The Three Giants of Linux

In the land of Linux, there are three giants. Three distributions which have stood the test of time and from which most others have come. What makes these three unique and how have they shaped Linux as we know it today?

The Linux ecosystem is a complex entity. On one hand everyone gets along and benefits from work done by others, while on the other there’s often animosity and conflict between distributions and their communities (remember when Ubuntu came along?).

People often complain that there is simply too much choice in the Linux world and that we’d all be better off if there was just one, or two. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

The multitude of Linux distributions exists for a reason. They exist because not one single distribution can satisfy the desires of every user on the planet. Different people like different ways of doing things. Not only that, the distribution that one might want to use for a server won’t necessarily suit a laptop. So thankfully there are thousands of distros to choose from.

In the Beginning

Of course it wasn’t always that way. GNU had a beginning, Linux had a beginning and so also the first distribution had a beginning.

That’s right, the first official distribution was called MCC Interim, back in February of 1992. It was the first distribution able to be installed on a computer, shipping the Linux kernel with a GNU user-land. Within that same year, a new (and popular at the time) distribution was created, called Softlanding Linux System (known simply as SLS), which in turn spawned Slackware, created by Patrick Volkerding. To this day, Slackware remains the oldest surviving Linux distribution.

By the time Slackware came onto the scene, there were already half a dozen Linux distributions. A few months later however, on August 16th 1993, one of the most important was about to emerge all on its own, which today takes the crown for the oldest surviving independently developed Linux distribution. Meet Debian. Debian was not a fork of any previous work, but an independent project in its own right, created by Ian Murdock. Entirely community driven, Debian remains the largest non-commercial distributor of Linux.

Almost one year after the birth of Debian, in 1994 the third and final member of the most influential distributions arrived on the scene, Red Hat Linux. This distribution was originally created by Marc Ewing but shortly thereafter merged with Bob Young’s company, ACC Corporation, creating Red Hat Software. From the very beginning, Red Hat Linux was designed with the corporate world in mind. It was and is a commercial implementation of a Linux distribution, built upon free software.


Together, these three distributions are the pillars of Linux, the giants. They have each lead the way, creating technologies and methodologies which we take for granted every day. They have forged the path to make Linux distributions what they are today.

Not only are they the three oldest surviving, they have each in turn spawned an entire range of operating systems. Certainly there have been other important independent distributions along the way such as Arch, Crux, Gentoo (from Enoch), Linux From Scratch, Puppy, ROCK, Tiny Core, Yoper and a great number of others. However, the following image of Lundqvist and Rodic’s GNU/Linux distro timeline illustrates just how influential these three distros have been.


According to DistroWatch, sixty-six distributions have been created from Slackware. Red Hat Linux has spawned around forty directly (with another eighty or so coming from Fedora), while grand daddy Debian makes it two hundred and fifty! At the end of the day, the majority of Linux distributions which exist today are at some point a derivative of one of these three.

These three distributions really couldn’t get much more different. Of course the core is the same in each; a Linux kernel, GNU user-land as well as various desktops and applications. Aside from the required similarities, how do these distributions differ? As you’ll see, each one encompasses a unique perspective, which shows just how important diversity is!

Slackware – The Dictatorship

In many ways, Slackware was and is a one man show. Patrick Volkerding created the distribution and he still controls it today. Certainly, he has a fantastic team surrounding him and a dedicated community behind him, but he is the one who calls the shots.

The distribution itself revolves around simplicity and tries to remain as Unix-like as possible. It does not heavily patch its packages, rather shipping products which resemble upstream as closely as possible. Slackware leaves the user in charge and gets out of the way. It traditionally doesn’t make heavy use of a package manager and while it can install, upgrade and remove packages, it does not track or manage dependencies. This task falls to the system administrator (or user), and is one of the most striking differences between Slackware and the other two.

For these reasons, it is often considered a “harder to use” distribution, but fans of the distribution see these as necessary tools of power and flexibility. Nevertheless, Slackware is well regarded among the community and very stable.

Recently it gained support for both 64bit and ARM architectures, but prior to this was heavily focused on 32bit only. It only supports one major desktop environment, KDE, although others such as GNOME are supported by the community.

