4 Pillar Distros in Linux History That Shaped the Linux World

4 Major Distros in the History of Linux That Shaped the Linux World

The Linux world is incredibly diverse, but it started with a few major Linux distros. Here’s who they are!

There are currently hundreds of active Linux distros, but only a few of them can be described as the mothers and fathers of everything else we know these days as Linux.

They are the ones who have laid the foundation that almost every single Linux distro today stands on. Loved by some or disliked by others, they are the shoulders on which the modern Linux world has stood to get where it is today.

This article will focus on each of them, giving them all the respect they deserve. They are all distros created from scratch, making them one of the so-called original Linux distros, ones that are not based on anything before them.

Notice that we don’t have a type 1, 2, 3, etc., ranking here. Here we have four first places. With that clarification made, it’s time to get started.

Slackware Linux

Slackware Linux

There’s a good reason why we’re starting our list with this distro. Launched in 1992 by Patrick Volkerding, Slackware is the oldest surviving Linux distro globally.

The mere mention of this fact is enough to end its presentation, and we will still have all the arguments why it deserves its rightful place in Linux history. But let’s move on.

Two years after the young Finnish student from the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds, announced his hobby project called Linux, Slackware came on the scene with its initial release 1.00 on July 17, 1993. And what an appearance it was!

Until the mid-1990s, Slackware had about an 80 percent Linux market share. However, in the open-source world, dominated by the incredibly stable UNIX-based systems, Slackware has begun to pave the way for Linux as an albeit new, reliable server-oriented operating system.

However, the distribution popularity started to decline later when Red Hat Linux arrived on the horizon in 1995, and Slackware is no longer as popular as it once was. Of course, it’s still a top Linux distro – but because Slackware is designed to be highly customizable and robust rather than user friendly, its popularity has suffered.

But at the same time, that’s probably the most amazing thing about this distro. From its first release 30 years ago until today, Slackware is still Slackware. The installer is the same as it was then. Moreover, the overall functionality of the entire operating system closely follows the philosophy and principles laid down from day one of its creation.

In all these years, Slackware Linux has not changed its approach in aims to gain popularity as most Linux distros do these days – handy graphical installers, convenient package managers, and polished desktop environments.

No, it still relies on the system’s stability and requires the user to know every element. Furthermore, Slackware refuses to succumb to the general technological trends among Linux distributions. So, for example, you won’t find systemd here. Instead, the system uses a BSD-init system of scripts to boot itself.

On top of that, there is something unheard of for users accustomed to convenient package managers like APT, DNF, and Pacman. Slackware’s package system does not support dependencies.

And for an obvious purpose – if you want something to work, you have to approve it by manually installing the corresponding dependency personally. So the idea is obvious – nothing without your knowledge can appear installed on your system.

So, paying the price called popularity, the distro remains true to its UNIX roots, and the recently released Slackware 15 continues the legend of this much-loved, almost cult-like Linux distro.

Of course, Slackware doesn’t have the myriad forks as the other three distributions listed below. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is the distro that shaped the then-fledgling Linux world, paving the way and leaving its deep imprint on it forever.

Debian GNU/Linux

Debian GNU/Linux

A few months after Slackware, Debian GNU/Linux comes on the scene. Ian Murdock officially founded the Debian Project on August 16th, 1993, but the first stable version was released in 1996. Ian intended Debian to be a distro that would be made openly, in the spirit of Linux and GNU.

So when it began, Debian was the only distribution open for every developer and user to contribute their work. And till now, Debian remains the most significant distributor of Linux, which is not a commercial entity.

This means that there is no single business responsible for the creation of Debian, the upkeep of its infrastructure, or the project’s overall direction. Instead, everything is in the hands of the community.

The distro has a long, proud history. It comprises a worldwide community of volunteers, comprising over a thousand developers, working together to produce the best free software operating system possible.

Moreover, Debian is the only free software project to have elections where the leader is voted in by the developers.

Additionally, if you want a more extensive Debian history, its maintainers have created excellent documentation that contains everything relevant to Debian history since the beginning.

During its existence, Debian has established itself as one of the most reliable and stable Linux distros with a massive footprint on the rest of the Linux landscape today. Referring to DistroWatch, about 120 other Linux distros are based on Debian.

