A Comparison of the Most Popular Linux Distributions


If you are considering the mighty migration from Windows to try out Linux that you hear is so popular, you might expect there to be a few types to choose from.  You might not quite expect that “a few” numbers in the hundreds!  Linux’s open source nature has made it a serious programmer’s playground.

With such a large number we obviously cannot go into all of them.  What we will do instead is to focus on a few of the biggest ones.  In doing so, it’s important to remember that for this type of operating system (ie, open-source), users are building on each other’s work.  This creates a tree of variants, some of which are major branching points.  The Linux Tree has three major nodes that most of the rest of the distributions branch out from.  Let’s look at each of them.


Linux as an operating system is based on ideas ported over from UNIX.  Different Linux distributions vary from their UNIX origins by different degrees.  Of the three major Linux nodes, Slackware is the variant that aims to be the most UNIX-like.  Relatedly, it attempts to emulate UNIX’s goals of simplicity.

Note that for this case, though “simplicity” refers to simplicity of design, not necessarily of use.  This means that unless you have some UNIX experience or understand the general approach of command line interfaces, this may not be the best starting point for Linux beginners.  If you do, you might sink right into this one.

Note also that the word “Slackware” was not a joke.  Or rather, it was one: it was meant to refer to the fact that this was originally a side project not intended to go anywhere.  As a result, it is the most decentralized of all of the three major branches, with only a loose “team” associated with it.  This means that you’re not going to have much of any official project to go to for information, though there are still large user communities that can help you.  Don’t misconstrue all of these warnings though: it is still a popular Linux variant with many loyal adherents.

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There aren’t many very popular Slackware children (there’s a joke in there somewhere), but there are a few minor deviations to mention:

  • Slax – This is an operating system recommended to only be run externally.  It is known for being easily customizable.
  • SUSE Linux – Developed in Europe and still popular there, this is a desktop-oriented operating system with a few sub-branches of its own.


Debian is also heavily UNIX based, and is designed around the philosophies of open-source, collaborative design and testing.  It also aims to be a secure, stable system, and as such is the basis for more Linux variants than either of the other two major branches listed here.  In fact, one of its sub-branches, Ubuntu, has about as many children variants as does all of Slackware.

Debian’s construct is about half-way between the chaotic approach of Slackware and the business model of Red Hat below.  It is still open-source, but has a well organized community supporting it.  When Debian was initially released, it was built around a set of core principles: the “Debian Social Contract”.  From that the Debian Project was formed with its own constitution and organizational structure.

No list of sub-branches of Debian could start with anything but:

  • Ubuntu – In 2007 Ubuntu ranked as the most popular Linux variant; more popular, even, than the Debian system it is derived from.  It is estimated that more servers use Ubuntu than all other Linux variants combined.  Is it really that good?  Most users of it say yes.  It is frequently described as easy to use.  With 12 million computers running it, it is quickly becoming a common home for software ports of all kinds.  In short, this might be the best choice of all variants for new users.
  • Knoppix – While not nearly as popular, Knoppix deserves mention for being another OS designed to be externally bootable.  Unlike Slax permanent installation is possible, or at least not discouraged.  It itself spawned the interesting children Music/GNU Linux, a multimedia-friendly OS, and Damn Small Linux, a version designed to work well on older systems with fewer resources.
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Red Hat

Linux is an open-source operating system on the whole, but that doesn’t mean that all of its development is non-profit.  Red Hat represents the business model wing of the Linux family.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve taken this work and gone proprietary.  Red Hat operates on the “professional open-source” model.  This means that the code itself remains free and alterable, but the company offers paid services of various kinds related to it, such as training and support.  So far this has worked for them, as this year they look to be hitting $1 billion in revenue for the first time.

The point of this isn’t to discuss economics, though, but technology, so we mention this to point out that the company is putting out a quality product that, from all we can tell, remains popular in the Linux community.  Thus, Red Hat might be a good start for the user who can probably handle most of the technical side themselves, but would like a professional set of hands to fall back on when they need it.

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Red Hat Linux itself is no longer supported, but has instead been split into the following two sub-branches:

  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux – This is the most commercial of all of the major Linux distributions, though that doesn’t seem to have significantly impaired its quality.  It is commonly sold both to customers and IT firms.  There are also “Academic” versions of the software.
  • Fedora – The Fedora Project is open-source, but is sponsored by Red Hat.  This gives it the positive combination of being both openly developed and quickly developed.  The downside is that new versions come out frequently.  If you like being on the cutting edge of OS technology this is good.  If you like long-term familiarity, it’s not so good.

More even than most of our articles, this is one that you are definitely going to want to get community feedback on.  There is way too much about even one operating system to squeeze into an article of this size.  Use this as a guide, and then ask around for opinions from people who have used them.  There are enough people who have put a lot of time into their use for you to get the solid information you need to join the world of Linux.

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