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Linux for Mortals: Getting Started with Linux

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts about Linux written by CBT Nuggets’ Linux expert, Shawn Powers. Check the blog each week for his latest installment. 

Linux is an interesting beast. The learning curve for new users is admittedly high. It’s rough to get the hang of the command line, the commands can be cryptic, and understanding how the operating system functions can be overwhelming. As far as price barriers, however, it’s as easy to start with Linux as it is to start a rock collection. If you want to start a rock collection, you can go out in the driveway and pick up a rock. With Linux, if you want to start learning, you download one of 100 different freely-available distributions. How do you pick a distribution to start with? I’m glad you asked.FB-3

So Many Choices…

First of all, it’s important to note that there isn’t “one perfect answer” for the question of what Linux distribution to pick when you first start out. There are a few that are particularly popular, and when you’re starting out, it’s great to have lots of internet resources available when you run into trouble. Therefore, I recommend you start with one of two(ish) distributions.

Red Hat/CentOS: Red Hat is an industry standard when it comes to Linux in the corporate world. It’s powerful, stable, and has a vast network of commercial support available. Thanks to the nature of Linux and its open-source licensing model, it’s perfectly legal to download the source code for Red Hat and compile it yourself, without paying for the Red Hat licensing. This is a particularly good solution when you’re learning or starting out, and the folks at CentOS have done all the heavy lifting for you. You can download CentOS here, and have a very powerful operating system which is almost exactly like Red Hat.

I like CentOS (and Red Hat) so much, I created an entire course on learning it. You don’t need to take my course to get started with CentOS, but if you like the OS, it might be something you’ll enjoy (I’m admittedly biased!).

Ubuntu/Xubuntu: One of the other extremely popular Linux distributions is Ubuntu. (pronounced Ooo-BOON-too) As far as desktop Linux distributions go, Ubuntu and its variants are at the top of the charts when it comes to refinement and usability. I’m a personal fan of Xubuntu, which is a slightly lighter weight version of Ubuntu, but either is a powerful operating system. Unlike Red Hat, there aren’t any commercial restrictions to downloading the full operating system. If you’d like to try Ubuntu, you can download the ISO here or Xubuntu here.

Unfortunately, things do get a little more complex from there. Once you download your first Linux ISO file, what do you do with it? If you have a spare computer, you can burn the ISO file to a CD, and boot the computer from it to start the installation process. Most people don’t have a spare computer lying around, however, so the most common (and my recommended) method for starting with Linux is to use virtualization.

The VM

The easiest, and arguably, best way to start with Linux is to download a virtualization program for your existing Windows or OSX computer. This can be commercial products like VMware Workstation, VMware Fusion, Parallels, etc. Or you can download something free like Oracle’s VirtualBox or VMware Player. The commercial programs offer some powerful features that you might want or need someday, but to start out, I highly recommend you just get a free one.

With a virtualization platform, you basically get a “fake” computer system that runs inside the VM host software. You need to download an ISO file of your favorite Linux distribution, and boot the virtual computer with the ISO file “inserted” into the virtual CD-ROM drive. (Are you getting the notion there’s a lot of “virtual” stuff going on?)

Every virtualization software is a little different, so I can’t walk you through the installation process step by step, but I do demonstrate the process during my in-progress Linux Essentials course if you’re really struggling.

Once you’ve gotten Linux installed into a virtual machine, there’s only one thing left to do…

Play HARD!

The beauty of virtualization is that you can’t break the “computer system” by trying things out. The worst you might do is corrupt the VM you created, but since it’s a sandbox-like environment, just scrap that VM and start over. Also, if you are playing with your Linux install and are worried something you’re about to try might break things, just take a quick VM snapshot of your system, and you can go right back to that saved moment even if things DO break!

Linux is a powerful and empowering operating system. Like anything worthwhile, it takes some time and hard work to master. While I certainly think the Linux training I do here at CBT Nuggets is a great way to learn about Linux and open source tools, there’s nothing quite the same as doing things hands on. Whether you eventually take one of my courses or not, please give Linux a try. It’s free, it’s fun, and it can change your life.

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