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Linux distribution facts for kids

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Linux distributions (often abbreviated as distros) are made of the Linux kernel and a collection of applications. The operating system will be made up of the Linux kernel and, usually, a set of libraries and utilities from the GNU project, with graphics that come from the X Window System. Distributions that are made to be small may not contain big window systems full of features like KDE or GNOME, but use small window systems like busybox, uclibc or dietlibc. There are more than three hundred Linux distributions. Most of those are in still in development, being improved and changed constantly.


Before the first Linux distributions, a Linux user needed to be a Unix expert, knowing what libraries and executables that were needed to get the system to boot and run.

Linux distributions started to form after the Linux kernel was starting to be used by people outside the original Linux programmers. They were more interested in creating the operating system than making it user-friendly.

Early distributions included:

  • H J Lu's "Boot-root" a two disk pair with the kernel and the absolute minimal tools to get started.
  • MCC Interim Linux, which was made available to the public for download on the FTP server of University of Manchester in February, 1992;
  • TAMU, created by individuals at Texas A&M University about the same time, and
  • SLS (Softlanding Linux System).
  • Yggdrasil Linux/GNU/X, created the first CD-ROM based Linux distribution.

SLS was not well-maintained, so Patrick Volkerding created a distribution based on SLS, which he called Slackware; released July 16, 1993. This is the oldest being developed.

People who used computers wanted to use Linux distributions as replacements to Microsoft Windows operating systems on the PC, Mac OS on the Apple Macintosh and proprietary versions of Unix.

Package management

Distributions are normally split into packages. Each package has a certain application or service. Examples of packages include a collection of fonts, or a web browser.

The package is usually given as compiled code, with installation and removal of packages done by a package management system. Linux distributions usually contain much more software than Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X.


The website DistroWatch lists many Linux distributions, and displays some of the ones that have the most web traffic on the site. The Wikimedia Foundation released an analysis of the browser User Agents of visitors to WMF websites until 2015, which includes details of the most popular Operating System identifiers, including some Linux distributions. Many of the popular distributions are listed below.

Widely used GNU-based or GNU-compatible distributions

  • Debian, a non-commercial distribution and one of the earliest, maintained by a volunteer developer community with a strong commitment to free software principles and democratic project management.
    • Knoppix, the first Live CD distribution to run completely from removable media without installation to a hard disk, derived from Debian.
    • Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) uses Debian packages directly (rather than Ubuntu's)
    • Ubuntu, a desktop and server distribution derived from Debian, maintained by British company Canonical Ltd.
      • There are several distributions based on Ubuntu that mainly replace the GNOME stock desktop environment, like: Kubuntu based on KDE, Lubuntu based on LXQT, Xubuntu based on XFCE, Ubuntu MATE based on MATE, Ubuntu Budgie based on Budgie. Other official forks have specific uses like: Ubuntu Kylin for Chinese-speaking users, or Ubuntu Studio for media content creators.
      • Linux Mint, a distribution based on and compatible with Ubuntu. Supports multiple desktop environments, among others GNOME Shell fork Cinnamon and GNOME 2 fork MATE.
  • Fedora, a community distribution sponsored by American company Red Hat and the successor to the company's previous offering, Red Hat Linux. It aims to be a technology testbed for Red Hat's commercial Linux offering, where new open source software is prototyped, developed, and tested in a communal setting before maturing into Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
    • Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), a derivative of Fedora, maintained and commercially supported by Red Hat. It seeks to provide tested, secure, and stable Linux server and workstation support to businesses.
      • CentOS, a distribution derived from the same sources used by Red Hat, maintained by a dedicated volunteer community of developers with both 100% Red Hat-compatible versions and an upgraded version that is not always 100% upstream compatible.
      • Oracle Linux, which is a derivative of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, maintained and commercially supported by Oracle
  • Mandriva Linux was a Red Hat Linux derivative popular in several European countries and Brazil, backed by the French company of the same name. After the company went bankrupt, it was superseded by OpenMandriva Lx, although a number of derivatives now have a larger user base.
    • Mageia, a community fork of Mandriva Linux created in 2010
    • PCLinuxOS, a derivative of Mandriva, which grew from a group of packages into a community-spawned desktop distribution
  • openSUSE, a community distribution mainly sponsored by German company SUSE.
  • Arch Linux, a rolling release distribution targeted at experienced Linux users and maintained by a volunteer community, offers official binary packages and a wide range of unofficial user-submitted source packages. Packages are usually defined by a single PKGBUILD text file.
    • Manjaro Linux, a derivative of Arch Linux that includes a graphical installer and other ease-of-use features for less experienced Linux users.
  • Gentoo, a distribution targeted at power users, known for its FreeBSD Ports-like automated system for compiling applications from source code
  • Slackware, created in 1993, one of the first Linux distributions and among the earliest still maintained, committed to remain highly Unix-like and easily modifiable by end users

Linux kernel based operating systems

Whether the above operating systems count as a "Linux distribution" is a controversial topic. They use the Linux kernel, so the Linux Foundation and Chris DiBona, Google's open source chief, agree that Android is a Linux distribution; others, such as Google engineer Patrick Brady, disagree by noting the lack of support for many GNU tools in Android, including glibc.

Other Linux kernel based operating systems include Cyanogenmod, its fork LineageOS, Android-x86 and recently Tizen, Mer/Sailfish OS and KaiOS.

Lightweight distributions

Lightweight Linux distributions are those that have been designed with support for older hardware in mind, allowing older hardware to still be used productively, or, for maximum possible speed in newer hardware by leaving more resources available for use by applications. Examples include Tiny Core Linux, Puppy Linux and Slitaz.

Niche distributions

Other distributions target specific niches, such as:

  • Routers – for example, targeted by the tiny embedded router distribution OpenWrt
  • Internet of things – for example, targeted by Ubuntu Core
  • Home theater PCs – for example, targeted by KnoppMyth, Kodi (former XBMC) and Mythbuntu
  • Specific platforms – for example, Raspberry Pi OS targets the Raspberry Pi platform
  • Education – examples are Edubuntu and Karoshi, server systems based on PCLinuxOS
  • Scientific computer servers and workstations – for example, targeted by Scientific Linux
  • Digital audio workstations for music production – for example, targeted by Ubuntu Studio
  • Computer Security, digital forensics and penetration testing – examples are Kali Linux and Parrot Security OS
  • Privacy and anonymity – for example, targeted by Tails, Whonix, Qubes, or FreedomBox
  • Offline use – for example, Endless OS
  • Microsoft's Azure Sphere

Tools for choosing a Linux distribution

There are tools available to help people make the decision easier.

Screenshots of common distributions

A few screenshots of common distributions just after installation :

Related pages

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