History of Early Linux Distros

If you haven’t noticed, if you’re looking for a Linux distribution, you’re spoiled for choice. Sites like DistroWatch list hundreds of different Linux distros on the site. But where did they all come from?

Since Linux is just a kernel, as Richard Stallman is fond of pointing out, it’s not really that useful by itself, and regardless of how you feel about the GNU/Linux naming controversy, it really is a misnomer to call Linux an operating system. As a kernel, it just does basic things like storing files on a hard drive or accessing a network. It requires utilities to make it useful.

In the early ’90s, some people had the bright idea to start packaging utilities with the Linux kernel to create distributions that essentially allowed programmers to run Unix, which was an operating system that they were familiar with on expensive computers from DEC and Sun, on cheap PCs.

The earliest known distribution was by HJ Lu in early 1992. It consisted of two floppies: a “boot” disk to boot the system and a “root” disk that contained the filesystem, and from which it actually ran. The concept was similar to today’s “live” distros that run off a CD or a thumb drive.

Distro-History-Disks

The next major variant was the MCC Interim Linux, created by Owen Le Blanc of Manchester University’s Manchester Computing Centre in England. This spanned several floppy disks, but had the advantage of being able to be installed on a hard drive. Or at least, without having to edit the master boot record with a hex editor the way HJ Lu’s “boot-root” distro did. It came with a number of utilities that most Linux users would recognize: the Bash shell, various GNU utilities, and Elvis, a VI-like editor.

One thing it didn’t include was X, so it was text-only. Another distribution that came out of Texas A&M University did, though as LWN put it, “the method they used to configure it occasionally allowed the magic smoke to escape from your monitor.”

The first true live CD distro was called Yggdrasil, which was one of the first distros to become available on a CD. One major advantage was that it configured itself automatically. The beta cost $60 and the finished version cost $99, which might seem a bit pricey. Real Unix systems such as Solaris or BSDi at the time cost upwards of $1,000, so it was a bargain.

The other major version of the time was SLS Linux, or the Softlanding Linux Distro. It was popular until some changes made it rather buggy. Patrick Volkerding made some changes of his own and released it as Slackware, which is still available today.

Another offshoot of SLS was called Debian, developed by Ian Murdoch. The name came from the combination of the names of both his and his girlfriend (now wife), Deborah. It’s still going strong as well, and is the basis for Ubuntu.

A few other names started around the same time and are well-known names, such as Red Hat or SUSE. Others have faded away, like MCC Interim Linux and Yggdrasil. Distros may come and go, but the flexibility of Linux and the ability to create new distributions means that they will continue to appear for a long time.

Photo Credit: Shermozle/Wikipedia