While many other newer distributions are adding additional layers of complexity to make things easier, Slackware is staying true to its UNIX roots, offering a simple yet powerful, highly configurable system. For more insight into Slackware, take a look at our interview with developer Eric Hameleers.

Comments on "The Three Giants of Linux"


You forgot about Slackware\’s S/390 port.


MCC was basically just enough to start building what you wanted.

SLS was complete. Slakware basically took SLS 1.04 (03?) and its packaging system. It fixed the problems (file/directory permissions) and added package sets. There was controversy at the time because of this.

SLS wasn\’t responding to fix requests and Slakware forked. If SLS fixed the issues, I\’m not sure Slakware would have started.

When SLS 1.05 came out, but it was like taking Slakware and breaking it again. It never had another release.

When Debian 1st came out, it wasn\’t really ready. Red Hat was usable for a desktop right away. Debian took a few iterations before it was as stable as Slak or Red Hat.

Red Hat hit the spot with easy to install/admin and stability between Slak and Debian back in \’93.

There was also the Yggdrasill release. It was the 1st on CD-ROM. Most of us didn\’t have one of the $300 devices and went the floppy route. Slakware was 20-30 1.2MB floppies if you installed everything. I had a dual boot 340 MB drive at the time. DOS was still the main OS on PCs then.


Thanks for the great article and chart. Cleared up some of the parentage of Linux for me. corkymoo.com


@tbuskey … it\’s \”Slackware\”, *not* \”Slakware\”.

I think Christopher missed it on another important distro: SuSE.

They were first established at the end of 1992, with their
first distro release in the first quarter of 1994, 6 months
before the first release of Red Hat.

To not include SuSE(/Novell) as a \”giant\” of Linux distros shows
an obvious bias, or possibly lack of research.

Regards, mjt, author, \”Inside Linux\”


I have to agree with mjtobler. To leave SuSE out of the list shows bias or ignorance by the author. I have give this article a big fat D+. And the \”+\” was for the respectable information on Debian.


Great, easy to read, article. re: SuSE, I would have liked to know how it fit in.

– Nadine


mjtobler and sandholm, did you not look at the the Slackware tree
SuSE was the first spawn off of Slackware.


Do I hear a lot of babies crying?!

For all you babies that got a dirty diaper because your SuSE wasn\’t mentioned… Look at the chart under Slackware.

SuSE is yet just another fork of one of the big three.



@mjtobler Your quote \”To not include SuSE(/Novell) as a \”giant\” of Linux distros shows
an obvious bias, or possibly lack of research.

Regards, mjt, author, \”Inside Linux\” \”

How stupid do you feel now?


There are a lot of charts all over the Internet and so far the chart in this article appears to be the most up-to-date.


@sandholm you get an F- for not reading everything.


@dragonwisard He didn\’t forget anything. He provided information based on available information found in several places on the Internet. The chart was provided by him but was created by some one else.


I thought this was a great article. Slackware was the one that initiated me into the Linux world.


Fascinating article, love the timeline, too. I had no idea SuSE was originally based on Slackware. I\’ve been trying to find when they jumped to RPM, but haven\’t been able to yet. My first ever linux install was RedHat in 1998. Switched to Debian a year or so later, Suse around 2002, Ubuntu and Gentoo in 2006. The little niche distros come and go, but the great granddaddies are still strong.


@stosss Great trolling! Five separate posts that add NOTHING to the discussion.

The S/390 port was the first official port of Slackware to a non-x86 platform. It\’s an active port that is mention both on Wikipedia AND Slackware.com.

That was some AWESOME research he did if he missed it on both.


Show us the numbers: how many computers are running SuSE and how many are running Slackware? You present a misleading picture of where the Linux influence in the world today comes from. If you want to do it your way, there\’s only one big player, Mr. Torvalds.

For you to ignore SuSE and praise Slackware as a \”Big Three\” is just bizarre. I don\’t know what you are selling but I am disappointed in Linux Magazine for wasting out time.

Control Data Corporation made some great computers, the design of which influenced later computers including the PC I\’m typing on. Does that mean we should say CDC is the big branch of computers, and PCs are not? Of course not. If Joe Blow helped start X Corp., and he used to work at Y Corp. earlier, and X Corp. has 10 times the market share of Y Corp., Y corp is the big player? No, of course not.

