What Is a Linux Distribution?

An operating system consists of a lot of files that perform a lot of different functions. And because there is no Linux corporation to package and distribute the files that make up Linux, the task of getting Linux onto your computer in working order, along with the applications that you are likely to want, has fallen to a varied group of entities—companies, universities, user groups, and even private individuals.

These entities create Linux system and application collections called distributions, or distros. You could bypass such distros and try to collect everything you’d need to set up a system all on your own, but you would undoubtedly lose your mind in the process. Most people, even the geekiest, opt for the distros.

The majority of these distros, whatever their ultimate target audience, basically consist of the same main elements: the core operating system (better known as the Linux kernel), some sort of installer program to get all the system parts and applications properly installed on your machine, the X Window System to provide graphical interface support, one or more graphical desktop environments, and a series of applications, such as word processors, audio players, and games, as well as all the files needed to make these things work.

There are, of course, a large number of distros. Some are geared toward specific audiences, such as businesses, educators, gamers, students, programmers, system administrators, and specific language users. What makes each distro different is the specific software that is bundled with the Linux kernel, as well as other convenience features like the package, or application, installation mechanism, and the installer for the system itself.

Some distros are especially appropriate for home users due to their ease of installation. Ubuntu, a relative newcomer to the Linux world, is one of these, joining other distros that have long been popular in the ease-of-use arena, such as Mandrake, SUSE, and Fedora Core.

There are also many other new distros, like Xandros and Linspire, that are specifically geared toward making the transition for Windows users easier. While many of these entities charge for their distros, most also provide them free for download.