For example, let’s mention one name – Ubuntu. This distro, which has become almost synonymous with Linux, exists firmly on the Debian foundation. We can continue the list with MX Linux, Deepin, Kali Linux, etc.

But that’s not what makes Debian unique and gives it a well-deserved place in the Linux Hall of Fame.

Debian’s greatness lies in the fact that it is living, breathing proof of the immense power of the open-source. A shining example of thousands of volunteers working together for the common good.

And perhaps most importantly, Debian is the most popular Linux distribution today, adhering as closely as possible to the ideas and philosophy behind the Open Source movement.

So, if you’re searching for one of the cleanest, most stable, and most faithful to the Open Source spirit distributions, go no further than Debian GNU/Linux.

Red Hat Linux

Red Hat Linux

In 1994, one year following the creation of Debian, the third member of the most significant Linux distros, Red Hat Linux, appeared on the scene.

In 1993 Bob Young incorporated the ACC Corporation, a catalog business that sold Linux and UNIX software accessories. Around the same time, Marc Ewing had created his own Linux distribution company, which he named Red Hat Linux.

Shortly after that, in 1995, Young bought Ewing’s business, and the two merged to become Red Hat Software, with Young serving as CEO. So, Red Hat Linux was designed with the corporate world, business goals, and profit from the beginning. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

Red Hat pioneered the original open-source business model. The distro proved that it could be applied in the business world and bring huge profits. Strictly oriented towards enterprise Linux solutions, Red Hat gives its users outstanding stability and top-notch support.

So, thanks to Debian’s derivative Ubuntu, the Linux desktop world has been changed. Likewise, with its downstream CentOS and, more recently, AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux, Red Hat changed the Linux server world.

Thanks to the work of Red Hat engineers, millions of users and businesses around the world use Red Hat or Red Hat-based distributions to provide unprecedented stability and reliability for their servers.

Of course, let’s not forget Fedora. It is developed by the community-supported project, sponsored primarily by Red Hat. With each release, Fedora Linux grows more and more, taking a bigger piece of the Linux desktop market, dominated primarily by Ubuntu.

Last but not least, we can’t fail to mention that Red Hat’s contribution to the Open Source movement is enormous. For example, just one word – GNOME. How many of you know that Red Hat is the leading contributor to GNOME Desktop Project?

We could go on and on with a list of things like LibreOffice, PulseAudio, Xorg, D-Bus, PolicyKit, NetworkManager, KVM, OpenSSH … shall we go on? In other words, thanks to the tremendous help and contribution from Red Hat engineers, the software we use every day is possible.

So, I can say thank you, Red Hat, for having you.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux

We came to the last participant in our list of the pillar Linux distros that shaped the Linux world – Arch Linux. It is the youngest distro among those listed here, with “only” 20 years of history behind it.

Began developed in 2001 by Judd Vinet, a Canadian programmer, Arch Linux got its first formal release, v0.1, in March 2002.

If we can use the symbolic call Debian and Red Hat, the mother and father of the modern Linux world, Arch Linux is both in one for the rolling release Linux distros.

What do you think the Linux field looked like back in 2002? Let me tell you; there were three leading players – Mandrake, Red Hat, and Debian. Of course, these were also the golden years for Gentoo, but this distro was and still is too difficult for the average Linux user to handle with it.

And then Arch Linux appeared on the scene. Moreover, it partly approximates the Gentoo philosophy but offers a more accessible approach to working with it. Yes, the installation wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t something that any regular Linux user couldn’t handle with a little more effort.

As a result, the user got something new for the Linux world – install once and use it forever by simply updating the system regularly and constantly staying with the bleeding-edge software. What today, we call the rolling release model.

The distro gives users ultimate control over how their systems work and look, standing behind the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy. And this philosophy was quickly embraced by thousands of advanced Linux users looking for the combination of complete control over their systems with an easy and simple to maintain OS.

Over the years, Arch Linux has gained an adoring mass of fans who have turned it into almost a cult. It’s gotten to the point where the distro has earned its catchphrase, “BTW, I Use Arch,” used to make fun of the type of person who feels superior because they use a more difficult Linux distro.

