Navigating Linux in 2023: Which are the most preferred essential components like desktop environment, init system, X and sound server, etc.?
Linux distributions, often called “distros,” have come a long way from their humble beginning. In the early 90s, Linux was primarily the domain of tech enthusiasts and system administrators.
It has become a user-friendly, versatile, and powerful platform that appeals to a broad audience, including developers, gamers, professionals, and everyday computer users.
At the same time, all of the components that make up a Linux distribution have also evolved during this evolution, leaving some in the past replaced by new and modern solutions.
Because under the generic term Linux, there is the Linux kernel, along with many other software components that interact with it. Packaged together, they form what we now call a Linux distribution.
But what exactly does a typical Linux distribution look like in 2023? To answer that question, we embark on a journey to explore the state of Linux today.
This article will delve into the key components, features, and trends defining the Linux experience in 2023.
The Linux kernel is the core component of the Linux operating system. In essence, it acts as the bridge that allows the software to communicate with and control the hardware components of a computer, such as the CPU, GPU, memory, storage devices, input/output devices, and more.
Like any other component, it has regularly released new versions, which bring changes regarding bug fixes, security updates, performance improvements, hardware support, and new features.
In this light, choosing the Linux kernel version is crucial for any distribution. Finding the right balance between stability and the latest innovations determines how a Linux distribution will operate.
Although there are no official statistics on the versions of the Linux kernel in use, our observations can say with a high degree of accuracy that in 2023, the predominantly used versions among distributions are mainly from the 6.x kernel series – specifically, Linux kernel 6.1 LTS, 6.2, 6.3, and 6.4.
Some primarily server-oriented distributions, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux and its derivatives, rely on tried-and-true older 5.x-series kernel versions. However, this doesn’t significantly change the overall picture.
At the same time, rolling release distributions such as Arch, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Void, and others, which stick to providing users with the most up-to-date software versions by the second half of 2023, rely mainly on Linux kernel 6.3 and 6.4.
An init system is a fundamental component of the Linux operating system responsible for bootstrapping the system during startup. Its primary role is to initialize the system’s processes, manage system services, and establish the user-space environment, ensuring the system is usable after loading the kernel.
Here, we can say without any qualification that in 2023 (as in the last years before it), Linux distributions firmly rely on the use of systemd for the system’s initialization.
It is a modern init system and service manager favored by most Linux distributions for its robust feature set, performance enhancements, and streamlined service management.
On the other hand, some systemd-free distributions, like MX Linux, Devuan, Void, Slackware, and others, cater to users who prefer traditional init systems such as SysVinit or Runit or wish to avoid systemd for philosophical or technical reasons. However, this does not change systemd’s dominance in the Linux landscape.
Linux installer is a software tool or program used to install the Linux operating system onto a computer or device. It simplifies setting up the Linux distribution by guiding users through various configuration options and performing tasks such as creating partitions, formatting storage devices, and copying the necessary system files.
Leading Linux distributions rely on in-house developed ones, such as Ubuntu’s Ubiquity or Red Hat’s Anaconda. Most of the others, however, in 2023 are betting on a third-party one, namely Calamares.
It is an open-source system installer framework, providing a user-friendly and customizable installation process via a convenient GUI, making it easier for developers and end-users to deploy Linux distributions.
One of the most appealing aspects of using Linux as your operating system is the freedom to customize and personalize every aspect of your computing experience, including the desktop environment.
Unlike some other operating systems that provide a single, fixed user interface, Linux offers a plethora of desktop environments, each with its unique look, feel, and set of features.
GNOME and KDE are the two most popular desktop environments for Linux. Aside from these, users have many additional options, such as Xfce, Cinnamon, MATE, Budgie, LXQt, and so on.
On top of that, some of the more advanced users prefer betting on the usage of tiling window managers like i3, Sway, Awesome, bspwm, Xmonad, etc.
Despite the above, the battle for the crown of Linux desktop environments has raged on for years between GNOME and KDE, and in 2023, the trend of GNOME being preferred as the default desktop environment will continue.
It is used exclusively by distributions such as RHEL and its derivatives. Ubuntu and Fedora also entirely bet on it. The desktop environment is the default installation option in Debian.
Heavily influenced by or descended from the above, many other Linux distributions follow this course. As a result, the typical desktop you may see most often in a Linux distribution in 2023 is GNOME.
A Linux display server is a fundamental graphical user interface (GUI) system component. It is an intermediary between your computer’s hardware, such as the graphics card, and the graphical applications and desktop environments you interact with.
Linux relies on two display servers, X.Org (X11) and Wayland. X.Org is one of the oldest (in use since the 1980s) and most widely used in the Linux world. Wayland is a more recent display server protocol designed to address some of the limitations and security concerns of X.Org.
Most distributions provide both, allowing you to choose which one to use. But although Wayland is the future and the obvious way to go, it is not yet ready for prime time.
In this light, despite Wayland, as a display server protocol, having made significant progress in the last years in addressing many shortcomings of its predecessor, X11, it still faces some challenges that prevent it from fully meeting all user expectations.
