Linux Distributions

Although many of you have heard of Linux I know that you are not necessarily familiar with it or the term distribution. This article is intended to answer the question of what a distribution is and how it affects you.

What is a Distribution?

A Linux distribution, or “distro” as they are called by many Linux aficionados, consists of several main components packaged together in such a manner as to be easy to distribute and install. A Linux distro may be distributed on CD, DVD, USB thumb drive, or, via the Internet as an ISO image of one of those media, from which a bootable CD, DVD, etc., can be created.

Mainstream Linux distributions usually contain the major components described in the table below.

Major Components of a Linux Distribution
Component Description
Kernel The Linux kernel is the portion that was developed by Linus Torvalds. It is the core component that gives Linux its identity and basic functionality. The kernel manages the hardware and provides a method for programs and utilities to interact with both the hardware and the end user.
GNU Utilities The GNU Utilities provides two things. First, a set of program libraries that provide additional functionality to programmers. Second, a set of system administrator oriented utility programs to make managing Linux operating systems easier.
Application programs User level programs such as OpenOffice, GNUCash, Firefox, Thunderbird and hundreds of other application programs designed for end users and which allow them to perform useful work with their computers.

Hundreds of Distributions

There are literally hundreds of different Linux distributions. The Wikipedia article on the term Linux distribution states that there are over 600 Linux distributions and that over 300 of them are under active development. Each distribution contains a different combination of libraries, utilities and application programs, depending upon its intended usage.

The good news is that most distributions are designed for very specific niches and most people considering the use of Linux at home or in the office only need concern themselves with a very few.

Choosing a Distribution

Whether working with a consultant or on your own, it is important to understand what you intend do do with the computers on which you will install Linux. Developing a complete set of requirements for each computer or class of computers in your business, such as servers, development workstations and desktops, will be a key step in in this process.

Your choices will be driven by functionality, security, stability, application availability, interoperability, ease of installation, maintenance, cost and other factors. In some cases your choices will be numerous as multiple distributions may meet your requirements and in others you will be left with only one or two distributions from which to choose.

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