What’s a GNU/Linux distribution?

Short URL: http://fsmsh.com/1823


By now, almost everyone who has a computer has heard about something called “Linux". Usually, what they hear goes something like this—“Well, Linux is free, but it’s very difficult to use. Don’t try it unless you’re a computer expert". There is also generally talk about how “Linux" is incompatible with equipment like digital cameras, printers, and games. In short, “Linux" is generally thought to be a free but experts-only operating system. Fortunately for those of us who aren’t computer experts, almost all of these “facts" about “Linux" are completely wrong.

Free as in what?

First, I’ll talk about the “free" part. You may have wondered why I’ve been putting quotation marks around the word “Linux". The reason is that folks working on this operating system have a different idea about how they should be rewarded for their work. It’s hard work making a program as complicated as an operating system, and a great many talented people have put years of their lives into building, refining, and expanding this code. One of these individuals was Linus Torvalds, who created a kernel named Linux. A kernel is what helps your computer’s hardware (hard drives, motherboards, memory, and so on) communicate with your software (word processors, spreadsheets, and games). Without a kernel, your computer and all of your software would just be a pile of junk. However, a kernel by itself isn’t very useful, either. What Linus and other folks were able to do with the Linux kernel was combine it with a bunch of other very useful free software created for a planned operating system called GNU (Gnu’s Not Unix). In short, what people generally mean by the word “Linux" is Linus’ kernel combined with all of the GNU programs, which together function as an operating system. Now, for the same reason that Torvalds likes people to know the role he played in creating his kernel, Richard Stallman and all the GNU folks don’t want people to forget their work. After all, free software programmers, unlike their Microsoft counterparts, don’t get paid when people buy their code. Instead, they make money by trading their skills. In short, if people use “Linux" and really enjoy it and find it useful, they might decide to hire the programmers who worked on it to help them develop new applications. For this reason, many of us insist on calling this operating system “GNU/Linux" rather than just “Linux", because leaving off the “GNU" is, in effect, ripping off the people who gave us all this great software. In short, for the same reason that Microsoft doesn’t like it when you copy their software without paying for it, free software advocates don’t like it when you refuse to “pay" the GNU folks by refusing to acknowledge their hard work with three letters and a slash!

Many of us insist on calling this operating system “GNU/Linux" rather than just “Linux"

Now, there’s more to this “free" concept than just not having to pay anything. If a piece of software is legal to copy without having to pay anyone, we call it “zero cost". If you see a box of mints at your favorite restaurant, and a little sign beside them reads, “Free, Take One", that’s zero cost. On the other hand, if you hear someone saying things you disagree with, but still respect his freedom of speech, then you’re closer to what the “free" in “free software" is all about. To make a long story short, a piece of “free software" has a built-in “Bill of Rights" that gives the folks who use the program a lot more rights than they’d ever get from a proprietary program—and, by “proprietary", I mean software that comes with a whole bunch of stipulations about how it can legally be used. In a great many cases (such as Microsoft Windows), one of these stipulations is that people who buy the software can’t make copies for their friends and neighbors. Those friends and neighbors will have to buy their own copies from Microsoft. However, while there are a whole host of other rules and restrictions, the main point to keep in mind is that free software gives more power to the user of the software, whereas proprietary software gives more power to the maker or copyright holder of the software. On the other hand, not all “free software" is available for zero cost. You might very well find a free software developer selling all sorts of free software. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, just remember that “free speech" doesn’t mean that you can walk into Barnes & Noble and take whatever books and magazines you want without paying for them. What it does mean is that the government can’t tell Barnes & Noble which books they can and can’t sell, or publishers which books they can or can’t publish.

There’s more to this “free" concept than just not having to pay anything

GNU/Linux for ordinary folks

Okay, so I’ve talked a bit about one of the misconceptions. The other misconception that we should talk about is the one about GNU/Linux being suitable only for computer experts. This may have been true a few years ago, but now it’s just as easy to run GNU/Linux on your computer as it is to run Microsoft Windows or Apple’s Mac OS X. Of course, if you stop and think about it, neither of these proprietary operating systems are necessarily easy to install, either. Many of us just use the operating system (or, OS) that came with our computers—the ones that were pre-installed by companies like Gateway, Dell, or Apple. If you’re happy with your OS, you may feel little desire to try something else. On the other hand, if you’re tired of having to pay for upgrades, need to install an OS on a new computer, or are just fed up with “DRM" and all the user-unfriendly licensing agreements that go with proprietary software—well, you’re a great candidate for GNU/Linux.

