So GNU/Linux is an operating system, consisting of several programs at a minimum: Linux kenel, gcc, gnu-binutils, Gnome desktop, etc.

  • What makes a Linux distribution GNU? Is it the tools, with which the kernel was compiled? Is it the tools, with which the distribution is shipped?

  • Do there exist fully functional, desktop operating systems, that are Linux based but not GNU?

  • On a related side note, there are non-Linux GNUs, such as Debian's GNU/kfreebsd
    – Joseph R.
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 12:42
  • Did anyone bother to search for this Q already? Seems like we've covered this whole thing before?
    – slm
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 14:23
  • @slm, thanks for the link, but IMHO not a dup at all: my central question is Does there exist a fully usable operational system for a PC, based on Linux, but not on GNU? i.e. the opposite of the other question.
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 14:43
  • Realize this is all IMO: for one thing, this Q is not really a good fit for the site in it's current form. 2, there are several Q's on the site that touch on this, rather than spend time pointing them all out I linked to that Q since it felt like the one that was most duplicate to this, even though it's the contrapositive of this Q. This Q is overly broad, and opens itself to too much opinion.
    – slm
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 15:56
  • 2
    @Vorac: Since you reverted my edit, I'll not attempt to edit this again, but I'll just point out that, afaik, "operating system" is the correct, standard term, not "operation system". Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 16:00

4 Answers 4


The Free Software Foundation argues that the majority of Linux distributions are in fact GNU systems, which happen to use a Linux kernel. They base this claim on the fact that GNU was a longstanding project to develop a free operating system before Linux came along, and that the kernel was only the last missing piece. They are right in that practically all Linux-based desktop and server distributions use at least some GNU components, perhaps most importantly the GNU C Library (glibc), GNU Core Utilities (coreutils) and the Bash shell. Furthermore, Linux kernel development is inherently tied to GCC, due to the utilization of GCC extensions.

Some embedded system, perhaps most notably Google's Android, don't use any GNU components or libraries. In Android, for instance, the GNU C Library is replaced by Google's own, BSD-based Bionic C Library. The FSF agrees that it is not appropriate the refer to such system as "GNU systems" or "GNU/Linux", but on the other hand they wouldn't want these to be referred to as merely "Linux" systems either. At least we can draw the conclusion that there seems to be consensus about the fact that using GNU tools to build the kernel, does not make a system a "GNU system".

  • While there are GNU packages that cannot be compiled with the Intel compiler, the Linux kernel itself can be. The Gentoo wiki has a couple of pages on how to do this. Also, check out this link
    – doneal24
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 19:54

The history of the GNU/Linux terminology goes back to the early 1990s.

In 1991 Linus Torvalds began the Linux kernel project out of his bedroom in Helsinki. Not long afterwards the Linux kernel began to gain substantial traction, aided by the rise of the Internet.

Richard Stallman's GNU project was at the time still planning to use the HURD microkernel as the kernel of the planned GNU operating system. However, when Linux distributions (free Unix-like operating systems based on the Linux kernel) started forming around the new Linux kernel project, Stallman became interested. When the Debian project began in 1993, under the leadership of Ian Murdock, the FSF gave some financial support to the young project. However, the Debian developers quickly parted ways with Stallman and the FSF, in part on technical issues. One issue for example was that Stallman wanted to retain debugging symbols in the program, while Debian wanted to strip them.

Once Debian and the FSF parted ways, Stallman requested that Debian refer to itself as GNU/Linux. The request was made to Bruce Perens, since Murdock had handed leadership over to him. Since these organizations had parted on good terms, and shared (and share) common goals, the Debian developers did as he asked. Of course it is true that Stallman has promoted such names independently, but the cooperation of an actual Linux-based operating system in referring to themselves as such has been significant in promoting the usage of such a name.

The rationale as given by Stallman included that (a) the core of the system aside from the Linux kernel was largely GNU tools, (b) the Linux kernel was in some sense the culmination/completion of the GNU project, who had been trying to get a working kernel for some time, so it should use this name as a way of acknowledging and reminding people of the ideals of the GNU project. Reason (a) tends to be mentioned rather more often, though it was not exactly true then, and is even less true now, Though clearly important parts of a Linux based operating system depend on GNU tools e.g. bash, gcc, binutils, gdb, libc etc., in some cases these can be replaced by other tools. So, such arguments are at least debatable, and have, indeed, been much debated.

As far as I know only Debian and (some of) its derivatives (following the lead of its parent) refer to themselves as GNU/Linux. However, the other so-called Linux distributions such as Fedora, Gentoo, etc. are in substance no different from Debian - it is mostly the same software. So one has equally good reason to refer to them as GNU/Linux.

