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News and Editorials

A Short History of Linux Distributions

June 30, 2004

This article was contributed by Joe Klemmer

There have been many articles and books written about Linux; where it came from, how it got where it is today, the whole "Who's Who" list... A good Google search or some time spent on sites such as The Linux Documentation Project and Linux Journal will tell you more than you could ever wish to know. But there is little information on the history and evolution of Linux distributions. As of this writing, there are 303 Linux distributions according to DistroWatch [editor's note: currently 353 "active" distributions are listed on LWN's Distribution List]. It would seem that everyone and his dog has a distribution available. This hasn't always been the case.

Back in late 1991, when Linux first hit the 'Net, there were no distributions per se. The closest thing was HJ Lu's Boot/Root floppies. They were 5.25" diskettes that could be used to get a Linux system running. You booted from the boot disk and then, when prompted, inserted the root disk. After a while you got a command prompt. Back in those days if you wanted to boot from your hard drive you had to use a hex editor on the master boot record of your disk. Something that was definitely not for the faint of heart. I remember when Erik Ratcliffe wrote the first instructions (this was long before HOWTO files) on how to do just that. It wasn't until later that anything you could call a real distribution appeared.

The first such thing was from the Manchester Computing Centre. Known as MCC Interim Linux, it was a collection of diskettes that, once installed on your system, let you have a basic UNIX environment. It was console only, no X. Shortly after that there was a release out of Texas A&M University called TAMU 1.0A. This was the first one that let you run X, though the method they used to configure it occasionally allowed the magic smoke to escape from your monitor. Both of these were developed for their universities' in-house use. They were also released to the world for anyone to use.

The first commercial, in the sense that it was developed for public consumption rather than in-house use only, Linux distribution was Yggdrasil. This also had the distinction of being the first "Live" Linux CD. You could boot from a diskette and run everything off the CD. This was back in days of 1x and 2x CD-ROM drive speeds so it wasn't exactly setting the world on fire. You could start X then literally go get a cup of coffee before it finished coming up. Yggdrasil had some nice features dealing with configuration, though, especially for the time.

On the heels of that came the first widely recognized and used Linux distribution, SLS Linux. It was put together by Soft Landing Systems, hence the name, and came in a handful of files that you would unzip and copy to floppy disks. This was Linux's first big breakthrough. SLS dominated the market until the developers made a decision to change the executable format (if you remember the a.out to ELF conversion you'll remember this). This was not well received by the user base. Just around the time this happened Patrick Volkerding had taken SLS and adapted, modified, tweaked and cleaned it up making it a different thing all together. He called it Slackware. With the unpopular direction SLS had taken, Slackware quickly replaced it and became the dominant distribution used by nearly everyone. In fact it's still in use today.

Now, all of this took place in the span of about 3 years. In those days the speed with which changes happened was unbelievable. By the time '94/'95 came around you started seeing more distributions popping up. Familiar names like Red Hat, Debian, Caldera, TurboLinux, and SuSE were becoming popular. There were also a few other distributions that came and went between '91 and '95. However, they had little impact on the overall direction that Linux distributions would take. If you search the 'Net you can still find references to these early distributions, and possibly even some archives of the releases themselves. If you have some free time you should look at these old releases. Not only will you be able to see how far Linux has come, you'll also see what life was like in the early days of Linux distributions.

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Distribution News

Slackware 10.0 released

Slackware 10.0 is out; see the announcement for details. Downloads are available via the mirrors or with BitTorrent.

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Red Hat, Novell to ship Helix Player

RealNetworks has been cranking out the press releases at GUADEC. This one announces a deal with Red Hat; that company's upcoming desktop distribution will feature Helix Player and a "no-cost upgrade" option for RealPlayer 10. There is also an arrangement with Novell; which will simply ship RealPlayer directly.

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SmoothWall Express 2.0 is a success

Here's a press release from SmoothWall Ltd. on the success of SmoothWall Express, the company's standalone firewall product.

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Debian GNU/Linux

The Debian Weekly News for June 29 is out. Topics this week include the general resolution which would allow the release of Sarge with non-free data (voting ends July 2), various installer topics, and Debian at LinuxTag.

To vote in the general resolution (if it's not too late) go to the voting page.

Robert Millan announced the release of the GNU/kFreeBSD LiveCD rescue system. You can use it to try GNU/kFreeBSD without the hassle of installing, and for now it is also the recommended install method.

DebianPlanet reports that the Hilux installer for Woody is now available.

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Gentoo Weekly Newsletter

The June 28 issue of the Gentoo Weekly Newsletter is out. The main topic this week is Gentoo at LinuxTag. "There are offers simply impossible to turn down. When Gentoo developer Lars Weiler (Pylon) was approached to try an installation on the finest machine displayed at the Hewlett-Packard booth during the German LinuxTag, the HP staff really didn't have to ask him twice."

