Simplifying the Crazy World of Linux Distrosby@oliveremeka
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1,711 reads

Simplifying the Crazy World of Linux Distros

by Oliver IfediorahAugust 9th, 2022
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However, this combination of tools in Linux continued as many programmers put together several sets of software tools with the freely available Linux kernel to cater to various needs or devices. That is how Linux distributions (i.e., Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora etc.) came about and that is why Linux runs on almost every device including PCs, servers, mobile phones, embedded systems etc. Hence, a Linux distribution/distro is a combination of the Linux kernel and a given set of software tools that work together.

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The Linux enthusiast felt empowered. He walked with long, energetic strides driven by the fuel of purpose. Today is the day that he would do it. Many had doubted that he could. Hell, even he had not been so sure of himself. But look at him now, broken free from the shackles of ease that Windows OS bound him with and headed to tame the wildness of Linux and domesticate it on his now empty laptop device. Finally, he had summoned the courage to back up all his media files and documents on an external drive and wipe his Windows Os clean to freely replace them with Linux Os.

He couldn’t wait to see the look on his friend’s faces when he finally shows them his empty device; a mark of his victory over the beautiful GUI of Windows goodness. A man is contrite, ready to forgo easy Windows pleasures of easy software installation, readily available games, and extensive technical support, to take up the Linux mantle of self-dependent technical expertise. That’d teach his friends to respect him. They’d never call him lazy again.

His friends had all installed different versions of Linux on their devices. They claimed to be “double booting” Linux with their windows on the same device. Or was it dual booting they called it? What the hell did he care? All that mattered was that when he asked his friends to help him also install Linux, they had all laughed and advised him to continue with his windows because he was too lazy for the technical requirements to use Linux OS.

They said installing it for him would only mean they had subjected themselves to never-ending disturbance because he was going to keep disturbing them when using Linux as he’d be too lazy to do the necessary research. They said windows suited him well as all he did was play games and watch movies. How dare they underestimate his tech curiosity? He’d Show them now!

He opened the door to his friend’s dorm room and ushered his girlfriend in. Ladies first or was it converts first? He had convinced her to come and install Linux with him to prove to his friends how much he could do for tech. They were all computer science students after all. He too, not just them with their geeky chip on the shoulder. His girlfriend has said she’d only install Linux alongside her Windows and tried to get him to do the same and avoid wiping all the software on his Windows OS.

But she was just weak like his friends who claimed to have tech curiosity, yet couldn’t go for Linux alone. He would go the extra mile and prove once and for all who the true geek was by entirely replacing his Windows with Linux. He then walked in majestically loudly asking as he entered; “Now who said that I can’t leave windows for Linux?”

Ten minutes later the Linux enthusiast was sitting victoriously in the middle with his friends surrounding him. They all respected him now. They had crowned him Linux king. All that was left now was for him to install a version of Linux and reign forever.

“Now which version of Linux is good for gaming, graphics, coding, technical work and is easy to use?” asked the Linux enthusiast turned Linux king.

Friend one first corrected him that technically it was called Linux distribution or distro, not version. Then he advocated for Ubuntu as it was easy to use but friend two countered that it was too nontechnical and would not gain the Linux king the respect he deserved. Friend two then advised him to pick Fedora but Friend one protested that Fedora software type would be difficult to find, hence the Linux King should just pick Kali to easily access his games in .deb format.

However, friend three argued that if that was the case he should just install Debian and directly enjoy .deb files. Also, Debian would fit the Linux King and his girlfriend because he heard that the creator of Debian Linux named it after his girlfriend. Friend one came back, arguing that Arch Linux sounded more befitting for a king. And the ruckus continued….

The Linux king was scratching his head now not very enthusiastic about Linux OS anymore. His girlfriend had quietly told him amid the chaos that she was not cut out for this confusion. Hence, she’d no longer install Linux on her device. Why did he foolishly wipe his windows without even knowing what version of Linux he’d install? He felt more Linux fool than Linux king now. Then the idea came to him amidst the noise. Yea, he had a saving grace. Google!

The Linux fool then whipped out his phone, heaved a sigh of relief, and while his friends continued arguing, he prayerfully typed into the google search box;

“What is the best Linux distribution?”

The scenario above describes how many enthusiastic newbies to the Linux universe get so confused by the vast amount of distributions available to choose from that they either turn away from the OS entirely or end up installing a version that could eventually make them regret adopting Linux. There are almost a thousand Linux versions reported to exist at the moment. This diversity can be just too much for a beginner. By presenting a simple yet comprehensive explanation of Linux distros, this article seeks to rescue such Linux enthusiasts to the point that they make the effort to google the question above.

Introduction to Linux distributions

Richard Stallman became a pioneer of the free, open-source OS movement that birthed Linux when he started the GNU project - a recursive acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix!” - in 1983, to be an open OS compatible with UNIX. He and other programmers had completed most components of the OS by 1990 but it took the creation of Linux in 1991 by Linus Torvalds to supply them with a kernel, which is the central component of an operating system.

The kernel is a core component of an operating system and serves as the main interface between the computer's physical hardware and the processes running on it. -

Torvalds work was also influenced by UNIX as he started Linux as a terminal emulator to be compatible with UNIX, but the project grew over time into the Linux kernel and he made the source code free to use. The subsequent combination of the existing GNU command line tools and the Linux kernel produced the UNIX-similar OS known as Linux.

However, this combination of tools in Linux continued as many programmers put together several sets of software tools with the freely available Linux kernel to cater to various needs or devices. That is how Linux distributions (i.e., Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, etc.) came about and that is why Linux runs on almost every device including PCs, servers, mobile phones, embedded systems, etc. Hence, a Linux distribution/distro is a combination of the Linux kernel and a given set of software tools that work together.

This first group of Linux distributions released was:

  • "Boot-root", involving a disk image pair and the Linux kernel, was released in 1991 by H. J. Lu.

  • MCC Interim Linux by from the Manchester Computing Centre (MCC) in 1992

  • Soft landing Linux System (SLS) which included the Kernel and the X Window System, was released in 1992

  • Yggdrasil Linux/GNU released in 1992

Slackware and Debian which are the two oldest Linux versions still being used were created from SLS in 1993.

Cross-device Linux distros

As has already been established, programmers have since been creating different versions of Linux for different devices which have resulted in Linux OS permeating all possible devices. The main focus here is on Linux distributions for Personal Computers but Linux distributions also exist for mobile devices and other devices which include;

  • Android is a commercial operating system from google using the Linux kernel and which runs on devices like smartphones, smart TVs, set-top boxes, etc.

  • Chrome OS which is also a commercial OS from google using the Linux kernel and runs on Chromebooks and tablets.

  • Redhat which a Linux distro for servers.

  • Other Linux kernel-based operating systems like Tizen, KaiOS, Cyanogenmod, etc.


Desktop Linux distro concepts to understand

There are some features of Linux distros that may affect how they are classified. It is imperative to understand these concepts in order to get a good grasp of Linux distro classifications. They include;

1. Package Management

Package management basically describes how software is installed and managed in an operating system. Linux has a peculiar way of managing software packages. Unlike in Windows where users generally go online to download software packages, Linux works with a package manager which finds needed software and installs it.

Based on the type of package they use, three main categories of Linux distributions exist which are; Debian (deb), RedHat Package Manager (RPM), and other distributions.

  • Debian-based Linux distributions use the deb package including Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and SteamOS.
  • RedHat-based Linux distributions use the rpm package including RedHat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Fedora, CentOS / CentOS Stream, OpenSuse, Oracle Linux, Mageia, AlmaLinux, and Rocky Linux.
  • Other distributions which do not use the deb or rpm packages include; Arch Linux, Slackware Linux, and Gentoo Linux.

2. Desktop Environment

Also known as Graphical User Interface (GUI), the desktop environment is how the OS looks i.e. what is displayed on the desktop. Unlike Windows with one desktop environment, Linux users can choose their desktop environment and different Linux distros generally use different desktop environments.

Popular Linux desktop environments include;

  • KDE which is likely the most sophisticated Linux desktop manager and has a workspace called plasma. Popular distributions using KDE include; Slackware, OpenSuse, Kubuntu, Linux Mint, and Mageia.
  • Gnome is an open-source desktop manager created by the Linux community. It can easily be expanded with the use of plug-ins and can support older and slower hardware. Popular Linux Distros using Gnome include; Debian, Fedora, RHEL, OpenSuse, and CentOS.
  • Cinnamon is a version of Gnome desktop manager developed by the Linux Mint community
  • Xfce which is light, fast and works very well for older computers. Popular distributions using Xfce are Debian, Xubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSuse.
  • LXDE which is another speedy and light desktop manager based on the OpenBox windows manager. It is used by Lubuntu, Debian, OpenSuse, and Linux Mint.
  • Unity was specifically developed by Canonical Ltd. for their Ubuntu Linux distribution.

Hierarchy of popular desktop Linux distros

  • Debian is one of the earliest Linux distributions. It was created in 1993 and is now maintained by a volunteer developer community that adheres fervently to the ideals of free software and transparent project management.

    Advantages: Over 30,000 software packages, outstanding quality control, and compatibility for more chip architectures than any other Linux distribution.

    Disadvantages: It is conservative and does not always incorporate current technology because it supports a wide range of CPU architectures; long release cycle (one stable release every two to three years); occasionally impolite conversations on developer mailing lists and blogs.

    Package Management: uses DEB packages for software package management

    • Ubuntu is a Debian-based desktop and server distribution that is supported by the British business Canonical Ltd. Its variants include Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, etc. It is often regarded as the Linux version for beginners because it is relatively easy to use.

      Advantages: Consistent release cycles and support duration; long-term support (LTS) versions with five years of security patches; user-friendly for beginners; abundant official and user-contributed documentation. Disadvantages: Lacks Debian compatibility; frequent significant changes can turn off some users; non-LTS releases only receive nine months of security support.

      Package Management: uses DEB packages for software package management

  • Fedora is a community distribution that replaces Red Hat Linux, an initial version by the American company Red Hat. It is intended to serve as a technology test bed for Red Hat's for-profit Linux product, allowing new open-source software to be developed, prototyped, and put through its paces before becoming Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

    Advantages: Strict devotion to the free software principle; very inventive; exceptional security measures; a huge number of supported packages; and the availability of live spins with numerous popular desktop environments.

    Disadvantages: Fedora tends to prioritize enterprise features over desktop usability; some cutting-edge features, like moving to KDE 4 and GNOME 3 early, can alienate desktop users. Package Management: uses RPM packages and the DNF GUI and command-line utilities.

    • Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a version of Fedora designed for Enterprise or commercial purposes and it is a leading open-source alternative to popular company-owned systems like windows. Red Hat is usually a top choice for server environments given its stability and regular security patches which boost its overall security.

  • Arch Linux is designed for advanced Linux users. It is a rolling release distribution that includes both official binary packages and a huge selection of unofficial user-submitted source packages.

    Advantages: Outstanding software administration infrastructure; unmatched customizing and fine-tuning capabilities; outstanding online documentation

    Disadvantages: Periodic instability and potential for failure

    Package Management: Pacman

    • Manjaro Linux is an easier-to-use derivative of Arch Linux which includes a graphical installer and other features which make it more simplified for less advanced Linux users to enjoy the benefits of Arch Linux. Its advantages and disadvantages are similar to Arch Linux.

  • Gentoo is a distribution targeted at power users known for its FreeBSD Ports-like automated system for compiling applications from source code. The developers and network specialists who use Gentoo Linux benefit from its versatility, speed, and complete freedom. Unlike other distributions, Gentoo Linux offers Portage, a cutting-edge source-based package management system.

    Advantages: Able to employ a variety of compile-time configurations, init systems, and run on a variety of architectures. Disadvantages: Time-consuming to upgrade packages via source, requires more advanced knowledge to utilize.

    Package Management: Portage (emerge) utilizing a number of source code ports.

  • openSUSE is a community distribution mainly sponsored by the German company SUSE.

    Recently, openSUSE is offered in two primary editions: Tumbleweed, which offers a rolling release environment, and Leap, which offers a stable platform with many years of maintenance. The commercial version of this OS is known as SUSE Linux Enterprise.

Advantages: includes a thorough and user-friendly configuration tool, a huge collection of software packages, excellent website infrastructure, and printed documentation. Btrfs also come with default boot environments. Disadvantages: Some people complain that its graphical tools and resource-intensive desktop configuration are "bloated and slow."

Package Management: YaST's graphical user interface and the command-line tool Zypper use RPM packages for software package management.


We conclude by answering the Linux enthusiasts’ question; “what is the best Linux distro?”

There is no simple answer to this question but the appropriate reply will be “Best for what?”

As can be seen from the distro list, each Linux distribution has its own advantages and disadvantages which makes it well suited for certain purposes and poor in other uses. Ubuntu is well suited for Linux beginners, Fedora is good for programming, Kali is good for penetration testing/hacking, Arch Linux and Gentoo are designed for advanced users, etc. Hence, the best Linux distro for a user depends on what a user intends to use it for.