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What is a Linux® Distribution?

Donna Hentsch
Donna Hentsch

A Linux® distribution is a version of Linux® software which contains a combination of the Linux® computer operating system and a variety of other software packages all bundled together. Linux® distributions come in varieties from very simplistic to fully functional operating systems and can be used on both personal computers and servers. The Linux® distribution was developed so that Linux® was more accessible to users that were not Unix, another operating system from 1960s and 1970s, experts.

Linux® is a free, open-source code, computer operating system similar to UNIX®. “Open-source code” means that the programmers have released the programming code which makes the software work. The programmers release the code so other programmers around the world can customize and improve upon it. Generally the software of a Linux® distribution is open-source as well; however, some companies have proprietary software in their distributions and therefore do not release the programming code.

A computer’s operating system is the software that manages the workings of a computer. Many operating systems, like Microsoft Windows®, are not open source.

Linux is an operating system for personal computers.
Linux is an operating system for personal computers.

There are approximately three hundred Linux® distributions in circulation. Each Linux® distribution is slightly different and meets a slightly different computing need. Some of the most popular Linux® distributions are Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Madriva. Each of these distributions have been bundled together, tested for stability, and are then packaged for release. Computer users can either download the distribution for free on the internet, or they can pay a low price and purchase the Linux® distribution on a CD.

Linux® distributions tend to have many packages of software within them. The installer has the option of installing each package or customizing the installation. An example of a package is a web browser. This is different from an operating system like Microsoft’s Windows XP® which limits the degree to which one may customize the installation.

Because Linux® software is open-source, it is constantly being upgraded, modified, and changed by computer programmers around the globe. As new technologies and uses for Linux® are developed, the software is upgraded and new distributions are formed to release to computer users.

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Discussion Comments


@Markerrag -- Don't let the sheer number of Linux distros keep you from trying out the operating system. Yes, there may be over 300 distros, but a lot of those are highly specialized and won't suit your needs at all. I'm talking about versions of Linux specifically made for audio production and such.

No, do some research and fine the top 10 Linux distros or so. Research those. Download the ones you really like and try them out for free (any Linux distro site worth its salt will tell you how to make a "live" Linux drive you can boot from a thumb drive so you can try it without installing). Once you've found a distro you like, install it.

Oh, and make sure you figure out which ones have the most active support communities during your research. If you are new to Linux, the chances are good you will need some help. Thankfully, those Linux folks are happy to help each other out through dedicated forums, so take advantage of that.


This article highlights what drives me nuts about Linux. There are so many versions out there that I can't imagine how to settle on one. You almost have to be a Linux expert to figure out what version of Linux will suit you best.

At least with other operating systems you have, essentially, one choice instead of hundreds of variations on a theme.

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    • Linux is an operating system for personal computers.
      By: enens
      Linux is an operating system for personal computers.