When I was first coming from Windows and exploring Linux, I found the Linux filesystem structure to be a bit confusing, simply because I didn’t know anything other than the Windows file system for my entire life. But after persisting through the learning curve, the mystery was unraveled and I can now comfortably switch between Linux and Windows whenever needed, and I actually feel like I understand the Windows file system better now after learning the Linux file system.
For me, the biggest difference between the two file systems is to understand where the root of the file system begins. In Windows, the root begins at the drive letter, usually C:\, which basically means it begins at the hard drive. In Linux however, the root of the filesystem doesn’t correspond with a physical device or location, it’s a logical location of simply “/”. See the graphics below for a visual representation.
Linux File System Structure Tree
Windows File System Tree
Another thing to remember is that in Linux, everything is a file. Or, more accurately, everything is represented as being a file, while in Windows it may be displayed as being a disk drive.
For example, in Windows the hard drive is typically represented as C:\ in the file explorer, and it will even display a little icon of the hard drive and display how much space is being used. In Linux, on the other hand, the hard drive as represented merely as /dev/sda, which is really just a folder/directory, which in Linux is really just a file that points to other files.
So let’s take some other more practical examples. The Linux equivalent of your Documents folder in Windows would be /home/username/Documents, whereas in Windows it’s typically C:\Users\UserName\Documents. These are actually pretty similar, but you can see where the differences lie.
So using the above Linux file system chart, we need to explore what each folder in the Linux file system is for, which will help us to better understand how Linux works in general. Note that not every folder listed here or pictured above necessarily appears in every Linux distro, but most of them do.
You can do some more research online and go deeper to learn more about specific applications and usage of each of the above mentioned folders, but for the typical everyday home user, your /home folder is generally the only folder you’ll be directly interacting with. Occasionally you may have to venture into the other folders if you’re trying to do some troubleshooting, but typically modern Linux distros automatically maintain these folders and they require little to no user interference. The exception would be if you’re using a distro like Arch Linux or Gentoo, in which case, you probably didn’t need to read this article in the first place.
To reiterate my previous statement, keep in mind that the Linux file system is a logical system, rather than a physical one. Different folders in the system may be on different partitions on the disk, or even on different disks altogether, but logically everything is still in the same location. The best way to grasp this concept is to simply use Linux as your daily driver, as the best way to learn is through immersion. Ubuntu or Linux Mint are probably the best choices for this task. After using the Linux file system for a while, eventually everything will click you’ll understand what’s going on.
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