How to Learn Linux, Addendum

I swear, I’m not exclusively picking on CompTIA lately. I just happen to be really interested in what they’re doing, especially within the context of Linux. Also, since my last post, I’m suddenly receiving emails from their mailing list even though I never explicitly signed up for one. Weeeee.

One such email included a list of recent blog posts from their official blog, which appears to be a planet aggregate of sorts. The headline article was titled “How to Learn Linux” by Priyanka Sarangabany. It’s a well written perfunctory that blends advice given within the last twenty years with some minor contemporary flavor added. Whilst reading, I tried hard to demarcate between the objective of the article – as laid out by the title – and this nagging feeling of being grossly out of touch with reality. Despite my best urges to jettison the aforementioned intuitions, it got the better of me.

It might be just this article in particular, but most How do I Learn Linux articles lack a certain ubi we vera, or “In reality, professionals encounter this.” I think this bears some talk, even if not within the confines of the direction pointing. This piece in particular doesn’t actually get to the How To part until right near the end.

There’s no doubt that Linux is quickly becoming a powerful force in the IT industry. In fact, you’re probably using Linux without even knowing it! From smartphones and home media centers to smart thermostats and in-car GPS systems, this open-source operating system is quietly running nearly all supercomputers and cloud servers that power our daily lives.

Priyanka Sarangabany

One very common complaint you’ll hear lobbied from the Free Software Community, especially those who rabble-rouse with RMS, is that it’s a travesty when people don’t truly understand that when you’re using Linux, you’re actually using a complete suite of GNU software tools alongside the Linux kernel. Their vain efforts to correct the misnomer of simply Linux were to address it as GNU/Linux (along with several other strident misnomers). Regardless, the point remains that people running Linux are in fact taking advantage of a complete set of GNU tools developed by the Free Software Foundation way back in the day. The Linux community, however, is ripe with all sorts of misnomers such as the one illustrated here. Free Software/Open Source is quite muddy in terms of who uses what, and more importantly, who cares specifically. A similar phenomenon was at one time witnessed when Android first exploded onto the scene compliments of Google (it wasn’t originally a Google product ;)). The Android OS is running Linux as its kernel. Consequently, most in the Linux community saw this as a striking win for our cause. Long had we waited for the day when Linux saturation was prevalent enough in the user-space to render it a contender worthy of use cases the likes of which only Windows and OSX seemed to garner. However, hardly any of these smartphone users are taking advantage of Linux itself, explicitly. Furthermore, the smartphone space as it pertains to Android is an absolute shithole. Polluted by countless dumpster bin devices with all sorts of malicious software on them, privacy-raping middleware compliments of Google’s nefarious growth trajectory, and an overall exhaustion from being trained to ante up for a new device every six months, the fact that anyone is using Linux at all is both a non-sequitur and buried under the morass.

Some of the truth here is that the misnomers aren’t just about calling a duck a duck; they mean more than correcting bad speech, for better or worse. Not all Linux jobs are glorious administrative escapades where the objective of reformation in the user space is going to earn you badges of honor. It’s not an accident that Linux finds itself reserved for the infrastructure roles. Linux is mostly far too technical for 90% of so-called users, and the fact that Android runs atop it doesn’t mean that you’ve accomplished much other than distributing shadow copies. Emphasis here should be placed on the “quietly running” remark. You’d do well to keep this in mind.

Why Is Linux So Prevalent?

There are multiple reasons why Linux is considered one of the most diverse and powerful operating systems in the world. To understand why Linux is loved by many, it is important to identify its defining characteristics.

Open Source: As Denise Dumas, the vice president of software engineering and operating systems at Red Hat, said in a recent CompTIA webinar about Linux, “Open source is a place where innovation ferments and happens.” When software is released under an open source license, people can view and build upon the software’s original source code. This feature encourages software developers to adopt Linux and apply their own improvements to the code. As result, Linux’s public domain drives constant evolution and advancement.

UNIX-Like System: Linux behaves in a similar manner to a Unix system. This means that the operating system relies on multiple parts/programs that carry out specific jobs collectively. This is a fundamental principle of good system design and is at the core of what makes Linux so great.

Stable: As a public domain that is constantly evolving, Linux remains an incredibly secure operating system. In the words of Eric S. Raymond, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Linux’s general public license allows a plethora of software developers to rapidly identify issues in code and just as quickly respond to fix the errors.

Free: Linux is priceless. Literally! The underlying software of Linux has been free to download and install since its creation. For this reason, Linux remains one of the most accessible, diverse operating systems to this day.

Priyanka Sarangabany

All of this is 100% true. But it also 100% only panders to programmers or people looking for software to do something that doesn’t cost them a thing in terms of material price.

