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Is Linux a Kernel or an Operating System?

Linux is a widely used open-source Unix-like operating system. This is what most of us know. However, Linux is not an operating system. At least not technically.

So, in this article, we will discuss if we should call Linux a kernel or an operating system.

Kernel and Operating System:

Before moving forward with this topic, we should know the kernel and operating system definitions and their differences.

Operating System

It is a system software that manages all the other application programs in a computer by acting as an interface between the user and hardware. Without this, our computer would not be able to function as it manages all the low-level functionalities such as execution of all the processes, CPU management, resource allocation, and many other tasks.

The main tasks of OS include identifying input from the keyboard, showing output on the screen, allocation of processor time, mass storage, and controlling peripheral devices like printers. The components of OS play a vital role in making different parts of a computer system work together.

The two main parts of OS are – 1. Kernel 2. Userspace


It is a core component of an OS. It is the primary connection between the hardware and the software components of a computer. It converts the user requests into machine language.

It is one of the first programs loaded on startup and resides in the memory until the OS is shut down again. It handles the rest of the startup as well as memory, peripherals, and i/o requests from software, translating them into data-processing instructions for the CPU.

Understanding the Difference

So, the difference between an operating system, and the kernel is simple – the kernel is a component of an operating system. Just like our brain is one of the most important parts of our body. Without it, we cannot even move our bodies. Like the OS needs the kernel to run, to provide an interface between applications and hardware.

However, the brain cannot work without the body as well. It needs a lot of blood, oxygen, and energy. The kernel also needs other programs and tools to make a complete operating system that can be used.

Our body interacts with the outer world like the OS acts as an interface between the user and the hardware.

Our brain is the one that interacts with our body parts and makes them functional, like kernels and acts as an interface between the hardware and its applications.

Architecture of Linux

Linux: Kernel or Operating System?

Technically, Linux is a monolithic kernel, not an operating system. The correct term is- Linux distribution or Distro, such as – Ubuntu, Fedora Linux, Deepin, etc.

The inventor of Linux, Linus Torvalds began this project to create a free operating system kernel. He first published the Linux kernel under its own license, but it had limitations on commercial use.

As we discussed earlier, the kernel is just a part of the operating system. OS is a complete software package, that contains a kernel and other components such as system libraries, device drivers, and utilities. Every OS has a kernel (Even Windows, and MAC OS), without the kernel the OS cannot work. However, the kernel alone cannot function either. To make it a working system, we need other components as well. That is why in 1992 it was relicensed under the GNU GPL (General Public License ), which included a binary of GNU’s bash shell. Torvalds also mentioned this in the “Notes for linux release 0.01“.

Later on, more developers contributed to the Linux kernel, which helped the kernel to integrate with the the GNU environment. It opened a doorway to create a wide spectrum of application types for Linux, and different Linux distributions were created.


Now you know what to answer when someone asks you if Linux is a kernel or an operating system. However, if someone says, “Linux is my favorite operating system.”, you don’t have to correct them by telling them this story. The GNU and Debian projects use the name GNU/Linux”, but most people simply like to call it “Linux” to refer to the combination. So, there is nothing wrong with it, but if you want to be technically correct then use the term Linux Distribution.

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