1. What criteria distinguishes various distributions of Linux, such as Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE? In other words, given a release of a Linux OS, what features mean it is classified into one distribution not the other?
  2. I heard that different distributions are grouped differently, for example, Debian-based, Gentoo-based, RPM-based, Slackware-based? I was wondering what criteria are used for the grouping?
  3. Within a distribution, what distinguishes different releases? For example, within Ubuntu, Ubuntu 10.04 and 10.10.
  4. As far as the concepts of release and distribution are concerned, is Windows 7 more of a counterpart of Ubuntu distribution or of Ubuntu 10.10? Is Windows NT family more of a counterpart of Ubuntu or of Debian-based Linux OSes?

Thanks and regards!

  • All the classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The most useful one (for me at least) is to do with what type of package management system is used. Your 4th question doesn't make sense to me. By the way, it's a fair bit easier to answer these questions if you break them up into bite-sized chunks.
    – boehj
    Jun 4, 2011 at 6:43
  • Thanks! What do you mean by "break them up into bite-sized chunks"?
    – Tim
    Jun 4, 2011 at 21:05
  • 1
    boehj was referring to the fact that you ask many different things in this question, so it's very hard to answer.
    – Mat
    Jun 5, 2011 at 14:54

2 Answers 2


From the Linux distributions Wikipedia entry:

A Linux distribution is a member of the family of Unix-like operating systems built on top of the Linux kernel. Such distributions (often called distros for short) are Operating systems including a large collection of software applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, media players, and database applications.

What distinguishes them is the hardware they supposrt, packaging, kernel patches, what set and versions of applications they ship, their documentation, install methods etc. Other "classifications" are whether they are more oriented towards end users or servers.

Some of the distributions (Debian, Gentoo, Fedora and others) are used as a "starting point" for other distributions (Ubuntu is derived from Debian for instance). That means that the creators of for instance Sabayon Linux used a Gentoo distribution to start their development effort, and keep track of Gentoo's evolution to some extent.

You can look at the Distrowatch search page for this kind of examples.

"RPM-based" distributions is a different classification. RPM is a package management system, not a distribution. Some distributions use it (RedHat and Suse comes to mind) directly or via one of its frontends. Others use different systems (pacman for Arch, portage for Gentoo). The package management system is one of the important differences between distributions.

Regarding versions, there are no strict criteria. The distribution developers/managers decide on what versions/patches/new software they want to include in a new version, polish it, and when it's ready, they ship it. There isn't a consistent versioning scheme across distributions.

For your last question I'm not sure I understand, but you could say that Windows NT, 2000, XP, 2003/Vista, 2008 and Windows 7 are "versions" of the Windows "distribution". And they are all in the Windows NT family of Windows releases.

So if you want to draw a parallel with Linux distributions, yes, each windows "release" is closer to a version of a Linux distribution. And the "Windows NT" lineage is equivalent to the RedHat or Suse lineage for instance.

(One of the similarities of these "lineages" is that there usually is a major revision of the kernel between Windows releases, and that's also the case for a lot of Linux distros.)

  • Thanks! I am still not sure about the differences between what distinguishes distributions and what distinguishes between releases within a distribution.
    – Tim
    Jun 5, 2011 at 14:50
  • A "release" is just a version. Like Firefox has 3.x release 4.x releases, same thing for Opera, IE, etc. It works the same way for most distributions. There is a OpenSuse 10.something, 11.whatever. It's just a version of that distribution. RedHat and OpenSuSE are different products altogether - different software, packaging, userbase, goals, etc. They are different Linux distributions.
    – Mat
    Jun 5, 2011 at 14:53

To get a sense of where many of the distributions came from, have a look at the GNU/Linux Distribution Timeline.

It gives you a real sense of the ancestry, history and influence of all of the GNU/Linux distributions in a beautifully produced diagramme.

  • 1
    This is an excellent way of conceptualizing the family tree.
    – boehj
    Jun 4, 2011 at 7:15
  • Sadly, it is wrong at least in some details. For example, Mandrake forked off Red Hat, as did Conectiva, and they merged into Mandriva (and Conectiva doesn't show up at all). They show Caldera, whose Linux distribution failed, who changed their name to SCO and launched their ill-fated attack on Linux. They never had a SCO distribution of Linux. Also, SLS was at least the intellectual heir to MCC, and I'm not so sure SuSE was decended from Slackware.
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 1:56

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