The anatomy of a Linux distribution is pretty simple. It is a distribution
of packages that includes a Linux kernel, bundled together to work on a
given piece of hardware. There are plenty of other kernels to choose from;
BSD, Hurd, Solaris, etc.; and plenty of distributions that include a
similar package set. For example, the GNOME desktop looks about the same
on OpenSolaris as it does on Linux.
The type of hardware may impose certain constraints. Embedded devices of
all kinds run a Linux kernel, but the package set varies with the function
of the device. Linux runs on a wide variety of hardware and the overall
set of Linux kernels currently in use is quite large, as each distributor
makes their own tweaks and twists to get the best performance on their
Most people reading this article are using some type of desktop Linux. The
most common hardware is x86, but there will be many readers using x86_64,
PPC, or something else entirely. Still, the packages on the desktop will
This is, perhaps, one reason why there are so many Linux distributions.
That number continues to grow: over 300 on our list a couple of years ago,
now it's over 500 on the list. Each one is unique in some way. Sure, they
all have some type of Linux kernel, but there are older kernels and newer
kernels, and kernels that support non-x86 hardware of all kinds. Some of
these distributions are not maintained anymore, but the source code remains
available and someone, somewhere may find it useful.
It was and still is very common to take a particular distribution and
modify it until it becomes a unique distribution. Red Hat Linux used to be
a very common base distribution. Now the most common base is Debian, but
there are also distributions based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora and
Ubuntu. Knoppix, the original live CD, was spawned from Debian and now has
dozens of spin-offs, each with their set of packages.
These days we are seeing a new explosion of custom distributions. Fedora
has spins and Ubuntu has flavors. Anyway you look at it the tools to
create a customized distribution are maturing and becoming more usable.
While the total number of Linux distributions is not likely to shrink any
time soon, we may start to see a few base distributions take over the
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