At the risk of sounding like a complete dumb: is the Linux kernel required to run Linux?

I ask because I'm brand spanking new to the Linux scene and Google doesn't help with this question.

  • Not an identical question, but one to which the answers might provide some useful background: askubuntu.com/questions/25243/what-is-a-distribution
    – chronitis
    Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 15:15
  • 1
    Question does not make sense. If you are not running linux, then you are not running linux.
    – psusi
    Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 19:34
  • lol how does this not make sense to you? This question has already been successfully answered. The question was clear, precise, and any user of Linux could answer. Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 22:08
  • 3
    This question makes perfectly sense for me. It is just based on the common misconception that GNU is Linux. Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 8:32

5 Answers 5


I think what you want to ask here is actually: is the Linux kernel required to run the GNU operating system?

If this is the case, then the answer is no. Linux is not the official kernel of GNU. The GNU project officially comes with an another kernel: Hurd.

GNU runs on the FreeBSD kernel too. Debian is one of the few (probably the only one) distributions that offer GNU on the FreeBSD kernel.

What is Linux?

Linux is a kernel. The traditional definition of kernel states that it is that piece of software that lets processes communicate with the hardware.

You rarely interact with Linux directly.

What is GNU?

It is an operating system. If you have ever fiddled with the command line, than you have interacted with GNU. Some (but not all) commands like ls, cp and rm are part of GNU. Even the Bash shell is part of GNU. GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program.

There are high chances that you have interacted with GNU directly.

What is Hurd?

Mach is a micro-kernel. Hurd is a complete kernel based on Mach. Both Mach and Hurd are part of the GNU project.

On the contrary, Linux is not part of GNU; it is an independent project.

From this point of view, Linux is an alternative to Hurd, like KDE is an alternative to GNOME.

Why do most people say 'Linux' when they actually mean 'GNU'?

This is a long story. The GNU website provides and excellent explanation. I cannot do better:

The correct name for operating systems that offer both GNU and Linux is GNU+Linux or GNU/Linux. Here are the details:


Yes. Kernel is THE most important part of any operating system.

  • Thanks. Do I need to install one before installing Ubuntu? Could that be my "flickering screen" issue when attempting? Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 15:14
  • 1
    No. Installation of Ubuntu automatically installs the Linux Kernel as well. If there was no kernel, your computer would not have booted successfully at all.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 15:15

The GNU/Linux operating system consists of two parts:

  1. Kernel developed by Linux Torvalds.
  2. GNU Tools:
    • Richard Stallman, the founder of GNU project.

When the system boots, it starts with the kernel.

If something is wrong in the kernel you'll find an error like "Kernel Panic"


short answer: Yes, you need it.

Long answer: The kernel is like the engine of a car. Without it your system does nothing. You can find all info you need about what the kernel is on this website

the kernel is automatically installed during your linux installation.

  • Okay, so I have a flickering screen after rebooting from the wubi install. I have an Acer Aspire 5000 (from 2006) Trying to figure out what causes this flickering... It did it with the latest distro too. But I'm trying to install 12.04.3 Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 15:18
  • You should ask a new question.
    – MadMike
    Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 15:46

The kernel is one of the first parts of an operating system to be loaded on startup. It handles hardware through drivers, and thus allocates system resources to processes running on the OS. If you did not have a kernel, your operating system would be unable to function.

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