Q. What's a distribution of Linux?

A. Linux is not an operating system, per se. Linux is just the kernel, or core of the entire system. Most of the utilities that work along with the kernel to make up a complete operating system are the GNU utilities. A distribution (distro for short) is merely a collection of a kernel, GNU utilities, and other software, pre-configured to work together, based on the package maintainer's goals, philosophies, etc. Anyone can create a distribution, if so inclined. LinuxFromScratch (see below) is exactly that: a roll-your-own distro.

Q. Where can I get one of these distributions?

A. Either by downloading CD images (ISOs) and burning them, getting copies from friends, or buysing CD sets. Generally, most vendors will allow you to buy CDs or boxed sets from them directly, but a number of folks will sell you CD sets for about the cost of the media and postage. If there's a particular distro you'd like to have, fire off a note to the mailing list- chances are someone's already downloaded it and could burn a copy for you.

Download links:

  • If you're a fan of BitTorrent, you can get relatively fresh torrent links here.
  • LinuxISO is another good resource for downloading.

NOTE: This is just a short list. For more than you ever wanted to know about Linux distributions, see DistroWatch.

Desktop Linux Distributions

Server Linux Distributions

  • SuSE
  • Red Hat
  • Smoothwall — an excellent plug-n-play firewall solution. Even supports PPPoE for Bellsouth users.
  • IPCop — a fork of Smoothwall, and better than the original. It allows you to add users and (after tweaking the sshd configs) forward ports, which is essential for hard-core Linux geeks.

Hacker or Hobbyist Linux Distributions

  • Gentoo — A more friendly Linux-From-Scratch. Uses the 'emerge' packaging system, which is similar to BSD's "ports" system. Three stages to start from, depending on how "from scratch" you want to get. The end result is a highly optimized system. Very dependent upon installing over the Internet. Using a dialup connection can take days on slow Pentium systems. But, it is a "set it and forget it" type of build.
  • Debian — Uses the 'apt' packaging system. Packaging identifies and separates "free" (as in libre) software from encumbered software (non-free). Very dependent upon installing over the internet, unless you have a packaged Debian-based distribution on CDs, such as Mepis, Xandros, Lycoris, Libranet, or Lindows.
  • Slackware — not System V; uses BSD-style init. Minimalist distro that's very popular with old-timers.
  • Linux From Scratch — bare-metal Linux. Everything is compiled from scratch, just the way you want it. Nolug is considering this as a group project. If you want to learn Linux from the bottom up, this distro is for you.
  • FREESCO — for all you PC recyclers out there. Floppy Linux firewall distro, runs on 386 or better. JoeyKelly ran a freesco firewall for 2 years on a 486-DX66 with 16MB ram with no complaints whatsoever.
  • tomsrtbt — an entire distro on a floppy. A must for travelling technicians, tomsrtbt has just about everyhing you need to administrate a sick Linux box :-)
  • 2-Disk Xwindow embedded Linux — a 2-floppy Xwindows netcentric distro aimed at embedded implementations, thin clients on old PCs, thumb drives, etc..
  • Mini-distributions — this site lists quite a few small distros.
  • CCRMA — a distro put out by Stanford University, which is dedicated to sound applications for Linux. Think digital recording studio, etc.

LiveCDs

With Knoppix exploding on the scene, many folks are rolling their own stripped-down Knoppix distros for specialty applications. In a nutshell, LiveCDs are great ways to test hardware compatibility under Linux, as you get a full Linux system, running completely from a CD, with nothing needing to be installed on the machine's hard drive. Some folks are also finding success in introducing new folks to Linux with a LiveCD — just boot and show off!

BSD Distributions

BSD is not Linux, but an operating system that is directly descended from UNIX. There are long-standing religious arguments over whether the BSD license is more "free" than the GPL (Linux's license).

  • FreeBSD — bleeding-edge, focusing mainly on x86 hardware. Makes an excellent server.
  • NetBSD — runs on practically every piece of hardware imaginable.
  • OpenBSD — audited extensively for security. Paranoid elitists run OpenBSD.
  • BSD router/firewall projects — neat site, very useful if you have an old 486 you want to use as a standalone firewall.
  • OSX — Apple's newest OS with a BSD userland and a Mach type kernel.

Comments

This section is reserved for user comments on various Linux distros, good, bad or otherwise.