Major Linux Distros Past & Present
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1. The Little Kernel that Could

The public genesis of the GNU/Linux distribution reaches back to August 25th, 1991 when a post by one Linus Benedict Torvalds to the comp.os.minix newsgroup announced he was working on a free operating system and that he had already ported the GNU programs bash and gcc to it.  The GNU/Linux model we're all familiar with today has certainly changed since 1991 -- especially as that particular announcement noted Linus’s free OS worked only on 386/486 AT clones.  Now GNU/Linux systems support many architectures and hardware environments and ranges from embedded implementations on mobile devices to massive clusters used for scientific computing.  GNU/Linux can even be found in space, where recently the International Space Station (ISS) made the switch to GNU/Linux for their ISS desktops.  Please sit back and enjoy as we trace the evolution of GNU/Linux through distributions past and present. 

Website:  www.kernel.org

2. 1993 - Slackware Linux

Version 1.0 of Slackware Linux was released July 17, 1993 by Patrick Volkerding.  It began as a collection of bug fixes Patrick created for Softlanding Linux System (SLS) which he then released on his own for use at the University of Minnesota rather than waiting for SLS to release a new version of the OS.  When he saw that other SLS users out there were expressing frustration with the system, he put together his own SLS-like distribution.  Slackware is known for its simplicity and adherence to a philosophy not unlike early UNIX development principles.  The distribution tries to keep pure the intentions of package developers, not overly configuring core software to a “Slackware version” and letting Slackware users take control of their system and configurations.  The OS comes out of the box with no graphical user interface, an ncurses-based command line interface being the typical method of interfacing with the OS.  From an Enterprise perspective, Slackware is not typically considered in the same ranking as distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) or SUSE – though, interestingly, SUSE was originally based on Slackware, though it now uses a different codebase.  Popular among Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) hackers, Slackware stands apart in its tendencies to avoid the norm such as use of the bootloader LILO rather than GRUB, avoidance of graphical interfaces, lack of core package dependency tracking, informal release dates, less support for various architectures, and a more user-driven than developer-driven community for packages and ports. 

Website:  www.slackware.com                 

3. 1993 - Debian GNU/Linux

Debian GNU/Linux is one of the oldest distributions and over time has been “forked” hundreds of times by FLOSS hackers to create other distributions, such as Ubuntu.  First announced August 16th, 1993 by Ian Murdock, the project has had many leaders over the years and is known for its ever-evolving policies and development processes.  Debian has a large number of available software packages (over 37,000) retrievable from both “free” and “non-free” repositories.  In fact, Debian’s apt toolset, a package management system, is well-regarded and is often part of why FLOSS hackers choose Debian as the base for a new distribution.  With many available desktops including GNOME, KDE, XFCE and LXDE Debian can be used as anything from a development workstation to a multi-media studio.  For Enterprise-level users, Debian is a popular server distribution for use in web hosting, as a database server, or component in a cloud computing server environment.  However, for Enterprise users looking for reliable systems support, Debian does not have a support offering like many Enterprise-class OS.  Ubuntu, based upon Debian and with many of the same features Debian is known for, does have professional support services available.  There are also Enterprise Systems Management suites from companies like HP and IBM that integrate with the Debian OS.  Another distinction in Debian is the long release cycle between stable versions.  Currently, it takes two years to reach the next stable and fully supported release, where Ubuntu releases every six months, fixing bugs and applying patches to Debian’s unstable versions, then forking those into official Ubuntu releases. 

Website:  www.debian.org

4. 1994 - SUSE Linux

From a commercial standpoint, SUSE is one of the earliest sold and supported GNU/Linux distributions.  First released in 1994, it has gone through many changes from both an OS architecture and business standpoint.  Initially based upon Slackware Linux, the German company Gesellschaft für Software und System Entwicklung mbH (originally a provider of SLS and Slackware media and support) released SUSE Linux as a German translation of Slackware.  Later, SUSE was based upon the distribution jurix (since ended).  Other architecture changes that have occurred over the years include a move to Red Hat-based RPM package management and development of a widely popular system administration tool called YaST.  From a business perspective, SUSE became more Enterprise-oriented after acquisition by Novell in 2003, but also took on a wider user base when in 2005 Novell released openSUSE, allowing public Beta testing, ability to contribute to the source base for some packages in SUSE and in general providing previously unavailable insight into the SUSE development process.  SUSE is also known for strides in improved interoperability with Microsoft Windows products, stability as an Enterprise server product and ability to manage configurations through YaST and replicate systems using AutoYaST.  SUSE was most recently acquired from Novell by Attachmate group, who have since made SUSE Linux a separately managed entity from the openSUSE project.  SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) is the key product of SUSE. 

