There is no single distribution of the Linux software. Instead, there are many such distributions, available both via anonymous FTP and by mail order on CD-ROM.
The purpose of this document is to provide short summaries of the English-language Linux distributions, and to provide pointers for the reader to find more information. A German Distributions HOWTO is maintained by Marco Budde at http://www.tu-harburg.de/~semb2204/dlhp/DE-Distribution-HOWTO.html. We are not aware of any distributions in languages other than English and German.
The information presented here is not complete; there are other Linux distributions than are listed here. If you are associated with a distribution we don't list, please see Submissions To This Document near the end of this document for information on making a submission. It's easy and should take less then five minutes.
Disclaimer: We make absolutely no guarantee as to the correctness of the information, prices, and ordering details given in this document. Check the last-modified field of each to get an idea of its currency, then go to the vendor's web page for up-to-date information. Furthermore, unless otherwise stated the Linux software comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
Your editor tries to stick to facts in most of this HOWTO, but he has some opinions on the state of the Linux market. If you care what they are, you can read them under Editorial Recommendations.
Disclosure: I (esr) have no financial connection to any Linux vendor, nor have I accepted any renumeration or perquisites from any vendor other than free product for review (and one T-shirt from Red Hat).
This document will be posted monthly to the newsgroups
comp.os.linux.answers . The document is archived on a number
of Linux FTP sites, including
You can also view the latest version of this HOWTO on the World Wide Web via the URL http://sunsite.unc.edu/mdw/HOWTO/Distribution-HOWTO.html.
Feel free to mail any questions or comments about this HOWTO to
Eric S. Raymond,
firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not
send me general Linux questions or requests for help in
choosing a distribution unless you're willing to hire me at
normal consulting rates; I don't have time to deal with them,
and I try to put everything I know about choosing a
distribution in this document.
This HOWTO is much shorter than it used to be. In 1995-96 the Linux market underwent a serious shakeout, for reasons we discuss below.
Network distributions like the original Slackware no longer seem to be Linux's most important vector. Accordingly the General Information section and this HOWTO as a whole now focuses more on commercial CD distributions.
The old sections on re-packagers and miscellaneous related products have been trimmed and dropped. The information in them was old and hard to verify, and of rapidly decreasing value given recent changes in the Linux market.
In the beginning (say, 1993), a Linux distribution was something you downloaded off the Internet onto floppies. Installation was a laborious process and repeated frustrations due to bad media were common.
Then came cheap CD-ROM drives and the CD-ROM, a medium ideally suited for shipping large volumes of operating-system software cheaply. There's a whole mini-industry now built around commercial CD-ROM Linuxes, and (because the vendors have actual cash flow to fund support and marketing) they increasingly dominate the Linux world. Debian is now the only significant non-commercial release, and even it seems to be propagated largely by shovelware CD-ROMs.
Most of the CD-ROM distributions (including Slackware, Yggdrasil and Red Hat) are still available for FTP from the home sites of their developers. But if you have a CD-ROM drive and a few dollars, you will have many more distributions and more support options to choose from (and you'll usually get some useful paper documentation). For more on the details of installation, see the Linux Installation HOWTO, http://sunsite.unc.edu/mdw/HOWTO/Installation-HOWTO.html.
Prices for CD-ROM distributions of Intel Linuxes start at $20 and top out at a whole $50 (and the extra few dollars can buy real value). Many vendors sell subscription deals that will lower your cost-per-CD for regular updates over the subscription period.
Price correlates with features and quality pretty well (as one would expect in a very competitive market). Your editor recommends paying the few extra dollars for a top-drawer original CD-ROM distribution; this will pay off in fewer installation and administration hassles down the road.
Making good choices is much simpler than it used to be. In 1995-96 the Linux market underwent a serious shakeout, with a very few commercial distributions emerging as leaders while weaker ones disappeared or stagnated. The toll among general-purpose non-commercial distributions has been even fiercer; essentially, only Debian survives in this role.
As a result, the three-tier structure of primary distribution builders, value-added repackagers, and bottom-feeding CD shovellers that used to define the market has nearly collapsed. To be competitive in 1997, a Linux outfit (whether commercial or noncommercial) has to offer reasonable support and behave like a primary distribution builder, whether it's really one or not. So as long as you look for a recent freeze date, it is pretty hard to get stuck with a dud distribution these days.
Last section, the facts. In this section, my opinions (for whatever they're worth -- and remember the caveat about free advice). There is no substitute for doing your own evaluation based on experience and the data in this guide, and these are intended more to illuminate my possible biases than as a guide to what you should do.
From the beginnings of the Linux CD-ROM industry in 1993 to Fall 1995, Yggdrasil was the king of the hill -- it essentially founded the CD-ROM market and then set the standard for everybody else. I used Yggdrasil, and I recommended it over commercial System V versions for its superior documentation, large collection of applications, and enlightened policy of sending free releases to freeware authors and dedicating part of the price of each CD-ROM to financially supporting free software. But Yggdrasil hasn't issued a new release in all 1996 (it's March '97 as I write) and they've perhaps been left behind by the market.
I now run Red Hat Linux and am quite satisfied with it. Red Hat's RPM technology currently gives it, IMO, a technical edge over any other vendor. They've made most of the right moves at the right times and I consider them the current market leader.
If you're ideologically wedded to using a non-commercial distribution, Debian seems to me to be the clear choice, the only one left with a serious support team behind it.
These opinions should certainly not be interpreted as an unconditional endorsement; different Linux distributions are optimized for different needs, and yours may well be best served by some other distribution (especially if, unlike me, you're mainly a DOS user and are looking for a distribution tuned for dual-boot systems and being launched from DOS).
Furthermore, industry standing is volatile. By the time you read this, Red Hat or Debian may well have fallen off their games and been displaced by hungrier newcomers.