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A Red Hat® Package Manager file (rpm file) is a file or set of files used to install software on Linux® based systems. First introduced to support the Red Hat® distribution of Linux®, RPM has been included in many more distributions of Linux® and other Operating Systems like Novell Netware®.
The idea behind an rpm file is such that a group of files or an application can be packaged together and unpacked during the installation process. The technology is similar to compression used to package many word or excel documents together for distribution. Packaging installation files together reduces the size of the overall file and in turn the amount of time a user spends downloading and installing the rpm file.
The information about each package is stored in meta data, which is data that defines data to a computer. An rpm file, as it is unpacked, stores meta data in a database on the host computer which keeps information about the installed packages. This helps to maintain updates for applications and ensure that the host operating system knows which version of the installed package is most current.
Sometimes a front end application will be used to manage the RPM package files on a system. These applications are used to simplify the use of an RPM file even further by bringing them into the Graphical User Interface (GUI). Many distributions of Linux® are command line driven, leaving the user to enter the path to the application or RPM package files on the command line to make use of the package. The front end manager allows the user to download package files and then open them within the GUI environment, removing the command line from the equation.
RPM package files can also help new users to the Linux® arena become more familiar with the use of the operating system and make the setup process less daunting simply because it can be handled within the GUI desktop environment many users have become comfortable with.
@Terrificli -- Red Hat and its derivatives aren't the only Linux distributions that have simplified installing files. In the Ubuntu world, for example, methods have been developed to make installing applications easy, too.
In the case of Ubuntu and a lot of Linux distros, that problem has also been addressed by bundling the operating system with a lot of applications that most users want (office suites, graphics suites, music players, WINE for running some Windows apps, etc.). You just install the Linux distro you want and most of the apps you need are already in place and ready to go.
Most Linux distros also come with a built in store -- simply launch it, search for the file you want, click a button and the thing downloads and installs.
RPM files were developed out of necessity, really. How did Linux get a reputation for being such a difficult operating system to use? Part of it comes from the difficulty of installing files. Back in the earlier days of Linux (and we're talking about the late 1990s and early 2000s here), installing a Linux application generally meant downloading it, navigating to it in through a text terminal, unpacking it and then installing it. The process was messy and was far removed from the "point and click" simplicity of installing programs on Windows or Mac OS.
To deal with that problem, RPM was developed. It is now a lot easier to install files, but Linux still has an image problem because of the perceived difficulty of using it.
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