only a small segment of those have become household words in the Linux community. At Distrowatch.com, one of the better known Linux ranking sites, you'll see the same names week after week in the top 20 -- Ubuntu, Mepis, Fedora, Slackware, etc. So who is using the bottom 80? And why?
Of course, many distros are created for special needs. One example is SME Server, designed as a plug-and-play file server and network gateway. Another is Smoothwall, created to be a network router. But the majority of distributions that don't receive much attention aren't that different in structure or purpose than those that get the notice and popularity.
To understand why these distributions have a following, let's look at the example of Kanotix, a variant of the well-known Knoppix live CD. It was created by Jörg Schirottke, who is known by the nickname of Kano -- hence the distro's name.
Kano took the Knoppix version of Linux, optimized it for modern hardware, and added a number of scripts that assist in hardware detection, configuration, and speed. In other words, he improved upon Knoppix. Some might say that Kanotix is what Knoppix should be, while others say it's the only distro they have ever installed where everything worked right out of the box.
Since the major distros are all fast and stable, small distros have to provide more than just speed and stability. Why do so many small distros have such a loyal entourage? The answer lies in the word "community."
Popular distributions have large communities that provide support via Web boards, Usenet newsgroups, and IRC chat. Unfortunately, the popular distributions often attract a huge number of newbies who don't know what they don't know -- but they post it anyway! Thus, when you ask a question you may get five answers, some of them wrong and some of them right, and you have to guess which is which.
In a distro community like Kanotix, while there are many newcomers to Linux, they are usually not first-time newbies. They are folks who have a few months of Linux experience under their belt. They have cut their teeth on another distro, didn't like it, and ended up with Kanotix, usually by word-of-mouth recommendations. The smaller distros tend to attract a higher number of experienced users.
If you've ever visited some of the major distros' IRC channels, you know that it can be an experience, to say the least. Flame-wars, insults, vulgar language, and a general lack of decorum are often the norm. Things are different in the world of small distros. You won't find such lack of restraint in a channel like #kanotix (on Freenode). The regulars who hang out in small distro chat channels tend to enjoy helping others and like learning about Linux themselves. For the most part, the channel stays on-topic instead of vectoring off into loud, extraneous discussions.
Because the community is small and the same folks frequent the chat channels and Web boards, using a small distro is like being a member of a fraternity or sorority. These are your brothers and sisters, and everyone gets along.
A big attraction of small distros is the easy access you have to the developers. For instance, Kano, the developer of Kanotix, is on the IRC channel at least once a day, and often for hours at a time. He answers some of the more difficult questions on his kanotix.com board. This is invaluable, especially for someone who has only a bit of Linux experience but wants to learn more. What are the chances of you talking directly with the lead developer of Novell's SUSE or Patrick Volkerding of Slackware? I can chat with Kano every day of the week if I need to.
Don't get me wrong -- none of this is meant to knock the large and well-known Linux distributions. They are large and well-known for good reason: They give thousands of users what they need. But for others who are unhappy with the performance, support, packaging, or the overall spirit of their current platform, it could be well worth the time and effort to try a smaller distro.
Alan Canton is president of the Adams-Blake Company, which provides JAYA123, a Web-based back office application for small and mid-size businesses.