What are Linux Distros? Explained!

If you are new to the Linux world, you might come across the term “Distros” all the time, and you may be wondering about the meaning and the reason behind the coining of this terminology “Linux Distros”.

In this article let us go ahead and learn more about these magic words “Linux Distros“. For those of you in a hurry here is the short version of the answer.

The Short Version Of the Answer

What is Linux Distro? “Linux Distro” is short for Linux Distribution, a package of the Linux Kernel, drivers, GNU utilities, and other necessary application software, which can be installed as an operating system on a given computer.

But this is just the short version of the answer. If you do not understand what was said above, then read on for a longer and more informative answer, after the 5 minutes you spend reading this article come back to this “short answer” again and you should be able to understand everything perfectly!

History of Linux Distros

Let us start with a little bit of a story about how Linux came into existence.

Before the Beginning of the Linux Era

Before Linux, Windows, and Mac came into existence, there was an operating system named Unix which was developed at Bell Labs in AT&T. (The same place where C Programming Language was developed!) But AT&T was not allowed to sell this Operating System as they were a huge company back then in the Telecom industry and the U.S government wanted to make sure a monopoly doesn’t form in the computing industry. So instead of selling Unix, AT&T decided to license its source code to Universities and other companies for a fee.

The Spirit Behind Linux

At that point in time, a group of young software professionals, who licensed this Unix operating system wanted to make some changes/improvements to Unix as they had the source code and they wanted everyone to benefit from it by distributing those improved versions of Unix. But the license prevented them from doing so, which they felt was unfair as all the work they put in is not going to have a good impact on the rest of mankind.

Also, there were other software at that time, which did not even let them look at the source code, as it was distributed as plain installable binaries (as most paid software is till today)

They then decided to form an organization called the “Free Software Foundation” with some simple rules to achieve their goal which is to make sure that the user of the software has control over what the software does on his/her computer and not the software maker.

To accomplish this goal they made 4 simple rules/guiding principles/freedoms

  • the user decides what this software can be used for
  • the source code will always be distributed with the software
  • the user is free to give out copies of that software
  • the user is free to make changes and give out those changes

By using these guiding principles, they wanted to make their own software to replace Unix and the GNU project was formed to make their own copy of the Unix operating system by writing all the code themselves.

GNU stands for GNU is not Unix, a recursive acronym.

All the software was ready but the kernel was getting delayed. The kernel is the core of the operating system which makes an interface for the software and the hardware.

Luckily for them, a Finnish student named “Linus Torvalds” was making a kernel as a hobby project. He contributed his code to the GNU project and thus GNU/Linux Operating System was born!

The Age of Distributions

The word Distro is short for “Distribution“, which was one of the first problems faced by the GNU/Linux operating system.

The team had all the source code and so if anyone wants a copy, then they have to download the source code and compile it all themselves, then link them together to make a working operating system, which seemed like a Herculean task for the beginners to the operating systems arena.

As a large majority of people who wanted to use this Free software (Free as in Freedom and not Free lunch!) were newbies, the software was prebuilt to compile on the famous processor architectures and was distributed as images so that the end-user can skip the hard steps of the compilation of source code and building the OS themselves.

They also made sure that the source code was available for download online so that the user’s freedoms are preserved.

Since the source code is open for everyone to see, large communities started evolving to bring together Operating Systems suited towards more specific needs/goals.

These “specific needs/goals” include, but not limited to the following.

  • producing documents
  • writing programs and creating software
  • editing pictures, videos, audio, and multimedia-production related works
  • securing the operating system so that no one can hack into it or
  • just browse the internet and consume media.

Say a community of people just wanted to browse the internet with their computers, then there is no point giving them the software to write programs in.

Thus since every community’s needs and goals were different these communities started distributing built images of this operating system with all the essential tools installed.

Thus the age of Distros began!

The goals we saw above is not the only differentiating factor between distributions. Let’s go ahead and see some of the other factors at play in the next section.

Factors that Differentiate Distributions

Some of the factors that differentiate these distros include the following

  • The goal of the distro (as we saw in the previous section)
  • Target use-case (e.g. Servers vs General users)
  • Business model (e.g. Community driven vs Commercial distros)
  • Usage of free software vs proprietary software (as some hardware like network cards and graphics cards always only came with proprietary software)
  • The package manager (used to install and uninstall software on the system)
  • Ease of Use (beginners vs advanced users)
  • Init system (sys init vs systemd)
  • Stability (Rolling releases vs Standard releases)
  • hardware architecture (x86, x64, ARM, etc.)
  • Security (decides the level of anonymity)
  • Resource constraints
  • Aesthetics (how the desktop and related apps look like)
  • Support (free and paid support)
  • Release cycles and Long term support (for example Ubuntu’s Long Term Support version is 2 years, which means you get security updates till that point and after that, you need to upgrade to their latest versions)

The above list is not a comprehensive one. To keep it brief I have just mentioned the important factors. But as we know people’s needs/goals can be different due to numerous factors and that’s the reason behind the existence of so many Linux Distros.

Example Use cases for which Linux Distros have been developed

Below are some of the possible use-cases for which you can find Linux Distros

If any of these categories interest you, you can click on the links to read more about the articles on distros that have been specifically made for these use cases.

We have analyzed so many other uses cases that Linux distros are specifically made for and have listed the best ones for each individual use case, you can read more here

If you are interested in learning more about Linux, be sure to check out our step by step plan to master Linux here.

If you haven’t already, you can go ahead to distrowatch.org to see a complete list of Linux distros, both active and deprecated.

And with that, I will conclude this article!

I hope you guys enjoyed this article and learned something useful.

If you liked the post, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

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Balaji Gunasekaran
Balaji Gunasekaran is a Senior Software Engineer with a Master of Science degree in Mechatronics and a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. He loves to write about tech and has written more than 300 articles. He has also published the book “Cracking the Embedded Software Engineering Interview”. You can follow him on LinkedIn