One can distinguish between commercially backed distributions, such as Fedora (Red Hat), openSUSE (Novell), Ubuntu (Canonical Ltd.), and Mandriva Linux and community distributions such as Debian and Gentoo, though there are other distributions that, while not governed by a community, are neither driven by a corporation, perhaps most famously, Slackware.
Before the first Linux distributions, a would-be Linux user was required to be something of a Unix expert, not only knowing what libraries and executables were needed to successfully get the system to boot and run, but also important details concerning configuration and placement of files in the system.
Linux distributions began to appear very soon after the Linux kernel was first used by individuals outside the original Linux programmers. They were more interested in developing the operating system than they were in application programs, the user interface, or convenient packaging.
Early distributions included:
SLS was not well-maintained, so Patrick Volkerding released a distribution based on SLS, which he called Slackware; released July 16, 1993. This is the oldest distribution still in active development.
Users were attracted to Linux distributions as alternatives to the DOS and Microsoft Windows operating systems on the PC, Mac OS on the Apple Macintosh and proprietary versions of Unix. Most early adopters were familiar with Unix from work or school. They embraced Linux for its stability, low (if any) cost, and for the availability of the source code for most or all of the software included.
The distributions were originally simply a convenience, but today they have become the usual choice even for Unix or Linux experts. To date, Linux has proven more popular in the server market, primarily for Web and database servers (see also LAMP), than in the desktop market.
Many provide an installation system akin to that provided with other modern operating systems. Self-hosting distributions like Gentoo Linux, T2 and Linux From Scratch provide the source code of all software and include binaries only of a basic kernel, compilation tools, and an installer; the installer compiles all the software for the specific microarchitecture of the user's machine.
The package is typically provided as compiled code, with installation and removal of packages handled by a package management system (PMS) rather than a simple file archiver. Each package intended for such a PMS contains meta-information such as a package description, version, and "dependencies". The package management system can evaluate this meta-information to allow package searches, to perform an automatic upgrade to a newer version, to check that all dependencies of a package are fulfilled and/or to fulfill them automatically.
Although Linux distributions typically contain much more software than proprietary operating systems, it is normal for local administrators to install software not included in the distribution. An example would be a newer version of a software application than that supplied with a distribution, or an alternative to that chosen by the distribution (e.g., KDE rather than GNOME or vice versa for the user interface layer). If the additional software is distributed in source-only form, this approach requires local compilation. However, if additional software is locally added, the 'state' of the local system may fall out of synchronization with the state of the package manager's database. If so, the local administrator will be required to take additional measures to ensure the entire system is kept up to date. The package manager may no longer be able to do so automatically.
Most distributions install packages, including the kernel and other core operating system components, in a predetermined configuration. Few now require or even permit configuration adjustments at first install time. This makes installation less daunting, particularly for new users, but is not always acceptable. For specific requirements, much software must be carefully configured to be useful, to work correctly with other software, or to be secure, and local administrators are often obliged to spend time reviewing and reconfiguring assorted software.
Some distributions go to considerable lengths to specifically adjust and customize most or all of the software included in the distribution. Not all do so. Some distributions provide configuration tools to assist in this process.
By replacing everything provided in a distribution, an administrator may reach a "distribution-less" state: everything was retrieved, compiled, configured, and installed locally. It is possible to build such a system from scratch, avoiding a distribution altogether. One needs a way to generate the first binaries until the system is self-hosting. This can be done via compilation on another system capable of building binaries for the intended target (possibly by cross-compilation). See for example Linux From Scratch.
The diversity of Linux distributions is due to technical, organizational, and philosophical variation among vendors and users. The permissive licensing of free software means that any user with sufficient knowledge and interest can customize an existing distribution or design to suit his or her own needs.
A Live Distro or Live CD, is a Linux distribution that can be booted from a compact disc or other medium (such as a DVD or USB flash drive) instead of the conventional hard drive. Some minimal distributions such as tomsrtbt can be run directly from as little as one floppy disk without needing to change the hard drive contents.
The read-only nature of CDs and DVDs means that user data cannot be stored with the operating system, but must be written to some other device (such as a USB flash drive or an installed hard drive) if any is to be kept. Temporary operating system data is usually kept solely in RAM.
The portablility is advantageous for applications such as demonstrations, borrowing someone else's computer, rescue operations, and as installation media for a standard distribution. Many popular distributions come in both "Live" and conventional forms (the conventional form being a network or removable media image which is intended to be used for installation only). This includes SUSE, Ubuntu, Mepis, sidux, and Fedora. Some distributions, such as Knoppix and , are designed primarily for Live CD or Live DVD use.
DistroWatch maintains a popularity ranking of distribution information on its web site, but this is not considered to be a reliable measure of distribution popularity.
