WTF Is a Linux Distribution

You’ve probably heard the phrase Linux distribution before.  It’s hard to avoid in the Linux world.  But you’re probably wondering what a distribution is.  Nobody seems to explain that, it’s just assumed that everyone knows.  Well, I’m going to break from the mold and tell you!


Linux isn’t like Windows or OS X.  It isn’t one giant package produced, assembled, and managed by a single organization.  Instead, thousands of unrelated people and organizations work on a variety of small programs that, when combined properly, yield an operating system.

Due to Linux’s free, open source mentality, anyone can take these parts and make their own operating system.  These are then called Linux distributions, or Linux distros for short.

Typically, a Linux distribution will include the Linux kernel, GNU tools and libraries, and a package management system.  But, debates rage over what exactly is, and is not, a Linux distribution.  The Android operating system, for example, runs a Linux kernel, but differs from other distributions in almost every other way.  Is Android a Linux distribution (commence debates in the comments below)?

Regardless of where the line is drawn, my personal definition of a Linux distribution is an operating system, containing common Linux tools, based on the Linux kernel.  Because distributions have the same heart, the kernel, they are similar in many ways and all fall under the Linux operating system moniker.


How Do Distributions Vary?

So far it probably sounds like Linux distributions are almost identical.  But, that’s not true.  There are a number of common differences.


We’ve discussed the free, open source mentality permeating the Linux community before.  Some distributions maintain a stronger commitment to these principles than others.  Distributions like Debian Linux do not sacrifice them in favor ease-of-use, popularity, or profit.  Other distributions, such as Linux Mint, focus on ease-of-use and make compromises to that end.

A commonly encountered example is support for MP3 audio files.  MP3 is not an open, free standard.  Subsequently, a distribution like Debian does not play MP3 audio files out-of-the-box.  Linux Mint does.  Debian has strong moral and ethical opinions shaping their actions; simplicity is Linux Mint’s guide.

Those who strongly support the free, open source movement place great emphasis on a distribution’s philosophy.  This is a personal decision and you must decide where your priorities lie.


Desktop Environments

Most distributions cater to a certain desktop environment.  Ubuntu favors Unity, Linux Mint favors Cinnamon, Fedora favors GNOME Shell, and Mageia favors KDE.  It is certainly possible to use other desktop environments with each of these distributions, but their focus is usually on one in particular.  If you hate Unity, you can install a different desktop environment on Ubuntu, or switch to a similar distribution that caters to another desktop environment (Kubuntu for example).  The latter is often easier.


Package Management

This is one of the largest differences between distributions.  Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and many others use DEB packages.  Fedora and openSUSE use RPM packages.  Arch uses PKGBUILDs.  Gentoo uses ebuilds.  And, one distribution doesn’t always accept packages from other distributions, even if they are the same type (for example, Ubuntu packages don’t always work on Debian).

These package management systems all have their pros and cons.  Beginners usually prefer DEBs and RPMs for their simplicity.  Advanced users enjoy the extra control and power PKGBUILDs and ebuilds offer.

When deciding which distribution to use, you should keep in mind how easy or difficult it is to install packages, and how widespread those packages are.


Stability or Bleeding Edge

Distributions like Fedora focus on having the most recent versions of apps and packages available.  Debian, on-the-other-hand, focuses on stability.  Bleeding edge distros will always give you the newest software.  Stable distros hold back updates until they are completely confident nothing will break.

If you need the latest and greatest of everything, stick with a distro that chooses new over stable.  If you never want problems, stick with a stable distro.


Hardware Compatibility

While this is less of a problem than it was a few years ago, there are still hardware components that don’t work well in Linux.  Many popular wireless cards, video cards, and sound cards are notoriously difficult to get working.

Choosing a distribution that focuses greatly on compatibility and ease-of-use will increase the odds of your hardware working out-of-the-box.


Rolling or Stable Release Cycle

Everyone is familiar with stable release cycles.  With stable cycles, operating systems are released periodically, in distinct versions.  Between versions, small updates and fixes are released, but no major changes to the operating system occur.  This is the model used by Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.  Stable release Linux distributions are easier to keep stable and secure.

The rolling release cycle offers non-stop, continuous updates.  When a change is made to the operating system, no matter how large in scope, it is pushed out as a simple update.  In theory, a rolling release never needs reinstalling, and receives new software, bug fixes, and features faster than stable releases.  However, the constant barrage of meaningful changes and updates can lead to unexpected bugs and breakages that then need resolving.

Arch Linux is an example of a rolling release distribution (commonly called a rolling distro).  There are no distinct versions.  It is continuously updated.  Ubuntu is an example of a stable release distribution.  


Minimalist or Polished

Many distributions add lots of polish and extra features.   But those extras require processing power and often add a slightly sluggish feel to the operating system.  Countless distributions have arisen to wipe away frivolous niceties and stick to the blazingly fast necessities.

openSUSE’s fantastic tools and gorgeous KDE desktop add overhead that Crunchbang’s developers wanted to eliminate with their distro.


Community Support

Chances are, whichever distribution you pick, you’re going to need help.  In the Linux world, that usually means seeking out help from your distribution’s community.  The larger and more popular the distribution, the larger the community.

You also have to factor in the mindset of the community.  Some distributions cater to experienced Linux users.  This means their communities are filled with highly skilled Linux users who are less likely to help out beginners with the basics.

This is the biggest strength of Ubuntu.  Ubuntu’s community size is unparalleled, and welcomes everyone, regardless of experience.



Picking a Distribution

As you can see, different distributions are suited for different purposes, preferences, and mentalities.  Which distribution you should choose is highly personal.  You need to decide which factors are most important to you, then look for distros with similar goals.

