The differences between Linux distributions


What Is GNU/Linux?

GNU/Linux is a modular operating system that looks and acts like a more intelligently programmed, up-to-date Unix. The term itself — GNU/Linux — is extremely vague and doesn’t exist in the literal sense. You don’t go to the store and buy GNU/Linux; instead you buy a software distribution (or distro for short) that uses GNU/Linux as its basis. So while you can’t buy “Linux” at the store, you can buy SUSE Linux or Linspire.

Distributions can fundamentally differ in several ways:

  • Base operating system
  • Software management and updating
  • Hardware management
  • Desktop environment and theme
  • Proprietary extras

The sections below will cover each of these topics in depth. If there is one particular area that you are confused about, feel free to skip down to the appropriate section. The next topic will cover how GNU/Linux differs from Unix and other Unix-like operating systems.

BSD, Unix, OS X, Linux?

There are many Unix-like operating systems and derivatives. Which ones are which?

Category OSes Origin of code?
GNU GNU/Linux, GNU/HURD, GNU/Mach, GNU/BSD Free Software Foundation; kernels developed separately except HURD. The Linux kernel was originally written by Linus Torvalds, and is currently maintained by him.
BSD FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, DesktopBSD, BSD/OS UC Berkeley, originally; each project has been developed separately since the early-mid 1990s, however.
Unix Solaris, AIX, IRIX, HP/UX, Tru64, UnixWare, OpenServer Bell Labs (AT&T) developed the original Unix code. UNIX is now a trademarked operating system certification program instead of an operating system, and no longer requires that a compliant OS contain AT&T Unix source code to achieve brand certification. Despite that, all of the extant Unix derivatives are compliant with at least one published UNIX standard.
Darwin Darwin, OS X Based on the NeXTSTEP operating system, which used the Mach kernel and some FreeBSD programs and networking code. OS X is developed from Darwin.
Minix Minix Originally written by Andrew Tanenbaum, but now mostly developed by a handful of others