Once upon a time, Linus Torvalds created a basic operating system akin to some of the Unix systems of the moment and made it generally and freely available.
The Linux kernel, as it was called, became the base of more and more systems or “distributions,” also referred to as “distros.”
A Linux distro contains a variety of additional free and open-source software that is adapted to the distro concerned. It also usually simplifies installation compared to the original Linux kernel.
Linux Distribution Components
Any Linux system is made up of replaceable components. The main component categories are:
- the boot loader, which is activated at system startup to load the kernel
- the kernel, which interacts directly with the computer hardware
- the shell that accepts and executes user commands
- the X window server and the windows manager for the GUI (graphical user interface)
- the desktop environment (the two main types are GNOME and KDE) that offers a collection of applications to the user
With the wealth of software applications now freely available, distributors can produce an infinite variety of different Linux distributions, even if certain open-source software is often a staple part of all distributions.
That means distros can be designed for a range of uses and environments — anything from mobile phone to PC, server, mainframe, and even supercomputer platforms. It is currently estimated that approximately 600 Linux distros exist, with about half of these being actively maintained and further developed.
Linux Package Management
Additional applications for a given Linux distro are made available in packages specifically for that Linux distro. A package manager application in the Linux distro will automatically seek out software you request, download the appropriate package for your distro, install it, and set it up. Package managers also download updates automatically for the installed software they handle.
LTS Releases for Linux
Some Linux distros are long-term support (LTS) releases. A distributor will typically maintain an LTS release for at least two years, with a policy of releasing patches or corrections either individually or grouped as maintenance releases or service packs. However, new features are not introduced during the long-term support period, to avoid the risk of other bugs surfacing because of regression.
Shopping for your Linux Distro
If you’re looking for a Linux distribution, start by thinking about how you want to use it (desktop PC, server, etc.), as well as the functionality you want in it.
Here’s a rundown by category of some of the distros that might match your requirements.
Linux for your PC
While the command line interface (CLI) is still a major feature of Linux systems, graphical interfaces (GUIs) have now appeared that rival both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac systems.
In fact, you can have the best of both worlds: fully functional GUIs and the flexibility to flip between different versions until you find the one you like the most.
- Xubuntu — for functional yet user-friendly PC computing, with easy installation. This desktop Linux distro is part of the Ubuntu family, which also extends to laptop, server, and other environments
- OpenSUSE — for an attractive office desktop that also works consistently in both KDE and GNOME environments
- Linux Mint — has built up a firm following thanks to its additional utilities that include several new device drivers and its attractive visual design
Linux for Servers
While Linux is gradually making inroads into the standalone PC market, its place in the server environment is already better established.
- Red Hat Enterprise Linux — Available for both end user PCs and servers. If company revenues are any sign of product durability and quality, Red Hat also stands tall as the first billion-dollar Linux vendor.
- SUSE Enterprise Linux — This is a popular choice among Linux administrators and successfully implanted in a number of sectors. As one example, the international retail giant Walmart uses SUSE Linux Enterprise Point-of-Service systems.
- CentOS — Based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS is free. Its user interface is plain, to say the least, but the system has a solid track record of enterprise-level quality and reliability.
- Ubuntu Server — The Ubuntu family strikes again! Besides desktop and laptop versions, Ubuntu is also available to power servers and is also supplied in an LTS version supported for five years.
Linux for Laptops
Laptops, especially older generations, don’t always have all the system resources of today’s desktop PCs. However, Linux distros can be fashioned to take account of such constraints to focus on the truly useful and strip out the superfluous.
- Lubuntu — Speed and reduced memory requirements are making Lubuntu increasingly popular with users whose computers are more modestly powered, but also with those who feel the full Ubuntu distro is too bloated.
- Arch Linux — Puts the emphasis on users only having to install what they really need. Prior systems experience is advisable as there are no default installations and you’ll need to manually adjust configurations in their associated text files.
Linux for Mobiles
- Ubuntu Touch — Ubuntu-powered mobile phones are scheduled for release in 2014. While it has the power of the Ubuntu family behind it, time will tell how well it does in the mobile OS wars against the likes of Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone.
Linux for the Web Browser Operating System
- Chrome OS — Google pragmatically made the choice of Linux as a minimalist base for the Chrome operating system and associated Chromebook devices.
Linux for Anyone Who Wants to do their Own Distro
Finally, if Linux distributors can mix and match components, why shouldn’t end users do so?
- Suse Studio — lets you build your own Linux distribution. In the words of a large fast-food chain, “Have it your way!”
With so many Linux distros to choose from, many well-known ones have not yet been mentioned here (e.g., Debian — one of the oldest and most established, and the basis for Ubuntu and Linux Mint, among others).
Check out the numerous user and magazine reviews to build up your knowledge of the Linux distribution world and other distro choices so you can select the one that’s right for you.
Photo Sources: apaxo.de