Other distributions are targeted at other specific niches such as the tiny embedded router distribution OpenWrt, the Ubuntu project to create Edubuntu for educational users, and KnoppMyth which wraps Knoppix around MythTV to ease building Linux-powered DVRs. Still others targeted the Apple Inc. Macintosh platform, including mkLinux, Yellow Dog Linux, and Black Lab Linux.
The Free Standards Group is an organization formed by major software and hardware vendors that aims to improve interoperability between different distributions. Among their proposed standards are the Linux Standard Base, which defines a common ABI and packaging system for Linux, and the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard which recommends a standard filenaming chart, notably the basic directory names found on the root of the tree of any Linux filesystem. Those standards, however, see limited use, even among the distributions developed by members of the organization.
The diversity of Linux distributions means that not all software runs on all distributions, depending on what libraries and other system attributes are required. Packaged software is usually specific to a particular distribution, though cross-installation is sometimes possible on closely related distributions.
There are tools available to help people make the decision, such as several different versions of the Linux Distribution Chooser and the universal package search tool, whohas. There are some easy ways to try out several Linux distributions before deciding on one. Multi Distro is a Live CD that contains nine space-saving distributions. Tools are available to make such CDs and DVDs, among them Nautopia.
Details and interest rankings of Linux distributions are available on DistroWatch and a fairly comprehensive list of Live CDs is livecdlist.com/. Some websites such as OSDir.com and www.osvids.com/ offer screenshots and videos as a means to getting a first impression of various distributions.
As part of the free software movement, Linux User Groups (LUGs) still provide the primary face-to-face forum for demonstration of Linux. Commercial exhibitions also provide Linux demonstrations to potential new users, especially corporate buyers.
Some distributions let the user install Linux on top of their current system, such as WinLinux. Linux is installed to the Windows hard-disk partition, and can be started from inside Windows itself. Similar approaches include coLinux.
Virtual machines (such as VirtualBox or VMware) also enable Linux to be run inside another OS. The VM software simulates an isolated environment onto which the Linux system is installed. After everything is done, the virtual machine can be booted just as if it were an independent computer.
Various tools are also available to perform full dual-boot installations from existing platforms without a CD, most notably:
Some specific proprietary software products are not available in any form for Linux. This includes many popular computer games, although in recent years some game manufacturers have begun making their software available for Linux. For example, Epic Games sells a Linux version of its Unreal Tournament 2004. This problem is also addressed by emulation and API-translation projects like Wine and Cedega, which make it possible to run non-Linux-based software on Linux systems, either by emulating a proprietary operating system or by translating proprietary API calls (e.g., calls to Microsoft's Win32 or DirectX APIs) into native Linux API calls.
Computer hardware is often sold with the operating system of a software original equipment manufacturer (OEM) already installed. It is uncommon for this operating system to be Linux, even though the portability features of Linux mean that it can be installed on most machines. In the case of IBM PC compatibles the OS is usually Microsoft Windows; in the case of Apple Macintosh computers it has always been a version of Apple's OS, currently Mac OS X; Sun Microsystems sells SPARC hardware with Solaris installed; video game consoles such as the Xbox, PlayStation, and Gamecube each have their own proprietary OS. That Linux is not installed by default on most computer hardware limits its market share: consumers are unaware that an alternative exists, they must make a conscious effort to use a different operating system, and they must either perform the actual installation themselves, or depend on support from a friend, relative, or computer professional.
However, it is actually possible to buy hardware with Linux already installed. Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Affordy, and System76 all sell general purpose Linux laptops, and custom-order PC manufacturers will also build Linux systems (but possibly with the Windows Key on the keyboard). Terra Soft sells Macintosh computers and PlayStation 3 consoles with Yellow Dog Linux installed. It is more common to find embedded devices sold with Linux as the default manufacturer-supported OS, including the Linksys NSLU2 NAS device, TiVo's line of personal video recorders, and Linux-based cellphones, PDAs, and portable music players.
Consumers also have the option of obtaining a refund for unused OEM operating system software. The end user license agreement (EULA) for Apple and Microsoft operating systems gives the consumer the opportunity to reject the license and obtain a refund. If requesting a refund directly from the manufacturer fails, it is also possible that a lawsuit in small claims court will work. On February 15, 1999, a group of Linux users in Orange County, California held a "Windows Refund Day" protest in an attempt to pressure Microsoft into issuing them refunds. In France, the Linuxfrench and AFUL organizations along with free software activist Roberto Di Cosmo started a "Windows Detax" movement, which led to a 2006 petition against "racketiciels (translation: Racketwares) and the DGCCRF branch of the French government filing several complaints against bundled software.