The Five Distros That Changed Linux

Linux's history can be measured in both releases 2.0, 2.6, and so on, and in its major distributions, which brought these releases to the masses at large. Here's my list of the top five major Linux distributions that had the most impact in the operating system's brief history.

You can measure Linux’s history in many ways. We usually think of it in terms of releases. The Linux kernel got its start in September 1991 with version 0.01. The kernel turned 18 this fall with the release of 2.6.something-or-other. But, another way of looking at Linux is in terms of its important distributions.

For users, these distributions have been the mountain tops. Each of the truly significant distributions changed how Linux was seen, and brought the operating system new and different groups of users. You can argue about which distro is more important than another, but, all the distributions in my list changed how we saw and used Linux.

I made this list by both looking at Linux’s history, and from my own experiences at the time with Linux. While I wasn’t a Linux user in its very early years — I was working with the commercial Unix and the BSD operating systems — I did come on-board quickly.

Slackware (1993) The first truly popular Linux distribution.

The distribution which brought me, and many others, to Linux in Linux’s early 90s days was the oddly named Slackware. Patrick Volkerding, its founder, picked the name from the Church of the SubGenius, a parody church that was popular in hacker circles in the 90s. Volkerding still thinks “it’s a pretty good name. I’ve been trying to put an ease-of-use spin on it, but it doesn’t quite work. I think I’ll just start telling people all the good names were taken to get them off the subject.”

A first, Slackware was just meant as a side project, which is also why it has its name. Quickly, though, Slackware became more than just the little Linux distribution with the funny name. Many people had wanted to try Linux, but they weren’t expert enough with the build/make/compile cycle of early source-code only Linux to do much with it. Slackware, although not thought of today as an easy Linux distribution, was the first Linux to make it easy for non-programmers to give Linux a try.

That wasn’t the plan though. As Volkerding explained in a 1994 interview, “never really did decide to do a distribution. What happened was that my AI professor wanted me to show him how to install Linux so that he could use it on his machine at home, and share it with some graduate students who were also doing a lot of work in LISP. So, we went into the PC lab and installed the SLS (Soft Landing Systems) version of Linux.

Having dealt with Linux for a few weeks, I’d put together a pile of notes describing all the little things that needed to be fixed after the main installation was complete. After spending nearly as much time going through the list and reconfiguring whatever needed it as we had putting the software on the machine in the first place, my professor looked at me and said, ‘Is there some way we can fix the install disks so that new machines will have these fixes right away?’ That was the start of the project. ”

There were other early Linux distributions. The aforementioned SLS and before that there was Yggdrasil, which you can argue was the first commercial Linux distro, predated Slackware. Slackware, however, simply worked better than the other early Linuxes and soon supplanted them in the hearts and minds of early Linux users.

Later commercial and community-based Linuxes would soon push Slackware to the side, but it remains today, a strong contender for Linux users who want a solid, Unix-like operating system.

Debian (1994) Welcome to the community.

While Slackware was bringing new users to Linux by the thousands, Ian Murdock, then an undergraduate at Purdue University and now Sun’s VP vice president of emerging platforms, had started work on the first, significant community Linux distribution: Debian.

Some early distributions, including Slackware, were primarily the product of a few inspired developers, while others like Caldera, Red Hat and Yggdrasil were commercial distributions being built by staffers. Murdock had another idea. As he explained in The Debian Manifesto “Debian Linux is a brand-new kind of Linux distribution. Rather than being developed by one isolated individual or group, as other distributions of Linux have been developed in the past, Debian is being developed openly in the spirit of Linux and GNU.”

He was right. Debian was a brand new kind of Linux distribution. Now, with openSUSE, Fedora, and Ubuntu, we’re used to thinking of even commercial Linux distributions having their roots deep in the community. At the time, though, it was a radical idea.

Yes, Linux, the kernel, was certainly being developed by a large community bound together only by file repositories, e-mail lists, and Usenet groups, but the idea that all the bits and pieces of programs needed for a distribution could be glued together by a community was a novel idea. And, as even a casual glance at the world of Linux shows, a wildly successful idea.

It’s not always been an easy journey. Over the years the Debian community has fought with its founder (http://practical-tech.com/operating-system/when-is-debian-not-debian/), other open-source groups, such as Mozilla over the Firefox logo (http://practical-tech.com/operating-system/linux/fox-wars-debian-vs-mozilla), and, endlessly it seems, within itself over how the distribution should be created (http://practical-tech.com/operating-system/disgruntled-delay-etch). Despite all the infighting, Debian somehow manages to continue to create a top-flight Linux distribution.

All the community Linuxes owe Debian thanks for pioneering the way. Today, Debian remains extremely popular. Many other distributions, including Ubuntu, MEPIS, Knoppix, and Xandros are based on the Debian code base.

Without Debian, quite frankly, today’s Linux world wouldn’t be recognizable.

Next: Caldera