Of course, the complexity of use has never been a goal for Arch Linux. Instead, as it always was, the distribution’s purpose is to provide Linux users with the most straightforward approach to using Linux.

In addition, you get the newest software possible with as few modifications made to it as possible. In short, you get one of the purest Linux experiences available today.

Many clones have emerged in response to the benefits that Arch Linux provides. In addition, distributions like Manjaro and EndeavourOS climbed on Arch Linux’s strong shoulders, removing its most significant drawback – the complex installation process. As a result, they quickly became the desktop systems of choice for countless Linux users.

Adored by some and rejected by others, over the last 20 years, Arch Linux has paved the way for rolling release Linux distros, ensuring its place in modern Linux history.

Conclusion

Well, that was our “magnificent four” of the pillar Linux distros that shaped the Linux world. I’m sure you have thoughts on the list above that I’d appreciate hearing in the comments section below.

In conclusion, this is the beauty of Linux – the freedom to choose. However, some have laid the groundwork to get to this diversity of countless Linux distributions. And with this article, I give all respect to the four main ones in my opinion.

Thank you for being with us. It’s a privilege to have you as our readers!

Bobby Borisov
Bobby Borisov

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

15 Comments

  1. Nice article. But I would argue that SUSE Linux (from the mid-90s) also deserves a place in here. Yes, it transitioned from through Novell (and other companies) in the mid-2000s, and has gone through some renames and shuffling over the years, but it does have a long history in the Linux community.

    • I was wondering the same, SUSE started their own distro around RedHat, before that being specialized in Slacware support, so I quite much believe it deserves place here, instead of Arch.

    • Yeah. I remember SUSE from those days. Do not remember if I tried it out. But think I tried it out along with Slackware, Debian and Red Hat. Ended up with Red Hat and the variations of that by the end of the 90s

  2. What about Gentoo and LFS (Linux From Scratch)? Older distributions (Gentoo is about as old as Arch, LFS is even older). Both are unique in their own way and contributed to the development of other distributions.

  3. One distro I was sortof hoping to see, but figuring was too young to be on a list like this, is NixOS. I’m not surprised, though, because while it’s highly innovative, it still needs time to “prove” itself. Maybe in 10 years time.

    Having said that, if you’re going to limit the list to four, then we’re left with an impossible task: as other commenters have pointed out, there are several other distros that certainly deserve to be on this list (although there are also good reasons they aren’t here, too) and it’s hard to see these four needing to be replaced in 10 years time!

    • Robin, Knoppix is actually based on Debian Stable, although Knoppix did introduce the ability to run Linux without committing to installing it to a hard drive.

  4. It’s just the top four. If you want to go to 10 or 20, then you can include these others mentioned in the comments. Among them I think I would include Knoppix because they developed the whole Live-CD idea that allowed users to try the OS out without installing it. Now everyone is using the Live option.

  5. Linux would gain more traction if it would see a thinning out of distro’s to focus on only a few which could combine developers into working together to produce a really good
    release. Instead we have far to many going their own direction which only seems to complicate advancing Linux. It shows too, as users are divided up within all these distro’s which doesn’t help matters. The Linux community is its own worst enemy.

  6. The concept of a „Linux distribution“ was invented by Softlanding Linux System (SLS). Debian and Slackware had their origins in SLS. So SLS shaped the Linux world …

  7. You listed the distros I would have listed as the ones that really got the ball rolling.

    I started playing around with Linux the year before Slackware and Debian were released using TAMU Linux. I haven’t used commercial, closed-sourcs software since. On the laptop I use the most, I triple boot with tow your listed distros, Slackware and Arch, included and the third being Gentoo.

    I would submit a couple of honorable mentions as well, though by no means did they have the kind of foundational influence as those four:
    1. as far as ease of configuration, SUSE was ahead of just about anyone with YAST, and
    2. a distro that brought a huge number of newcomers into the community because it was so user-friendly that it made Linux accessible to users of Windows without much of learning curve, and that was Mandrake.

    • Hey Ken,

      Mandrake was the first Linux distro I fell in love with, winning me over to the FOSS cause. 🙂

      Best,
      Bobby

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