Most Popular Beginner Linux Questions Answered
Interview with Mark Rais,
Los Angeles June 2005, by Andrea W. Cordingly
Andrea: Mark, you've spent the last few years
focused almost exclusively on helping new users move to Linux. You've also written
some books on UNIX and Linux to help foster this migration. What
are the most popular questions beginner Linux users ask?
Mark: I'd have to divide the questions into
First, many beginning Linux users want to understand
how to move from Windows to Linux.
Second, beginning Linux users often ask questions regarding file
management such as file handling, permissions, and
Third, beginner Linux users consistently
ask me for help regarding installation
These are the key
categories. I find that once someone has a handle on these three,
they are empowered sufficiently to address almost all other concerns.
Andrea: Let's start with Windows to Linux.
I'm assuming they're looking for common ground between the two
Mark: I wouldn't call it two worlds. The fact
is that Xfce, Gnome, or KDE are unique, having many features and
powerful functions. However, they are all reasonably similar to the
interface experiences Windows users already have. So, my first
tendency is to explain the obvious similarities, which in turn helps
ease their minds and helps them acclimate quicker.
Every GUI, whether X, OSX, Windows, KDE, etc. must
convey a graphical form of the file hierarchy and allow file copying,
deletion, and permissions settings. I usually provide an explanation
how to get to the all important File Manager in Linux. If
using the Gnome desktop for Linux you would look for an icon or label
from your menu that states: Browse File System. Using the KDE
you can often identify the file manager as a little "house"
icon, or with the menu: Home.
I also prefer to use this as an opportunity to
explain how to get to a terminal/command prompt. In Gnome
a shortcut for beginners is available by choosing Run Application from
the main menu and typing commands. For KDE, you can find this under
the System main menu labeled Terminal. Once you have
access to type commands you can then get to your file manager and
almost every other program or tool by typing the appropriate command.
Most new users accept this since they quickly
recognize the efficiency of this option.
For Gnome File Manager, you would type: nautilus
For the KDE file manager (a part of the Konqueror
browser) you type: konqueror
Some Linux enthusiasts think the command prompt is not ever for Windows
newbies. Unfortunately, many people forget that brand new Linux
users typically do have a strong handle on technical things like typing
commands or they've never had any experience with PCs such as those I help in Africa. So, the instructions I give are designed for helping BOTH audiences easily get acclimated.
Most importantly, I never discount the cognitive
capacity of my reader.
Andrea: At this point, where does the
beginning user go?
Mark: The next thing to share with the
beginning user is the very important aspect of file
permissions. It's vital that new users understand that in
the Windows world they usually do not encounter file permissions.
In the Linux world this is never the case. Files
always include various levels of permissions, which is a strength of
the Linux OS. Essential files are not accessible for accidental
deletion or use by unauthorized users. This saved my neck a good
many times when I started with Linux ten years ago.
So my advice is this: while the new user has the
file manager open, choose the File Permissions by highlighting
a file and pressing the right mouse button. Then by choosing
Permissions they get a good look at all of the options.
Files always have three levels of
permissions for three corresponding users. First, the three
user audiences in Linux are: you the individual user, a select group
of users, and the whole world of users. This is referred to as User,
Group, and Others.
You can choose for each user audience a distinct
level of file access. Three levels exist: Read, Write,
Obviously a forth exists which is no permission to
read, write, or execute the file, which is rare. In most cases files
are Read only, even to the user. If you want to modify the file, or
delete the file, you need to change the permission for User to have
Write access as well and so on.
In any case I provide details regarding using a
Interface to change permissions, and another
article for using the command or terminal
to change permissions (chmod).
Andrea: Okay, so now someone knows the basics
of how to run a command, use file manager and change permissions.
Anything else every beginning Linux user wants to know when switching
Mark: Yes, they want to know how to get
an application on to their desktop toolbar. For instance
when I install SuSe the terminal tool is buried and I always prefer
to add an icon to the bottom toolbar. The easiest way to do this is
to use the file search tool, identify where the actual application
resides, then use the right mouse button to add it to the desktop.
Then it's a simple matter of dragging-and-dropping the new icon to
In Gnome, you can search for particular files using
the Gnome Search Tool, often simply labeled on the main menu as
In KDE, you can search for a file or application
using the Kfind tool under the text Find Files under the main
Using these search tools you can look up an
application. Once found, you then know the exact directory
location and can easily add it to the desktop. For new users
who want a fast way, I give them this command to use:
find / -name yourfile -type d -xdev
(replace the word 'yourfile' with the name of an actual file or application)
In Gnome, add a file, once you know where it exists,
to the desktop by pressing the right mouse button while the pointer
is over the desktop, and selecting Create Launcher.
In KDE, you can quickly add an application to the
desktop by pressing the right mouse button while the pointer is set
over the desktop, then choosing Create New, then File,
then Link to Application.
Obviously, in both cases you need to then browse
for the application, identify its location and save the change. You
can then drag the icon to the toolbar.
Andrea: Well you covered a lot of the key
beginner questions regarding moving to Linux. Are there any other
vital commands beginning users always need to know?
Mark: Absolutely. There are a whole slew of
commands that new users tend to ask about. However the most
essential ones always have to do with installing an application.
applications today is far easier than most will admit.
There are several ways to install a program, but the two most common
ways include using an RPM (package manager) or using a TAR-GZ
compressed file. For beginners, it's often easy for me to describe
it this way:
If you find an application you want to install and
it's an RPM file, put it into its own directory on your Linux system.
