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Linux Distribution Guide - Part 1
Linux Distribution Guide


This is a brief guide to the world of Linux distributions, primarily aimed at individuals who are new to the Linux scene, and who are thinking about taking the plunge and trying Linux for the first time.  To set the scene, let's start with a very brief history of the origins of Linux.

The Linux kernel was started by Linus Torvalds in 1991, who was at the time studying at the University of Helsinki.  Linux was originally intended to be a replacement for Minix, an operating system designed for educational purposes.   One of the most important decisions ever made by Linus was the licensing agreement that the kernel was released under, the GNU General Public License (GPL).  Using the GPL meant that the programming code was freely-distributed and available to the general public.  This in turn encouraged thousands of developers to submit their own contributions to the code.  It is estimated that 1.5-2% of the kernel has been written by Linus Torvalds.

What is a Linux Distribution?

If you follow the IT press, you probably have heard of some Linux companies such as Red Hat, Mandriva, SuSE, and Debian.  These are all organisations that have created their own 'distributions' (often known as distros) of Linux.

A Linux distribution is more than just the kernel itself.  A typical desktop Linux distribution consists of various software components including the Linux kernel, the GNU toolchain, and a collection of free and open source software, such as office suites, email clients, web browsers, instant messaging, graphics editors, video players and more.  This software is released in both binary and source code form, the former of which is code that the computer can understand, the latter what humans can read.  Having the source code released under a GPL license means that other developers can legally modify the software, thereby providing a mechanism where the community can contribute to the development of the software components.  With most distributions there is often some proprietory software included where the source code may not be released.  This may be due to patent and licensing restrictions.

There are in excess of 700 linux distributions available, of which more than half currently are being actively developed.  However, try not to be daunted by this vast number.  This huge number is partly a reflection of the fact that there is no barrier preventing an individual or organisation from creating their own distribution.  Many distros were started simply because an individual felt that none of the existing distros met his specific requirements.  Furthermore, many of the distros are derived from one of the 'major' distros, sharing the same base, even sometimes being released at the same time.  To illustrate, let's take the popular Debian distribution.  The following distributions are all based on Debian:

General Purpose:
Finnix, Freespire, Linspire, Simply GNUstep, Symphony OS, Ubuntu (see list below), and Xandros.
Live CD:
Arco-Debian Linux, Big Linux, CĂ tix, DeveLinux, Dreamlinux, Elive, Kanotix, Knoppix (see list below), Morphix, Parsix, and sidux.
Bonzai Linux
Amber Linux, Bayanihan Linux, BeatrIX Linux, LinEx, Loco Linux, NepaLinux, PingOO, Sun Wah RAYS LX, Tuquito, and Trisquel.

Additionally, some of these 'derived' distros have themselves also spawned a whole raft of other distributions.

List of Distribtions based on Knoppix: Barnix, Bioknoppix, ClusterKNOPPIX, Clusterix, Condorux, CosmoPBX, Damn Small Linux, Danix, Dappix, DCC/Live, Dinux, distccKNOPPIX, DistccPPCKnoppix, emKnoppix, FCCU GNU/Linux Forensic Boot CD, eduKnoppix, Feather Linux, FREEDUC, GIS-Knoppix,  grml, Instant-Grid, Julex, Kazit, KernelKit, knopILS, Knoppel, Knoppix 64, Knoppix-Mib, Kalango, Knosciences, Kuliax, Kurumin, Lin4Astro, Local Area Security Knoppix, Linux Live Game Project, Luit Linux, Medialinux, Mentoppix, Musix, Myrinix, NordisKnoppix, OGo Knoppix CD, Overclockix, PaiPix, ParallelKnoppix, Parsix, Paipix, Penguin Sleuth Bootable CD, Quantian, ROSLIMS, Shabdix, SLYNUX, StreamBOX-LiveCD, Toophpix, Vigyaan, Vital Data Forensic or Rescue Kit (FoRK), Xarnoppix, Xfld, ZoneCD

List of Distributions based on Ubuntu: Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Ubuntu CE (all official derivations); andLinux, Elbuntu, Fluxbuntu, gNewSense, Gnoppix, Hiweed, Impi Linux, Linux for Clinics, LinuxMCE, nUbuntu, Scibuntu, Uberyl, Ubuntu Lite, Ubuntu Stunio, and XUbuntu.

Phew! As you can see, over 100 distributions are based on Debian alone!

Take a look at the Linux distro timeline below (clicking on the graphic will make it readable).  This timeline gives you an accurate representation of when distros were launched, and when other distros were spawned from their parent distribution.

Next Page: What are the differences between Distributions?

Read ahead

1. Introduction
2. What are the differences between Distributions?
3. What other factors might influence my choice of Distribution?
4. So what Distribution should I use?

Last Updated Sunday, March 23 2008 @ 05:32 AM EST

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