Is Linux an Operating System or a Kernel?

One of the most likely questions you will find in most tech forums is whether Linux is an operating system or a Kernel. Even for some proficient Linux users, this question can become quite confusing. In this post, we will answer your question and show you the differences between an operating system and a Kernel.

Linux, an Operating System or a Kernel?

Linux, in its nature, is not an operating system; it’s a Kernel. The Kernel is part of the operating system – And the most crucial. For it to be an OS, it is supplied with GNU software and other additions giving us the name GNU/Linux.

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds made Linux open source in 1992, one year after it’s creation.

The latter is then installed on a computer as a distribution such as Ubuntu, elementary OS, Fedora, OpenSUSE, etc. However, because there are Linux distributions that come paired with more software other than GNU, some people feel we cannot generalize all ‘Linux-Kerneled‘ operating systems as GNU/Linux.

The Linux Kernel was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds and has since then ported to a wide range of computer architectures. Linux was adopted as the main Kernel for the GNU Operating System, meant to be a free and open source. Since then, Linux has gained popularity and deployed in different computing systems such as mobile devices (Android), PCs, Servers, embedded devices, supercomputers, and mainframes. Please read our article on the Top 10 New Features in Linux Kernel 5.8 released recently.

Let’s understand the difference between a Kernel and an Operating System.

The Kernel

The Kernel is the primary part of the operating system. When you boot your computer, it is the first part of the OS loaded into the RAM for your system to start working.

Linux Kernel
Ubuntu Desktop showing Linux Kernel Version 5.4

The Kernel sits in between the application software and the underlying hardware system. It communicates directly to the hardware, passing any requests by the application software.

A simple example to illustrate this is when recording a video on your phone. When you tap on the camera app, the software will communicate to the Kernel that it wants to use the camera and microphone. The Kernel will then tell the camera and mic hardware to wake up and get ready. Then now, both software and hardware will work together to record a good video for you.

The Kernel is also responsible for managing various system components such as memory, processes, tasks, and storage. It ensures proper execution of programs by checking out for memory space.

The Operating System

The OS’s primary purpose is to manage system processes and resources. It contains the Kernel and therefore performs all the tasks a Kernel can do. Additionally, it ensures system protection and security.

elementary OS 5.1.4 desktop
elementary OS 5.1.4 desktop

The Operating system acts as an interface between the user and the underlying hardware system. All application programs run in an enclosed environment created by the operating system. Therefore, it would be impossible to use a system without an OS.

Conclusion

I hope this article has given you a clear difference between a Kernel and an Operating System. Linux is itself a Kernel. Developers then build on top of it to come with the various Linux distributions available today.

Please feel free to share additional information with our readers in the comments below.

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