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.