There aren't a lot of systems around using the Linux kernel without the GNU userland, since the two to a large extent developed together and are intertwined in various ways. (For example the Linux kernel is written in the extended (GNU) C of gcc, and won't build with a standard C compiler.) As Thomas said, the obvious example is Android, but since it has been so heavily forked by Google it is questionable whether it is correct to refer to the Android kernel as Linux anymore, though there is talk of a merge/reconciliation in the future.

On a side note, it is unfortunate to note that Stallman and the FSF apparently push the GNU/Linux terminology rather hard. For example, Jonathan Corbet wrote in an LWN comment that the FSF refuses to talk to him unless he uses the term GNU/Linux. Jon, in addition to being a LWN founder, is also a senior and respected kernel developer. In its entirety, the comment says:

Just to be clear on this: we stopped asking the FSF for comments many years ago because the FSF refused to talk to us without prior promises from us on what we would say and which terms we would use. We are unwilling to make such promises. If the FSF's policy on such things has changed, we would be pleased to know about it.

This is clearly a reference to the insistence on GNU/Linux terminology among other things.

The above history is covered in some detail in Chapter 6 ("Boot Then Root") of "Rebel Code" by Glyn Moody.

  • So would a gcc-compiled linux, but shipped with Microsoft Visual Studio instead be GNU? Is the kernel dependent on the gcc extensions, or can be compiled with any standard-conforming compiler? Name one distribution, that is Linux, but not GNU.
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 12:51
  • @Vorac Even the FSF agrees that merely compiling a kernel with GNU tools does not a GNU system make. While not a desktop distribution, Android uses the Linux kernel but no GNU components, but then again if Android can be called a "Linux" system depends on who you ask. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:04
  • And what about FreeBSD with LLVM?
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:12
  • FreeBSD uses some GPL licensed components, but does not use the Linux kernel. LLVM is licensed under a OSI certified license. While it implements some GCC extensions, it is not related to the GNU project. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:17
  • 2
    "...it is questionable whether it is correct to refer to the Android kernel as Linux anymore" - Actually most of the Android kernel changes have already been merged upstream, so that is not the issue. In my earlier comment, I was more referring to the stance taken by the FSF, since according to them “Android contains Linux, but it isn't Linux, because it doesn't have the usual Linux [sic] libraries and utilities [meaning the GNU system].” Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 18:34

An operating system is a combination of a kernel and a userland. Basically, the kernel manages the hardware while the userland provides a comprehensive interface to the users.

In a common GNU/Linux distribution, Linux provides the kernel while the GNU project brings the userland tools. GNU was started way before Linux, and provides with a large amount of utilities to build a full operating system.

However, they were missing a kernel. Although they had the Hurd kernel, it was taking too long to be ready. And then came Linux with the help of a big enthusiasm around it, it has evolved faster than the Hurd.

You now have a userland and a kernel from two different projects. And as each is essential to have an operating system, why not name the association GNU/Linux so each project is given its share of the credit?

You have other userlands like the BSD utils or BusyBox. However they are more or less complete compared to the GNU utilities and some software will work only with a GNU userland. For example, most of the BSD operating systems are using GCC as a compiler while LLVM will soon change this situation.

And as an universal operating system, you can run Debian with a FreeBSD kernel and a GNU userland.

  • 1
    The million dollar question: Still, can I have a Linux, non-gnu desktop system. E.g. exchange bash->zsh, Gnome->KDE, GCC->LLVM, libc->bionic etc.?
    – Vorac
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:16
  • @Vorac Some embedded systems replace the GNU coreutils with BusyBox, I've never heard of a Linux kernel fully without a GNU userland. If you are interested by the project, you can hack and that can only make everything better. :)
    – Spack
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:21
  • Vorac : But if you try and replace glibc, you'll have to rebuild everything -- not feasible. @Spack See Thomas Nyman's point about Android being a GNU-less system with a linux kernel.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 13:46
  • 1
    Apparently, you can run Android on a desktop (soon). I guess the jury is still out on if Android really can be considered a desktop operating system in its own right. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 17:07
  • 1
    @Spack: embedded systems typically also replace glibc with µClibc.
    – ninjalj
    Commented Oct 4, 2013 at 9:52

What makes a Linux distribution GNU? Is it the tools, with which the kernel was compiled? Is it the tools, with which the distribution is shipped?

