To fully understand what a Linux distribution is (AKA distro), why there are so many, and what each is useful for, we need to go understand a little about Linux and its crazy history…
To be complete, an OS needs what’s called a kernel to sit in between the hardware and the software where it can allocate CPU and memory resources to runs software applications. The Linux family of operating systems is based on the Linux kernel. Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds developed the Linux kernel as a student at the University of Helsinki in 1991.This Unix-like operating system kernel (originally for Torvalds’ i386-based PC)is what’s referred to as an Open Source Software (OSS). Basically the opposite of proprietary software, OSS is computer code that’s available for anyone to view, copy, modify, and distribute as they’d like. This dynamic encourages the ongoing improvement of software in an environment of collaborative community.
Going back a few more years (1969), UNIX was created. This OS was adored by businesses and universities, but owned by AT&T. When Cal Berkely tried their hands at creating their own OS – Berkeley Software Distribution(BSD) – AT&T sued them for using Unix source code. This put limitations on UNIX development and led to a period known as the UNIX wars.
Over a decade later (1983) and Richard Stallman created the GNU Project, intended to be a free and open replacement for UNIX without using any of its source code. By 1991 GNU had a fleshed-out software. What remained missing was the OS kernel. This is where Linux came in, filling the need of the GNU project, creating what was initially called “GNU/Linux” OS and now simply Linux.
A Linux Distro is a complete OS based on the Linux Kernel that contains a bunch of packages and libraries and typically a package manager to install additional applications. Nearly 1000 Linux distros exist today, each tailored to different purposes. Some are more for enterprise users while others are for more casual users. Some are designed to run on servers and others on desktops, mobile, or embedded devices. Each distro is also commonly backed by a community with its own set of philosophical and technical opinions.
Slackware - Slackware is the oldest distro that’s still actively maintained, initially released in 1993. Intended to be the most “Unix-like”distro, it’s most appropriate for advanced Linux users.
Debian - Another early distro, Debian Linux is made up of entirely free software. The repositories of the current stable version contain more than 50,000 packages in total, making it one of the most complete Linux distributions. And with stable software and long release cycles, it’s great for servers. Many other derivative distros are based on Debian.
Ubuntu - One of the most popular and widespread distros for general use, Ubuntu (based on Debian) can be found on smartphones, tablets, PCs,servers, and cloud VPS. Also, the installation image includes the Try Ubuntu feature allowing you to try Ubuntu before installing it on your hard drive. This OS was intended primarily for PCs but can also be used on servers. It’s considered a good distro for beginners.
Kali Linux - Kali Linux is another Debian-derived distro, maintained and funded by Offensive Security. To the aspiring pentesters, it was designed for digital forensics and penetration testing.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) - RHEL was developed by Red Hat for the commercial market. Unlike most distros, it comes with paid Red-Hat-provided customer support. It’s released in both server versions (for x86-64, Power ISA, ARM64, and IBM Z) and a desktop version (for x86-64). RHEL is common for servers in corporate environments.
CentOS - CentOS is basically a no-cost version of RHEL with nearly identical functionality but no provided customer support.
Fedora - Fedora was built and is maintained by the Fedora Project and is sponsored by Red Hat and is the upstream source of RHEL. This distro has three main available versions (Workstation (for desktops), Server edition, and Cloud image), along with the ARM version for ARM-based (typically headless) servers. Tending to stay up to date with the latest free and open-source programs, software libraries and tools, it’s aimed towards the technology professionals, digital artists, software developers, gamers, students, and academia.
openSUSE - This distro strives to incorporate only tools that qualify as Free Open Source Software (FOSS). It's a reliable distro for desktop or server.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) - While sharing a code base with openSUSE, it’s intended to be more stable than openSUSE. Like RHEL, SLES comes with paid customer support. SLES is available in two editions, suffixed with Server for servers and mainframes,and Desktop for workstations and desktop computers.
Arch Linux - Arch Linux is driven by a philosophy focused on simplicity. ArchWiki– its online documentation repository – is one of the most comprehensive sources of Linux documentation. It’s targeted at experienced users.
Linux Mint - Linux Mint’s well-known motto (“From freedom came elegance“)does well to summarize. Based on Ubuntu, it’s aimed at providing a desktop operating system that home users and companies can use at no cost and still as efficient, easy to use, and elegant as possible.
MX Linux - MX Linux is a family of operating systems that are designed to combine elegant and efficient desktops with high stability and solid performance. It makes Debian more user friendly for beginning to intermediate –not for the “non-technical” Linux users.
Manjaro - Based on Arch Linux, Manjaro aims to take advantage of the power and the features that make Arch a great distribution while providing a more pleasant installation and operation experience. Its focus is on user-friendliness and accessibility. Very customizable, it’s good for programmers and developers wanting a customized development environment.
Elementary OS - This distro is based on Ubuntu, promoting itself as a "thoughtful, capable, and ethical" replacement to macOS and Windows and has a pay-what-you-want model.
Kubuntu - This is another Ubuntu-based distro, but with the latest KDE packages. A main difference is the GUI of these systems. Kubuntu can be great for those wanting to use Linux with a different user interface type.
Parrot OS - This distro is based on Debian with a focus on security,privacy, and development. For daily-job computer users, Parrot can be used with all the programs as a day-to-day task system. For developers, the distro includes an easy-to-use editor for software development. For ethical hackers, the platform enables you to surf the web privately and securely and is equipped to perform vulnerability assessment, penetration testing, computer forensics, etc.
Now you have an insight into the history of Linux, its many distros, and how to choose one for your needs. For more information, check out our other posts below! Stay tuned to the writings.