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They all use Linux kernel (lower layer). They all provide support for the same set of packages (higher layer), despite version differences. And even though their beliefs and "philosophy"s differ, what makes them unique at the bare-bones level?

One thing I could come up with is their package management.

  • Debian-based - dpkg
  • Arch - pacman
  • Gentoo - portage
  • RPM-based - rpm

and their own unique way of processing metadata and resolving dependencies. Is that the only main technical difference? And are their designs fundamentally different? (How?)

Another difference (I thought) might be the way they handle daemon services. But I have not delved much into that domain.

closed as primarily opinion-based by jasonwryan, Anthon, slm Oct 11 '14 at 6:46

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • This question is way too broad and also pretty subject to opinions over fact to easily provide you with a concise answer. – mdpc Oct 11 '14 at 5:17
  • Waht is your problem that you are trying to solve? You are unclear about what defines uniqueness and distribution. Using a vague term like "Debian based" in the same way as "RPM based" is comparing apples and elephants. And using rpm as a unique value for package management group RedHat and SuSE together, but these don't derive from each other in a similar way that Ubuntu does from Debian. – Anthon Oct 11 '14 at 6:01
  • I'm trying to find the reasons why one would choose, say Debian over Arch or vice versa, provided you can get access to any version of any package. – user97890 Oct 11 '14 at 8:10
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It's partly just due to historical differences, but partly because different distributions are geared toward different kinds of users. Red Hat and Debian are aimed mainly at business environments that need tried-and-true, stable software; Ubuntu is aimed at people who want the latest-and-greatest versions of everything with a minimum of fuss; Arch and Gentoo are aimed at experts who want to get their hands dirty and fine-tune their system.

The role of a Linux distribution is system integration: bringing together all the parts that make up a system (kernel, libraries, programs), configuring them to work together, performing stability testing, and providing an installer and an update system for users. This also involves developing additional, supporting software, such as the installer and the package system.

The way the system is put together (i.e. integrated) depends on the needs of the people who will be using it, so you get differences between the distributions. Gentoo developed Portage to make it easy for enthusiasts to recompile their whole system with customized build options; Red Hat developed kpatch to allow administrators to apply kernel security patches without having to reboot their mission-critical servers.

A distribution's package system is just a part of its system integration. So is the configuration for how system services like daemons are started, as well as configuration for other things like networking and security policy.

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