You can use the file manager to create a directory under your own
user area. Copy the rpm file into the new directory, then using your
file manager such as KDE you should usually be able to simply click
on the icon for the .rpm file to start the package manager tool,
which installs it for you.
If you've instead found a .gz or .tar file that is a
compressed version of your application, similar to using the
ZIP/UNZIP tool for Windows, you need to place the file into a unique
directory and then run this command:
This will uncompress the file into its own complete
directory structure at which point you can find the main file and
click on it from your file manager to activate the installation.
The next question is where did the installation
actually PUT THE APPLICATION! This varies but in many cases the
application is now under your /usr/bin/ directory. For instance,
install the Skype Linux gzip file and you end up with the application
under /usr/bin/skype. You can then create a desktop icon for it by
using the tips I said earlier.
Just remember, most installed applications end up
either under /usr/bin or under the specific directory under
/home/username/directory (replace username with your username and
directory for the directory you created). Sometimes, applications
get a little unique such as installing OpenOffice, but in most cases
things end up in either of these locations.
Andrea: What about the third category of most
popular beginner questions Mark? Do users get stuck trying to
install Linux and where do they encounter boot-up problems.
Mark: Yes, a few users unfortunately have
installation problems. I say a few, since numerically almost
everyone I meet installs their flavor without a hitch. However, in
every two or three dozen new users there is always one person who
gets stuck and stuck badly. In almost every single case the
reason they get stuck has to do with incompatible hardware or
problems with a driver.
I know what it takes to write device drivers. It's
tough work, and for every Linux developer who's written device
drivers I have a great respect for what you do... in my eyes these
are the men and women who actually enable Linux! However, there are
so many unique hardware chipsets, so many constantly changing
specifications that sometimes the hardware you're using takes a lot
of work to enable on your Linux. Most of the newest Linux flavors
include plenty of drivers and the optional generic drivers that allow
a beginner to get going.
Right now the biggest complaint regards wireless LAN
cards. As more and more device drivers for these are included in the
newest flavor releases of Linux this issue should die down. Right now
a lot of new users end up having to go download the device driver and
try to install it themselves. Then you get into a little mess with
trying to explain the NDISWrapper, etc. which often throws off new users.
My advice is to use the most current flavor of Linux you
can (don't expect the free version that came in a magazine pouch to
give you a great deal of options). Full flavored versions tend to
address the driver issue better by including many more. For those that prefer to have
their Linux pre-burned on to CDs instead of doing it themselves,
Edmunds is one of several reasonable sources.
Here is some information if you're trying to get an
internal modem to work.
Here is some basic information if you're fiddling
with a wireless card that might help you
along with this
Andrea: Mark, what about boot-up issues?
Mark: Oh, yes! Most of the time when someone
approaches me with a "boot-up" problem it has to do with their
desire to get a program automatically loaded on bootup instead
of having to manually restart the process/program every time.
This is easily resolved and the solution is almost
always to go to the /etc/rc.d directory. Using this command: cd
Then they should choose rc5.d which is your RUN LEVEL
5 boot parameter area. Again type: cd
By the way, run level five is the standard run level
when operating your Linux system. It's not important to get into the
details of this, just to ensure beginners understand it exists. As they get more deeply into Linux it will become more important.
Now, under /etc/rc.d/rc5.d
you will find files with prefixes of the letters K or S.
Seems strange to new users, but it's simple to understand if
explained reasonably. The program you desire to load automatically
on boot is most likely located in this directory and has a K prefix.
The K means it does not automatically load on boot.
Instead, you simply need to change the file to read prefix of S. You
can use file manager to change the file name, or use a
command/terminal to change directories and then type the command:
Now, I always tell a beginning user to reboot the
Linux system. It's a bit overkill since you can restart the processes
and pickup the changes, but it's simple and straightforward to do a
reboot. Once rebooted, the program should load automatically. This is
distinctly different when dealing with tools like telnet or ftp.
These are network related processes and are enable differently.
I have lots more details and examples under this
brief article regarding configuring Linux.
Andrea: Are there any other major questions
you keep getting regarding Linux use?
Mark: Yes the final one is very common among
brand new users but the answer is sometimes complex.
People want to have access to their Windows files,
often on another partition of their hard disk. This is enabled by
mounting the Windows partition.
Beginning users are often befuddled by this because
they don't know to look for the word "mount" to
enable their Windows access. In most Linux versions you can click on
the desktop icon labeled "My Computer" or "System"
where you see a list of all of the drives. You can then mount a drive
by clicking the right mouse button over the appropriate drive letter.
Most of the time Windows resides on Hda1. Hard disk partition a1. You
can also try forcing mount for most drives by a series of basic
First check to see what is already mounted. Type the
Second, if your Windows hard disk did not show up,
you might try creating a windows mount. Type the command: mkdir
Now use this command to mount your WindowsXP or NT:
mount -t ntfs /dev/hda1 /mnt/win
This process usually works for most shared disk
Andrea: What about beginners accessing their
Mark: This is a lot more complex but there is
certainly a volume of information on the Internet regarding running
almost every Windows related program using the Wine tool. Wine
allows most programs that run under Windows to also run under
Linux. Obviously success is predicated upon many things, including a
lot more user intervention.
You can find some additional basic information
regarding Wine on this
page and on this website.
Andrea: Mark, thank you very much for giving
us this overview of the most popular beginner
Andrea W. Cordingly often
volunteers her time encouraging Linux use by writing short articles,
conducting interviews, and regularly participates in the forums on websites including
reallylinux.com. You can reach Andrea through the reallylinux.com