Slackware has faded into irrelevance compared to the position SuSE occupies in the Linux universe. Feel free to prove me wrong. Show me the numbers.

Your article might have made more sense had it been titled \”The three earliest Linux releases whose progeny are still active\” or some such. But your praise of Red Hat goes beyond just noting who\’s first and who begot who to emphasize it\’s dominance in the current Linux world, and in this regard, SuSE is beyond Slackware by miles. SuSE is not a subset of Slackware, in terms of code, package, support, company policies, etc. etc. etc., it is new and different from Slackware. You should clarify that you are not really saying who is big in the Linux world, but are rather constructing a genealogy. Or define \”big,\” or something.


@river: I thought the way he presented everything made perfect sense. Even if you don\’t think the title is accurate enough (and it doesn\’t seem any better or worse than most headlines to me) the first paragraph or two of the \”Begetting\” section spells it out pretty explicitly.

You complaining that he didn\’t give enough credit to SuSE is no different than an Ubuntu user getting upset that he spent all his time on Debian. Current popularity isn\’t the point at all. SuSE, quite simply, descends from another distribution that is also still active. Everything based on SuSE is ultimately based on Slackware, and there are about 3 times as many Slackware-based distros that have nothing to do with SuSE. SuSE (and Ubuntu, and Knoppix, and …) are all just branches, albeit influential ones. Slackware is one of the trunks.

Disclaimer: I personally use Gentoo, which is but a small isolated node on the chart. (Although it still has more descendants listed than SuSE.) So I feel I can be objective.


@river I\’ve been using Slackware for nearly a decade now and I\’m still using it today. Your assertion that Slackware has \”faded into irrelevance\” is uninformed (to say the least). There is a strong and active Slackware community.

SuSE began as a German translation of Slackware. Slackware is still an active distro. Therefore it\’s entirely reasonable to point to Slackware rather than SuSE. Not to mention many of the descendant distributions forked directly from Slackware, not from SuSE. Notably: SLAX (which let to WHAX, which became BackTrack), VectorLinux, and Zenwalk.

My company has many more customers using RedHat or Ubuntu than SuSE, even in Germany which is our largest market.


@dragonwisard, you\’re right I didn\’t mention the 390 port (although I did say that prior to the AMD64 port Slack was focused on 32bit only, which isn\’t incorrect).

390 isn\’t 64bit yet, right? :-)



I dont think SUSE has been left out, it simply is covered as a redhat derivative, in the same way ubuntu is not mentioned, despite being hugely popular, as it is a debian derivative.

This article is about the 3 great pillars, the original bases of most major linux distros.
Not the derivatives built on top of the pillars.

I also think the article is wrong saying that redhat is sold binary only.
That\’s simply incorrect.
If you buy redhat, redhat ship src CDs/DVDs and you can download them fro RHN if you have a valid subscription,


@jtan163 \”I dont think SUSE has been left out, it simply is covered as a redhat derivative\”

This is wrong. SUSE came from Slackware.

@Dragonwisard, Backtrack < Auditor Security Linux < Kanotix < Knoppix < Debian.
There was some cross influence on Backtrack from WHAX < Whoppix < Knoppix < Debian.
There was some cross influence on WHAX from Slackware, but most of the influence on WHAX was and Backtrack is Debian based.

The solid lines in the chart show a direct branch influence and the dotted lines show a cross influence

@river, SUSE is a nobody distribution. There has been very little influence on other distributions from SUSE. There has been more than six times as many distributions influenced by Slackware, which has already been pointed out several times that S.u.S.E. aka SuSE aka SUSE aka openSUSE got its roots from Slackware.

SUSE babies stop your whining.


SUSE roots are Slackware but SUSE looks nothing like Slackware anymore!


\”RHEL is only available in binary form when purchased from Red Hat, unlike our two other distributions. The entire source code for the operating system however, is entirely free and from this numerous other distributions have sprung (such as CentOS).\”

This is slightly misleading so a little clarification. It is fair to say you won\’t get support for the binary release from Red Hat. You can obtain Red Hat binary but you won\’t be kept up-to-date with bug fixes and security patches in binary format (i.e. for support you must pay a perpetual subscription fee). You will always be able to access the source code and manage your system that way. Red Hat are open source advocates down to the last. All their products are available as source.


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