Some include compatibility with legacy applications, incomplete feature sets, hardware & driver support, and lack of network transparency.
For these reasons, many Linux users prefer to stick with good old X11, which, even in 2023, is still the typical display server used most often among the Linux distributions.
In Linux, an audio framework is a software layer or system that manages audio input, output, processing, and communication between hardware and software components. It provides a standardized way for applications to interact with audio devices, ensuring compatibility and efficient utilization of audio resources.
Simply put, it provides the sound on your computer when you watch YouTube or other multimedia content or listen to your favorite artists. In modern Linux systems, the software that takes care of this is ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) – a low-level sound architecture that provides audio support at the kernel level. It replaces the original Open Sound System (OSS).
Running on top of it is a sound server, which for many years was PulseAudio and its less-used alternative, JACK. Unfortunately, PulseAudio has some drawbacks, mainly latency, which can impact real-time audio applications like music production and online gaming, introducing delays in audio playback and recording.
All this led to the emergence of PipeWire – a new, modern Linux sound server focusing on low-latency audio processing, making it well-suited for real-time audio applications. Moreover, it is not limited to audio but also handles video and other multimedia streams, making it a versatile choice for applications that require audio and video processing.
Additionally, PipeWire provides session management capabilities, allowing applications to efficiently share and manage audio and video resources. This can lead to better resource utilization and improved performance.
With all that said, reasonably expected, in 2023, PipeWire is the sound server that ships by default in almost every modern Linux distribution.
Linux package managers are essential tools to streamline the installation, management, and removal of software on Linux-based operating systems.
They simplify the often complex task of handling software packages by automating the process, ensuring that dependencies are met, and enabling easy updates and maintenance.
Some of the most popular package managers in the Linux field are:
- APT (Advanced Package Tool) is used by Debian and its derivatives like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, MX Linux, Kali, etc.
- DNF (Dandified YUM) is used by RHEL, Fedora, and RHEL-based distributions like Rocky Linux, AlmaLinux, etc.
- Pacman is used by Arch Linux and its derivatives, such as Manjaro, EndeavourOS, and others.
We can add SUSE’s Zypper and Gentoo’s Portage to this list. Still, since compared to the above three, these distributions have fewer derivatives, the use of their package managers is mainly limited to themselves.
It is important to note that we are not comparing who is superior to all of them. That’s an entirely different topic. Here, we summarize who you see most often in a Linux distribution in 2023. In saying that, the main competition comes down to APT vs. DNF.
Both great package managers use different package formats – APT works with DEB files, and DNF with RPM ones.
Our observations on the Linux ecosystem in 2023 give us confidence that APT is the package manager with more significant popularity among distributions.
However, the perception of APT as a more popular choice is primarily influenced by the broad continuity of Debian, Ubuntu, and Linux Mint in the Linux landscape as a preferred choice by many users and their large and active user communities.
Additional Software Source
In addition to the native package formats, other distro-agnostic ones for installing software on your system have rapidly gained popularity in the Linux world in recent years.
Flatpak, Snap, and AppImage aim to simplify the distribution and installation of software applications while addressing some of the challenges associated with package management and software compatibility across different distributions.
Although AppImage gained good initial momentum, by 2023, it remained slightly in the shadow of the other two technologies – Flatpak and Snap.
However, Snap, developed and promoted by Ubuntu, has not found widespread adoption among Linux users for reasons that are more ideological rather than technical and are beyond the focus of this article.
At the same time, Flatpak has been warmly received and adopted by the Linux community, quickly increasing popularity to the point where it often ships preinstalled by default in many distributions.
A Linux shell is a command-line interface (CLI) that allows users to interact with the OS by entering commands and receiving text-based responses. It is a vital component of every Linux distribution, providing a powerful and flexible way to control and manage the system.
You can choose between a wide range of shells in Linux, as we can list Bash, Zsh, Fish, Ksh, Tcsh, etc. However, in 2023, as for many years before, Bash is the default shell in most Linux distributions.
The Linux landscape in 2023 continues to offer users a diverse array of essential components and choices. The goals and target audience of the specific distribution, individual needs, system requirements, and familiarity determine it.
However, based on everything written above, we can deduce the main components a typical Linux distribution offers in 2023.
- Linux kernel: Linux kernel 6.x
- Init System: systemd
- Installer: Calamares
- Desktop Environment: GNOME
- Display Server: Xorg
- Sound Server: PipeWire
- Package Manager: APT
- Additional Software Source: Flatpak
- Shell: Bash
The following table briefly compares the essential components defining a typical Linux distribution in 2023 among ten of the most popular Linux distros. In addition, we clarify that we assume they’re present in the default installation and on the respective distribution’s flagship release.
Also, the list does not include distributions such as Arch, Void, and similar because the philosophy around which they are built does not imply a predefined set of software, but everything is in the hands of users.
Do you recognize your favorite Linux distribution in the list above? Which comes closest to the typical one for 2023? My guess is Pop!_OS. What do you think?
I’m sure you have something to add to what I’ve said, so I look forward to your comments. They’re highly appreciated.