In this question I asked why distribution are more common in the Open Source and Linux environment. It seems that a) open source makes the job easier for the distributor as it isn't needed to ask for permission and b) that Linux has an open development model instead of a centralized one.

So my question is: How did people have the idea Linux would work better with a distribution and start the first distribution(s)? Which distributions were the first and when did these projects start?


3 Answers 3


With regards to

Which distributions were the first and when did these projects start?

This is discussed at the beginning of Glyn Moody's book "Rebel Code", in Chapter 6, "Boot Then Root".

He mentions the distribution from MCC (the Manchester Computing Centre) as being a very early example, though perhaps not the first. However, the book does not mention an earlier example.

The First MCC Interim version, using the 0.12 kernel, appeared in February 1992.

He then says

As the MCC Readme notes, "Very shortly after the first MMC Interim version of Linux appeared, other people released similar versions: Dave Safford's TAMU [Texas A&M University] releases, and Martin Junius's MJ Versions were eventually followed by Peter MacDonald's massive, comprehensive SLS releases and H. J. Lu's small base systems."

The SLS (Softlanding Linux System) was an important early distribution. Debian is generally considered an immediate successor of SLS, and Debian's founder, Ian Murdoch said at the time that SLS was "possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately it also [sic] quite possibly the most popular".

Both Slackware and Debian began in 1993. So the distributions mentioned above, none of which exist any more, could be considered the first wave before the distributions we know and love made their first appearance.

I am not sure if

How did people have the idea Linux would work better with a distribution and start the first distribution(s)?

has a clear answer. It is clear that not everybody can build their own distribution from scratch, any more than everybody can build their own automobile.


Remember that just Linux - the kernel - is not very useful. In order to use it, you need some programs. At the very least a shell, its utilities, an editor, and probably a compiler so you can write more programs. Many of these were already written seperately by the GNU project, or available as BSD-licensed code.

So a minimal Linux system already includes code from the GNU project, the Regents of the University of California, Linus Torvalds, and his contributors. Once you've gone to the trouble of collecting all this though, you can do something you can't (legally) do with non-Free software: copy it to disk or tape and hand it to someone else. And that's a distribution.

Fancy things like names, websites, updates, packages, and release schedules, came later. Note that because systems didn't come with Linux preinstalled an installer of some sort was essential.

Ask the reverse question: without a distribution, how would anyone ever get Linux? How would it be .. distributed?


Distributions are older than Linux! Ever heard of BSD? The acronym stands for Berkeley Software Distribution. The original Berkeley Software Distribution was a collection of software developed at the University of California at Berkeley, which you could install on a Version 6 Unix system. The year was 1978. At the time, access to software sources was still the general rule, but the culture was changing; soon Richard Stallman would get the idea of writing a free operating system after having been unable to customize his printer driver.

Over the years, BSD came to include more and more software, until there was a complete BSD operating system. BSD pioneered such novelties as the vi editor, the TCP/IP protocol stack, the curses user interface library, the csh shell, etc. I don't know when BSD started to include software not written at UCB.

By the time the Linux kernel came onto the scene in 1991, there was a precedent for taking a collection of software which wasn't maintained as a coherent whole and assembling it into a working system. Linux distributions did take it further in that from day 1, they had to combine highly disparate software, written and maintained all over the world.

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