Linux distribution (often abbreviated as distro) is an operating system made from a software collection, which is based on the Linux kernel and, often, a package management system. Linux users usually obtain their operating system by downloading one of the Linux distributions, which are available for a wide variety of systems ranging from embedded devices (for example, OpenWrt) and personal computers (for example, Linux Mint) to powerful supercomputers (for example, Rocks Cluster Distribution).
A typical Linux distribution comprises a Linux kernel, GNU tools and libraries, additional software, documentation, a window system (the most common being the X Window System), a window manager, and a desktop environment. Most of the included software is free and open-source software made available both as compiled binaries and in source code form, allowing modifications to the original software. Usually, Linux distributions optionally include some proprietary software that may not be available in source code form, such as binary blobs required for some device drivers. A Linux distribution may also be described as a particular assortment of application and utility software (various GNU tools and libraries, for example), packaged together with the Linux kernel in such a way that its capabilities meet the needs of many users. The software is usually adapted to the distribution and then packaged into software packages by the distribution’s maintainers. The software packages are available online in so-called repositories, which are storage locations usually distributed around the world. Beside glue components, such as the distribution installers (for example, Debian-Installer and Anaconda) or the package management systems, there are only very few packages that are originally written from the ground up by the maintainers of a Linux distribution.
Almost six hundred Linux distributions exist, with close to five hundred out of those in active development. Because of the huge availability of software, distributions have taken a wide variety of forms, including those suitable for use on desktops, servers, laptops, netbooks, mobile phones, and tablets, as well as minimal environments typically for use in embedded systems. There are commercially backed distributions, such as Fedora (Red Hat), openSUSE (SUSE) and Ubuntu (Canonical Ltd.), and entirely community-driven distributions, such as Debian, Slackware, Gentoo and Arch Linux. Most distributions come ready to use and pre-compiled for a specific instruction set, while some distributions (such as Gentoo) are distributed mostly in source code form and compiled locally during installation.
Linux isn’t like Windows or Mac OS X. Microsoft combines all the bits of Windows internally to produce each new release of Windows and distributes it as a single package. If you want Windows, you’ll need to choose one of the versions Microsoft is offering.
Linux works differently. The Linux operating system isn’t produced by a single organization. Different organizations and people work on different parts. There’s the Linux kernel (the core of the operating system), the GNU shell utilities (the terminal interface and many of the commands you use), the X server (which produces a graphical desktop), the desktop environment (which runs on the X server to provide a graphical desktop), and more. System services, graphical programs, terminal commands – many are developed independently from another. They’re all open-source software distributed in source code form.
If you wanted to, you could grab the source code for the Linux kernel, GNU shell utilities, Xorg X server, and every other program on a Linux system, assembling it all yourself. However, compiling the software would take a lot of time – not to mention the work involved with making all the different programs work properly together.
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