Today I thought I’d continue my new series of Jargon Jam articles. In the first article I talked about the word Linux itself. If you missed that, firstly where were you? I expect to see a note from your mum. Secondly, don’t worry about it each article aims to be self-contained. As a series I hope it can add up to a crash course in Linux geek lingo. The word I’ve chosen for today is “distro”. I use it a lot and so do many people I know, without ever thinking whether it actually means anything to other folks. So here goes…
Essentially this is just an abbreviation of the word “distribution”, which according to dictionary.com means “an act or instance of distributing” and also “the delivery or giving out of an item or items to the intended recipients”. That’s a pretty accurate explanation for the context I’m referring to as well . In the Linux world a distribution is essentially a collection of tools, software and documentation made by a peer group, company or individual, and then offered in one package. It can be free to download or in some cases you may have to actually buy it (lord no!) from the distribution company. This is more common for the distributions aimed at the enterprise business markets like Red Hat. Linux distributions are operating systems built on the Linux kernel. There are a wide range available and a quick look at a sites like Distrowatch.com shows that a new one is released almost every day. Some people find this is a problem and I can see why it might be confusing to new users, but overall I think choice is good.
The diverse nature of the FLOSS world and the software within it means that distributions are necessary for most people wanting to install Linux on their computer. You could go out yourself and get the Linux kernel, combine it with the GNU toolchain, a desktop environment and all the other things required to make a full system; but realistically not many people have the time, skill, patience or desire to do that. That’s why it’s good have distributions like Red Hat, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Debian, Slackware and many many more. This is what people usually mean when referring to different “flavours of Linux”, the different distributions. We just call them distros for short. They each have their own individual features and implementations but share a lot of common ground. If you compare this to the car industry for example, Linux distributors are like the car manufacturers. They take all the parts: engine, chassis, wheels etc (kernel, GNU tools, desktop environment) and assemble them into the final product for you. They might use the same engine or chassis as another manufacturer but the final product is unique.
Distributors also do many other important things, such as maintaining the software repositories for their products and sending out updated packages to the end user. I’ll talk more about repositories and packages in future. One of my favourite things about the Free Software eco system in general though, is the ability to try out different things and have fun. I should also point out that distributions are not unique to Linux in any way, the D in BSD stands for distribution after all. I’ll also talk more about BSD in a future article.
I hope that helps to clear up what a “distro” is for some people new to the platform. It might not be the best or most accurate explanation ever but hopefully it will give you a decent grounding. If you’d like to find out more about the subject here’s some further reading:
If you have suggestions, contributions, criticisms or anything else you’d like to make known please feel free to leave me a comment. Thanks for reading. See you next time 🙂