I have included a list of my favorite distributions, what I feel they excel at, and reasons you may want to try them.  If you’ve played the distribution field, help out newcomers by sharing your recommendations in the comments below.


For the Beginner: Linux Mint

Linux Mint 16 Running CinnamonLinux Mint is based on the Ubuntu distribution.  Ubuntu’s stated purpose is making Linux accessible to average users, and they’ve done a fine job.  Linux Mint takes this a step further.  Mint aims for utter simplicity, ease-of-use, and a problem free experience.  Because it is based on Ubuntu, it has plenty of available packages, lots of community support, and a solid pedigree.

Mint comes with the Cinnamon desktop environment.  If you’re familiar with Microsoft Windows, you’ll pick up Cinnamon with ease.  It offers a nice blend between simplicity and eye candy.  Mint also comes with a great selection of pre-installed software.  All the needs of the average user are met out-of-the-box.

There are other spin-offs of Linux Mint (developed by the same team) that include other popular desktop environments such as KDE and XFCE.  Unlike several of the following distributions in the list, you choose which desktop environment you want when you download Linux Mint, not during installation.


For the Impatient: Fedora

Fedora 20 Running Gnome ShellFedora is a rapidly updating and evolving distribution.  Fedora users will have access to software updates and features that other distributions will hold back for months, if not years.  It also features better security and enterprise features than many other distributions because of its relationship with the enterprise powerhouse distributions Red Hat and CentOS.  Fedora is a serious distribution, not for the faint of heart.  However, it is still relatively easy to learn and has a large enough community and package repository for most users.

Fedora allows choosing several desktop environments during installation.  However, the default environment is Gnome Shell.  Gnome Shell is heavily invested in by the driving force behind Fedora, Red Hat.  Because of this, Fedora has probably the most up-to-date and best implemented Gnome Shell experience.  Gnome Shell is fairly simple and straightforward, but may frustrate new converts due to its unfamiliar layout and organization.

Fedora is committed to the free, open source philosophy, and does not include proprietary software by default, though it is easily added if desired.


For the Cautious and Server Administrators: Debian

Debian 6 Running Gnome ShellDebian has become synonymous with “stable as a rock” in the Linux community.  You will rarely stumble upon bugs, incompatibilities, or crashes as a Debian user.  It features the largest package repository of any distribution, and has the most spin-off distributions available.  However, it is slow to update and evolve.  You will wait months, or even years for software updates to become available while they are rigorously tested and verified.

Debian offers a choice of several desktop environments or no desktop environment (leaving only terminal access).  Debian makes it very simple to have a stripped down installation with little to no pre-installed software.  This allows the user to completely customize their distribution after installation.

Debian is strongly committed to free, open source software, and does not include proprietary software by default.


For the Experimenter: OpenSUSE

openSUSE 13.1 Running KDEOpenSUSE’s main draw is how easy it is to customize and configure.  It has good support for all major desktop environments, it has polished computer administration tools, thorough documentation, and a strong community.  Where Linux Mint and Ubuntu try to push certain configuration and workflows down your throat, OpenSUSE can become whatever you want with very little work.

I recommend this as the second distribution a new Linux user tries.  Once you’ve used Mint to learn the basics, pick up OpenSUSE to learn how powerful and customizable Linux is without being overwhelmed.

openSUSE’s default desktop environment is KDE, though you can choose others during installation.  In my opinion, openSUSE boasts the best implementation of KDE.  Unlike other KDE distributions, openSUSE’s default KDE configuration is visually appealing, and excellently tied in with the tools this distribution offers.

openSUSE is one of my favorite distributions because of its polish, its ease-of-use, and its customization tools.


For the Fanatic: Arch

Arch Linux Running Gnome ShellWhen you install Arch, you start from scratch and build from there.  It doesn’t hold your hand.  It doesn’t pre-configure anything.  It doesn’t make decisions for you.  You’re creating a specialized, custom installation for you, and you alone.  It can become whatever you want.

Arch is a power-user’s distribution.  If you start your Linux foray with Arch, you’re crazy.  If you manage to persist with Arch, and make it work the way you want, you will be a Linux genius by the end.  However, every step will be a battle.  Instead, learn the basics.  Try out 10 easier distributions first.  Then, slowly advance into Arch.  It’s a worthwhile experience, but not an easy one.

I’ll admit that I have had nothing but problems with Arch, so I’m biased.  I’ve attempted to switch to it multiple times, but always end up immensely frustrated and switch to another distribution.  While I love customization and the start from scratch mentality, I feel Arch takes this too far.



Obviously, I haven’t even scratched the surface of available distributions.  The website has as close to a comprehensive list of distributions available if you want to look deeper.  As I mentioned, the listed distributions are suited to my preferences, not yours.  As you experiment, you’ll make up your own mind.  When you do, be sure to share your opinions in the comments below!

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John is a sailing instructor and mechanical engineering student who happens to be a computer geek. To find more information about John, visit his website or find him on social media by clicking on the icons below.

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2 Responses to “WTF Is a Linux Distribution”

    • Joe

      Indirect love via Mint I guess. Longtime Linux lurker and dabbler that has always backed out and reinstalled windows within 24 hours. Thanks to YouTube and the progress made since the days of burning Slackware and Redhat cds I’m actually learning more what’s going on beneath the surface while not driving myself insane by just blindly punching in commands (mostly). I’m looking for the holy grail of easy package management, a stable rolling release model and not much extras or anything that relies on tweak panels and the like. Kinda feels good to have to use your brain and accept some level of difficulty. It might be frustrating but it means you aren’t beholden to data harvesting and legalese of Microsoft.