May 19, 2007

What is a distro?

Author: Joe Barr

I sat through an interesting debate recently on the Austin Linux Group mailing list over the meaning of the term "distro." Some LUG members felt "distro" implies Linux, while others took a wider view, claiming it could be any one of several possible platforms, including OpenSolaris.

The question of "what is a distro?" arose after a heated discussion -- do we ever get into other kinds? -- over Dell's selection of Ubuntu for desktop and laptop preloads. Someone claimed that Ubuntu was based on Debian, and therefore not really a distro. List participant Donald Davis got the thread started by citing the Wikipedia definition of distro, which states that a Linux distro is "a member of the Linux family of Unix-like operating systems comprised of the Linux kernel, the non-kernel parts of the GNU operating system, and assorted other software."

Most on the list agreed that "distro" was a Linux term referring to a specific flavor of Linux: a Red Hat, or Slackware, or Debian, or openSUSE, or even an Ubuntu, but always a Linux. But Shane Geiger, IT director for the National Council on Economic Education, saw things differently:

I disagree. I feel FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and now Solaris (now that it is "free software") are all distros. Often the word distro is prepended with a qualifier, as in "Linux distro." Distro/distribution had to mean originally "free software that was collected, packaged and distributed as a usable system," and that's the usage I feel it still has, though some people are not so specific while talking about Linux distros and simply refer to them as distros. I think the Linux community might have coined the word "distro," however. The number of hits for "Linux distro" is much greater than for "FreeBSD distro" or even "Solaris distro." However, in the latter case, Solaris might only recently have been considered a distro because it was only recently made free software. You also have to factor in the size of the user bases when comparing hits for these terms.

The BSDs? A stretch, perhaps, but maybe. But Solaris? Sacrilege! How dare these lingua-terroristas try to purloin our language!

But Geiger and a couple of others on the list would not cave in, insisting that distro had meaning beyond Linux. They pointed out that BSD stands for Berkley Software Distribution, and that abbreviation has been used since the 1970s -- prior art and all that. Even I had to admit that the term was never owned by the Linux community, especially since Linux wouldn't even exist for almost another 20 years. I had to change my point of view and side with the other faction.

The whole discussion proved two things, if nothing else. First, we in the community will argue about almost anything. Second, I can still learn enough to change my views on something, even if that nugget of knowledge is gleaned from a flame fest.

What's your take? Which definition of "distro" is correct? Is it Linux only or any free software platform?


  • Linux
Click Here!