Flagshipping Linux’s success in contemporary terms as simply its adherence to Free Software and Open Source ideologies is missing the target just a bit. It’s an attractive aspect only if you’re a software developer or belong to a software engineering group specializing in Linux itself or creating software to run on it. By extension, an end-user benefits from this in that they have some assurance, as ESR puts it, that bugs are simply squashed faster than with alternative monolithic or bureaucratic projects. But end-users most likely don’t care about the fact that the source code for their favorite programs, let alone the entire OS, is available to them whenever. Concurrently, most IT management doesn’t care either. The questions of can and how are the servers going to be supported are the real tests, and we’re so far down the line from the days when there was real competition between IIS and Apache that the lines aren’t as clear as they once were. The fact that Linux is open-source matters only to the kernel team, its contributors, and upstream distributions that repackage the kernel and a collection of software. Your garden-variety sysadmin isn’t going to fondle this too much, at least for billable hours. In general contexts, management presented with the proposition of dedicating resources to retrofitting an open-source project to meet internal needs usually falls out of their chair laughing, and simply resorts to searching for another hopefully complete package. Of course, this says nothing of the emergence of IoT and cloud technologies. Many major industrial vendors are leveraging Linux as a second-class citizen in customer-facing equipment, a handful of specialized server vendors are selling products that are possible only because of Linux, and a vast majority of the cloud-focused architecture is built on or is exploiting Linux in a non-trivial capacity. Although the cut here between administration/architect/engineer is obvious, it’s mostly either this or programming.

Another thing: Implementing Linux isn’t free. While you can download the software and, depending upon the license, run it in your enterprise without legal incident, you most certainly had better have the internal support available to compliment it. Most SMBs are in a position where they could benefit substantially from the use of Linux and derivative technologies. But most SMBs are woefully ill-equipped to float the administrative overhead that running Linux actually entails. The work of Canonical and RedHat have made employing Linux easier over the years, but it hasn’t yet given people the Windows-feel that they hopelessly crutch against. Yes, it costs money as well to administer Windows systems. However, there’s no doubt that a more technical skillset is required for Linux.

One other thing: the use of the term public domain here is inaccurate. RMS, ESR, and Bruce Perens – amongst many others – have historically been cited as having railed against the claim that Linux transacts in this specific realm.

Over the years, companies such as Red Hat have put effort toward making system administration and development easier to master. In turn, today’s Linux graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are highly functional and significantly less intimidating.

Priyanka Sarangabany

This is, unfortunately, false. At least the final statement is. While Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE have done a tremendous amount of work to streamline new technologies and shore up existing ones, these efforts have very little influence over the GUI/DE projects. These things fly free at their own pace and, frankly, it’s one of the most toxic components of the modern Linux user experience IMHO aside from the stupid number of distributions to choose from. Some insight:

  • Hardly any of these DE are completely functional. Some of them are close to highly functional, but not quite what’s available from traditional Windows/OSX. The very flexibility that these projects benefit from is the same aspect that ultimately undermines their acceptance. The divergence from traditional – but more importantly established – desktop metaphors witnessed in most DE are entirely unacceptable in an enterprise space; they’re barely passable in the user space. For the two or three that still look like they care about helping users rather than hindering them, they’re either too watered down or too full of flourish, coupled with programs that are too convoluted.
  • Consequently, the intimidation factor remains a plague as it’s more real than what the author of this post or perhaps others would proselytize. Take a look at the following DE projects:
  • Not only are there a wealth of choices, but they all express the usual metaphors in different ways which are sometimes really non-intuitive. It’s not a pedestrian user that’s going to find any safe haven here. And if the DE isn’t delivered as a first-class citizen in the DE roundup from a given distribution, it likely isn’t going to be given the time of day; shoehorning a DE into a distribution flavor that didn’t ship native is a bit of a gamble. This all sounds great for a Linux user who’s chomping at the bit to learn the new shiny, but imagine yourself as an IT Manager. Who in their right mind is going to look at this and think they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell at adoption? What should a budding sysadmin learn? The intimidation factor here is real for both users and prospects, similar to what one finds in the realm of “Which JavaScript framework should I use to develop my web program?” All religion, no substance.

To begin your journey through the Linux space, you will have to make a few choices:

Choose a Linux Distribution: Linux is not developed by a single entity, so there are multiple different distributions (distros) that can take code from Linux open-source projects and compile it for you. Since these distros choose your default software (desktop environment, browser, etc.), all that’s left for you to do is boot up and install.

Choose a Virtualization Solution: Linux virtualization is used to isolate your operating systems so you can run multiple virtual machines on one physical machine, and in turn save time, money and energy on maintaining multiple physical servers. Some popular selections include VMWare, VirtualBox (Oracle) and Hyper-V (Microsoft).

Set Up Your Linux Play Space and Explore: Once you log in to your virtualization environment, you can start learning and practicing. The best way to become comfortable with Linux is to jump in and get your hands dirty.

