3 Distributions

20200218 With freedom comes choice and throughout this book options for choice are presented. The first choice is the version GNU/Linux! This book itself has migrated through many versions of GNU/Linux. The very first version included detailed instructions on building a GNU/Linux machine from the kernel up. We quickly migrated to some of the early distributions that collected together the basic building blocks.

Relatively speaking it wasn’t long before Ian Murdock developed a dependency based packaging system for a distribution of GNU/Linux. It was named after his future wife Debra and himself as Debian. It quickly became the most appreciated distribution of GNU/Linux. With the backing of a commercial entity, Canonical, the Ubuntu distribution, based on Debian, was created with a focus on ease of installation and use. It became the most widely used distribution ever. The name Ubuntu comes from the African cultural trait of welcoming your neighhbours, and sharing what you have.

This book, in its latest iteration, thus uses Ubuntu GNU/Linux—the most widely used GNU/Linux distribution and based on the most open Debian GNU/Linux distribution. These distributions have set {the} standards for a free (as in libre or liberty) software and collaborative development and user environment. Indeed, it has set the scene for a welcoming and sharing ecosystem. Ubuntu is the operating system of choice for many and is readily accessible even on the Microsoft Windows 10 platform, where it is available out of the box through the Windows Subsystem for Linux.

Much of what we share in this book though applies to the other flavours of GNU/Linux, including Red Hat. Also, a growing number of the applications (including LibreOffice, AbiWord, The Gimp, Dia and gPhoto, to name just a few) are cross-platform developments and can run natively under Microsoft Windows. The chapters that cover these applications in this book will also generally apply to those versions of the applications.

When you purchase a computer the chances are that it comes with MS/Windows pre-installed, and tuned by the manufacturer or retailer to run well on the particular hardware. Drivers for the audio, video, and CD-ROM, will have been included in the installation. The computer is ready to switch on and boot into MS/Windows. It will just work (usually)!

To run the freely available and openly supported GNU/Linux instead of prorietary and closed source and secret MS/Windows (or in addition to MS/Windows) you often need to install the system yourself. This entails obtaining a distribution of GNU/Linux, perhaps as a LiveCD (see Section 4.9.2) to first test without installing, then installing it, and configuring the device drivers to suit your hardware.

The GNU/Linux Operating System is built on the Linux kernel. To install GNU/Linux on your PC you could start with installing the Linux kernel and then compiling and installing the GNU tools and other essential software that makes up the operating system. This is not a trivial task and can require some sophisticcated computing skills. However we benefit greatly from the tremendous contributions many people have made to ensure installing GNU/Linux is accessible to everyone.

Many people over many years have put a lot of effort into packaging things together into Distributions so that installing GNU/Linux is now straightforward. Distributions typically provide the whole system as a collection of packages from which you can choose the packages to install to suite your own requirements. Some packages are mandatory, and form the base installation. Other packages are then installed as you need them.

In this chapter we review the options available in selecting a distribution of GNU/Linux to install. Chapter 4 will then step you through the installation process. Up front, our recommendation is to install the Ubuntu distribution, which is based on Debian GNU/Linux and can come with vendor support from Canonical, though it is not a requirement. For a resource limited machine (an older server with 1GB RAM or less, for example) then Lubuntu is recommended. Debian is an excellent alternative choice.

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