Website:  www.suse.com

5. 1995, 2003 - Red Hat Linux and Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Few GNU/Linux distributions have made their mark in the Enterprise arena the way Red Hat has.  However, what was first released as Red Hat Commercial Linux November 3, 1994 didn’t evolve into the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) we know and love until 2003 when Red Hat rebranded their Advanced Server product.  According to reviews in 2003 on RHEL 2.1, the system’s stability and “works out of the box” installation were noted selling points.  Where some GNU/Linux distributions are focused on just the distribution, Red Hat as a company, similar to SUSE and Ubuntu, support an Enterprise computing body of products that are geared toward use with RHEL.  Among these is JBoss, an application server, Enterprise virtualization offerings as well as a cloud computing infrastructure via OpenShift, a Platform-as-a-Service solution.  Though Red Hat focuses on open source and GNU/Linux technologies, some companies like to use Red Hat products due to their ease-of-integration with Microsoft Windows products.  Red Hat, along with SUSE, is typically in the top ten lists of Linux-based OS used by businesses in their Enterprise environments.  Several distributions have spun off open RHEL source to achieve similar Enterprise-ready systems, such as CentOS and Mandrake. 

Website:  www.redhat.com 

6. 1998, 2005 – Mandrake, Mandriva Linux

Known as Mandrake Linux from 1998 to 2004 and originally based upon Red Hat Linux, Mandriva is now based upon on its own custom codebase .  Originally created out of a desire to give Linux users a more friendly and easy installation and user experience, Gaël Duval created the system and co-founded Mandrakesoft, which supported release of the OS for many years.  Now under the Mandriva umbrella, Mandriva Linux offers several classes of GNU/Linux distribution, including CloudPulse (cloud computing IT infrastructure), Mandriva Business Server (standard server) and Mandriva Class (an educational content server).  Mandriva’s Enterprise-level offerings include being an OEM provider to companies like Dell, HP and NEC, and consulting services to help companies fully implement their Enterprise Mandriva products.  While many commercial distributions continue to partner with or release an open version of their products, the early Mandrake open code bases are since retired, though other projects have forked the code to create new distributions such as Mageia. 

Website:  www.mandriva.com          

7. 2002 – Gentoo

A favorite among more advance GNU/Linux users and FLOSS hackers, Gentoo Linux emerged from Enoch Linux, Daniel Robbins’ first attempt at the distribution in the late 90s.  Gentoo Linux was unique in that it shared features of systems like FreeBSD, of which Robbins was a user and fan.  Using an autobuild program called Portage, Gentoo users installed the base system from source.  However, in recent years, Gentoo installations are “stage3” where the base system has already been compiled and tarballs extracted to the disk contain architecture-appropriate binaries.  However, most packages beyond the base system are typically built from source by the system user with some exceptions.  Gentoo, like many BSD systems, does not use a graphical installation interface.  Other notable features of Gentoo include Catalyst, a program used to build the Gentoo releases that users can also take advantage of to create their own custom Gentoo-based systems.  While Gentoo does not have an Enterprise offering, advanced system administrators can use the software as with any GNU/Linux distribution for Enterprise purposes, such as web, email and file servers, or as a firewall appliance.  Gentoo used with Puppet is increasing in popularity for users who wish to utilize Gentoo for the Enterprise. 

Website:  www.gentoo.org

8. 2002 - Arch Linux

Led by Judd Vinet from 2002 to 2007, Arch Linux was taken over by Aaron Griffin.  Both Griffin and Vinet share a desire for simplicity, and while Vinet was inspired by the minimalist distribution CRUX to create Arch, Griffin continued this philosophy with later releases through his own passion for distribution simplicity.  Like Gentoo, Arch is favored by more advanced GNU/Linux users and FLOSS hackers, keeping the installation process non-graphical as well as the configuration interface.  Like most GNU/Linux systems, graphical interfaces can be installed, but the typical Arch Linux users stick to the base system tools.  Arch Linux package management is handled by Pacman, covering installation, upgrades, removal and downgrades of packages.  Unlike Gentoo, however, Arch is based around binary packages with repositories reachable through Pacman containing packages built for i686 and x86-64 architectures.  For users wishing to target a specific system for which pre-built binaries are not available, there is the Arch Build System which provides automated source compilation.  And, like Gentoo, there is no Enterprise-level offering from Arch and requires in-house or third-party vendor expertise to manage. 

