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?

Debian – The Proud Community

Debian has a long, proud history. It is comprised of a worldwide community of volunteers, including over one thousand developers all working together to create the best possible operating system from free software. Debian is unique in that it is ruled by its constitution, social contract, free software guidelines and policy documents. As such, the structure of the organization is very official, with an elected leader, secretary and technical team. Leadership elections are held every year.

Unlike Slackware, the Debian leader does not have absolute power. In fact by way of a general resolution, developers are able to reverse decisions, remove the leader and even make changes to the constitution. Developers may also vote on important issues affecting the project (such as whether to include binary firmware).

Debian revolves around a fully blown package management system, comprising several important components. This system not only performs expected tasks such as installing and removing packages, it also automatically handles dependencies. This was a core component of Debian very early on, setting it apart from all other distributions in its time. Debian uses the famous .deb package format as opposed to the plain tarballs of Slackware and RPMs of Red Hat. In many respects, package management is key to Debian. The project has strict guidelines on developing software, and finely tracks packages to ensure a consistent system state over upgrades. The utmost importance is put on ensuring packages are built and work correctly.

All of Debian’s releases are named after characters from the Pixar film, Toy Story. Debian is known for the high quality of their releases, which are often delayed. The project maintains three main branches, stable, testing and unstable (called Sid). Although the official desktop is GNOME, the project supports just about every desktop and window manager in existence. This is another stark contrast to Slackware, which only officially supports KDE.

Also unlike Slackware (which until recently only supported a single architecture), Debian supports eleven different architectures with another five on the way. It also comes with over 25,000 packages, ready to be installed via their package management system. Due to its reliable nature and wide support for numerous architectures, Debian is widely used on desktops, servers and embedded systems.

When you consider the scale of what the Debian project achieves, it is truly remarkable. This solid foundation and structure has contributed greatly to Debian’s success and made it an excellent choice for derived distributions such as Ubuntu.

Red Hat – The Commercial Presence

From the get-go, Red Hat Linux has been about commercialization of Linux. To this end, it has been a great success, selling subscriptions for support, training and integration services. A majority of its popularity owes to the fact that it is widely used as the supported Linux distribution of choice in a corporate environment. There are hundreds of Red Hat Linux courses available and for the longest time “Linux” was often synonymous with “Red Hat.”

It’s important to make the distinction between Red Hat’s official commercial Linux offering, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and others such as Fedora. 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).

The majority of the development work on RHEL is done by Red Hat employees. Unlike Slackware and Debian, this distribution’s development is primarily founded in the Red Hat sponsored community distribution, Fedora. Although a stable and exciting distribution in its own right, Fedora is essentially the testing ground for new technology which will find its way into Red Hat’s commercial offerings.

Unlike Debian, Red Hat gained a comprehensive package management system rather late in the game. At its core however, it revolves around packages in the RPM format, which are handled by various low level tools. Today, installing packages on Red Hat is as painless as it is on Debian, with support for dependency tracking and many fancy features to ensure a consistent state.

Red Hat is the leading contributor to both the Linux kernel and X.Org. It is also responsible for many other great pieces of software which we take for granted, such as D-Bus, HAL, Policykit, NetworkManager, PulseAudio (cough cough), Liberation Fonts, Palimpsest and really far too many to mention.

Red Hat is a great advocate for free software and have released a Patent Policy which they use to the benefit of free software. Their business model has been a huge success and is often used as a prime example of the ability to make money from free software.


Perhaps you never realized just how unique the history of Linux distributions is, or how all of these distributions came about. Hopefully this has provided at least some insight into our rich heritage. Whether it is a package management system, modern applications, culture or philosophies, the existence of these distros has been invaluable in shaping the Linux environment as we know it today. Each one of them continues to play a very important role in the continued success of our platform of choice.

Despite their sizable differences, these giants are more popular today as they ever have been. It’s also refreshing to know that even though there are hundreds of active distros available, none has come along yet which has been able to knock any of these three from their place. It’s obvious that these three distros still have a lot to offer, even with their differences. In fact, perhaps it’s because of their differences that they remain so strong. There’s no such thing as one size fits all in the computer world and we should be celebrating the differences that exist, along with the choice and freedom that brings.

Thanks to these three distributions, we have a rich culture and history to build upon for years to come.

Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes. We stand on shoulders of giants.

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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