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Linux is a free, Unix-like, operating system, that was originally created as a hobby by Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Linus began his work in 1991 culminating in release 1.0 of the Linux kernel in 1994.
A kernel is the core, essence, or heart of the operating system. It is the program that allocates a computer's resources. It provides the essential communication between computer applications and computer hardware providing services such as memory management, file management, device input/output (I/O), and more. By itself, the kernel is not a complete operating system. It is kind of like the engine of the car without all of the other pieces.
For Linux to be a "complete" operating system it needs to be combined with other applications and supporting software that provide other functions. The Linux kernel is combined with these other supporting applications and installation and configuration programs to make a complete operating system. This package is referred to as a distribution.
Close to one third of the "other" software in a Linux distribution comes from the GNU Project. For this reason Linux is often referred to as GNU/Linux. A strong case could actually be made for the operating system to be called GNU. However, most people use Linux to refer to an entire distribution, the Linux kernel as well as the supporting applications.
There are now literally hundreds of companies, organizations, and individuals who have released their own versions, or distributions, of operating systems based on the Linux kernel.
Linux is written and distributed under the GNU General Public License. This means that the Linux source code is freely-distributed and available to the general public.
The packaging of the kernel and various supporting software and applications composes what is called a distribution. There are many different Linux distributions. As such, individuals, organizations, and companies have:
Click here for more information on Linux distributions.
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