Source Mage is, as its name suggests a source based Linux distribution. Instead of delivering binaries to users, the source code is compiled. This method allows greater control over the software than precompiled distros, such as Ubuntu. Individual dependencies can be selected or deselected, saving valuable hard drive space and freeing RAM and CPU cycles. For instance, OpenSSH can be compiled without support for X11 sharing. One can choose to set cflags, cxxflags, and ldflags specific to their situation. Using a source based distro is the only way to unlock the full performance of a computer, as binary distros must compile their software for a wide audience, not a particular group, such as uses of the AMD Athlon XP. When a Source Mage spell is "cast", the latest stable release is download from the developer's site rather than Source Mage's. This allows for the most up-to-date system, unlike Gentoo, another popular source based distro, which maintains its own customized cache of packages. SMGL does not change anything in packages, so it is immune from the kind of errors resulting from distro developers tampering.
In 2001, Kyle Sallee released a Linux distribution named Sorcerer GNU/Linux. However, several developers were unhappy with Kyle's development approach, and created a fork of the project that eventually became Lunar Linux. Kyle Sallee was extremely unhappy about this, and removed Sorcerer GNU/Linux from the web (making it impossible for users to update their systems). Most of the remaining developers of Sorcerer GNU/Linux picked up the pieces of Sorcerer GNU/Linux, and restarted the project. At first they released their project under the old name (Sorcerer GNU/Linux), but Kyle Sallee requested that they rename their project. They agreed, and eventually renamed their effort Source Mage GNU/Linux. The project was released under the name Source Mage, with new leadership not including Kyle Sallee, in April 2002.
Source Mage's tagline is “Linux so advanced, it may as well be magic”, and its commands have a “sorcerous theme”. Each package is called a “spell”, and its package management program is called “sorcery”. To install a package the user must “cast” that spell. Casting a spell consists of downloading the source code (if it is not already downloaded), checking for dependencies, casting them if necessary, compiling the program, and installing it. A set of available spells is called a “grimoire”. To uninstall a package the user must “dispel” the spell.
Source Mage GNU/Linux has established a “Social Contract” that establishes its basic rules, which are similar though not identical to Debian's. The first part of the contract ensures the freedom of Source Mage: Source Mage GNU/Linux does not restrict the user's choice of software to only free software:
Installing Source Mage GNU/Linux involves first creating a minimal installation with a kernel (so it can run), the GCC C compiler, a network connection, and a few other basic tools to support downloading and compiling source code. This enables the system to download, compile, and install all the other components, and the compilation results can be tailored for that specific system.
All Source Mage-maintained code is designed to presume a very minimal system. For example, it is written in Bash and GNU-based POSIX utilities, and GCC doesn't need to build with g++ (the C++ compiler). GNU Sed and Awk are used instead of Perl. This makes Source Mage suitable for a small installation.