Linux Terms Explained: Originals, Derivatives, and Flavors

This article explains in plain language what the terms derivative, fork, flavor, and spin mean in the context of Linux distribution.

If you’re new to Linux, you’re likely confused, coming across terms like derivative, fork, flavor, spin, etc., all the time. Yet, even after all these years, I still don’t feel completely comfortable with them.

Why? The differences between some of them can be a bit blurry. This article explains to you what each of them means in the most straightforward manner possible.

However, before we get into the article’s meat, it is essential to understand because it is at the heart of all of these terms. Namely, one of the key features of Linux is its modular design, which allows developers to customize and tailor the operating system to specific needs.

This freedom and flexibility allow the creation of several types of Linux distributions, which can be classified into several main categories using established terms such as originals, derivatives, flavors, and spins. Each one represents a specific set of features that describe the origin and, in some cases, the purpose of a particular Linux distribution.

At the same time, these terms are used to distinguish one type of distribution from another. In other words, they help you differentiate how a particular Linux distribution will work from another.

So, let me explain what each of them means with that out of the way.

What Does Original Linux Distribution Mean?

Making a Linux distro from zero involves a lot of work and effort. It is a tremendous time-consuming amount of work, prohibitively so for a single person or even a small group of developers.

The original Linux distributions are called that for one reason – they are not based on any others before them. Instead, they are made up of thousands of individual pieces of software, brought together and set up to work with each other within that whole. In other words, they combine the Linux kernel, GNU utilities, and application software into an installable operating system.

Original Linux DIstro

Creating an original Linux distribution can be accomplished in two ways. The first is when a corporation behind it can afford all of the expenses associated with hiring many employees/developers who work on creating and maintaining the Linux distribution over time. Examples of such these days are Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE.

The second, far more widespread approach to creating original Linux distributions is that they result from the voluntary labor of a massive community of users around them. Such are Linux distributions like Debian, Arch Linux, Slackware, Gentoo, Void Linux, etc.

In other words, when we talk about original Linux distros, we talk about the longtime stalwarts that laid the foundation for the Linux world we know today.

What is Derivative (Fork) in Linux?

A derivative distro is based on the work done in the original Linux distribution but has its own identity, goals, and audience and is created by an entity independent of the original distribution.

Derivatives are the most common type of Linux distribution. You might think of them as a fine-tuned version of the original Linux distribution. Of course, tuned does not equal better. It means modifying the original Linux distribution to reflect the views and goals of the developers who choose to take the original and change it to suit their own.

In other words, they do something different, add something on, or take something away that makes it more suitable for a specific use case. In short, a derivative Linux distribution takes a copy, makes changes on top of the original one, and then distributes them as its operating system.

Derivative Linux DIstro

Ubuntu is an excellent example of a derivative. Are you surprised? Yes, Ubuntu is not an original Linux distribution, but instead takes and uses Debian as a base upon which it builds, brands, and releases the final product known as Ubuntu.

But things can go even further. In the derivatives section, we have a bunch of sub-tiers and sometimes even sub-tiers inside of those sub-tiers. For example, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, which is based on Debian. So, therefore, Linux Mint is a derivative of a derivative.

If you have a specific need better served by a derivative, you might prefer using it instead of the original distro. As this is open source, as you can see, if somebody isn’t satisfied with what their favorite Linux distro is doing, they can fork it and go their own way.

What Is the Flavor (Spin) Linux Distribution?

The flavor is a distribution based on another Linux distribution that is officially recognized and approved as its flavor by the base distribution. In general, flavor distros are just like icing over the parent distro to fit the needs of a specific section of users.

They have the same core packages as the original, share the same repositories, and have different packages added to the default installation.

Flavor Linux DIstro

It is important to note that the terms ‘flavor’ and ‘spin’ relate to the same thing. The difference between them is more about which distribution is intended. The most commonly used term is ‘flavor,’ primarily imposed by Ubuntu. On the other hand, Fedora uses the term ‘spin’ with the same intent.

In the mainstream case, it is a variation of the parent distribution but with a different desktop environment. So, for example, Kubuntu is a flavor of Ubuntu, and Fedora KDE Plasma Desktop Edition is a spin on Fedora. Or in other words, they are the look of a distribution, i.e., its desktop environment.


As you can see, although first confusing, terms such as original, derivative, and flavor used to categorize a Linux distribution are very useful in gaining an instant awareness of the nature, origin, and goals of a distribution.

Let me conclude with an example that clarifies what I’ve written thus far. Take Xubuntu, a flavor of Ubuntu, which is a derivative of Debian, the original distribution. You can now better understand the different Linux distribution types.

Finally, if you are interested, look at the Linux Distribution Timeline to see how many Linux distributions are related.

Bobby Borisov

Bobby Borisov

Bobby, an editor-in-chief at Linuxiac, is a Linux professional with over 20 years of experience. With a strong focus on Linux and open-source software, he has worked as a Senior Linux System Administrator, Software Developer, and DevOps Engineer for small and large multinational companies.

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  1. Forks happen when the rebellious child disagrees with the upstream parents family. The Red Hat Manager (RPM) was forked into so many different RPM distributions, that the naughtily children needed RPM applications that cannot be used by others staying close to the original RPM operating systems.

    Similar forks with Gnome-2 had to be grown into Gnome-3. So competitors Mate and Cinnamon were created.

    Each breakaway ‘innovation’ may sometimes succeed. The Canonical brand had success with Ubuntu, but market forces shows it has its fork failures in Snap and Unity. This is the usual story with innovation, derived on harmony from the parent, or trying to be independent of the origins, as an incompatible fork.

  2. Probably also should mention “spins”, and difference between “official” and “community” distros. There are a lot of terms, and I’m not sure they’re well-defined.

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