What Exactly Is A Linux Distro?

You’ll hear the phrase “Linux distro” tossed around quite a lot and this article will explain what exactly is a Linux distro. It’s not overly complicated and this article shouldn’t take a whole lot of time.

You should also be aware that I’m writing this article in a way that is aimed at the lowest common denominator. I’ll be trying hard to make it simple to read and easy to understand. I don’t want to overwhelm folks with details. I want folks to understand the general concepts.

On to the article…

What Is Linux:

The term ‘Linux Distro’ is short for ‘Linux distribution’. 

I don’t suppose that’s all that helpful…

So, what is Linux? We use the term loosely, but Linux is just the kernel. That’s all Linux is – by itself.

Again, that’s probably not all that helpful.

Then, well, what is a kernel? The kernel is an interface between hardware and software. It also schedules tasks, such allocating memory and keeping track of the memory space where things are stored. It manages processes, memory, and device drivers – interfacing hardware with software.

You really shouldn’t need to interact with the kernel at a personal level, at least not directly. At the same time, everything you do requires kernel participation. Without it, hardware would be useless.

Okay, so now we know what the kernel is – and we know that it is called Linux. Well, that’s all Linux is – and, by itself, the kernel is not all that useful.

Introducing GNU:

Instead, we have some tools around the kernel that make the kernel useful. These tools are often from GNU. Many of these tools existed before the kernel was invented, actually. They’re (many of them) clean-room implementations of Unix tools that were just waiting for the right kernel to come along.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds released his kernel to the world at large. The GNU tools already existed. People put the two together and we started to have the basics of a working operating system.

See, an operating system is much more than just the kernel. At bare minimum, it must have some tools to interact with the kernel. The GNU tools will let you do that *(and more). As GNU tools predated the kernel and because the kernel is newer, many advocate calling it “GNU/Linux”.

That is not an argument without merit as all the major Linux distros make use of tools from the GNU Project. Without one, the other is useless. While there was an expected GNU kernel (for GNU Hurd), that has not had much attention and success.

And Now, A Linux Distro:

You could actually accomplish quite a bit with just GNU/Linux but it still didn’t have tools like a useful browser, a graphical text editor, a graphical desktop, or anything like that. By itself, it’d have limited appeal and you’d need to write any software you needed that wasn’t already included. A lot of what people expect would not have been included with just the GNU tools.

And so the concept of a ‘distro’ is born. 

Enterprising people, people who’d join others with their efforts, would combine GNU/Linux with a bunch of other tools – creating a concept of  a set of tools fit for a purpose. You’d have distros meant to be used for running servers, distros for home use, distros for security purposes, distros for privacy reasons, etc… 

And those distros would all be built around the GNU/Linux tools.

Each Linux distro out there was made for a reason. If there were already distros that filled that roll, then the distro author’s reasons were that they could do it better or in a different way. 

Today, there are like 500 active Linux distributions out there. Each one of them fills a niche, scratches an itch, performs a task (or set of tasks), at least a little bit different from the others. So, finding a Linux distro that suits your needs can be either easy or hard. It all depends on what you need.

Why Call It Linux:

Well, we call it Linux because that’s the most important bit. Without it, none of the rest of the system works. Without the Linux kernel, you’re stuck looking for a different kernel. (Note: Other kernels do exist.)

There’s absolutely some merit in calling it GNU/Linux. The GNU tools are in most every distro and without the GNU tools the kernel is pretty useless. At the same time, the GNU tools are older than the kernel. Combined, the provide a great deal of the functionality that is an operating system.

I don’t call it GNU/Linux because it’s unwieldy and everyone who needs to know that GNU is involved already knows that GNU is in there. I find those that insist on it are mostly okay people, they’re just pedantic and want to highlight the distinction. They’re not bad people, they just want to make sure GNU is recognized. 

When important, I’ve been known to refer to Linux as GNU/Linux. I just don’t make a habit of it. Also, really, not too many people care. Though, I suppose calling it GNU/Linux can be confusing for some new folks. Not my readers though, they’re witty, intelligent, and eager to learn!


Well, it’s an article… This one tells you about the Linux distro. It explains what a Linux distro is and why we call it that. Hopefully this is enough information for a layperson. If not, you can always ask for more information and I’ll do what I can to oblige. Like I said, this is written for the lowest common denominator. It’s not written for the folks who have used Linux for a decade. Those people have been using Linux for a decade, they should darned well know what the Linux kernel is!

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Last Updated on March 3, 2022 by KGIII

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Author: KGIII

Retired mathematician, residing in the mountains of Maine. I may be old and wise, but I am not infallible. Please point out any errors. And, as always, thanks again for reading.

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