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- February 23, 2020 at 7:51 pm #86552Participant@oghenemarho
The Linux ecosystem of operating systems is complicated but interesting in many ways. Notice I said ecosystem of operating systems? That’s because Linux as it exists today is not just one operating system but a family of them, all sharing the same core kernel but differing in many other ways. Each of these different versions of Linux is referred to as a Linux Distribution or a Distro. To put it simply, a Linux distro consists of the Linux kernel (which serves as the intermediary between hardware and software), and a collection of software that together form an operating system, and currently there are over 500 different Linux distros in active development today.
History of Linux Distros
So how exactly did this all get started? Well, it goes all the way back to 1991 when Linus Torvalds developed an interest in operating systems while studying at the University of Helsinki, Finland. At the time, MINIX, a minimalist, UNIX like operating system had been launched a few years prior and was the go to operating system for students who were interested in learning operating system principles. Linus started working with MINIX but eventually he grew frustrated with the licensing for the operating system which prevented it from being free software, even though the source code was readily available. To overcome this frustration, Linus started developing his own operating system kernel which will eventually become Linux, first based off of MINIX but eventually moving away from it when he initially released the first version of Linux (version 0.01). This first version consisted of only the Linux kernel and it lacked some of the components that will make it a full fledged operating system such as a compiler, library, among others. These components were added later on in 1992 when the Linux kernel was merged with the GNU Project utilities, which allowed Linux to become a completely functional operating system.
This version of Linux was distributed as a pair of floppy disks (the preferred portable storage media at the time, before USB drives and CDs became readily available), with one containing a bootable version of the Linux kernel, and the other containing the GNU utilities required for setting up the operating system. Since Linux was free and open source, this meant that anyone could copy or have access to this operating system without paying for it, however the complexity involved in installing Linux meant that people took another advantage of it’s free and open source nature. They began to modify the core files to make the installation process simpler and this led to the development of various distributions of Linux, each with their own set of installation tools and utilities based on what the distro developer felt was necessary for their intended user base. Let’s take a look as some of the earliest Linux Distros that were available to the public as well as some of the more popular options available to people looking for an alternative to Windows or Mac OS:
Softlanding Linux System (SLS)
This was one of the first Linux distros, publicly released in October 1992 by Peter MacDonald. The slogan for the distro was “Gentle Touchdowns for DOS Bailouts” and it was designed to be useable for those looking to switch from DOS based operating systems which were popular at the time. SLS came with an installation program which was still pretty novel at the time, and over 500 tools and utilities designed to provide a complete operating system experience for advanced users, such as programs for window based GUIs, word processing, communications, program development, email, spreadsheets, and word-processing.
Though SLS was widely distributed and hailed as the earliest complete Linux distro, it was very buggy and as is usually the case with open source software, this led others to develop their own versions of the distro that improved on its reliability.
Slackware, which was developed by Patrick Volkerding, was created as a distro meant to clean up the bugs that were present in the Softlanding Linux System distro. Its origins are in Patrick as a university student trying to resolve some of the bugs he discovered with SLS while installing it on for his professor. He eventually decided to incorporate the fixes he found into a new installation system, thus creating the first version of Slackware. The name Slackware was chosen because it was not meant to be a serious project with long term commitments, however as demand grew for a fixed version of SLS, Patrick decided to release it to the public and continued providing support and updates to it.
Slackware is still being actively developed today and is recognized as the oldest Linux distro still being maintained. It is seen as the one of the most stable Linux distros available and is preferred by advanced users who appreciate its simplicity and command line interface. It also serves as the base for several other distro like Slax, ZipSlack, ImagineOS and Slackintosh.
Debian is another distro that found its origins from trying to fix the bugs in SLS. It was created by Ian Murdock in 1993 and its development was sponsored for a time by the GNU Project. According to the manifesto put out by Ian in 1994, Debian was designed to tackle the perceived problems with Linux distros at the time, part of which was the issue with consistent updates from the creators or support from the developer community. “The Debian design process is open to ensure that the system is of the highest quality and that it reflects the needs of the user community. By involving others with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds, Debian is able to be developed in a modular fashion. Its components are of high quality because those with expertise in a certain area are given the opportunity to construct or maintain the individual components of Debian involving that area.”
Based on this, the initial release of Debian was developed by a group of contributors working together and till today it continues to be developed this way by a well organized, global community of developers and contributors. It is also one of the most popular Linux distros available and is at the core of several other popular distros that make use of its package management system.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux/Fedora
Developed in 1994 by Red Hat Incorporated, a company started by Bob Young and Marc Ewing, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) was targeted at the commercial market. Unlike most other Linux distros which are free to use but dependent on somewhat inconsistent community support, RHEL charges a subscription fee to provide official customer support, training and certification for customers. Based on this feature list, it became the preferred Linux distro for enterprise applications and organizations who required stability and long term support but didn’t want to use Microsoft’s server operating systems.
Apart from its commercial focus for RHEL, Red Hat also sponsors the development of Fedora Linux which is released under several free and open source licenses. Fedora’s development aims to put it on the cutting edge of free, innovative technologies and apart from providing financial sponsorship, Red Hat also has developers from the RHEL team contributing to its development. This is because Fedora serves as the upstream source for the RHEL distro.
Ubuntu gets its name from the Nguni philosophy which can be translated to mean “humanity towards other” or “I am what I am because of who we all are”. This is meant to emphasize the focus on community that this distro promotes. Based on Debian, Ubuntu was first released in 2004 and has grown to become one of the most popular Linux distros because of its user-friendliness and massive support network. Ubuntu has released a new version of its distro every six months since its launch, with long term support (LTS) releases every two years. The LTS versions are aimed at the enterprise market and they are supported for up to 5 years with security patches, updated hardware drivers and maintenance patches, all at no extra cost.
Ubuntu has grown to include several versions and variants such as Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Lubuntu. It also serves as the base for a lot of other popular distros like Mint Linux, Chromium OS, TorBOX, Peppermint OS, and Commodore OS, to name a few.
Linux Mint is one of the newer distros on this list and is based on a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff. Mint evolved from Kubuntu, which was built from Ubuntu, which in turn is based on Debian. It is a pretty lightweight distro and it is targeted at Linux users who are looking for a classical, desktop experience with minimal fuss. Some have likened its user interface to that of Windows XP and indeed, it got a lot of attention from Windows XP fans who were unwilling to move to the newer versions of Windows when Microsoft discontinued support for XP.
Mint is considered to be the number one Linux distro available in terms of popularity and because of its strong connection to Ubuntu, it is able to run Linux applications developed for that distro and still provide a user friendly interface that is appealing to both newcomers and advanced users.
Whether Google’s Android operating system is a Linux distro or not is the source of many raging debates that continue to this day. The facts are that the Android kernel is based on the Linux kernel. However, most of the disagreement is because Android doesn’t make use of GNU libraries and tools, like the GNU C library, choosing to develop its own version of BSD’s standard C library which it calls Bionic.
Whatever side of the fence you choose to place your tent, it cannot be denied that at its very core Android runs on Linux.
The world of Linux distributions is massive and continues to grow till this day. DistroWatch is an important source of information on current trends and developments with the various Linux distros still in development today and you can also check out the Linux Foundation’s site for general information about projects relating to Linux
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