Linux is a Unix-like computer operating system assembled under the model of free and open source software development and distribution. The defining component of Linux is the Linux kernel, an operating system kernel first released October 5, 1991 by Linus Torvalds.

Linux was originally developed as a free operating system for Intel x86-based personal computers. It has since been ported to more computer hardware platforms than any other operating system. It is a leading operating system on servers and other big iron systems such as mainframe computers and supercomputers: more than 90% of today's top 500 supercomputers run some variant of Linux, including the 10 fastest. Linux also runs on embedded systems (devices where the operating system is typically built into the firmware and highly tailored to the system) such as mobile phones, tablet computers, network routers, televisions and video game consoles; the Android system in wide use on mobile devices is built on the Linux kernel.

The development of Linux is one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration: the underlying source code may be used, modified, and distributed—commercially or non-commercially—by anyone under licenses such as the GNU General Public License. Typically Linux is packaged in a format known as a Linux distribution for desktop and server use. Some popular mainstream Linux distributions include Debian (and its derivatives such as Ubuntu), Fedora and openSUSE. Linux distributions include the Linux kernel, supporting utilities and libraries and usually a large amount of application software to fulfill the distribution's intended use.

A distribution oriented toward desktop use will typically include the X Window System and an accompanying desktop environment such as GNOME or KDE Plasma. Some such distributions may include a less resource intensive desktop such as LXDE or Xfce for use on older or less powerful computers. A distribution intended to run as a server may omit all graphical environments from the standard install and instead include other software such as the Apache HTTP Server and an SSH server such as OpenSSH. Because Linux is freely redistributable, anyone can create a distribution for any intended use. Applications commonly used with desktop Linux systems include the Mozilla Firefox web browser, the LibreOffice office application suite, and the GIMP image editor.

A Linux-based system is a modular Unix-like operating system. It derives much of its basic design from principles established in Unix during the 1970s and 1980s. Such a system uses a monolithic kernel, the Linux kernel, which handles process control, networking, and peripheral and file system access. Device drivers are either integrated directly with the kernel or added as modules loaded while the system is running.

Separate projects that interface with the kernel provide much of the system's higher-level functionality. The GNU userland is an important part of most Linux-based systems, providing the most common implementation of the C library, a popular shell, and many of the common Unix tools which carry out many basic operating system tasks. The graphical user interface (or GUI) used by most Linux systems is built on top of an implementation of the X Window System.

User interface
Users operate a Linux-based system through a command line interface (CLI), a graphical user interface (GUI), or through controls attached to the associated hardware, which is common for embedded systems. For desktop systems, the default mode is usually a graphical user interface, by which the CLI is available through terminal emulator windows or on a separate virtual console. Most low-level Linux components, including the GNU userland, use the CLI exclusively. The CLI is particularly suited for automation of repetitive or delayed tasks, and provides very simple inter-process communication. A graphical terminal emulator program is often used to access the CLI from a Linux desktop. A Linux system typically implements a CLI by a shell, which is also the traditional way of interacting with a Unix system. A Linux distribution specialized for servers may use the CLI as its only interface.

On desktop systems, the most popular user interfaces are the extensive desktop environments KDE Plasma Desktop, GNOME, and Xfce, though a variety of additional user interfaces exist. Most popular user interfaces are based on the X Window System, often simply called "X". It provides network transparency and permits a graphical application running on one system to be displayed on another where a user may interact with the application.

Other GUIs may be classified as simple X window managers, such as FVWM, Enlightenment, and Window Maker, which provide a minimalist functionality with respect to the desktop environments. A window manager provides a means to control the placement and appearance of individual application windows, and interacts with the X Window System. The desktop environments include window managers as part of their standard installations (Mutter for GNOME, Kwin for KDE, Xfwm for Xfce as of January 2012) although users may choose to use a different window manager if preferred.

The primary difference between Linux and many other popular contemporary operating systems is that the Linux kernel and other components are free and open source software. Linux is not the only such operating system, although it is by far the most widely used. Some free and open source software licenses are based on the principle of copyleft, a kind of reciprocity: any work derived from a copyleft piece of software must also be copyleft itself. The most common free software license, the GNU GPL, is a form of copyleft, and is used for the Linux kernel and many of the components from the GNU project.

Linux based distributions are intended by developers for interoperability with other operating systems and established computing standards. Linux systems adhere to POSIX, SUS, ISO, and ANSI standards where possible, although to date only one Linux distribution has been POSIX.1 certified, Linux-FT.

Free software projects, although developed in a collaborative fashion, are often produced independently of each other. The fact that the software licenses explicitly permit redistribution, however, provides a basis for larger scale projects that collect the software produced by stand-alone projects and make it available all at once in the form of a Linux distribution.

A Linux distribution, commonly called a "distro", is a project that manages a remote collection of system software and application software packages available for download and installation through a network connection. This allows users to adapt the operating system to their specific needs. Distributions are maintained by individuals, loose-knit teams, volunteer organizations, and commercial entities. A distribution is responsible for the default configuration of the installed Linux kernel, general system security, and more generally integration of the different software packages into a coherent whole. Distributions typically use a package manager such as dpkg, Synaptic, YAST, or Portage to install, remove and update all of a system's software from one central location.

Programming on Linux
Most Linux distributions support dozens of programming languages. The original development tools used for building both Linux applications and operating system programs are found within the GNU toolchain, which includes the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) and the GNU build system. Amongst others, GCC provides compilers for Ada, C, C++, Java, and Fortran. The Low Level Virtual Machine project provides an alternative open-source compiler for many languages. Proprietary compilers for Linux include the Intel C++ Compiler, Sun Studio, and IBM XL C/C++ Compiler. BASIC in the form of Visual Basic is supported in such forms as Gambas, FreeBASIC, and XBasic.

Most distributions also include support for PHP, Perl, Ruby, Python and other dynamic languages. While not as common, Linux also supports C# (via Mono), Vala, and Scheme. A number of Java Virtual Machines and development kits run on Linux, including the original Sun Microsystems JVM (HotSpot), and IBM's J2SE RE, as well as many open-source projects like Kaffe and JikesRVM.

GNOME and KDE are popular desktop environments and provide a framework for developing applications. These projects are based on the GTK+ and Qt widget toolkits, respectively, which can also be used independently of the larger framework. Both support a wide variety of languages. There are a number of Integrated development environments available including Anjuta, Code::Blocks, CodeLite, Eclipse, Geany, ActiveState Komodo, KDevelop, Lazarus, MonoDevelop, NetBeans, Qt Creator and Omnis Studio, while the long-established editors Vim and Emacs remain popular.

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