There are many more people just like you who would be running GNU/Linux on their computers instead of Microsoft _Windows_ if they just knew about these “easy-bake" distros

Now, when I said that GNU/Linux was as easy as a proprietary OS, I had in mind one of a few “distros" intended to be easy for non-computer experts to install and operate. No doubt, there are many more people just like you who would be running GNU/Linux on their computers instead of Microsoft Windows if they just knew about these “easy-bake" distros. First, let me tell you what I mean by “distro".

The word “distro" is short for “distribution", which, more or less, means the particular package of software you get from a particular vendor or company. Although all GNU/Linux distros include the kernel and a few important programs, others are tailored to meet the needs of different groups. Obviously, someone installing GNU/Linux to use on a powerful server has different needs than someone who just wants to surf the net, play games, use a word processor, and so on. In short, there are distros that are definitely more suited to experts—Debian, for instance—but there are plenty of others that are excellent for ordinary folks. The most popular of these easy-bake distros are Ubuntu, SimplyMEPIS, and Xandros. Anyone who has ever successfully installed a new program on their computer can install these distros. Furthermore, anyone who is comfortable using Windows or a Macintosh will be right at home.


Of these three, Ubuntu is the most popular at the time of writing. The word “Ubuntu" is an African term meaning “humanity to others", and that’s exactly what the folks behind this distro are all about. Essentially, with Ubuntu you get everything you’ll probably ever need to run on your computer with one simple download (or CD). The installer is just as easy to use as any “wizard" you’ll find on Windows, and you’ll soon have a free OS and a whole host of very useful programs such as Sun’s OpenOffice suite, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and presentation slide-show maker. Also, Ubuntu has an automatic update system just like Microsoft’s. Every so often you’ll be notified that a new update is available for your computer. With just a few clicks, you’re good to go with the latest patches and fixes. What could be easier? Furthermore, Ubuntu is a very colorful and stylish interface with a charming personality. Read up on Ubuntu at the official web site and see for yourself!


SimplyMEPIS is another distro that makes it hard to mess up. One of the best things about this distro is that you can try it out before actually installing it to your machine. That way, if you don’t like what you see, no problem—just take out the CD and go back to business as usual. SimplyMEPIS is managed by a smaller team than Ubuntu, but they’re very committed to offering a stable and “no frills" OS that is easy as possible for new users to operate. Furthermore, if you have lots of devices connected to your computer (cameras, scanners, external drives, etc.), then you’ll find that this distro allows you to use them without any trouble. If your main concern is finding an OS that won’t have you bent over a manual or searching the net for hints on how to get something done, then you ought to give SimplyMEPIS a chance to impress you. Check out the website and see what this distro has to offer.

Xandros Desktop

If you’ve been using Windows XP for a while and don’t care to have to learn a bunch of new tricks, then you’ll probably find Xandros Desktop the easiest way to slip into GNU/Linux. This distro is aimed at both businesses and regular users, and is available in both zero cost and premium versions. However, Xandros is also the least free distro, with certain stipulations. You aren’t allowed to legally install the software however you please, but only as the Xandros Corporation permits. This restriction is what Xandros hopes will keep people buying their premium version. The zero-cost version, called Xandros Open Circulation Edition, is limited to non-commercial use, which means anyone who isn’t using the computer as part of a business. To put it simply, although the bulk of software included with the Xandros Desktop distro is free software, there are also several key non-free (proprietary) programs included in the mix. For this reason, I wouldn’t advise trying this distro unless you’ve tried the others and just aren’t satisfied. Compared to purchasing Windows, Xandros is much cheaper (only $40 for the basic and $75 for premium editions), and there’s no arguing with the simplicity and sleekness of the interface. To learn more about Xandros Desktop, visit their product homepage.

One thing is for sure: You no longer have to be a “computer geek" to run GNU/Linux on your home computer

What now?

One thing is for sure: You no longer have to be a “computer geek" to run GNU/Linux on your home computer. With Ubuntu, SimplyMEPIS, or Xandros Desktop, you can be up and running a great operating system with no fuss. Furthermore, if you choose Ubuntu or SimplyMEPIS, you will have entered the world of free software, which is far more democratic and user-friendly than any proprietary OS. Not only will you save big money on software, you’ll also have more freedoms to use the software the way you want to, including making copies for your neighbors. Finally, you don’t have to take a big risk with any of these products. With the “Live CD" option, you don’t have to install anything on your hard drive until you’ve had a chance to give the OS a thorough test and made 100% sure it meets your expectations.

