What is GNU? [Origin, Components, License]

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GNU stands for the recursive acronym “GNU’s Not Unix”. This name was chosen because, unlike Unix, GNU is an Open-Source Operating System. The goal of the GNU is to provide a completely free software Operating System that can be used on various Computer hardware. In this article, I will discuss what is GNU, its origin, components, and differences from Unix. So let’s start.

What is GNU?

What is GNU, it is an operating system that was designed to be a free and open-source replacement for the Unix operating system. It maintained a similar functionality but without ownership & restrictive licensing terms of Unix. The original purpose of GNU was to create a free OS to give users the freedom to run, copy, distribute, modify, study, and improve the software as needed. So that individual users can modify the OS or change its components the way they want. The community of Linux works in the development & improvement of the OS.

what is gnu

Free-software Movement

The free software movement is a social movement and philosophy that advocates for the use and development of free software. In the 1980s, the beginning of this movement was founded, with the thinking of Richard Stallman on sharing computer knowledge and the works of programmers with everyone. Which was then legally formalized and licensed by Free Software Foundation (FSF). The goal of this movement was to promote the use of software that respects the freedom and rights of users. Also, the main focus of the free movement is on software development and rejecting proprietary software that does not give the freedoms of free software.

Open Sorce Software

Open source software(OSS) is freely distributed with its source code available for everyone to use, modify, and distribute. This means that the code is open for all users to access and share with one another without any restrictions or costs. In OSS, the copyright holder of the software makes the software code available to the public. Since anyone can view and modify the software with original rights, programmers can make desirable changes and fix bugs. OSS organizations provide a license to ensure public modification and improvement of the software.

Now, remember free software is a concept that focuses on the liberty of using software, not the price. That means although the main idea of OSS and free software seems to overlap they have differences. Every free software is open source but not necessarily every OSS is free software. And GNU is an Open-source free software.

A brief history of the GNU project

The GNU project was first launched by Richard Stallman in 1983, with the aim to create a free and open-source operating system. The increasing use of copyrighted and patented software and the restrictions for users to use them made him think about creating a free for all operating system. The project’s goal was to create a free software OS that was similar to Unix but not based on it, and neither it would have any restrictions like Unix.

Over the years, this project developed a variety of software components including a Kernel, compiler, text editor, and various utilities, libraries, and applications. Most of the developments were driven by volunteers who shared the stallman’s vision. It also promoted the principles of free software, defended user freedom & digital privacy, and developed GNU General Public License (GPL).

Components of GNU

The main components of a GNU system include the following,

  • GNU Compiler Collection (GCC)→This a collection of compilers for various programming languages, including C, C++, Forta, Ada, etc. GCC is widely used by developers to compile and build software for the GNU project.
  • GNU Core Utilities (coreutils)→This is a command-line collection used for managing files, processes, and other system tasks.
  • GNU Debugger (GDB)→It is a powerful tool for debugging software on the system.
  • Emacs text editor→It is a powerful text editor that provides advanced features such as syntax highlighting, code completion, and support for multiple programming languages.
  • Bash(shell)→This is the default command shell for the GNU system, which is a flexible & efficient shell for creating scripts, executing commands, and automating tasks.
  • Binary utilities (binutils)→This is a collection of binary tools such as ld (GNU linker), as (GNU assembler), gold (a new, faster, ELF-only linker), etc.
  • GNU C library (glibc)→It is a library of C programming to provide functions for memory management, and input/output operations, used by the software system.
  • GNU desktop environment (GNOME)→It is the default desktop environment of many major Linux distributions consisting graphical user interface (GUI) and a set of computer applications for the users.


GNU and Unix are both operating systems, but they have some significant differences. Well, GNU is a free & open-source Unix-like operating system, but not Unix. See the below chart to see the key differences between them.

SL. No. Differences GNU Unix
1 Licensing Free and open-source (GNU GPL License) Proprietary or Closed-source (required license)
2 Kernel GNU Hurd Various (e.g. Solaris, AIX, HP-UX)
3 Origin Was developed by Richard Stallman. Was developed by Ken Thompson and Dennis Richie for Bell Labs.
4 Functionality The Shell software could not function itself as it needs a Kernel to interact with the hardware. The Unix is composed of both Kernel & Shell and could function on its own.
5 User Control Focuses on giving users complete control over their computing environment. User control varies depending on the specific variant and licensing terms.
6 Logo It uses a dark antelope as the logo. It uses the plain text of its name as the logo.

Advantages and Disadvantages of GNU

The project has a lot of benefits for the users along with some shortcomings. I will give a list of them in the below section.


  • Cost, GNU is free software for users, which is a big advantage for all users all over the world.
  • Flexibility & transparency, it is a flexible utility for users, also users can study and modify the source code.
  • Multitasking, it is a multitasking OS. The scheduler, a part of the kernel tracks and allocates processor time accordingly to effectively run several programs simultaneously.
  • Stability, it is stable & reliable. As it has a large community, bug reports are easily found and resolved.
  • Open Source, it is free & it is an open-source operating system, which is one of its best advantages.
  • Security, it focuses on its security with many built-in security features & tools.
  • Large Community, The GNU project has a large community of developers who provide support and resources, as well as many users as it is an open-source and free OS.


  • Learning Curve, when a user is familiar with Windows or macOS, he/she may find GNU difficult to use.
  • Lack of hardware support, even though a lot of hardware supports GNU still not all of them.
  • Familiar software, Users might miss using familiar applications such as MS Office or Adobe creative suite while using the Unix-like system.

GNU Copyright & License

The aim of the project was to create a completely free OS and software ecosystem which includes the GNU General Public License (GPL) and other licenses which ensure users’ freedom to copy or distribute software. Nowadays many popular free and open-source software projects have accepted GPL as the free software license.

The GNU project also promotes the concept of copyleft, which is a licensing mechanism that releases derivative works under the same or similar license as the original work.


In this article, I tried discussing what is GNU project, how the project started, the concepts of free software and open-source software, and the components of the system. If you read the full article, hope you will get a complete overview of the project.

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Monira Akter Munny

Hello!! This is Monira Akter Munny. I'm a Linux content developer executive here, at SOFTEKO company. I have completed my B.Sc. in Engineering from Rajshahi University of Engineering & Technology in the Electrical & Electronics department. I'm more of an online gaming person who also loves to read blogs & write. As an open-minded person ready to learn & adapt to new territory, I'm always excited to explore the Linux world & share it with you! Read Full Bio

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