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Improved UPDATE submission policy

The core developers have announced the first concrete step of an ongoing work to improve the flow and documentation of the package submission process. The updated process (click below for details) is effective immediately.

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Fedora updates

Updates for Fedora Core 2:
  • Sysstat had minor buffer overflows and parsing problems. None of them in any way exploitable it turns out. Sysstat also spewed junk to the console on startup.
  • Finger mishandled stale utmp entries and also entries from remote X sessions. This would cause random idle times and spurious users to be shown.
  • The ftp client would segmentation fault in certain situations when the remote server closed the connection on it in an unexpected fashion.
  • This im-sdk update hides the status window when the input method is off and also fixes a number of other issues.
  • An updated package has been released to fix the wrong install path so that it was not usable except on x86-64 architecture.
  • This release of cdrtools obsoletes the dvdrtools packages. It includes a stub for dvdrecord and its man page, which mentions that it is obsoleted.
  • Another update to cdrtools.
  • A new version of openmotif fixes a problem in the latest xinitrc (which links to the openmotif libraries).
  • The kcc kanji code converter crashes when an invalid option is specified. This updated package fixes the problem.
  • This gimp update is supposed to fix #124307 "missing help files" by spitting out a slightly more informative error message if gimp-help isn't installed.
  • The gimp-gap package has been updated to version 2.0.2 which has enhancements and bugfixes.
  • A new xinitrc update resolves an issue caused by the previous xinitrc package update in which some users were unable to use input methods in X11.
  • This gaim update fixes the Yahoo protocol bug.
  • This dovecot update resolves several rare problems.
  • This strace update is for those running 32-bit binaries on the x86-64 platform.
There are also gaim and dovecot updates available for Fedora Core 1, as well as two tcltk updates, FEDORA-2004-193 and FEDORA-2004-200.

There are new cscope packages for FC1 and FC2.

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Mandrakelinux has an updated initscripts package that corrects various bugs.

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Trustix Secure Linux

Trustix fixes bugs in kerberos5 for TSL 2.1 and Enterprise Server 2.

This advisory covers minor bug fixes in libpng, mod_php4, openssl, rsync, slocate and swup for TSL 1.5, 2.0, 2.1 and Enterprise Server 2.

Trustix has several bug fixes available for apache, libpng and python. (TSL 2.0, 2.1 and Enterprise Server 2)

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New Distributions

German Government Linux Desktop (DebianPlanet)

DebianPlanet covers the released of the Linux Government Desktop at LinuxTag 2004. The Linux Government Desktop is produced by the German Federal Office for Information Security and the company credativ as a Live CD as well as an Install CD Edition. It is composed entirely of free software, based on Debian stable "woody" and contains KDE 3.2.2, Mozilla and a special themed version of OpenOffice 1.1.1 which integrates seamlessly with KDE.

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Hiweed GNU/Linux

Hiweed GNU/Linux is a Chinese Linux distribution, based on Debian GNU/Linux. Its features include preconfigured Chinese applications, such as Chinese input method, Chinese-English and English-Chinese dictionaries, and Chinese true-type fonts. Hiweed joins the list at version 0.3RC1 released June 29, 2004.

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Nitix is a product of Net Integration Technologies Inc., a server OS with autonomic computing features -- self-management, self-healing, self-configuring and self-optimizing capabilities. (Thanks to Leandro Guimarães Faria Corcete Dutra)

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Minor distribution updates

Astaro Security Linux

Astaro Security Linux has released v5.012 with minor bugfixes. "Changes: This Up2Date improves the Up2Date backend and fixes a bug which prevents the operation of the "Pause" button in livelog on MS Internet Explorer."

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BG-Rescue Linux

BG-Rescue Linux has released v0.3.2 with minor feature enhancements. "Changes: The kernel was updated to 2.4.26 and NTFS was updated to 2.1.6b. nForce Ethernet support was added. Parts of reiserfsprogfs were replaced by the smaller progsreiserfs. The new busybox applets udhcpc and telnetd were added. progsreiserfs was added. tar was downgraded to the version from busybox 0.60.5, which is more reliable. cloop was updated to 2.01, e2fsprogs to 1.35, lilo to 22.5.9, mdadm to 1.6.0, ms-sys to 2.0.0, ntfsprogs to 1.9.2, reiserfsck to 3.6.17, and syslinux to 2.08."