Website:  www.archlinux.org  

9. 2003 – Fedora

Similar to how openSUSE is related to SUSE from a development and release standpoint, Fedora is related to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.  Born from the early Red Hat Linux (RHL) releases, when RHL was discontinued Fedora was released as a community owned distribution while Red Hat Enterprise Linux became the commercial focus of Red Hat.  As described by Red Hat on their website, Red Hat notes that Fedora is “built by the community” and has the latest features.  Since RHEL is developed for the sole intention of Enterprise use, bleeding edge and less stable packages are not included.  Packages that mature through the Fedora development lifecycle may make their way into stable versions of RHEL, however.  Like RHEL, Fedora can use the RPM package manager, but by default an application called yum is used for system-wide package management.  The software repositories are fairly similar to Red Hat offerings, though license-restricted packages are not included in Fedora repositories.  Fedora has a large and well-organized community similar to openSUSE and Ubuntu, and while there is no official Enterprise offering for Fedora, the community serves as a strong support system for users seeking to implement Fedora.  For instance, Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL) is a community effort to bring a repository of add-on packages to Fedora users that support Enterprise usage, much the way CentOS has done. 

Website:  www.fedoraproject.org  

10. 2004 – Ubuntu

Easily the most widely recognized GNU/Linux name, Debian-based Ubuntu appeared in 2004 as a result of some Debian users wishing to see more frequent major releases.  Ubuntu established a six month release cycle, supporting each release for nine months (current policy) and for longer term support, offer Ubuntu LTS, released every two years and sporting five years of support with it.  While Debian and Ubuntu have a long history at the development level, what has made Ubuntu popular and widely offered as a default OS by vendors such as HP and Dell is the ease-of-use for end users, particularly on laptops and similar mobile devices.  Unlike most distributions, Canonical Ltd, the commercial entity behind Ubuntu, target the casual user, are predictable in their support and releases, and tend to compete commercially with Microsoft and Apple rather than with other GNU/Linux distributions.  The community is built upon openness and the term “ubuntu” for which the distribution is named is a South African philosophy that idealizes extroverted communities where strangers are treated with warmth.  Ubuntu also has a strong roadmap in terms of the Enterprise.  Of their offerings, Ubuntu has commercially supported releases for Desktop and Tablet, Server, Cloud Infrastructure (with OpenStack), Systems Management, Phone and TV.  With focus on the end user, Ubuntu’s recent phone and TV products are earning attention from the consumer market, helping GNU/Linux gain exposure to a wider audience. 

Website:  www.ubuntu.com

11. 2004 – CentOS

First released as a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1, the CentOS roadmap continues to clone RHEL releases, maintaining a version numbering system to match each CentOS version to its RHEL clone.  The CentOS release and support cycle currently match that of RHEL.  The service the CentOS development team and community provide is to modify open RHEL source archives to remove Red Hat specific logos and other branding from the packages and produce an Enterprise class OS that is as close as possible to an RHEL system.  Other than the benefits of utilizing CentOS free of charge rather than subscribing to Red Hat Enterprise support, CentOS is cited as being useful as a test environment for those who do use RHEL, but want to test applications in a free environment and have to make little to no changes upon release.  CentOS and RHEL releases are near identical. 

Website:  www.centos.org   

12. 2006 - Linux Mint

Linux Mint has releases based upon both Debian (begun in 2010) and Ubuntu (begun in 2006).  Like Ubuntu, ease of use is where Linux Mint has grown in popularity, and this feature has primarily been due to inclusion of proprietary software in its releases that allow “out of the box” functionality for Adobe Flash, Java, MP3 and DVD playback.  The codecs and plug-ins included with Linux Mint are typically excluded from other distributions that adhere more stringently to a free and open source software model, though the software can always be installed on the other distributions by users if they choose.  While based on Ubuntu and Debian, Linux Mint has a suite of applications developed just for the distribution, including Cinnamon (a GNOME Shell fork) and MintTools (which includes software and update managers, a main menu, backup tool, upload manager, domain blocker, desktop settings, welcome screen, and other customizations), most developed in Python.  As most praise is focused on the end users at the desktop level, Linux Mint has OEM deals with some hardware vendors who are shipping PCs with Linux Mint pre-installed.  There are no Enterprise class server releases from Linux Mint as of this writing.  Website:  www.linuxmint.com      

