Linux Distributions

Linux is not an operating system in the sense that Windows or MacOS are operating system. Linux began in 1991 when computer studies student Linus Torvald asked for help on the internet with designing a computer kernel similar Andrew Tannebaum's Minix system (a Unix-like operating system designed to teach students how Unix worked). Torvalds wanted to make a kernel that could work on his compter that ran the then state of the art Intel 286 processor. The project quickly caught the interest of numerous programmers and by 1993 it was sufficiently robust to be packaged alongside the GNU sytem that had developed several packages nnix like system, despit GNU standing for GNU's Not Unix. This packaging of the Linux kernel with software to make a bespoke operating system has continued to be the Linux way, although Linux remains just a kernel and GNU has failed to gain traction with its Hurd kernel. These packaged bespoke operating systems are known as Linux distributions and my early involvement with Linux brought me into contact with what would be the main distributions.

I had been an avid reader of computer magazines since 1983 when I subscribed to 8000 Plus, a magazine that covered news about the Commodore 64 and some general computer news. In 1984 I read about Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond touring computer conventions and arging in favour of the GNU project to develop a free operating system. At the time I thought that was a stupid idea as who would want to develop an operating system that you could not charge money for. By 1993 I had moved onto using PCs and switched my subscription to 8000 Plus' sister magazine PC Plus. It carried an article about how it was possible to download a free operating system and I not only realised that my 1980s scepticism was unjustified, but downloaded the first publicly promoted Linux distribution.

SLS or Soft Landing Systems was the name of the distribution that I spent hours downloading SLS over a 2400 baud dial-up modem and running up a large phone bill in the process. I managed to get the system up and running, but I could not get the X Windows part of the distribution to work, so I reinstalled Microsoft Windows because I had a PhD to write and had recently spent £300 on the first version of Microsoft Office. I regretted not having a spare computer to install Linux and my the time I built myself a desktop computer I had reused the floppy disks that I had written SLS to. PC Plus included computer software on a free cdrom each month, so I assumed that would eventually get a copy of Linux to put temporarily on my desktop.

Red Hat Linux 4.0 finally arrived as the cover cdrom in 1996. Indeed it was the only time I knew PC Plus to include a Linux distribution on its cover. I installed Red Hat, but was disappointed with the FVWM default install that it used. I was more concerned about the lack of decent office software and returned the desktop to Windows. Its harddisk was too small to dual boot Linux and Windows. I kept the Red Hat disk for years and occasionally temporarily put Linux on the desktop. I could have switched back to my floppies only laptop, which despite having just 5 megabytes of memory could run Microsoft Word for my PhD and university lecture writing. However I decided that I would not return to Linux until there was decent office software. That happened a year later when Star Office (the forbear of Open Office and Libre Office) announced that its new Linux version would be free. So I began dual booting Red Hat 4 and Windows, because while Star Office could mess up complex Microsoft Word documents it was mostly fine for using Linux at home to work on lectures and polish off the still not quite finished PhD.

I had built my own desktop computers from parts sold at the monthly Chester computer fair. In 1999 one stand was selling boxed Linux distributions and I chose SuSE, which I did not realise had a connection to SLS. Its first version was a German translation of Slackware, which in turn was put together by Patrick Volkerding in 1993 to fix some of the script problems with SLS. In 1994 Volkerding helped SuSE produce their first version. I continued upgrading each time SuSE brought out a new edition, but was frustrated at the cost and SuSE's focus on the increasingly resource hungry KDE desktop environment. Again PC Plus came to rescue as it advertised a company selling Debian 3.0, which I fell in love with because surprisingly my Welsh mountain village was an early area for the availabilty of broadband.

Debian 3.0 was the first version of that distribution to include KDE, but that stage I had already switched to using the lightweight window managers Icewm (which SuSE used as a backstop should KDE fail to load) and WindowMaker. For years if I was re-installing I would install those Debian 3.0 cdroms and then upgrade to the latest version via broadband. Debian also had a connection back to SLS as it began as another 1993 response to the buggy nature of SLS. It was set up by Ian Murdock (the Ian of Debian) and one of its main acheivments was the Debian Social Contract, which was brought out in 1997 and for many years kept Debian as the home of radical devotees of free software. Just using Debian felt radical as most Linux distributions (including SuSE) used the Red Hat package management system and often new software could not be downloaded in Debian's deb format.

During the many years that I stuck with either SuSE or Debian I also distro hopped once a month. I subscribed to Linux Format magazine, which meant a different Linux distribution on the cover cdrom every month. Most of these were briefly looked at by me and then I re-installed Debian. Two exceptions brought into touch with more Linux history. I really liked Caldera Linux and used it for a while, but when they bought the property rights of the SCO Unix company they began trying to sue corporate users of Linux, claiming that the system infringed their property rights. Finally the series of lawsuits ended in 2005 when Caldera (by then called SCO Linux) acknowledged that they could not find any infringement of Unix in the Linux kernel. A second distribution I loved was Storm Linux, which had as its main advantage its graphical software package Synaptic, which for the first time allowed Debian package systems to use a graphical interface. When the company behind it (Stormix) closed in 2001 it open sourced Synaptic, which became a major boost for Debian based distributions.

Ubuntu was the one that got away. I had its first version on a Linux Format cdrom, but saw nothing to persuade me to stay and reinstalled Debian. Ubuntu went on to take over the Linux desktop world, just as Red Hat road the dotcom bubble to turn itself into an enterprise company (as SuSE would later do as well). Ubuntu was based on Debian and it made the Debian packaging system mainstream. Eventually I would regularly use a version of Ubuntu that was also revolutionary. Ubuntu's notorious Unity desktop environment was introduced initially for the brief period when netbooks (tiny laptops) were all the rage. Ubuntu was the only version of Linux I could get to run on it.

I reguarly change my Linux distribution and for a while I embraced Slackware to complete my connections to SLS. At present I am back using Debian again and it will be the basis of Our Sip Linux, although these RSI friendly guidelines can work for any Linux distribution.


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