets ahead of Linux (which is the OS) in many many respects. VMS is still used for the most mission critical applications and can have up times that Linux or Windows could only dream of.

      Also the VMS operating system cannot be ported to the x86 platform easily due to archetechture issues.

      The closes operating system to VMS, would have to be AmigaOS which bears many similarities to VMS.
      VMS can do things Linux and Windows can only dream about. but you need an alpha type CPU or PPC to run it.

      Also as for documentation and quality control FOSS/Linux could learn a huge amount from DEC and VMS it is by far the best documentated operating system ive had the pleasure of using.

      Most who have used VMS would be very happy if Windows NT WAS in fact a port of VMS.
      OR that Linus decided to clone VMS instead of UNIX, for his project.

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