Published on 2016 - 07 - 19

A Linux distribution consists of the components needed to create a working Linux system and the procedures needed to get those components installed and running. Technically, Linux is really just what is referred to as the kernel. Before the kernel can be useful, you must have other software such as basic commands (GNU utilities), services you want to offer (such as remote login or web servers), and possibly a desktop interface and graphical applications. Then, you must be able to gather all that together and install it on your computer's hard disk.

Two major distributions rose to become the foundation for many other distributions: Red Hat Linux and Debian.

Choosing a Red Hat distribution

When Red Hat Linux appeared in the late 1990s, it quickly became the most popular Linux distribution for several reasons:

  • RPM package management—Tarballs are fine for dropping software on your computer, but they don't work as well when you want to update, remove, or even find out about that software. Red Hat created the RPM packaging format so a software package could contain not only the files to be shared, but also information about the package version, who created it, which files were documentation or configuration files, and when it was created. By installing software packaged in RPM format, that information about each software package could be stored in a local RPM database. It became easy to find what was installed, update it, or remove it.
  • Simple installation—The anaconda installer made it much simpler to install Linux. As a user, you could step through some simple questions, in most cases accepting defaults, to install Red Hat Linux.
  • Graphical administration—Red Hat added simple graphical tools to configure printers, add users, set time and date, and do other basic administrative tasks. As a result, desktop users could use a Linux system without even having to run commands.

For years, Red Hat Linux was the preferred Linux distribution for both Linux professionals and enthusiasts. Red Hat, Inc., gave away the source code, as well as the compiled, ready-to-run versions of Red Hat Linux (referred to as the binaries). But as the needs of their Linux community users and big-ticket customers began to move further apart, Red Hat abandoned Red Hat Linux and began developing two operating systems instead: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora.

Using Red Hat Enterprise Linux

In March 2012, Red Hat, Inc., became the first open source software company to bring in more than $1 billion in yearly revenue. It achieved that goal by building a set of products around Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) that would suit the needs of the most demanding enterprise computing environments.

While other Linux distributions focused on desktop systems or small business computing, RHEL worked on those features needed to handle mission-critical applications for business and government. It built systems that could speed transactions for the world's largest financial exchanges and be deployed as clusters and virtual hosts.

Instead of just selling RHEL, Red Hat offers an ecosystem of benefits for Linux customers to draw on. To use RHEL, customers buy subscriptions that they can use to deploy any version of RHEL they desire. If they decommission a RHEL system, they can use the subscription to deploy another system.

Different levels of support are available for RHEL, depending on customer needs. Customers can be assured that, along with support, they can get hardware and third-party software that is certified to work with RHEL. They can get Red Hat consultants and engineers to help them put together the computing environments they need.

Red Hat has also added other products as natural extensions to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. JBoss is a middleware product for deploying Java-based applications to the Internet or company intranets. Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization is composed of the virtualization hosts, managers, and guest computers that allow you to install, run, manage, migrate, and decommission huge virtual computing environments.

In recent years, Red Hat has extended its portfolio into cloud computing. RHEL OpenStack Platform and Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization offer complete platforms for running and managing virtual machines. Red Hat Cloudforms is a cloud management platform. RHEL Atomic and Linux containers in Docker format offer ways of containerizing applications for the cloud.

There are those who have tried to clone RHEL, using the freely available RHEL source code, rebuilding and rebranding it. Oracle Linux is built from source code for RHEL but currently offers an incompatible kernel. CentOS is a community-sponsored Linux distribution that is built from RHEL source code. Recently, Red Hat took over support of the CentOS project.

Using Fedora

While RHEL is the commercial, stable, supported Linux distribution, Fedora is the free, cutting-edge Linux distribution that is sponsored by Red Hat, Inc. Fedora is the Linux system Red Hat uses to engage the Linux development community and encourage those who want a free Linux for personal use and rapid development.

Fedora includes more than 16,000 software packages, many of which keep up with the latest available open source technology. As a user, you can try the latest Linux desktop, server, and administrative interfaces in Fedora for free. As a software developer, you can create and test your applications using the latest Linux kernel and development tools.

Because the focus of Fedora is on the latest technology, it focuses less on stability. So expect that you might need to do some extra work to get everything working and that not all the software will be fully baked.