13. 2006 – openSUSE

Sharing a portion of SUSE’s history and development lifecycle, openSUSE was branched off as an official project from SUSE in 2006 replacing SUSE Linux Professional.  A SUSE sponsored community, openSUSE develops and maintains components of the commercial SUSE Linux releases, available from SUSE for which SUSE offers commercial Enterprise class support packages and targeted distributions for use in cloud computing, server environments, virtualization and desktop environments.  Over the years the openSUSE/SUSE community has grown and contributed back to open source projects like KDE and GNOME.  Innovations are often test-bedded on openSUSE and work their way upstream once proven into SUSE.  openSUSE is widely used in the Enterprise for both use as a server and on the desktop, particularly in test environments where code intended for use in production SUSE systems needs to be tested.  Like SUSE, openSUSE uses YaST (installation and administration program) and AutoYaST (an automated installer system) and supports SUSE’s Open Build Service, a tool for developers to compile, release and publish their software to multiple distributions.  Like Fedora, openSUSE often has more bleeding edge software than SUSE’s Enterprise offerings. 

Website:  www.opensuse.org    

14. 2006 - Oracle Linux

Another Red Hat Enterprise Linux based distribution, Oracle Linux was released in 2006.  Unlike other RHEL based distributions, however, Oracle Linux has taken strides to fine tune and customize the OS for Oracle customers.  Some of the features in Oracle Linux include a choice between a kernel identical to that in RHEL or Oracle’s Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel which is a customized Linux kernel with Oracle enhancements (including updated OLTP, SSD disc access, NUMA optimizations and networking).  The OS is shipped with Oracle servers and blades, is certified on IBM, HP, Dell and Cisco hardware, and supports KVM and Xen.  Oracle also is known to utilize Oracle Linux within its own Enterprise environment, partly to bring IT costs down, and also for use in their development environment for projects such as Oracle Database, Oracle Grid Engine and their E-Business Suite, among others.  Of note is that Oracle Linux contains a port of DTrace from Solaris as a Linux kernel module.  DTrace is used for troubleshooting kernel and application problems, and has been lauded in the past as innovative, garnering awards.  On par with the commercial Enterprise support and product suite of Red Hat, Oracle Linux is an Enterprise class GNU/Linux distribution. 

Website:  www.oracle.com/us/technologies/linux/       

15. 2011 – Mageia

Mageia is a distro forked from Mandriva Linux.  While still young, Mageia has gotten attention both for how it came to be and for its software content.  After Mandriva liquidated one of its subsidiaries, Edge IT, former employees who had been responsible for the development and maintenance of Mandriva Linux formed to release Mageia.  From a support standpoint, Mageia, though young, has many of the features of a more mature system, inherited from both the forked Mandriva Linux codebase and the intellectual knowledge of the core team.  Additionally, with MySQL now under the Oracle umbrella of products, some distributions have been replacing their default database with other packages.  Mageia is one of the first distros to completely replace MySQL with MariaDB by default, a database server developed by some of the authors of MySQL.  In an interesting turn, Mandriva in 2012 announced they would collaborate with the Mageia community and contribute to the project toward improvement of their Business Server offering.  Currently, Mageia does not offer Enterprise support. 

Website:  www.mageia.org

16. Distro Spotting

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that it’s been twenty years since the first distro we looked at, Slackware, was released.  Certainly over the last two decades more distros than we can cover here have emerged.  A good portion of these are based upon previously existing distros like Slackware, Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora or Red Hat, while some are pure creations.  I do keep a close eye on GNU/Linux distribution evolution and releases, and sites like DistroWatch (www.distrowatch.com) help make that activity an organized one.  Thanks to virtualization, it’s easier than ever to install a new release of a GNU/Linux OS right on your desktop and take it for a spin.  Some distros make this even easier by creating downloadable VM files in formats your virtualization software can most likely run.  However you do your distro spotting, you’re sure to have fun and perhaps find just the right GNU/Linux OS to fit the needs of your Enterprise, or even the needs of your day-to-day desktop activities.  Can’t find the right GNU/Linux OS for your Enterprise needs?  Take a stab at creating your own with Linux from Scratch (www.linuxfromscratch.org). I hope this has been informative and thanks for taking this journey of major Linux distros, past and present.