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Overview of Linux Distributions

Now that you have seen the four main components required for a complete Linux system, you may be wondering how you are going to get them all put together to make a Linux system. Fortunately, there are people who have already done that for us.

A complete Linux system package is called a distribution. There are lots of different Linux distributions available to meet just about any computing requirement you could have. Most distributions are customized for a specific user group, such as business users, multimedia enthusiasts, software developers, or normal home users. Each customized distribution includes the software packages required to support specialized functions, such as audio- and video-editing software for multimedia enthusiasts, or compilers and integrated development environments (IDEs) for software developers.

The following sections describe these different types of Linux distributions, and show some examples of Linux distributions in each category.

1. Core Linux distributions

A core Linux distribution contains a kernel, one or more graphical desktop environments, and just about every Linux application that is available, precompiled for the kernel. It provides one-stop shopping for a complete Linux installation.

In the early days of Linux, a distribution was released as a set of floppy disks. You had to download groups of files and then copy them onto disks. It would usually take 20 or more disks to make an entire distribution! Needless to say, this was a painful experience.

Nowadays, with home computers commonly having CD and DVD players built in, Linux distributions are released as either a CD set or a single DVD. This makes installing Linux much easier.

However, beginners still often run into problems when they install one of the core Linux distributions. To cover just about any situation in which someone might want to use Linux, a single distribution has to include lots of application software. They include everything from high-end Internet database servers to common games. Because of the quantity of applications available for Linux, a complete distribution often takes four or more CDs.

  • Slackware One of the original Linux distribution sets, popular with Linux geeks
  • Red Hat A commercial business distribution used mainly for Internet servers
  • Fedora A spin-off from Red Hat but designed for home use
  • Gentoo A distribution designed for advanced Linux users, containing only Linux source code
  • Mandriva Designed mainly for home use (previously called Mandrake)
  • openSuSe Different distributions for business and home use (now owned by Novell)
  • Debian Popular with Linux experts and commercial Linux products

While having lots of options available in a distribution is great for Linux geeks, it can become a nightmare for beginning Linux users. Most distributions ask a series of questions during the installation process to determine which applications to load by default, what hardware is connected to the PC, and how to configure the hardware. Beginners often find these questions confusing. As a result, they often either load way too many programs on their computer or don’t load enough and later discover that their computer won’t do what they want it to.

Fortunately for beginners, there’s a much simpler way to install Linux.

2. Specialized Linux distributions

A new subgroup of Linux distributions has started to appear. These are typically based on one of the main distributions but contain only a subset of applications that would make sense for a specific area of use.

Besides providing specialized software (such as only office products for business users), customized Linux distributions also attempt to help beginning Linux users by auto detecting and auto configuring common hardware devices. This makes installing Linux a much more enjoyable process.

That’s just a small sampling of specialized Linux distributions. There are literally hundreds of specialized Linux distributions, and more are popping up all the time on the Internet. No matter what your specialty, you’ll probably find a Linux distribution made for you.

  • Linspire A commercial Linux package configured to look like Windows
  • Xandros A commercial Linux package configured for beginners
  • SimplyMEPIS A free distribution for home use
  • Ubuntu A free distribution for school and home use
  • PCLinuxOS A free distribution for home and office use
  • dyne:bolic A free distribution designed for audio and MIDI applications
  • Puppy Linux A free small distribution that runs well on older PCs

Many of the specialized Linux distributions are based on the Debian Linux distribution. They use the same installation files as Debian but package only a small fraction of a full-blown Debian system.

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