What Is a Linux® Distribution?

Linux is an operating system for personal computers.
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  • Written By: Donna Hentsch
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 25 December 2014
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A Linux® distribution is a version of Linux® software which contains a combination of the Linux® computer operating system and a variety of other software packages all bundled together. Linux® distributions come in varieties from very simplistic to fully functional operating systems and can be used on both personal computers and servers. The Linux® distribution was developed so that Linux® was more accessible to users that were not Unix, another operating system from 1960s and 1970s, experts.

Linux® is a free, open-source code, computer operating system similar to UNIX®. “Open-source code” means that the programmers have released the programming code which makes the software work. The programmers release the code so other programmers around the world can customize and improve upon it. Generally the software of a Linux® distribution is open-source as well; however, some companies have proprietary software in their distributions and therefore do not release the programming code.

A computer’s operating system is the software that manages the workings of a computer. Many operating systems, like Microsoft Windows®, are not open source.


There are approximately three hundred Linux® distributions in circulation. Each Linux® distribution is slightly different and meets a slightly different computing need. Some of the most popular Linux® distributions are Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Madriva. Each of these distributions have been bundled together, tested for stability, and are then packaged for release. Computer users can either download the distribution for free on the internet, or they can pay a low price and purchase the Linux® distribution on a CD.

Linux® distributions tend to have many packages of software within them. The installer has the option of installing each package or customizing the installation. An example of a package is a web browser. This is different from an operating system like Microsoft’s Windows XP® which limits the degree to which one may customize the installation.

Because Linux® software is open-source, it is constantly being upgraded, modified, and changed by computer programmers around the globe. As new technologies and uses for Linux® are developed, the software is upgraded and new distributions are formed to release to computer users.



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