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My understanding of Linux distributions is that: They are operating systems based on the Linux kernel, and most have default desktop environments, something that is not in the Linux kernel. Fedora uses Gnome, Ubuntu uses Unity, and so on. However, some, such as Arch Linux, do not have a default window manager.

Question: What components go into a distribution, outside of the kernel (e.g. how is Arch Linux different from just the kernel itself)? Could a functional operating system be made with just the kernel alone?

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No distributions have built in window managers, they simply install one by default, no different from when you install it yourself. –  terdon Oct 12 '13 at 23:31
    
so then what is in a distro other than the kernel? –  troglodite Oct 12 '13 at 23:40
    
Have a look at unix.stackexchange.com/questions/94402/… –  michas Oct 12 '13 at 23:50
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A linux distribution usually contains a linux kernel, many standard tools from the GNU project, and all kind of other software from various sources. For a more detailed background with some links have a look at Why do people call Linux a kernel rather than an OS?.

All linux distribution contain essentially all the same set of software. Occasionally some linux distribution writes a tool only for its own distribution, but standard software like the desktop environment GNOME or the browser Firefox or all kind of servers can be installed on every distribution.

The difference is only what kind of software is installed as default. - If you don't like the default, just install something else. :)

If you want to get an idea how many packages are available have a look at the list of the debian distribution. There are currently over 37000 packages!

Some distributions like Arch try to offer you the newest version of all packages. Others like "debian stable" try to give you older, but well tested versions of those packages. Even other special purpose distributions might focus on a special topic and adjust their software collection.

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I'm not saying that I want to do this (I'm definitely not knowledgeable enough), but if someone wanted to create their own distro, could they just find all the packages they need and put them together into a distro? Also, could you give some examples of what the 37k packages do? –  troglodite Oct 13 '13 at 0:29
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Package managers (and how applications are packaged) tend to be another differentiator... –  jasonwryan Oct 13 '13 at 0:39
    
Yes, creating an own distribution is that easy. This is the reason why there are so many of them. For the 37k packages just follow the link I gave you. –  michas Oct 13 '13 at 0:44
    
Well, but if you would take your distribution seriously, you probably need a server for others to download it, and you should care about things like updates, and you should probably accept bug reports, etc. - It's a bit of work at the end. ;) –  michas Oct 13 '13 at 0:55
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What does into a distribution depends on what kinds of uses the distribution targets.

In a general-purpose distribution like Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, Arch Linux, etc., pretty much any software can go. Most Linux distributions concentrate on free software. The main general-purpose distributions will include pretty much any free software that has some use beyond a niche audience, that is reasonably usable and not too buggy, and (since most distributions are volunteer efforts) that someone is willing to take the time to package up.

All distributions that are intended for desktop use have a window manager included, and usually many of them. Some distributions may favor a particular window manager, for example by making it part of the default installation and setting up user accounts to use it by default. However, the window is a user choice: different users on the same system may use different window managers anyway.

Distributions that are not intended for desktop or server computers may offer a different selection of software. For example, OpenWRT is a Linux distribution for embedded devices, especially network appliances; it doesn't provide any GUI.

You can't make an operating system with just a kernel, any more than you could make a car with just an engine. A kernel won't give you a way to interact with the system in any way. A bare minimum system needs at least some way to run programs at startup. If the system is interactive in any way, you'll need a way to log in; most systems have one, though some embedded appliances might not. If you want to have a unix-like system, you need to have the usual unix utilities, including a shell, as well as various other tools that are expected on any unix system. If you want to have a GUI, you need the X window system. You can build non-unix systems with Linux as the kernel; Android is the most famous example.

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