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blueflops has released v2.0.4 with minor feature enhancements. "Changes: The kernel was upgraded to 2.6.7. Only English and Romanian translations are currently available. The mouse configuration has been separated from that of the video card. NumLock status is now a setup option. A new Finnish keymap (fi-latin1) was added. A "links_text" script was added to run "links" in text mode. Various scripts were changed in minor ways, and some small fixes were made. A better logo was created."

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Buffalo Linux

Buffalo Linux has released v1.3.1 with major feature enhancements. "Changes: This major release makes Buffalo fully compatible with Slackware 10.0. Additional enhancements include: desktop improvements, a new Buffalo GUI "admin", an improved CD upgrade option, kernel 2.6.7, OpenOffice 1.1.2, GIMP 2.0.2, GNOME 2.6.1, GCC 3.3.4, Mozilla 1.7, a total of 59 package upgrades, and new builds of MySQL, Scribus, GAIM, and others. With this release, the rate of new Buffalo releases is expected to slow down. Future version releases will track new kernel versions or major package updates."

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INSERT (INside SEcurity Rescue Toolkit) has released v1.2.13 with major feature enhancements. "Changes: This is a major new release. The kernel was updated to version 2.4.26. INSERT is now based on KNOPPIX 3.4. The result is even better hardware support and detection. The bug with the file system on the image not being readable from Windows is fixed. Also other minor issues have been addressed. Various feature requests have been dealt with. Support for virus scanning is improved with clamav being updated to the latest version. Most of the other packages come in newer versions now."

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Linux LiveCD Router

Linux LiveCD has released v1.9.6 with minor bugfixes. "Changes: Minor default config bugs were fixed. The documentation was updated."

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Always Current Lineox Enterprise Linux

Lineox, Inc. has released Always Current Lineox Enterprise Linux version 3.023, the 23th version of Always Current Lineox Enterprise Linux since February 23, 2004. A new version of Always Current Lineox Enterprise Linux is always released when Red Hat, Inc. releases bug or security fix packages for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3.0, but occasionally also when new features are added to Always Current Lineox Enterprise Linux. Click below for more.

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Mulimidix has released the build tree of Mulimidix 0.7. You can use this LFS based source-compilation to build your own Mulimidix, optimized for your processor.

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NSA Security Enhanced Linux

NSA Security Enhanced Linux has released v2004062816 with minor feature enhancements. "Changes: The current prototype and the experimental NFS code are now based on Linux kernel 2.6.7. Fine-grained netlink classes and permissions have been added. Many enhancements and bugfixes for policy as well as userland tools including slat and setools have been incorporated."

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Overclockix has released the third revision for v3.4. "6/22/04- New 3.4 release is finished. Mostly minor bugfixes in this release. Also worthy of news- I've been assisting the develpoer of Barnix/DebXPde with iso hosting. Barnix is a custom Knoppix which uses XPde as the default desktop environment. It should look and feel very much like Windows XP. I hope in the future to incorporate XPde as an option in Overclockix, but will probably not set it as the default desktop."

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Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux has released sources for puppy-0.9.0. See the June 28th entry at Puppy News for more information.

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New Quantian release available

Quantian is the second release based on Knoppix 3.4 with many changes from both new and updated packages. This Quantian release is based on Knoppix 3.4 and the clusterKnoppix release from May 10 with kernel 2.4.26 with the 'testing status' openMosix patch as well as a non-openMosix kernel 2.6.6. Click below for more information.

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Rock Linux

Rock Linux has released v2.0.2 with major security fixes. "Changes: This is a maintenance release and includes a number of security fixes and minor version updates pulled from the development tree. It includes linux-2.4.26+fpu-state-fix, linux-2.6.7, kde-3.2.2, qt-3.3.2, apache-2.0.49, samba-3.0.4, and wine-20040615. New packages include firefox, thunderbird, e2fsimage, device-mapper, and lvm2. usability improvements were made for ROCK Net and the CD-Installer. This release now features full boot-CD support for IBM RS/6000 and Ultra SPARC and iBook-G4 support."

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tinysofa has released tinysofa enterprise server 2.0-pre1 (Persistence), technology preview of the next version.

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wrt54g-linux has released v0.51 to add documentation. "Changes: This release adds a FAQ to address most common installation problems."

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Distribution reviews

Aurox 9.3 review

SKN Informatyki SGH reviews Aurox Linux 9.3, a Polish distribution based on Fedora Core 1. "A large portion of this review either directly or implicitly compares Aurox with Fedora Core 1. This is inevitable, as Aurox is directly derived from Fedora and most of the packages, including the kernel, are the same. What Aurox does is that it seamlessly fits into the area where Fedora lacks mostly, that is multimedia support. That means if you are considering Fedora or it is already your distro of choice, then you definitely should give Aurox a try."

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