What Is a Linux Distribution?

April 4, 2024

A Linux distribution or distro is an operating system that is built on top of the Linux kernel—the core interface between a computer's hardware and its processes. It includes a wide array of software offerings such as the GNU toolchain, system libraries, a graphical user interface (GUI), and additional applications and utilities to form a complete system.

Distributions are tailored to meet specific user needs and preferences, ranging from general-purpose desktop and server use to specialized applications like digital forensics, multimedia production, and educational purposes. Each distro comes with a package management system to easily install, update, and remove software, and it may follow a specific philosophy regarding software freedom, usability, and customizability. Linux users benefit from the open-source nature of Linux operating systems, which allows for a wide range of software and modifications to suit personal or organizational needs.

A Brief History of Linux Distributions

Linus Torvalds released the first version of the Linux kernel in 1991. It was initially a project of interest only to hobbyists and developers. The first "distributions" of Linux appeared a year later. These were more like collections of software and a kernel that users needed to compile themselves rather than the user-friendly distros used today. The two notable distributions from this era are MCC Interim Linux (considered the first Linux distribution) and SLS (Softlanding Linux System).

Slackware, created by Patrick Volkerding, was released in 1993. This distro is notable for being the oldest distribution that is still maintained. Slackware, known for its simplicity and minimalism, was followed by Debian, founded by Ian Murdock. Debian is distinctive for its commitment to free software principles, its volunteer-based development model, and its robust package management system (APT). Debian would later become the base for many other distributions, including Ubuntu.

The year 1994 saw the introduction of Red Hat Linux, focusing on enterprise users and offering commercial support. Red Hat Linux later evolved into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and the community-supported Fedora Project.

The 2000s saw a proliferation of Linux distributions, with Ubuntu launching in 2004 to widespread acclaim for its user-friendliness and predictable release cycle, subsequently spawning derivatives like Kubuntu and Linux Mint. Arch Linux, introduced in 2002, championed simplicity and a rolling release model, while CentOS established itself as a free, enterprise-grade OS derived from RHEL.

The landscape continued to expand into the 2010s, embracing distributions focused on privacy, security, and specific applications, alongside developments like Fedora Silverblue and Container Linux by CoreOS, catering to trends in containerization and microservices.

Today, Linux distributions are as diverse as the user base they cater to, from desktop users looking for personal computing solutions to enterprises requiring stable, secure, and scalable server systems. The community around Linux continues to thrive, constantly pushing the boundaries of what an operating system can do. With the rise of cloud computing, IoT devices, and other technologies, Linux distributions keep evolving, adapting to new technological landscapes while remaining true to the core principles of open-source and community-driven development.

What Does a Linux Distro Include?

A Linux distribution typically includes the following components:

  • Linux kernel. The core of the operating system, responsible for managing hardware, system resources, and communication between hardware and software.
  • GNU tools and libraries. Essential command line tools and libraries from the GNU Project, providing a UNIX-like environment.
  • Package management system. Software that manages the installation, updating, and removal of software packages. Examples include APT (for Debian-based distros), YUM/DNF (for Fedora and CentOS), and pacman (for Arch Linux).
  • Software applications. A selection of pre-installed software tailored to the distro’s target audience, including web browsers, office suites, media players, and more.
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI). A desktop environment (like GNOME, KDE, XFCE) and a window manager that provide a user-friendly way to interact with the system.
  • System libraries. Shared libraries needed by applications to run.
  • Documentation. Manuals, guides, and online resources to help users navigate and make the most of their distribution.
  • Configuration tools. Utilities and tools to customize and manage system settings.
  • Bootloader. Software that manages the boot process of the computer, like GRUB.
  • Scripts and utilities. Additional command-line utilities and scripts for system maintenance, performance monitoring, and troubleshooting.

Linux Distributions

Here is an overview of the most used Linux distributions.


Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions, known for its ease of use, comprehensive documentation, and strong community support. Developed by Canonical Ltd., it's based on Debian and releases new versions every six months, with LTS (Long Term Support) releases every two years. Ubuntu is designed to be user-friendly and is suitable for desktops, servers, and cloud environments. It features the GNOME desktop environment in its standard edition, with other official flavors offering KDE, XFCE, and more.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint is renowned for its simplicity and elegance, making it an excellent choice for beginners transitioning from other operating systems. It's based on Ubuntu and Debian and focuses on providing a complete out-of-the-box experience by including browser plugins, media codecs, and support for DVD playback, which some distributions do not offer by default. Mint comes in several editions, with Cinnamon, MATE, and XFCE as the primary desktop environments.


Fedora is a cutting-edge distribution that incorporates the latest software and technologies. Red Hat sponsors it, using the distro as the upstream source for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). Fedora aims to provide a free, open-source, powerful, and easy-to-use software platform. It's known for its innovation, security features, and adherence to free software principles. The Fedora project also offers different editions tailored for Workstation, Server, and IoT environments.


Debian is one of the oldest and most influential Linux distributions, prized for its stability, security, and vast software repositories. It is developed by a community of volunteers worldwide and serves as the foundation for many other distributions, including Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Debian supports a wide range of computer architectures and offers over 59,000 software packages. Its package management, using APT and its .deb package format, is highly regarded.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux is aimed at more experienced Linux users. It follows a rolling release model, offering the latest software versions while maintaining a commitment to simplicity and customization. Arch is unique for its "The Arch Way" philosophy, emphasizing user centrality, pragmatism, and the willingness to learn and experiment. It uses pacman as its package manager and is known for its comprehensive and detailed documentation, notably the Arch Wiki.

CentOS (Community Enterprise Operating System)

CentOS is a free, enterprise-class, community-supported computing platform functionally compatible with its upstream source, Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Following Red Hat's decision to shift focus to CentOS Stream, which is a rolling-release distribution that tracks just ahead of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, many users and organizations have looked at CentOS alternatives like Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux for stability and long-term support.


openSUSE offers two main versions: Leap and Tumbleweed. Leap is the stable release, offering a balanced platform for both newer and experienced users looking for reliability and enterprise-grade features. Tumbleweed is the rolling release, catering to developers and enthusiasts who want the latest software updates. openSUSE is known for its YaST configuration tool, which simplifies system management tasks, and for SUSE Linux Enterprise, from which Leap derives much of its stability.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.