What Is GNU (Gnu's Not Unix)?

February 26, 2024

GNU (stands for GNU’s Not Unix) is a free operating system and a collection of free software that gives users the liberty to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve it. This freedom is guaranteed by the GNU General Public License (GPL), one of the most used free software licenses today.

Although GNU is intended to be a completely independent operating system, it is frequently used with the Linux kernel. GNU/Linux together create a fully free and open-source operating system widely used in servers, desktops, and embedded environments, supporting operations across multiple fields.

How Does GNU Work?

GNU offers a flexible, robust, and free software foundation that can be used to create complete operating systems. Here is a breakdown of how it works:

  • GNU components. The GNU system includes all necessary software components for a complete operating system, including shells, compilers, text editors, a Unix-like command-line interface, and various utilities.
  • Linux kernel integration. The Linux kernel fills the gap in the GNU system as a free, Unix-like kernel. Combining GNU with Linux provides a complete operating system known as GNU/Linux.
  • GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL licensing ensures that all software in the GNU system remains free for users to run, modify, and share.
  • Software development and compilation. GNU includes a wide range of development tools, such as the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) for compiling software from source code, the GNU Binary Utilities (Binutils) for managing binary files, and the GNU Debugger (GDB) for debugging.
  • System libraries. GNU provides system libraries (e.g., GNU C Library or glibc) which enable applications to interact with the kernel and hardware, perform input/output operations, manage files, etc.
  • Package management. GNU/Linux distributions come with package management systems that simplify the process of installing, updating, and removing software.

Advantages and Drawbacks of GNU

There are both positive and negative sides to GNU.

Here are some notable advantages:

  • Freedom and innovation. GNU fosters an open-source approach, giving users the liberty to run, modify, and distribute software. This encourages innovation and improvement.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Because it’s open-source, GNU is free of charge, which relieves businesses of upfront investment. This is especially beneficial for startups and small businesses.
  • Security and reliability. GNU is more secure and reliable due to a large community of developers who review it and can identify and remove bugs quickly.
  • Customizability. IT professionals can customize software code to meet their specific needs and improve performance.
  • Community support. GNU comes with a vast user community that provides extensive support in terms of documentation, forums, and assistance.
  • Compatibility and portability. GNU software is compatible with various hardware platforms and operating systems.

On the other hand, there are some downsides to GNU:

  • Steep learning curve. GNU software prioritizes function over form, so it is not as intuitive as proprietary software.
  • Hardware compatibility. This issue comes up during integration with new or specialized hardware, due to the lack of proprietary drivers.
  • Commercial support. Although it offers exceptional community support, GNU lacks immediate support for businesses.
  • Software availability. Specialized software is often not easy to integrate with GNU systems.
  • Legal and licensing complexity. The GNU’s copyleft requirements, which ensure software freedom is preserved, necessitate businesses to pay special attention to compliance.
  • Fragmentation. The diversity of GNU/Linux distributions leads to fragmentation, which complicates software development and deployment.

GNU Alternatives

There are several alternatives to the GNU system.

Operating Systems

Operating systems that offer a suitable alternative to GNU aim to provide a user-friendly and cost-effective solution for businesses. Examples of operating systems include:

  • Proprietary operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows or macOS. They are closed-source OSes used in business, gaming, and personal computing.
  • Open-source (non-GNU) systems, such as BSD variants (FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD) and Solaris/OpenSolaris. These are Unix-like operating systems that are free for use, highly secure, and stable.
  • Hybrid systems, such as Android. They are based on the Linux kernel but have a different userland than GNU. These platforms are primarily intended for mobile devices.

Software and Development Tools

There are many software and development tools similar to GNU that aim to provide free resources and community-driven software development. They include:

  • Development tools, such as LLVM/Clang, Visual Studio, and Visual Studio Code. They provide easy integration with other tools and extensive programming language support.
  • Utilities and shells, such as PowerShell and Zsh/Fish. PowerShell provides a command-line shell and scripting language, while Zsh/Fish are advanced Unix shells that improve user experience and features compared to GNU Bash.
  • Libraries, such as Apache, MIT, and BSD licensed libraries. They are available under permissive licenses that aren’t copyleft, like the GNU GPL, and offer alternatives for software development in various programming languages.

Desktop Environments and Graphical Interfaces

Desktop environments and graphical interfaces focus on the usability, performance, and user-friendliness of the software. They include:

  • Windows and macOS GUI, which provide proprietary graphical user interfaces with extensive multimedia support and productivity software.
  • KDE, XFCE (non-GNU Linux desktops), which provide customization capabilities outside of GNU software.

Productivity and Application Software

Productivity and application software focus on enhancing productivity, performance, and the usability of software. They include:

  • Proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, and other commercial software. They offer extensive features for compatibility but with costs and some restrictions on usage and modification.
  • Open-source alternatives, such as Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and Blender. They provide alternatives for enhancing productivity and creativity.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.