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.