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Linux Distributions

Technically speaking, Linux is an operating system kernel while the rest of the software such as the shell and compiler etc... which is bundled with the kernel is called the "distribution". The kernel is at the core of the Linux Operating System (OS) distribution and provides the layer which interfaces with the hardware (i.e. memory, processors, disk controller, network etc) and manages processes.

Comparison of Distributions:

Linux Distributions: The only thing unique about any distribution is the software they choose to bundle in a distribution, the versions of each software package, the installation program, package management, configuration tools, desktop managers and the directory layout. It is important that the versions of the compiler, libraries and the kernel work together bug free. This is also important for the bundled software packages. Once the compiler, library and kernel versions are chosen, the other software packages are chosen, compiled and bundled together.

Distribution Characteristics: The differences are evident when comparing Ubuntu, Novell S.u.S.E., Debian, Slackware and Red Hat. Each bundle their distributions with a different choice of applications, different versions of the applications if common and their own installation and configuration programs. The distributions often choose a unique directory layout and script configuration. For example, Red Hat chooses to use a UNIX System V init script style and directory tree while Slackware chooses to use a Berkeley style layout. Some distributions choose to base their DVD's on an existing distribution with changes made in the default settings or packages they bundle. The differences in the choice of libraries and directory layouts can cause incompatibilities with software designed to be installed on one distribution but then installed on another.

Primary Linux Distributions: Although there are a multitude of Linux distributions, most can trace their roots one of the primary "distros":

  • Red Hat
  • Debian
  • Novell Suse
  • Gentoo
  • Slackware
The lead in server popularity with UNIX administrators in the USA is held by Red Hat based distributions. (This includes RHEL, Fedora, Lineox, Centos and many other equally popular distributions). S.u.S.E. is a European distribution (bought by Novell) and is popular on that side of the Atlantic. S.u.S.E. is also popular with MS/Windows dominated IT departments due to their love of the S.u.S.E. Yast configuration tool and some of the extra bundled applications like qps and ksysguard. Both Red Hat and S.u.S.E. are RPM based distributions and the only major difference is the location of desktop applications and the configuration management GUI tools. S.u.S.E. separates the desktop and applications from the rest of the OS in the /opt directory (i.e. /opt/gnome and /opt/kde). Ubuntu (based on the Debian distribution) is probably the most populat distribution with the laptop and desktop crowd due to its device support and software package availability.

Debian has a very slick update feature set which allows one to upgrade over the internet. (apt-get update followed by apt-get dist-upgrade will search the update server over the internet for the latest packages, resolve dependencies and install.) Ubuntu is a popular Debian based distribution due to its pace of development and popular support on laptop and mobile computing platforms. Ubuntu releases a new version every six months and a new "Long Term Support" (LTS) version every two years. With Ubuntu LTS one will get 3 years support on Ubuntu Desktop, and 5 years on Ubuntu Server. While Ubuntu is based on the Gnome desktop, there is also the Kubuntu distribution which is a KDE desktop based version of Ubuntu. (note: Ubuntu is available with all of the KDE applications which will run on its' Gnome desktop).

Linux Mint is challenging Ubuntu as the leading Debian based distribution for all platforms other than mobile devices. The insistence of Gnome 3 and Ubuntu 11.10+ development to focus on mobile devices exclusively while proposing discontinuing support of X-Windows (which allows one to many monitors, NVidia 3D driver support and remote windowing support) and large display desktop application interaction (Gnome 2 style desktop operation) has dealt a challenge to Ubuntu's ubiquity on anything other than mobile devices. It should be remembered that engineers, scientists, developers and admins are at the heart of the Linux community and must be able to use their Linux system to administer other Unix systems (via X-Windows to Solaris, HP/UX, AIX, IRIX, etc) as well as support software development (best on a two monitor system). A plethora of scientific and engineering applications require NVidia 3D hardware acceleration for manipulating data and CAD models. It seems that Ubuntu may have forgotten us. Linux Mint also supports the notion of Long-Term Support (LTS) (three year support).

While Red Hat does have the up2date and yum command, it is not designed to update across releases. Red Hat has chosen to only sell a Linux version with paid support called Red Hat Enterprise Linux. A free clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is available from Centos or Scientific Linux. These releases are based upon The Fedora Project, an RPM based distribution with Red Hat involvement which will have more current software releases and thus have more updates than the fairly static RHEL. S.u.S.E. has also adopted a paid "supported" version of Linux called S.u.S.E. Enterprise Linux. The free unsupported "professional" version is still available under the S.u.S.E. brand and is updated more often. Gentoo uses a BSD style of distribution which relies on updating source code and then compiling locally to obtain the resulting binaries. This is slow to update due to the time it takes to compile everything and more disk drive resources are used to store source code. The upside is that everything is compatible with the compilers and libraries on your system as it was compiled with it. The local compilation will allow targeted platform optimization rather than using the lowest common denominator I386 binary releases which are common with other Linux distributions.