Priyanka Sarangabany

Choosing a Linux distribution shouldn’t be a cavalier decision. CompTIA Linux+ is, like its LPI contemporary, a vendor-agnostic certification track. Essentially, passing this exam requires knowledge of not just the general administrative topics of Linux itself, but a selection of the more esoteric differences in the major distributions (Debian-based, Red Hat-based, or SUSE). The effort, I suspect, is to suggest or imply that certified individuals are capable of handling virtually anything thrown at them. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory or practice since you’re not guaranteed to be working for/with an organization that has landed solely in one camp or the other. The problem here is that you need to spend some time in at least all three to some extent. I’ll cover more on this later, but there should be a bit of consideration before downloading. Learning Linux can certainly be accelerated by distro-hopping, but this behavior should dramatically slow as time goes forward.

Selecting a virtualization technology isn’t as trivial as this section would potentially lead users to believe. VMware has historically been quite difficult to install and run on various distributions. Legacy versions of the software maybe work on older kernel versions, but newer kernels are hit-and-miss. Furthermore, VMware has a fairly lackadaisical approach to supporting Linux as a viable platform to run its software on. More often than naught, you’ll be scouring the support forums to find that not only are most other people experiencing difficulty installing the software, but they’re either not finding good solutions for their problems or they’re running into other issues that inhibit a good user experience. VirtualBox is an okay Type-2 Hypervisor, but anyone working seriously with virtualization technologies isn’t going to be deploying this any time soon. The implication here is that if you’re not committed to running Linux on baremetal, you’re likely running Mac OSX or Windows and should virtualize it via a hypervisor or two. This may work well, but some of the exam content for Linux+ requires a subset of knowledge that you’ll get only through installing baremetal.

But wait a minute… what does any of this have to do with actually learning Linux?

I’m trying to help set realistic expectations here. Despite the work to push forward, things still aren’t as crystal clear as the author of this blog post would have you believe. Allow me, then, to offer what I think are the best ways to learn Linux.

Manage Your Expectations

Linux is hard. Remember to separate the kernel from the DE, because it’s important. So long as the DE you choose provides an adequate terminal emulator, you can get away with focusing exclusively on the kernel interface and nothing else. Be sure not to get lost in the convoluted nature of the DE, otherwise it’ll add another layer of complexity that you’ll likely want to avoid.

Understand also that doing Linux professionally isn’t the same as doing it for a hobby. Swapping DE every five seconds, or advocating for the use of the flashy or nuanced one isn’t going to get you anywhere. This matters more than you think. Learn GNOME and KDE, and fiddle with the rest in your spare time if interested.

Distribution Selection

Pay attention to the leading distribution vendors out there, and try not to get lost too much in the new shiny that comes out of left field. Take a look at this image and try not to throw up. We in the Linux community say we’re welcoming, and options are great, but this is nauseatingly asinine. The major players here are Canonical, Red Hat (CentOS), or SUSE. Distro-Hopping is okay if you’re just looking to have fun, but that should be relegated to virtualization. Run either Ubuntu, RHEL/CentOS, or SUSE baremetal, and leverage KVM through virt-manager or Cockpit, or VirtualBox, to run VMs locally.


Despite the notion that Linux iterates quickly, the widespread adoption of newer kernels is left to a select special group of distributions. Most are running kernels that are a few versions behind for the sake of sanity. That said, a handful of books exist that help learn Linux itself (not the DE) that will matter for a majority of the versions in the common arena. A few of my recommendations:

Online Documentation

I don’t mean the manpages here, although some of them are useful. I’m talking about wikis, forums, and upstream documentation from distribution vendors. The Arch Wiki is an unbelievable treasure trove of highly technical information for all kinds of software that doesn’t necessarily peg itself to Arch (most of the time). Red Hat/CentOS publish a wealth of documents to give all kinds of administrative information. LinuxQuestions is a great forum for getting help with nearly all matters. Of course, if you’re feeling up to it, you could always get in touch with the developers of the software you’re using directly and get advice or help from them. I’ve talked to a few people from the GNOME team occasionally to get help on certain matters, and it’s proven quite valuable.

Taking Classes

I’ve personally never attended a Linux training course, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard wonderful things about them. Some certification authorities like CompTIA, LPI, and Red Hat, will offer both e-Learning and instructor-led courses that will accelerate your learning track right up to the day of examination.

Banging Your Head Against the Wall

I started with Linux in 2004 with Red Hat 9 that was given out to a friend of mine who was attending ITT Tech at the time. All I had was the book it came with, the installation media, and a lot of time on my hands (I didn’t even have access to the internet at that time). The best way to learn, albeit the hardest way, is to simply rake yourself through the coals. Grab a shitbox, abuse it, abuse yourself. Plain and simple.


Get involved with a community. Don’t let the rumors about the Linux Kernel Mailing List scare you away. Most mere mortals are more than willing to discuss Linux, especially if you’re willing to put yourself out there.


Although the landscape is far too saturated, podcasts are still a viable source of information. I miss Linux Outlaws terribly, but shows like Destination Linux, SMLR, and Late Night Linux are great for getting the latest 411 on the happenings and hearing from people who’re incredibly skilled in what they do with Linux.