There was a point when installing GNU/Linux was a major step—a step over a cliff for most of us ordinary folks. You needed a heap of technical knowledge and expertise to install and operate this OS. Nowadays, this isn’t the case. Anyone with even the most basic skills can make the switch to GNU/Linux. It’s easy, inexpensive, and the best thing you could do for the future of software. Don’t let the nay-sayers, ignoramuses, or wily salesmen con you into parting with your hard earned money to buy software that dictates how you should use it! Use your common sense and give one of these distros a try—see for yourself what the free OS has to offer.



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I know a 72-year-old man who managed to install Ubuntu, dual-boot. OK, he likes using computers, but he doesn't speak English, so it's quite an accomplishment, you'd say :D

maccampus's picture
Submitted by maccampus on

First there are the BSD's , okay it's not Linux but in the essence it's just the same as Linux. Both are Kernels which ar used for the same purpose, to be used in conjunction with other software in a distribution, a lot of this software comes w

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The BSDs are actually extremely different from GNU/Linux. True if you install FreeBSD and slap on KDE and just use it for a pretty GUI desktop, you might not notice many differences. On the other hand, if you're more accustomed to doing things on the command line or are a programmer, the differences are more obvious.

One of the main differences is that at least the five major BSDs (FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, DragonFly BSD, Mac OS X) are developed as whole operating systems, whereas GNU/Linux's development path is very disjointed. In a BSD, if a change is made to the kernel in order to add some functionality to a user-land program, it will happen immediately. Typically in the GNU/Linux world, additions to the kernel are only slowly adopted by the user-land programs (usually GNU) and take a more careful stance about being cross-platform (which can be a plus, if you like a certain OS's userland program over your native OS's; all the major BSDs include a GNU package to install, whereas porting BSD userland programs to Linux takes a bit more work)

Prakash Jose Kokkattu's picture
Submitted by Prakash Jose Ko... (not verified) on

To All New Linux users/aspirants,
The Best Distro for a newbie will be Ubuntu or even latest Debian,
Also will be Fedora Core 7,Mandriva etc.
Simply Mepis is not worth a try.it is a copycat of Ubuntu and uses bloated KDe.

NotThistime's picture
Submitted by NotThistime (not verified) on

It tells the reader quite a lot if you start a text for newbies explaining the GNU and correcting their speaking (Linux -> GNU/Linux): you definitely care about the name, something which is *very* typical for the FLOSS people.
Of course, I do understand the reasons to do so, and I would like to add some more comments:

As we all know, it must be X/K/GNU/Linux - or maybe X/M/G/GNU/Linux. With simply using GNU/Linux you rip off the people of the X project, the KDE project, Mozilla and Gnome (the first name is for pure KDE users, the second one for Gnome users). Also, in these days an A for Apple or Avahi would be appropriate, too. Everything else is just ripping off other peoples work.
And: who are *you* that *you* can say it is ok to stop at the GNU and to not include X? I mean, an X and a slahs is even less than three letters and a slash. Also, it sounds cooler!. Yes, GNU is nice, but almost no one besides a lost group of geeks would use the entire OS without X, while there are distributions out there compiled with other compilers than GCC. And, yes, I know RMS says it is ok to stop after GNU - of course he says because then he is already in the game.
Therefore the best would be X/.../Linux, spoken "X-slash-three-dash-slash-Linux" - I think it is even more catching than "GNU-slash-Linux", and it shows that there is much more!
Also, please keep in mind that GNU/Linux is explicitly *not* supposed to be pronounced "GNU-Linux" because that would imply that Linux is a GNU project - which it isn't.

Please, correct this in your article by writing the appropriate shortcuts, depending on the distribution! Also, train the readers on the correct reading! It is very necessary, but I'm totally sure that if we make this part clear very early the people will adopt to the OS better and more quickly. And they will definitely don't mind about such an important topic as a naming controversy!

Also, I do like it that you do not point out any reasons why you still could write Linux: all arguments for Linux and against X/.../GNU/Linux don't count!
Everyone knows that the term "Operating System" is clearly defined and not to question at all. And everyone knows that you cannot name two things with the same name. Imagine we would have other things named Linux, like an Asteroid, or a brand of laundry detergent or anything else!

I leave it to you to find any kind of humour in the part above.
I really do think that the FLOSS community destroys very much by fighting about the names mainly against each other instead of accepting the common use of words - its hard to change such things, and most of the time you can only do this with oppression. And again: why GNU and not X?
And yes, I saw too much harm done by people insisting on GNU/Linux instead of first talking to other people about the general idea. Much too much harm.

