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.

Caldera (1993/4) The first Linux for business.

Now, when people remember Caldera, they remember it for its transformation into SCO: Linux’s most determined enemy, this side of Microsoft. It didn’t start that way.

To the contrary, co-founders Ransom Love and Brian Sparks, saw Linux as a great business operating system and, in particular, as a way to combat Windows on both the desktop and on the server. As Love explains in the unpublished manuscript of his book, The Love of Linux, Caldera started as a project within Novell (http://www.novell.com) to combat Windows NT.

Love wrote, “Microsoft was refusing to expose Novell’s services as they were trying to force users into purchasing NT. Microsoft was in many instances, giving NT away with those who utilized their desktop to try to take market share away from Novell. Bryan, Rob and I felt that the same could be done with the desktop. If you could develop the desktop utilizing a different paradigm that did not cost millions of dollars, you could focus a small group of engineers on the key user interfaces and leverage all the services provided by the server. Linux provided the ideal method, open source. With the operating system being developed by the community, the traditional costs of developing the total operating system could be greatly reduced so that the desktop could be almost given away with the server. Rich backend services could be provided by NetWare and if nothing else, we would force Microsoft to expose the NetWare services in their desktop to compete. ”

Some things haven’t changed. More recently Microsoft was giving away XP Home to netbooks vendors to block 2009′s Linux desktops. In addition, you can see IBM’s Linux business plan (http://practical-tech.com/operating-system/ibm-and-linux-the-early-years/) in Love’s comment about how the traditional costs of building an operating system would be greatly reduced by the open-source community.

Unfortunately for Novell, while the company’s founder Ray Noorda, supported the idea, with his retirement, Novell stopped pursuing Linux. It’s a great irony that Novell, which finally got into Linux a decade later by buying SUSE, could have been a Linux power from the beginning. But, the company choose to go another way.

So, Love and Sparks founded Caldera to, according to Love, “continue what we had started, add enough value above the operating system to create an alternative desktop in the industry.” That desktop would be the 1995′s “Caldera Network Desktop. It contained the first graphical desktop for Linux ever produced, a product we licensed, ported and modified, from Visix.”

What few people know is that Caldera developed this desktop with the help of Red Hat. But, Caldera “needed to be able to control the bits and bights to ensure a business quality product. [So,] We parted ways. To their credit, Red Hat knew who was buying Linux at the time; the hacker/developer and they wanted timely updates to the code. Caldera was still pursuing its dream to reach the commercial buyer.”

By the late 90s, both Caldera and Red Hat were reaching the business buyers. Noorda continued to invest in Caldera, but with his ill health, the Canopy Group financial managers decided, after the purchase of SCO, decided that there would be a faster way to riches: sue IBM and other Linux using companies. SCO/Caldera failed, horribly.

Before its kamikaze business move though, Caldera had established that there was a business market for Linux. Red Hat, which was transforming itself from being a Linux distributor for hackers to the Linux distributor for business, was making notes.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1AS (2002) Linux joins the enterprise.

In 2004, many Linux users hated Red Hat. Why? Because Red Hat had just announced that it was bidding its retail box distribution, Red Hat 9, for one that was meant almost exclusively for business: RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

Why was Red Hat getting out of the consumer/end-user/hacker side of the Linux business? Because they realized that that wasn’t where the money would be in the years to come.

In an e-mail interview, Michael Tiemann, Red Hat’s VP of of Open Source Affairs, “The reason for creating Red Hat Enterprise Linux back in the day is because we saw an incredible opportunity to help customers cut costs by 50% to 95%, increase performance by 50% to 1000%, and who were ready, willing, and able to participate in and contribute to open source

development in meaningful ways.”

To do that, Tiemann continued, Red Hat to “Define and maintain a consistent ABI and operational model, so that the customer could focus on migrating from proprietary to open source without spending an exponentially increasing time managing or maintaining their new open source platforms.”

In addition, by defining and maintaining “a consistent ABI and proactive release model … OEMs could deliver innovative hardware keeping pace with Moore’s Law.” At the same time, this enabled ISVs (independent software vendors) could still make money on a per-unit basis when migrating to Linux.”

Tiemann proudly wrote, “The result of picking the correct objectives — good value for both customers and partners–and executing on those objectives made Red Hat Enterprise Linux *the* catalyst for establishing Linux a first-class citizen in the enterprise datacenter.”

That may sound a little boastful, but as the saying goes, “It’s not boasting if you can do it.” Red Hat can do it. Thanks largely to RHEL, Red Hat had over half-a-billion dollars in its last fiscal year. And, in an economy where almost no one is doing well, Red Hat is growing.

By transforming itself from the Linux for hackers to the Linux for the enterprise, Red Hat transformed Linux.

At the same time, Tiemann noted that Red Hat has also adopted the community model pioneered by Debian with Fedora. As Tiemann explained, “The balance between stability and innovation,

between NDAs and open source, between predictable progress and

disruptive technologies led Red Hat to pursue a second concurrent path that also persists to this day: the Fedora project.I tell people ‘Fedora is how you get there. Enterprise Linux is how you stay there.’”

Ubuntu 4.10 (2004) Linux for everyone.

As Linux grew ever more popular with programmers and businesses, there came to be a demand for a truly easy-to-use Linux. Mark Shuttleworth, saw this need and decided to do something about it. Unlike most of us though, Shuttleworth was a multi-millionaire and had the resources to do something about it.

Shuttleworth, who was familiar with Debian, decided to create, with the help of what would become the Ubuntu community, the first version of Ubuntu. Shuttleworth’s goal was to make “Ubuntu … a new Linux distribution that brings together the extraordinary breadth of Debian with a fast and easy install, regular releases (every six months), a tight selection of excellent packages installed by default and a commitment to security updates with 18 months of security and technical support for every release.”

Big dreams, but with his financial backing and a community that has proven to be more interested in working together than in in-fighting, Ubuntu has become arguably the most popular Linux of all time. Since 2005, Ubuntu has sat at the top of DistroWatch’s Linux distro page hit list.

Thanks to its adoption by Dell, Ubuntu was the first Linux to be offered by a major OEM to would-be desktop Linux users.

In 2009, Ubuntu has become so popular that some people are confusing Ubuntu with Linux. To them, if it’s Linux, it must be Ubuntu. More importantly, it’s largely thanks to Ubuntu that Linux finally has a significant share of the desktop market.

So, there you have my list. Slackware: The Linux that spread the word to early adopters; Debian, the first community Linux; Caldera, the Linux that showed that the operating system could work in business; Red Hat, the Linux that actually put Linux in the enterprise; and Ubuntu, the Linux that showed that it was an operating system for everyone.

What’s on your list?