A Linux-based system is a modular Unix-like operating system. It derives much of its basic design from principles established in Unix during the 1970s and 1980s. Such a system uses a monolithic kernel, the Linux kernel, which handles process control, networking, and peripheral and file system access. Device drivers are either integrated directly with the kernel or added as modules loaded while the system is running.

Separate projects that interface with the kernel provide much of the system's higher-level functionality. The GNU userland is an important part of most Linux-based systems, providing the most common implementation of the C library, a popular CLI shell, and many of the common Unix tools which carry out many basic operating system tasks. The graphical user interface (or GUI) used by most Linux systems is built on top of an implementation of the X Window System. More recently, the Linux community seeks to advance to Wayland as the new display server protocol in place of X11; Ubuntu, however, develops Mir instead of Wayland.