Anyway, enough about that, here are some content problems I had with your article:

  • "free software programmers [...] don’t get paid when people buy their code" - while you are right in the first place it also suggests that most FLOSS developers don't have a fixed job. That's a common mistake, because everyone simply believes it, but no one can prove it. In fact, a study (by Benno Luthiger Stoll, sadly in German only) bout the motivation of developers who hosted their projects on sourceforge (keep in mind that this excludes all large projects which are typically founded and backed by companies!) revealed that one third of the developers are paid for their work. And these 33% do more than 40 % of the work on sourceforge!
  • Why include Xandros? There are enough valuable alternatives you haven't mentioned (Mandriva, Suse) which are suitable for beginners - Xandros as a negative example just confuses beginners!
  • If you have the need to write a bit about distributions which include paying for stuff, write about SLES and RHEL - they are certified enterprise stuff, and it is clear where the extra money you pay goes to (you can *rely* on the certifications and support, for example).
  • Technical detail mistake: Ubuntu comes with a Live CD as well, this is not an outstanding Mepis thing.
  • The difference between Mepis and Ubuntu seems to be that Mepis can handle external devices much better than Ubuntu - I doubt it. There are hardly any differences in the number of kernel drivers and other additional drivers. This looks more like a reason to have a reason.
  • Which distribution to choose: You might want to include the best answer I ever heard to this question: "Take the distribution which these people use whom you would ask for help". This means: Take the one your friends use. Because they will ask questions, and most people are not fit enough to guide users of other distributions.
  • Last but not least: I'm a Free Software Adivocat, as you call them, and I definitely don't like "GNU/Linux". I outlined several arguments above, and there are much more against. Btw., most of the distributions out there call themselves a Linux distribution - so there are *many* FLOSS people out there who do not like the "GNU/Linux" term. Please don't construct an untrue picture by saying things like "free software advocates don’t like it". Speak for yourself, but not for others who see things different.

So far....

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"I really do think that the FLOSS community destroys very much by fighting about the names"...

And yet here you are! TROLL!

Mitch Meyran's picture

He has a point. It is debatable, however that much can be said:
Linux + GNU make a complete OS; you don't need a GUI to run a server, yet a server still requires an OS (a LAMP server for example, can very easily be administered through a command line, but it's more difficult through GUIs - Apache at least has next to nothing in terms of administration GUI, MySQL is barely getting there and PHP... text only).
Notice that LAMP means Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP/Python. It should actually be GLAMP (GNU Linux Apache MySQL P...).
Thus, X can't really be taken into consideration. Add to that the fact that one can use Xorg, or Xfree - heh. No, X doesn't stand. Same for desktop environments.
Distros usually come with a preferred DE, however, you usually can swap one for the other easily (Ubuntu to Kubuntu is a Qt download away, Mandriva is pro-KDE but provides tools using gtk+, SuSE is pro-GNOME but Qt is a click away...)
GNU/Linux is a text-only yet powerful and versatile OS; Linux-based distributions are just that: GNU with X - among other softwares such as X, Gnome, Xfce, Apache...

However, nowadays, the layman considers that an OS needs a GUI - which it doesn't, actually. Thing is, Microsoft has put into everybody's mind that a OS is monolithic; xBSD are almost there, Windows certainly is, Solaris was there... But GNU/Linux aren't.

As such, normal naming conventions don't fit. GNU/Linux is not very appropriate, but what to use? Linux alone isn't good either.

What stands best is ' Free/Open distribution', actually (OpenSuse, Mandriva Free, Linspire Free, Ubuntu...).
Unending discussion.

But don't start sending 'trolls' comments everywhere! Freedom includes freedom of speech, but also the freedom to behave!
A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

guydjohnston's picture

I agree with the people who say that the name of the system isn't hugely important, and it isn't worth having a big argument about. But in case you're interested, here's what the GNU project have to say about using names longer than "GNU/Linux", from http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html:

"Many other projects contributed to the system as it is today; it includes TeX, X11, Apache, Perl, and many more programs. Don't your arguments imply we have to give them credit too? (But that would lead to a name so long it is absurd.)

What we say is that you ought to give the system's principal developer a share of the credit. The principal developer is the GNU Project, and the system is basically GNU.

If you feel even more strongly about giving credit where it is due, you might feel that some secondary contributors also deserve credit in the system's name. If so, far be it from us to argue against it. If you feel that X11 deserves credit in the system's name, and you want to call the system GNU/X11/Linux, please do. If you feel that Perl simply cries out for mention, and you want to write GNU/Linux/Perl, go ahead.

