Distributions—A Brief History

Add one part GNU, one part Linux kernel, stir lightly, bake for 19 years, and you get 452 different meals.

static const char *usblp_messages[] = { "ok", "out of paper", "off-line", "on fire" }; Previously known as Jes Hall (http://www.linuxjournal.com/users/jes-hall/track)


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Yes there are ...

Maxx's picture

It seems as though there are as many Linux distributions as there are letters in the alphabet

I've been playing a little with Distrowatch.com some time ago and here is the result:


Wow, I was righter than I

Jes Fraser's picture

Wow, I was righter than I knew! Nice bit of research :)

static const char *usblp_messages[] = { "ok", "out of paper", "off-line", "on fire" };

Previously known as Jes Hall (http://www.linuxjournal.com/users/jes-hall/track)

Slackware is the oldest? Who knew?

Dr Who's picture

I've been telling my LUG (NYLUG www.nylug.org )that Slackware is one of the oldest continously updated distribution for many years now. And of course I did post a track-back to the article from Linux for Devices to them. Especially since it confirmed that Tux is now a well behaved adult. (Well nearly so, in New York State.)

Great reporting. And I believe I did read it in the magazine sometime earlier.

Feeling old now :-)

Geo's picture

Yes I remember using MCC - wonderful little console based Linux, no X, just the basics designed for education to teach Unix commands.

And TAMU, whose claim to fame was the "automatic" configuration of The X-Windows System. All other distro's at the time required a heavy dose of configuring modlines and such to figure how to set up X. TAMU just simply worked (as long as you used a pretty standard vesa card).

Ygdrasil was very cool because of its, install the basics and keep the rest off line on CD. Once you called a command that was not on the basic install it searched for it on the CD and installed it for you automatically. Probably the first effort to cut out bloat in a linux distro.

And there were others like Linux Universe which actually came in a book and provided real installation and use guidelines. Of course it was also idiocyncratic in use...no lilo, a sys5 rc system, mishmash of common tools, etc...

And somewhere I still have my original RH Mothers Day release. I remember getting involved in install parties for this. To bad you didn't mention the RPM predecesor RPP...good reason to learn Perl :-)

Of course SunSite was also the place to be for linux distro's and apps, ftp ruled the day and archie was the tool to use.

Hmm I think I will have to through my old boxes and find some of my original cd's and floppies...

Thanks for all the comments

Jes Fraser's picture

Thanks for all the comments guys - I really felt like this article 'flowed' for me, and so it's great to get the feedback.

@Tom Schenk - you definitely get bonus points. The reason I didn't go into so much detail about some of the really early stuff you mention is, quite frankly, I don't know as much about it as you seem to - and some of that information isn't that easy to find.

static const char *usblp_messages[] = { "ok", "out of paper", "off-line", "on fire" };

Previously known as Jes Hall (http://www.linuxjournal.com/users/jes-hall/track)

nice read

Edgar's picture

Thanks, :)

PNG of Linux Timeline (1992 to present)

Ken Roberts's picture


Link to a Linux Timeline PNG image

Good Reading

Slash3i's picture

This was good reading. It certainly did fill some gaps in my meager knowledge of Linux background. You brilliantly put the contributions of Linus Trovalds and the early Linux founders in a clear context of Linux history.

Brings back memories

Tom Schenk's picture

I guess I get bonus points, because I do remember Yggdrasil and MCC, the fact that MCC predates SLS, and that prior to MCC, that you needed Minix to bootstrap Linux.

Other little known distributions of the time include the TAMU distribution from Texas A&M University and H.J. Lu's bootable rootdisk and installation set (a total of 7 floppies as I recall) where the installation consisted of booting from the boot disk, creating partitions with fdisk, mkfs, mounting them, then cp -iav * /mnt. For those who don't remember this, H.J. Lu was the maintainer of the Linux C library before glibc was mature enough to use. His floppy set gave you the base utilities and compile environment and you had to build everything else yourself from scratch.

I'm also rather surprised you didn't bring up the discord among the developers of the networking subsystem that led to Fred Van Kempen trying to fork Linux, creating the Linux Pro distro, when his networking codebase was supplanted by Net2, developed in large part by Alan Cox and company.

Another interesting historical note is that much like the semi-closed nature of SLS resulted in the creation of new Linux distros, the same thing occurred in the 386BSD camp. The big difference being that, unlike Linus, who from the beginning encouraged people to contribute to the kernel and create distributions around it, the 386BSD leadership seemed to me to actively discourage people from making improvements to it and out of dissatisfaction with this, FreeBSD and NetBSD were born.

Very comprehensive

mattcen's picture

What a comprehensive account of Linux's beginning! I really love reading this sort of history article, and your article has kind of filled the gap between the present day, and the brief history I read in Andrew Tanenbaum's "Modern Operating Systems", about how UNIX came about, followed by Minix and a very brief mention of Linux.

Thanks for a great article!

Matthew Cengia