Linux Distributions

When people first start looking at Linux there are some hurdles. The first one is understanding that Linux is free. Because so much softwre is licensed, the idea that you can get a copy and legally give it to all your friends and use it on all your computers seems to take some getting used to.

When people first start looking at Linux there are some hurdles. The first one is understanding that Linux is free. Because so much software is licensed, the idea that you can get a copy and legally give it to all your friends and use it on all your computers seems to take some getting used to.

Once people get over that hurdle, the next problem seems to be “which distribution should I get?”. This is because there isn't just one Linux—a concept that is familiar to many Unix system users but fairly foreign to the MS-DOS or MS-Windows user. This article addresses that question. Hopefully the third question, where do I get it, can be answered by our advertisers.

Historically, the word Linux had a somewhat different meaning. It was really just the operating system kernel. People would then collect various pieces of software (a compiler from one place, login code from another and so on) and put together their own system. The problem is that this took a lot of time, and as the amount of support software available grew the choices grew as well.

The solution was for someone to make a distribution, a collection of software consisting of the kernel and all the support programs that a user would need. What happened is that more than one “someone” did this because of differing needs. And each of these distributions was called “Linux”.

What's wrong with calling them Linux? Nothing, if we can avoid the confusion that it initially introduces. The confusion comes from two areas:

  • Different distributions contain different programs.

  • Linux is really the kernel. When we lump all the other programs in and still call the contents Linux we are ignoring the work of others including FSF for the C compiler and most of the utilities, and the University of California at Berkeley for Ingres and Postgres.

I am sure the label Linux will stick, but I do think it is important that we recognize that there's a lot more to what we get in a distribution than code written by those who would be considered Linux developers.

Now, on to distributions. This isn't intended to be a complete list, just a quick look for beginners. I encourage anyone with a different distribution that they consider important to write to us and tell us about it.

The first complete Linux distribution was SLS. Although the most recent release is sorely out of date today, I mention it for historical reasons. Many people who are using Linux started with this distribution, which was produced by Peter MacDonald. It also offered the basis for other distributions like Slackware.


Developed at the University of Manchester, MCC was designed to be quickly installed by anyone. It has excellent documentation and is both compact and very stable. MCC was designed to be installed on 386 systems in a lab used by computer science students. It includes networking via ethernet and a complete development system but lacks such things as print spooling, uucp and X windows. Because of its excellent documentation and compact size (easily fits in 30MB of hard disk space; distribution is 8 floppies) it is a great place to start-particularly if you have little or no Unix experience.

At the time of this writing (February, 1994), the MCC distribution is based on a rather old kernel. It is, however, very stable and well tested.


Slackware evolved from the ideas behind SLS, a complete Linux system with an installation system that makes it possible to pick and choose what you want. It isn't perfect but it is very current, well supported and very reliable. The imperfections are generally in terms of a missing link or wrong permission. Here at Linux Journal we have two systems running Slackware, and the only serious problem we encountered was with smail. After talking to other Unix users we determined that the problem was actually an smail bug, not a Linux bug. We replaced smail with sendmail+IDA and all seems to be fine now. Some distributors (such as Trans-Ameritech) are distributing Slackware on CD-ROM.


Available only on CD-ROM, this is a very popular distribution. Current and complete, it offers a quick way to get a working system up and running. It includes X-windows (in fact, it requires you to load X to do system configuration) and a pretty amazing set of tools. Like most of the up-to-date distributions, it has a few bugs. It is, however, a great choice for someone who wants to get a working Linux system with X up and running quickly. I also feel it is well worth the $50 for the amount of source code you get in a compact form. We have one Linux system in the office running Yggdrasil.


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