Since a long name such as GNU/X11/Apache/Linux/TeX/Perl/Python/FreeCiv becomes absurd, at some point you will have to set a threshold and omit the names of the many other secondary contributions. There is no one obvious right place to set the threshold, so wherever you set it, we won't argue against it.

Different threshold levels would lead to different choices of name for the system. But one name that cannot result from concerns of fairness and giving credit, not for any possible threshold level, is “Linux". It can't be fair to give all the credit to one secondary contribution (Linux) while omitting the principal contribution (GNU)."

GNU - free as in freedom

Osor Hirutonis's picture

And: who … can say it is ok to stop at the GNU and to not include X?
There are no hard lines defined even by the FSF people [1] on what constitutes the Operating System proper, and what constitutes things on top of it. IMHO, a good reference point might be the POSIX standard [2]. This describes the base definitions, system interfaces, and shell and utilities required for a conforming POSIX and/or XSI system. For example, the kernel and C library would satisfy the system interfaces and many GNU packages such as coreutils and bash and others might satisfy the shell and utilities. Since the overall goal of “GNU/Linux" is to establish a unix-like system, and the best current measure of a unix-like system is the POSIX standard, this seems like a good hard boundary between the OS-proper and stuff that runs on the OS-proper.

Yes, GNU is nice, but almost no one besides a lost group of geeks would use the entire OS without X
Perhaps you meant “use the entire OS as a desktop without X".

while there are distributions out there compiled with other compilers than GCC.
Compiling a distribution with a non-GCC compiler does not make it a “GNU/Linux" distro. In fact, many BSD variants are compiled with gcc. The method of translating source into machine code should be irrelevant to the crediting of a project in an operating system’s name (especially when said project is open source). Having written that, I can give you a way to make a fully-functional non-GNU-based linux system: use the linux for the kernel, use uClibc for your C library, and use busybox for your utilities. You will conform to a large extent to the POSIX standard.

P.S., Personally, I too am a Free Software Advocate, and I don’t like “GNU/Linux" either. I was just playing devil’s advocate.


  1. The GNU/Linux FAQ — Many other projects. <http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html#many>
  2. The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 6, IEEE Std 1003.1, 2004 Edition. <http://www.opengroup.org/onlinepubs/009695399/index.html>

Badger47's picture
Submitted by Badger47 (not verified) on

I would find you article more interesting from my perspective, and especially from a "newbie" perspective if you began you article with ..

"What has changed is that increasingly, they are now hearings something like this— “Well, not only is Linux free, but now its compatible with a huge and increasing number of digital cameras, printers, scanners and games. In short, “Linux" is becoming more a way for just about anyone to throw off the boundaries and insults imposed by proprietory operating systems and user applications and is no longer a geek-only operating system."

Its not just spin either ... its the actual truth and likely to be more encouraging than the now tired and historical form you have used above.

I hope you will adopt my suggestion when writing similar articles in the future.

Good luck.

waleed_saud's picture

Matt the reasoning you mention is secondary the main reasons are first is the concept of free as in freedom when you write gnu/linux and when others read it they will ask what is gnu and what is linux when they search for the gnu site they will find the meaning of free as in freedom and the four freedoms explaning it witch are:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

And the second reason is and I will quote richard stallman "But we don't think that is the right way to consider the question. The GNU Project was not, is not, a project to develop specific software packages. It was not a project to develop a C compiler, although we did that. It was not a project to develop a text editor, although we developed one. The GNU Project's aim was to develop a complete free Unix-like system: GNU.

Many people have made major contributions to the free software in the system, and they all deserve credit. But the reason it is an integrated system—and not just a collection of useful programs—is because the GNU Project set out to make it one. We made a list of the programs needed to make a complete free system, and we systematically found, wrote, or found people to write everything on the list. We wrote essential but unexciting components because you can't have a system without them. Some of our system components, the programming tools, became popular on their own among programmers, but we wrote many components that are not tools. We even developed a chess game, GNU Chess, because a complete system needs good games too."end quote.

To more explane read the articles in these sites:

  • http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html
  • http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html

And to end it free as in freedom .

Author information

Matt Barton's picture


Matt Barton is an English professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He is an advocate of free software, wikis, and the Creative Commons. He also studies and writes about videogames and computing history. Matt also has blogs at Armchair Arcade, Gameology, and Kairosnews.