However, I recommend that you use Fedora for the following reasons:

  • Fedora is used as a proving ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat tests many new applications in Fedora before committing them to RHEL. By using Fedora, you will learn the skills you need to work with features as they are being developed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
  • For learning, Fedora is more convenient than RHEL, yet still includes many of the more advanced, enterprise-ready tools that are in RHEL.
  • Fedora is free, not only as in “freedom” but also as in “you don't have to pay for it.

Choosing Ubuntu or another Debian distribution

Like Red Hat Linux, the Debian GNU/Linux distribution was an early Linux distribution that excelled at packaging and managing software. Debian uses deb packaging format and tools to manage all of the software packages on its systems. Debian also has a reputation for stability.

Many Linux distributions can trace their roots back to Debian. According to distrowatch (, more than 130 active Linux distributions can be traced back to Debian. Popular Debian-based distributions include Linux Mint, elementary OS, Zorin OS, LXLE, Kali Linux, and many others. However, the Debian derivative that has achieved the most success is Ubuntu (

By relying on stable Debian software development and packaging, the Ubuntu Linux distribution was able to come along and add those features that Debian lacked. In pursuit of bringing new users to Linux, the Ubuntu project added a simple graphical installer and easy-to-use graphical tools. It also focused on full-featured desktop systems, while still offering popular server packages.

Ubuntu was also an innovator in creating new ways to run Linux. Using live CDs or live USB drives offered by Ubuntu, you could have Ubuntu up and running in just a few minutes. Often included on live CDs were open source applications, such as web browsers and word processors, that actually ran in Windows. This made the transition to Linux from Windows easier for some people.

Understanding how companies make money with Linux

Open source enthusiasts believe that better software can result from an open source software development model than from proprietary development models. So in theory, any company creating software for its own use can save money by adding its software contributions to those of others to gain a much better end product for themselves.

Companies that want to make money by selling software need to be more creative than they were in the old days. Although you can sell the software you create that includes GPL software, you must pass the source code of that software forward. Of course, others can then recompile that product, basically using and even reselling your product without charge. Here are a few ways that companies are dealing with that issue:

  • Software subscriptions—Red Hat, Inc., sells its Red Hat Enterprise Linux products on a subscription basis. For a certain amount of money per year, you get binary code to run Linux (so you don't have to compile it yourself), guaranteed support, tools for tracking the hardware and software on your computer, access to the company's knowledge base, and other assets.
    Although Red Hat's Fedora project includes much of the same software and is also available in binary form, there are no guarantees associated with the software or future updates of that software. A small office or personal user might take a risk on using Fedora (which is itself an excellent operating system), but a big company that's running mission-critical applications will probably put down a few dollars for RHEL.

  • Training and certification—With Linux system use growing in government and big business, professionals are needed to support those systems. Red Hat offers training courses and certification exams to help system administrators become proficient using Red Hat Enterprise Linux systems. In particular, the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) and Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) certifications have become popular ( More on RHCE/RHCSA certifications later in this chapter.
    Other certification programs are offered by Linux Professional Institute (, CompTIA (, and Novell ( LPI and CompTIA are professional computer industry associations. Novell centers its training and certification on its SUSE Linux products.

  • Bounties—Software bounties are a fascinating way for open source software companies to make money. Suppose you are using XYZ software package and you need a new feature right away. By paying a software bounty to the project itself, or to other software developers, you can have your needed improvements moved to the head of the queue. The software you pay for will remain covered by its open source license, but you will have the features you need, at probably a fraction of the cost of building the project from scratch.

  • Donations—Many open source projects accept donations from individuals or open source companies that use code from their projects. Amazingly, many open source projects support one or two developers and run exclusively on donations.

  • Boxed sets, mugs, and T-shirts—Some open source projects have online stores where you can buy boxed sets (some people still like physical DVDs and hard copies of documentation) and a variety of mugs, T-shirts, mouse pads, and other items. If you really love a project, for goodness sake, buy a T-shirt!

This is in no way an exhaustive list, because more creative ways are being invented every day to support those who create open source software. Remember that many people have become contributors to and maintainers of open source software because they needed or wanted the software themselves. The contributions they make for free are worth the return they get from others who do the same.