The main GNU/Linux distributions you should know about
You might already know that there is not only one but hundreds of different Linux based operating systems. If you wish to have a general introduction to the mainstream GNU/Linux distributions keep reading, this article is for you. I'll introduce some of the main distributions and try say what is relevant about them, just to have an overview of the different GNU/Linux distributions you should know about.
The creation of Debian is among the most incredible stories of dreams becoming reality. The success of Debian is a living proof that Free Software, and more generally, cooperation, is viable and very powerful. It started as most Free Software, one man (Ian Murdock) had a vision and started a project inviting whoever would like to join. People did join and it became a major distribution that inspired an entire world of derivative distributions. It is a massive collaborative work made by a community of developers for the sake of a good and free operating system.
The difficulty of Debian is that it requires more effort to install compared to other main stream distributions. Given its popularity, it might have spread the idea that GNU/Linux is made only for experts. There is work done by Debian community to revert the situation and, everyday, new tools are created to help make Debian easy and user-friendly.
Ubuntu has been the most popular distribution for the last years. It was created by a notable contributor of Debian, the South African Mark Shuttleworth, and is based on Debian. Mark made a fortune with an internet security company he created (Thawte) that he sold for about 500 million dollars. He made lots of things with his money, among them, he paid himself a trip to space (he was the second self-funded space traveller) and also created Canonical Ltd., the company behind Ubuntu. He gave ten million dollars from his pocket as a security fund to guarantee the continuity of the operating system. He no longer is CEO of Canonical Ltd. but he still has a strong presence in the company. Canonical Ltd. want everybody to have access to a good operating system regardless of their financial situation, their language or their disabilities. For this reason Canonical Ltd. will always provide Ubuntu free of charge, in several languages and with special options for people with special needs. Contrary to other companies that we will talk about next, Canonical Ltd. do not provide a paid version of Ubuntu. Canonical Ltd. only sells services related to the operating system.
Linux Mint rapidly gained popularity for being a beautiful and easy distribution. It is for the most part based on Ubuntu and by doing so it is also indirectly related to Debian. The recent change of Ubuntu's user interface motivated some upset Ubuntu users to switch to Mint lately and this increased even more its popularity. Mint developers are always listening to the feedback of the community and usually release fixes and improvements rather quickly. The focus on usability led Mint to include many drivers and software that are proprietary, although they prefer to use Free Software if there is one available for the task.
Fedora is another heavyweight distro. It is sponsored by the company Red Hat Inc. that also sells an enterprise version of the operating system (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). Red Hat Inc. commercial success is maybe the best example of the financial viability of Free and Open Source projects. The operating system itself is among the most easy to install, user-friendly and feature rich. The professional support that Red Hat Inc. can provide make this distribution a perfect choice for companies that want to deploy a GNU/Linux platform.
OpenSUSE is similar to Fedora in the sense that it is sponsored by a company (Novell) that sells an enterprise version of the operating system (SUSE Linux Enterprise). Novell is one of the well established and renowned companies that offer a large range of solutions for GNU/Linux platforms. SUSE is particularly known for being very reliable and offering a good compatibility with Windows operating systems. Novell made an agreement with Microsoft that is somewhat controversial in the Free and Open Source community. Some people are concerned about the danger to software freedom that a deal with Microsoft can mean.
Slackware is the oldest GNU/Linux distribution still maintained and carries the legacy of a “UNIX feel” system. Slackware is made for people with some UNIX knowledge and preference for working on a command line rather than for the average user that relies on a graphical user interface. It was initially developed for a University project by Patrick Volkerding and received so many positive feedback that it ultimately became a major distribution.
Arch Linux has many interesting things that differentiate it from the huge number of other distros. It is at the same time as simple as possible (it follows the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid) but it's not quite newbie distro. Rather than being easy to use, it's a minimalist distribution that puts the user in control of every aspect of his/her OS. To set up Arch you need to know what you want your desktop to look like and know that you want to install in it because there is no default options that make decisions for you. Another important aspect of Arch is that it's a rolling release, meaning that you won't have to upgrade your system, ever. Updates keep pouring in all the time providing always the most cutting edge software available. Although it's not as stable as scheduled releases, many users consider the continual updates to be one of the greatest advantages of Arch.
Gentoo Linux is known for its package management “Portage” and the particularity of being compiled in the user computer during installation. Some say that there are speed improvements by compiling the software to fit the computer configuration but not all agree that the improvements compensate the hassle and time spent to compile it. In any case, Gentoo aims to be optimal for every computer, made for users with a bit of computing knowledge and some time in their hands.
We all know I had to make some choices and exclude many popular distributions from this list. If enough people ask, I might include more! Just use the comments to express your satisfaction or your outrage and we'll see how the list evolves!