Yes and yes. The kernel is one monolithic stand-alone executable. Everything else resides in "userland". Generally, userland applications make use of at least one system library, the standard C library.1 In addition to various utility functions, this is what provides access to system calls -- requests for the system, i.e., the kernel, to do something -- which is necessary for even very basic tasks, such as working with files. The C library implementation used with linux is glibc -- the GNU C library.

The linux kernel itself is written in C, and also requires a C library to work -- except in this case the necessary parts are compiled in, and not external. The compiler normally used for this is GCC -- the "GNU Compiler Collection" -- and the C library is glibc.

Since virtually all of the userland is compiled against glibc, it is one of the most essential things on the system after the kernel. Another essential component is the linker, which connects an executable to an external library. That's a GNU product too.

To illustrate this, you can use ldd on various executables, including libraries (which are executable, but not on their own). As it says in the man page, "ldd prints the shared libraries required by each program or shared library specified on the command line." E.g.:

> ldd /bin/bash
    linux-vdso.so.1 =>  (0x00007fff7348e000)
    libtinfo.so.5 => /lib64/libtinfo.so.5 (0x00007fdbdae7f000)
    libdl.so.2 => /lib64/libdl.so.2 (0x00007fdbdac7b000)
    libc.so.6 => /lib64/libc.so.6 (0x00007fdbda8c3000)
    /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007fdbdb0c8000)

Notice "libc.so.6" -- that's glibc (don't confuse it with glib, another GNU product fundamental to linux, but not as fundamental as glibc). If you look at all the other things mentioned (except the first one, explained below), you'll notice they all link to libc themselves. Let's look at libc.so.6 itself:

> ldd /lib64/libc.so.6
    /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f9cefa04000)
    linux-vdso.so.1 =>  (0x00007fffb21ff000)

"ld-linux-x86-64.so.2" is the linker mentioned above (generally, ld, and it has a man page). You can't run ldd on it but file says it is dynamically linked, I presume to libc (this may sound circular, but it isn't) and linux-vdso. This last one is sort of interesting because you'll notice just an address after the =>. That's because it is actually part of the kernel.

The C library, AFAIK, is the only shared object on the system that doesn't link to the C library -- it's at the center of the whole mess. Even the base library of other compiled languages uses libc, e.g.:

> ldd libstdc++.so.6.0.17 
    linux-gate.so.1 =>  (0xf77b8000)
    libm.so.6 => /lib/libm.so.6 (0xf7684000)
    libc.so.6 => /lib/libc.so.6 (0xf74d2000)
    /lib/ld-linux.so.2 (0xf77b9000)
    libgcc_s.so.1 => /lib/libgcc_s.so.1 (0xf74b5000)

Note that libraries and the linker have various pseudonyms implemented with symlinks (e.g., /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 is actually /lib64/ld-2.15.so).

Also note that gcc, the "native" compiler (since it compiles the kernel, and the C library) does not have to be present on the system, but libc and ld do or else nothing can work.

That's not the only set of things in that GNU provides. They also are responsible for the bash shell and other core tools and utilities that make the system *nix like and (mostly) POSIX compatible. And GNOME, one of the first linux DE's and one of the most widely used. And the aforementioned glib, which provides a lot of high level functions to support things like a GNOME and other DE's. GNOME is built on GTK, which was originally developed for the GIMP. GTK is also fundamental to various other DE's; GTK and the GIMP are also GNU products. They've done a lot of stuff.

1 There is such a thing as a userland application that doesn't link to any library; these are called static executables and it essentially means they have had parts of that library compiled into them (just like the kernel does).

  • Is a kernel Loadable Module now userland? The kernel, once loaded, is fairly but not absolutely monolithic.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 14:59
  • 1
    @MSalters : Those modules don't run independent of the kernel, they are loaded into it, and all of them can, in fact, be compiled right in. They are parts internal to the kernel and meaningless outside that context. So it is still a monolithic entity. Of course the design is modular -- but that is not the same thing as modularity in a unix sense, meaning, something which functions using a number of in- or inter- dependent parts which are external to each other as processes. You would not call an individual executable "modular" just because it links to a shared library.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 15:19
  • "The C library, AFAIK, is the only shared object on the system that doesn't link to the C library". I'm not sure I understand what this means. You are saying the C library doesn't link to itself? This should a little tautological. Can a library link to itself? Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 16:11
  • @FaheemMitha : No (or: you perhaps could arrange it, but it would be silly). My point was that libc only requires the kernel and the linker, whereas everything else (excluding static objects) requires (at least) the kernel, the linker and libc.
    – goldilocks
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 18:46
  • @goldilocks Ok, I see. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 18:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .