Linux Distributions

Linux is not an operating system in the sense that Windows or MacOS are operating systems. Linux began in 1991 when computer studies student Linus Torvalds asked for help on the internet with designing a computer kernel similar to Andrew Tannebaum's Minix system (a Unix-like operating system designed to teach students how Unix worked). Torvalds wanted to make a kernel that could work on his computer that ran the then state of the art Intel 286 processor. On top of that kernel he ported pre-existing Unix like software, such as the GNU Compiler Collection. Torvalds was being a good computer science student as most textbooks on operating system design are only interested in the kernel. So the next time someone says to you that Linux is just a kernel reply that this is correct and so is every other operating system. Windows is also just a kernel, which happens to come preloaded with applications, such as a file manager. Indeed Windows 3.1 lacked both a sound driver and any way to connect to the internet. Torvalds have never shown much interest in what files to include with the kernel, but very quickly others packed it with ported Unix like applications. These packaging projects are known as Linux distributions or distros for short.

The Linux is just a kernel meme displays a fundamental misunderstanding of operating systems in general, and Linux in particular. To illustrate the nature of operating systems, I will turn to the best selling computer of all time, which was also my first computer, the Commodore 64. Like most computers at the time, the Commodore 64 came with an in-built operating system that was very basic, in fact the only application is came with was a version of the BASIC programming language. That was all you got, although it did come with a tape deck that allowed you to load programs, as well as a cartridge slot in the back, which was the main reason I wanted the Commodore 64 as I had previously owned two different cartridge based games consoles. If you did not use the tape deck or a cartridge all you could with the machine if you were not a programmer was to type a program into the machine from a magazine. I did just that to turn the Commodore 64 into a synthesizer, which is amazing when you consider that the 64 in the name referred to the computer having 64 kilobytes of memory. I am typing this on a keyboard that has 8 megabytes of memory. So was the Commodore just a BASIC compiler? No it was the highest selling gaming computer in history, and provided the basis for Commodore to unsuccessfully attempt to dislodge the IBM PC in the early days of business adoption of desktop computers. So saying that Linux is just a kernel shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a computer operating system is.

The meme primarily comes from supporters of the Free Software Foundation, which was created in 1985 to fund and promote the GNU Project. GNU had been founded in 1983 by Richard Stallman to build a completely free Unix like operating system. Nearly forty years later there is still no functional GNU operating system. Actually there is, but it is barely functional and only works on an Intel i386 computer, which have not been produced since the 1990s, and the GNU Project does not recommend trying to run it. Torvalds developed a kernel first and then began porting the software that the GNU Project had built. After initially rejecting Linux, Stallman gave a one year internship at the Free Software Foundation to Ian Murdock, the founder of the most successful Linux distribution of all time, that was then called Debian Software Release. Stallman convinced Murdock to later change the name to Debian GNU/Linux, but at that time the name seemed to have meant the Linux distribution that was funded by the Free Software Foundation as part of the GNU Project. Tensions arose between Murdock and Stallman and Debian quit the GNU Project, but kept the name Debian GNU/Linux. Later Stallman re-used the name for a different purpose, claiming that Linux was just a kernel, that provided the final piece in the jigsaw of the GNU operating system. In reality an operating system is not an operating system if it cannot boot a computer, so there is to this day no GNU operating system, unless you have an i386 computer. To this day most Linux distributions use the basic GNU tools, but that does not make the operating system GNU/Linux. Instead (as in the naming of most distributions) it is a Linux operating system that can run GNU applications. One of the most widely used distributions today is Alpine Linux, which avoids using any GNU applications because it is focused on being a small foundation layer for server setups. Just like my Commodore 64 was a small foundation layer for playing Jet Set Willy or The Hunt for Red October.

SLS

I had been an avid reader of computer magazines since 1983 when I subscribed to Commodore User, a magazine that covered news about the Commodore 64 and some general computer news. Probably in 1984 I read about Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond touring computer conventions and arguing in favour of the GNU project to develop a free operating system. At the time I thought that was a stupid idea as who would want to develop an operating system that you could not charge money for. By 1993 I had moved onto using PCs and switched my subscription to PC Plus. It carried an article about how it was possible to download a free operating system and I not only realised that my 1980s scepticism was unjustified, but downloaded the first publicly promoted Linux distribution.

SLS or Soft Landing Systems was the name of the distribution that I spent hours downloading over a 2400 baud dial-up modem linked to the CompuServe network, and running up a large phone bill in the process. I managed to get the system up and running, but I could not get the X Windows part of the distribution to work, so I reinstalled Microsoft Windows because I had a PhD to write and had recently spent £300 on Microsoft Office. I regretted not having a spare computer to install Linux and by the time I built myself a desktop computer I had reused the floppy disks that I had written SLS to. PC Plus included computer software on a free CD-ROM each month, so I assumed that I would eventually get a copy of Linux to put temporarily on my desktop.

I was not the only one to struggle with SLS and it was forked to produce the currently longest surviving distribution, Slackware, which came out in July 1993. A month later the first announcement was made about the plans to develop Debian and in 1994 SUSE produced its first distribution, which was largely a German translation of Slackware. I had installed SLS a few times, but could only play around with it briefly as I needed the laptop to reinstall Windows. It was a similar story when I got a Red Hat 4.0 CD-ROM in 1996 via PC Plus, i.e., I installed it on my desktop, but needed to reinstall Windows, and unfortunately my laptop only had a floppy drive. Slackware was my regular distribution for about a year, but not until 2013. SUSE (then called SuSE) was my first settled distribution, when Linux became my main home operating system in 1997. Then about 2002 I switched to Debian and have used it on and off for the last twenty years.

Software Repositories

That Red Hat 4.0 CD-ROM was the only one that I ever knew on PC Plus, but when it set up Linux Plus I began getting it instead, as well as Linux Format. They both provided monthly distribution cover disks, so I would install whatever was on the disk and usually reinstalled Debian shortly afterwards. I switched to Mandrake for a while, until it went commercial and stopped appearing on magazine cover discs, so I returned to Debian again. I briefly switched to Storm Linux, which folded and left its graphical Debian package management program Synaptic to the broader community. I also really liked Caldera Linux, until they revealed that there business model was to buy the rights to Unix and then sue any company using Linux, which they erroneously thought had Unix code in it. So once more I returned to Debian.In 2005 I got frustrated with Linux and switched to Apple Macs, but by 2007 I was running Debian Linux on my Macs. I ran Ubuntu in 2009 when my main computer was a netbook that could only run what would go on to become the most successful Linux operating system, but based on Debian's software repositories. Then in 2

SUSE

I had built my own desktop computers from parts sold at the monthly Chester computer fair. In 1999 one stand was selling boxed Linux distributions and I chose SUSE, which I did not realise had a connection to SLS. Its first version was a German translation of Slackware, which in turn was put together by Patrick Volkerding in 1993 to fix some of the script problems with SLS. In 1994 Volkerding helped SUSE produce their first version. I continued upgrading each time SUSE brought out a new edition, but was frustrated at the cost and SUSE's focus on the increasingly resource hungry KDE desktop environment.

Debian

Again PC Plus came to rescue as it advertised a company selling Debian 3.0, which I fell in love with because surprisingly my Welsh mountain village was an early area for the availability of broadband.

Debian 3.0 was the first version of that distribution to include KDE, but that stage I had already switched to using the lightweight window managers Icewm (which SUSE used as a backstop should KDE fail to load) and Window Maker. For years if I was re-installing I would install those Debian 3.0 CD-ROMs and then upgrade to the latest version via broadband. Debian also had a connection back to SLS as it began as another 1993 response to the buggy nature of SLS. It was set up by Ian Murdock (the Ian of Debian) and one of its main achievements was the Debian Social Contract, which was brought out in 1997 and for many years kept Debian as the home of radical devotees of free software. Just using Debian felt radical as most Linux distributions (including SUSE) used the Red Hat package management system and often new software could not be downloaded in Debian's deb format.

Caldera and Storm

During the many years that I stuck with either SUSE or Debian I also distro hopped once a month. I subscribed to Linux Format magazine, which meant a different Linux distribution on the cover CD-ROM every month. Most of these were briefly looked at by me and then I re-installed Debian. Two exceptions brought into touch with more Linux history. I really liked Caldera Linux and used it for a while, but when they bought the property rights of the SCO Unix company they began trying to sue corporate users of Linux, claiming that the system infringed their property rights. Finally the series of lawsuits ended in 2005 when Caldera (by then called SCO Linux) acknowledged that they could not find any infringement of Unix in the Linux kernel. A second distribution I loved was Storm Linux, which had as its main advantage its graphical software package Synaptic, which for the first time allowed Debian package systems to use a graphical interface. When the company behind it (Stormix) closed in 2001 it open sourced Synaptic, which became a major boost for Debian based distributions.

Ubuntu was the one that got away. I had its first version on a Linux Format CD-ROM, but saw nothing to persuade me to stay and reinstalled Debian. Ubuntu went on to take over the Linux desktop world, just as Red Hat rode the dotcom bubble to turn itself into an enterprise company (as SUSE would later do as well). Ubuntu was based on Debian and it made the Debian packaging system mainstream. Eventually I would regularly use a version of Ubuntu that was also revolutionary. Ubuntu's notorious Unity desktop environment was introduced initially for the brief period when netbooks (tiny laptops) were all the rage. Ubuntu was the only version of Linux I could get to run on it.

The Present

I still sometimes change my Linux distribution and for a while I embraced Slackware to complete my connections to SLS. At present I am back using Debian again and MX-Linux on a high-powered desktop as Debian struggles with its high-end NVIDIA graphics card.Debian will be the basis of Our Sip Linux, although these RSI friendly guidelines can work for any Linux distribution.