What is a Linux Distribution

A Linux distribution, also sometimes called a Linux distro, is a collection of software, packaged with the Linux kernel and generally including a package management system and configurations that allow for an out-of-the-box user experience. This does not necessarily mean each distribution is easy to use, as some are designed to be used by more advanced users and may require manual setup of critical system software or advanced management of the system. Still, many are designed for ease of use, and provide a simple way to have a fully functional Linux system up and running in no time. Most distributions include an easy to use installation software, allowing users to boot from a DVD or USB drive. We will cover some of the most popular distributions in the rest of this section.

RHEL/CentOS/Fedora

Fedora Desktop
Fedora Desktop

Red Hat Enterprise Linux, also known as RHEL, is a commercial distribution that is widely used by businesses and remains one of the most successful commercial Linux distributions in existence today. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a commercial product and can be purchased along with technical support. CentOS, a Linux distribution based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux aims to provide a free enterprise operating system that strives to remain compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. For those looking to learning Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS provides a great starting point and is now officially a part of Red Hat, although it remains a separate product. The community edition of Red Hat is known as Fedora. Fedora is known for bleeding edge software and incorporating innovative technologies in each release. It is not intended as an enterprise operating system, although some people may use it for enterprise-grade tasks. A major similarity between Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, and Fedora are their use of the RPM package management system. RPM stands for Red Hat Package Management and is used to install application packages. We will discuss RPM and other package management systems in greater detail in a future lecture. Red Hat, CentOS, and Fedora all use Gnome as the default desktop environment.

SLES/openSUSE

openSuse Desktop
openSuse Desktop

SUSE has a long history and is one of the older Linux distributions. Currently, the community edition is referred to as openSUSE while the commercial edition is called SUSE Linux Enterprise. SUSE is a distribution that has had a focus on the KDE desktop environment, although recently they have had some great Gnome desktop integration in their distribution. Most Windows users and admins will appreciate SUSE and KDE. SUSE provides a configuration tool called YAST which allows for configuration of the many aspects of the systems, similar to Control Center. KDE provides a familiar feel for former Windows users, allowing them to transition easier to the Linux environment. Personally, I used SUSE for my desktop in my early days and still find it to remain one of the most well put-together and polished distributions. I have moved to another distribution but recommend giving this distribution a try for anyone that is seeking a complete desktop environment and is coming from a Windows background. SUSE uses RPM for their package management, although packages are different in some cases from Red Hat based operating systems.

Debian/Ubuntu

Ubuntu Desktop
Ubuntu Desktop

Debian is a Linux distribution that puts an emphasis on stability. Debian has been around for a long time, almost as long as SUSE. Its vision has been to be an open operation system following the GNU and Linux way. Debian has one of the largest package repositories, meaning you will more than likely find the software you are looking for. Due to its focus on stability, some packages may be an older version considering other distributions, and this may be an issue for some users that need the newer features. In a server use case though, this may be exactly what you are looking for. Ubuntu, a derivative of Debian, uses the Unity desktop. The Unity desktop has similarities to the Mac operating system and will feel somewhat familiar to Mac users, although it is not the same. Ubuntu and its derivatives are some of the most widely used distributions in use today. Ubuntu is developed by Canonical and is focused on Desktop, Cloud and Mobile operating systems as their belief is in the convergence. Being one of the more popular distributions, you will find most applications on Ubuntu, sometimes even first. The deb package format is the default format for all Debian and Ubuntu based distributions. Apt-get is used to manage packages, as well as Ubuntu’s Software Center, which can be used to locate and install new packages.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint Desktop
Linux Mint Desktop

Linux Mint is a derivative of the Ubuntu operating system. It includes two main desktop environments, Cinnamon, and MATE. Cinnamon is a fork of the Gnome desktop and provides a more traditional desktop than Gnome, which seeks to be more modern. MATE currently uses an older technologies for implementing its desktop, GTK+ 2, as where Gnome and Cinnamon use GTK+ 3. Due to this reason though, MATE runs extremely well on older hardware and has a traditional look and feel as a desktop. Although Linux Mint contains other desktops, the most popular are Cinnamon and MATE. Linux Mint is a great distribution for those new to Linux, similar to Ubuntu and provides a solid foundation being built on Ubuntu. It uses deb packages as such.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux Desktop
Arch Linux Desktop

Arch Linux is my preferred distribution at this time due to the fact it is a rolling distribution and only includes those things that you actually install. Arch Linux is installed manually and is not for a first time Linux users. Although I use this distribution, I would not recommend it to anyone enrolled in this course, as this is an introductory course on Linux. Once you have some more experience, you may wish to experiment with Arch Linux and I would recommend it then, as a good way to learn more about the Linux operating system. Distributions based on Arch Linux include Antergos and Manjaro, of which Antergos is closer to “pure” Arch Linux.

Other Distributions

There are many good and bad distributions I have not gone over in this lecture as we would be talking about distributions for longer than the entire course and then some. You may wish to visit distrowatch.com and explore some of the other options available to you. I recommend sticking to one of the distributions listed here, as they are some of the most popular and widely used distributions, both for personal and commercial use. With that in mind though, Linux does provide a wide selection to fill your needs, and you may find a Linux distribution that fits your needs or personality better than the ones covered here.

Non-Linux/BSD

On a side note, there are other free and open source operating systems other than Linux. One of the more popular alternatives are the BSD operating systems. The BSD family includes but is not limited to FreeBSD, PC-BSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD. Mac OS X is based on BSD as well. These are all great operating systems, and depending on what you need to do, may fit you better than Linux. For this blog though, we will stick with Linux, although some topics covered will be the same or similar for the BSDs.

Published by Brandon

Software Developer and Computer Science Student

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