Linux Distributions:

Distribution Description I-32 x86_64 I-64 MIPS PPC SPARC
Aptosid Debian based Linux distribution. Tries to include latest releases of the Linux kernel and packages. KDE and XFCE based desktop. Maintains compatibility with Debian releases. European * * - - - -
ArchLinux tar.gz based distro. * * - - - -
ASLinux Intel-32/Debian Sarge based Spanish * - - - - -
Bastille security emphasis * - - - - -
LynxOS RTOS Linux from LynuxWorks Embedded real-time * - - * * *
BRLSPEAK Linux Mini-distro Debian based Braille and Speech Mini-Distribution of Linux for the blind * - - - - -
Centos Linux Red Hat Enterprise Linux clone. * * - - - -
Specialized for containerization and Kubernetes. Purchased by Red Hat Jan 2018 - * - - - -
Debian logoDebian/GNU GNU * * * * * *
Endian Red Hat based Linux firewall. * * - - - -
Engarde Secure Linux Internet server with a security emphasis. Includes intrusion alert capabilities, improved authentication and access control, and complete SSL secure web-based administration. * * - - - -
Red Hat logoFedora Red Hat Fedora (Red Hat's free version) * * - - - -
WireSpring: FireCast Public Kiosk * - - - * -
Gentoo Source based Linux made to look like BSD. Uses Portage package management system.
Support for native XFS with V1.0+.
* * * - * *
Knoppix Lightweight. Good for a Linux demo and rescue disk. Debian/KDE based. German distribution. * - - - - -
Kubuntu Ubuntu Linux with the KDE desktop. Debian/KDE based. While regular Ubuntu can host KDE applications, they will be on a Gnome desktop while Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop. * * - - - -
Leetnux Nothing is auto configured. User specifies all. * - - - - -
Lineox Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone. Last release 4.0. No longer active. * * - - - -
Mageia Linux logoMageia Mageia was Mandrake. Desktop emphasis.
MandrivaExpert.com - support
* * - - - -
Mastodon Slackware+. No longer actively supported. * - - - - *
Mepis Debian based Linux with an emphasis on the desktop using KDE. * * - - - -
Mint The most popular Debian based Linux distribution with an emphasis on the desktop using a reworked version of Gnome or KDE. * * - - - -
MontaVista Carrier grade, MobiLinux real-time, embedded, ... Linux. Also cross development for MIPS. * - - * * -
Nimblex Linux Based on Slackware and KDE. Lean 100Mb and 200Mb versions. * - - - - -
NSA: Security-Enhanced Linux Not an actual distribution but an enhanced kernel with OS security mechanisms. From the National Security Agency (NSA). Enhancements now available as SELinux in Red Hat and Fedora. * - - - - -
OpenWrt Linux distribution for embedded devices. OpenWrt provides a fully writable filesystem with package management. Supports many specialized platforms and processors: ToH like D-Link, Netgear, Linksys, etc router platforms. * * - - -
OWL: OpenWall Security enhanced Linux server distribution. Binary and Source based with Red Hat compatibility. Also supports Alpha. * * - - - *
Quantian Linux Knoppix-clusterKnoppic/Debian variant tailored to numerical and quantitative analysis. OpenMosix enabled. Not actively supported. * - - - - -
Red Hat logoRed Hat Supported (RHEL) and free (Fedora) * * - - * -
Red Hawk Linux Concurrent Computer Corp true deterministic and preemptive real-time Linux OS. Red Hat compatible. Supplier of custom tools for real-time development. * - - - - -
RockLinux Known as the most difficult to install. This distro has NO gui's and you must compile everything!! Not for wimps. * - - - * -
Scientific Linux Red Hat Enterprise Linux clone compiled from RHEL source by Fermi labs and CERN. This distribution and CentOS are the two leading RHEL clones. * * - - - -
Slackware linux logoSlackware One of the first.
Support for native XFS with V8.1+
* * - - - -
SOL Server Optimized Linux. Independent of other distros. XML based configuration and boot.. * - - - - -
SuSE Linux logoNovell S.u.S.E. Commercially supported. Known for bundling lots of software. Support for native XFS with V8.0+ * * - - - -
TimeSys LinuxLink Real-time Linux * - - - - -
TurboLinux US and Japanese * - - - - -
White Box Enterprise Linux A clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). Built from RHEL source RPM's. No longer actively supported since release 4. * * - - - -
Ubuntu Debian based Linux with new package releases every six months. * * - - - -
Vector Linux Based on Slackware. * - - - - -
ZeroShell ZeroShell Linux is a small CD distribution for servers and embedded devices that is specifically targeted to provide network services such as Kerberos, LDAP, RADIUS, DNS, DHCP, VLAN, VPN, .... * - - - - -
SGI MIPS Linux For SGI MIPS based hardware - - - * - -

Security and Hacker Distros:

The following Linux distributions come tailored and ready with tools for security professionals and hackers.
Distribution Description I-32 x86_64 I-64 MIPS PPC ARM
Kali Linux Leading distro for security professionals and hackers. Debian based and configured for forensics and penetration testing. * * - - - *
Pentoo Linux Gentoo Live CD based distro configured for penetration testing and security assessment. * * - - - -
BlackBox Linux Ubuntu based configured for security and vulnerability assessment * * - - - -
Black Arch Linux Arch Linux based. More than 2000 tool available - * - - - -
Samurai Linux Ubuntu based Live CD with focus on web apps and penetration testing. - * - - - -

Linux from scratch - How to create a Linux system from the basic ingredients.
Linux Base spec - attempt to define a Linux standard base for distributions.
Unixersal Rosetta Stone - Side by side comparison of 17 Unix'es from a sysAdmin point of view.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux and equivalent Fedora releases:

Release comparison:
Red Hat EnterpriseKernelRelease UpdatesFedora equivalent
RHEL 62.6.326.1-6.10Fedora 11/12
RHEL Core 6
RHEL Core 3
RHEL 7.2
Links to more distribution lists:

Linux Hardware Ports: