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September 3rd, 2014

How Many Linux Distros Are On the Top Ten?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the number of GNU/Linux distros there are out in the wild. This is nothing new, as this has been an ongoing discussion among Linux users for at least as long as I’ve been using Linux.

In a nutshell, in case you’re new to the Linux world, some say that the overabundance of Linux distros is overkill, that it weakens the development by spreading developers out on the various distros when they could be focused on just one or two key distros. Those in this camp also claim that the huge number of distros also confuses the public, thereby acting as a roadblock to desktop Linux’s growth.

On the other side of the fence, there are people who claim that the choices offered by the numerous distros are actually good for Linux, that the plethora of distros means that users can find an implementation of Linux that’s just right for them.

I’m in the latter camp, but that’s neither here nor there. No matter which side of the fence you sit, there’s actually not nearly so many distros as there may seem.

Most distros are based on other distros, basically making them modifications of their parent distros. In most important ways, these child distros behave like their parent distros. They mostly use the same package management and packages can usually be easily installed from the parent distros’ repositories. Configuration is also usually the same, or nearly so, among these derivatives.

For example, of the top ten distros currently on DistroWatch’s “Page Hit Ranking,” five of them (Debian, Ubuntu, elementary, Zorin and Mint) are based on Debian, with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu. Of the five remaining distros, Fedora and CentOS share common genes, as CentOS is a clone of RHEL which essentially is based on Fedora. This leaves us with only three distros (Mageia, Arch and openSUSE) that stand alone with no obvious relationship with any of the other distros on the list (although Mageia began as a fork of Mandriva which originally was a fork of the old Red Hat desktop).

This means, in a way, that we can say that DistroWatch’s top ten distro list only contains five unique distros.

Here at FOSS Force we have machines running both Mint and Bodhi. Although both of these distros are distinct, with their own look and feel, under the hood they both work essentially like Ubuntu. This makes managing our machines much easier. Aside from the desktop environments, configuration is exactly the same. Also, packages can be downloaded and installed from the same sources. Even the bugs that need to be fixed are often the same.

In other words, there may be hundreds of distros out there in the wild, but many are modifications of existing distros. Sometimes a child distros is an attempt to fix what’s seen as a major flaw in the parent distro, sometimes it’s to completely integrate a certain DE, or to provide an underlying OS for a new DE. In this day and age, many desktop environments are also derivatives.

In other words, in the desktop Linux world, it’s all family.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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25 comments to How Many Linux Distros Are On the Top Ten?

  • William Ivanski

    “five of them (Debian, Ubuntu, elementary, Zorin and Mint) are based on Debian, with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu”

    I’m sorry if I didn’t understand correctly, but did you say that Debian is based on Ubuntu?

  • @William Ivanski The line you posted clearly states that all five are based on Debian and that Debian is the only one of the five that isn’t based on Ubuntu.

  • Joe

    You have clearly posted that Debian is based on Ubuntu

  • @Joe “five of them (Debian, Ubuntu, elementary, Zorin and Mint) are based on Debian”

    That says that all five are based on DEBIAN.

    “with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu”

    That says that DEBIAN is the only one of the five that’s NOT also based on Ubuntu.

  • Alan Rochester

    Distrowatch’s “Page Rank Ranking” is NOT a measure of how popular distros are – it is merely a measure of how often Distrowatch’s pages are looked at.

  • @Alan Rochester This is correct. I don’t think the article says anywhere that DistroWatch’s list is a measure of popularity.

  • tracyanne

    quote:: “five of them (Debian, Ubuntu, elementary, Zorin and Mint) are based on Debian, with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu”

    I’m sorry if I didn’t understand correctly, but did you say that Debian is based on Ubuntu? ::quote

    Some people have real problems parsing clear text.

  • For the third time, “with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu” means exactly what it says, that Debian is not based on Ubuntu.

  • Passerby

    @Ivanski @Joe

    Allow me to interrupt…

    Every language has particularities and its amount of weirdness. Mine has double negatives…

    “But” usually means “though”; “but” can also mean “except”.

    — What you both read:

    “though Debian being based on Ubuntu”

    — What she really meant:

    “all except Debian being based on Ubuntu”.

    —-

    Yeah,I know… English. *rolls eyes* *sigh*

    On a side note, guys, even if English (and other languages) have problems, be patient and improve, because after 40 years knowing it, I can say I still come by things I don’t understand!

  • eMBee

    interesting you say that child-distros “mostly” use the same packaging manager as the parent.

    can you name any distributions where this is not the case?

    in particular ones where the child still keeps a relationship to the parent (eg by rebasing with the parent once in a while)

    greetings, eMBee.

  • @Passerby Thank you for clearing that up. I was beginning to doubt my own use of the language. 🙂

  • @eMBee The reason I hedged my bet by using the word “mostly” is because some Ubuntu users and some Bodhi users report occasionally having trouble installing packages from the Debian repository. That hasn’t been my experience, not yet. Also, the graphical installer on the Mint version I use (Maya Xfce) has a different interface than Synaptic.

  • Cory Hilliard

    Ha, what you forgot to mention and what might be more “important” is which package manager each of them uses… or worse, which DE they’re using!

    I’m using Fedora/Cinnamon which is an RPM-based distro. I like RPM-based distros or I would consider using Mint, but hate Ubuntu. I use Cinnamon because I dislike Gnome 3.

    Wow, no wonder their are so many distros! I’m one guy and there isn’t even a default distro that I like.

  • eMBee

    well, good that you did, because foresight linux is doing exactly that. they rebase on fedora but use an independent package manager. fedora rpms can only be installed if they are imported to foresights repos first.

    the reason i was asking though was, that i was hoping you might know of any other distribution doing something like that, because i’d like to look and compare what and how they are doing it.

    the reason debian packages cause trouble on ubuntu is because ubuntu rebuilds the packages and gets a different combination of dependencies. in that case, it is not even supposed to work, and if it does then only because the package in question has few dependencies, and you just got lucky.

    this is different from most smaller derivatives who just change and add a few packages, like for example mint. here the base distribution is still more or less the same, and packages remain compatible.

    greetings, eMBee.

  • Passerby

    I came back to discuss the article, ’cause that’s an interesting point which has important ramifications.

    First, on the negative side, we have less diversity than many would like us to believe. That is specially bad when some distro has its repositories compromised — which fortunately happens once at each 20 years, it seems — and people run checks (diffs), fortunately.

    But there are good points about it, too, and Christine more or less covers them all. Specially important is the reliance on packages of a mother distribution, because one can get not only bug fixes but _security_ fixes (this was raised a while ago about Mint IIRC). This is essential, not just convenient.

    I’d like to also present the case of a, aham, very close friend, who needed to get an updated package for his smartcard use. Being a user of a rpm-based distro, he faced a problem when the only package with the correct version was a “deb” one. Thanks to the “alien” package translator the case had a happy ending. Surely if he used one of the Debian-derived distributions, things could be easier. Of course, in future situations things might be reversed if he needs to use a Red Hat package, for instance.

    Many might know it, but Distrowatch has specialized searches which can be restricted to show only Red Hat-based distros (for example). I found many interesting ones that way.

    Regarding the popularity issue raised by Alan, in my view many people hit pages of distros which were mentioned elsewhere — which means they are indirectly more popular to an extent. In my perception, the list reflects those distributions with more users in forums etc. Of course, “most popular” does not mean “best” — as is the case with many things in life…

  • Mike

    I don’t know about using Debian packages in Ubuntu, but using Ubuntu packages in Debian is a sure fire way to screw up your machine. Maybe not today, but eventually an update will come along and break everything when you mix repos like that. Bad practice.

  • Eddie G.

    Well written article! I’ve been using Linux since around 2003 / ’04 and I can say that it’s been one of the major decisions in my life that has changed my entire mindset towards OS’es…..applications, and what is possible with some determination and programming. As for the statement that a few might have misunderstood. I too thought it was confusing for a bit…but after thinking about it…the whole “except for” thing came to me…so no worries. In regards to the various and myriad choices that exist out there in Linux-Land, a lot of them ARE “related” and it really doesn’t matter who “begat” who….all that it really boils down to is whether or not you can accomplish what you set out to do using a free and open source OS. If so….then you are in the “elite” ranks of those who’ve made the move to Linux, if not? don’t fret…eventually at some point?….even the conglomerates and corporations will discover that they’ve been getting shafted for all those years…and they will migrate to Linux….which means you might have to learn how to work with it! LoL! Well done Ms. Hall!!

  • tracyanne

    @Christine Hall
    September 3, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    quote::
    For the third time, “with all but Debian being based on Ubuntu” means exactly what it says, that Debian is not based on Ubuntu. ::quote

    It appears you also have trouble parsing plain text.

    Try reading the post you replied to again. I’m almost certain I never once agreed with the sentiment expressed by William Ivanski and Joe. Nor did I express any sentiment arguing that you had in fact said anything other than what you have expressly stated you meant.

    I guess you don’t do irony, unless it’s your shirtys on an irony board.

  • Innocent Bystander

    How many in the TOP 10? Let me guess, it’s probably twelve.

  • @tracyanne Aha! I see what you were saying now. I was nearing the end of my shift at the library and…

    No excuses. I apologize. 🙁

  • eMBee

    it’s the browsers fault!

    at least firefox here wraps the text around the image in tracyannes post in such a way that there is a gap, breaking the quote into two parts and making it look like the second part is not the quote but tracyannes response.

    greetings, eMBee.

  • Colorado

    I didn’t note anyone pointing out that Ubuntu originally was built on Debian, and only later diverged from Debian. So in the great “family tree,” Debian, Slackware, and Red Hat account for most of what are referred to as distros. Refer to this diagram for more information: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Gldt1009.svg

  • Brian

    The programmer mentality destroys the usefulness of linux.

    I have written OS’s but now I don’t and I just want a OS to work with all my apps.

    Long term support in Ubtuntu is worse than MS winxp support.

    5 years, are you fing kidding me?

    For programmers OS’s are fun, they were when I programmed them too.

    All those versions make linux worse than useless for users.

    Much as I hate MS, I cant switch to ubuntu given the instability of the OS.

    I call it operating system drift, and it destroys all projects in time.

    nothing from the past runs anymore, hardware and software have changed too much. All that effort lost, people careers wasted, gone.

    We need an abstract OS, that is infinite in extent.

    but who would ever need more than 640KB or ram?

  • Abdel

    Having a wide choice of Linux distributions, desktop environments, package managers, etc. is excellent. Nevertheless, I wish that, instead of forking more distros, developers would focus on perfecting existing applications (video editing, audio editing, word processing, etc.) and creating more needed ones.

  • Douglas Jenkins

    eMBee
    “an you name any distributions where this is not the case?”

    PCLinuxOS is based upon RedHat, but uses synaptic and the Debian apt system and repositories.