Monday, March 12, 2007

A 100 ways to say Linux

Distribution Ethymology

A couple of nights ago my sister Pamela, who is not an IT person asked me where all the names of the different linux distributions mentioned in the previous Linux article come from. I thought a little research on the names and genealogy of Linux was a good idea.

After some reading you'll find that there are no accidental names, and a Linux distribution name, asides from being creative says a lot about the product focus.

So here it is, based on a pretty good image found on, which is slightly out of date, but very easy to read.

1960 - 1970 Unix

It is impossible to start talking about linux history without going back to Unix origins, so if we lookup in Unix was developed in 1969 by Ken Thompson with Dennis Ritchie at Bell labs. Unix's grandfather was the simple CTSS (Compatible Time Sharing System), who gave birth to the obese and underachiever Multics, a project too ambitious that "collapsed under it's own weight". Thompson was involved in Multics and wanted to rescue some concepts (such as communication) in a simple agile system, hence the name Unix was chosen.
Two main branches of Unix developed, the first System III and V, had a more commercial orientation, the second Unix BSD was developed in UC Berkeley and had an Open Software philosophy. Linux comes from this last branch. The fact that Unix was distributed with source code for over 2 decades was instrumental in the Open Software mind that is at the core of Linux.

1983-1992 The birth of Linux

In 1983 Richard Stallman created the GNU project to develop an open source linux like OS from scratch, all components had to be free. One year later Stallman created the Free Software Foundation. The project advanced slowly for many years until Linus Torvalds wrote the Linux Kernel while attending the University of Helsinki. Torvalds started writing the kernel to replace Minix, it was Linus' Minix, which shortly he started calling Linux.

Torvalds invented other interesting name as the free license that allows commercial distribution of Linux was called copyleft (some rights reserved), and copyleft's clever logo is the copyright c pointing to the left.

Stallman also has created a number of significant names also under the GNU project, as most of the traditional end user programs found in unix have a corresponding clever and mnemotechnic name in linux (yacc - bison, lex - flex, more - less)
Even the GNU name is a recursive acronym meaning GNU's Not Unix.

1993 - Today - The distributions:

If you take a look at the chart at the beginning of this article (or the comparison chart whose link is at the end), the number of distributions that have developed over the years is rather large, so we'll only look at the most widely known today:

- Ubuntu - My favorite for ease of use and installation, is based on the Debian distrubution, Ubuntu is a Zulu and Xhosa concept that means "humanity towards others," or, "I am what I am because of who we all are." Founded by a South African entrepreneur to promote free software and endorsed by Nelson Mandela, Ubuntu gives funny names to each of it releases (Warty Warthog, Hoary Hedgehog, Breezy Badger, Dapper Drake, Edgy Eft and the upcoming Feisty Fawn). Thanks god they also have version numbers.

- Slackware - The oldest and most UNIX like of the distributions still around today. It's name is derived form the term Slack whose meaning is defined by the Church of the SubGenius (I swear I'm not making this up), it means "sense of freedom, independence, and original thinking that comes when you achieve your personal goals". It seems to be a marketing effort to make it look up to date, which is not.

- Debian - A very stable distribution through a strict release methodology, that has a large developer community. Is the root to many distributions that have built on top of it. Pronounced pronounced Deb'-ee-en, the name Debian is a contraction of Debra and Ian Murdoch who funded the project.

- Fedora Core - A free version released by Red Hat (who also has a commercial version), Fedora is light and fast. This distribution owes it's name to the fedora hat that appears on the Red Hat logo.
The origin of the Red Hat name according to Wikipedia: "While at college, company founder Marc Ewing was given the Cornell lacrosse team cap (with red and white stripes) by his grandfather. People would turn to him to solve their problems and he was referred to as that guy in the red hat. He lost the cap, later the manual of the beta version of Red Hat Linux had an appeal to readers (anyone finding it) to return his Red Hat."

- Mandrake - A very nice and easy to use version. Originally called Mandrake Linux the name comes from MandrakeSoft who lost a court case with Kings Features Sindicate, property of Hearst Corp. The publisher of Mandrake the Magician. The appeal is still pending.
In 2005 MandrakeSoft bought Brazilian linux distribution company Connectiva and the name Mandriva was born. Mandriva also gives names to each release.

- SUSE Linux - Started as a German Translation for Slackware Linux, the company was Acquired by Novell in 2004, at the peak of the Linux bubble. There are two versions the origin of the name, SuSE would be an acronym for "Software- und System-Entwicklung" ("Software and system development"). The other version says that the name is a tribute to the German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse.

- Gentoo - A version coming from Enoch Linux, Gentoo is distributed as source code
and must be compiled in each users machine. The compiling and installation process is really long and not for beginners, but Gentoo is know for it's speed as it generates native code for every installation. The name comes from the Gentoo Penguin, the fastest swimming penguin species. There are about a dozen minor distributions based on Gentoo.

- Knoppix - Based on Debian, Knoppix can be run completely from CD or other removable media (pen drives), making it a good graphical environment when you need to repair systems whose hard drive is not booting anymore. Developed by Linux consultant Klaus Knopper.

- Linspire - Based on Debian, Linspire was formerly known as Lindows and Lin---s (pronounced Lindash). Linspire had to change it's name after Microsoft sued them for similarity to it's Windows product name. Microsoft lost in court but settled afterwards for 20 million and the small company changed its name, and Microsoft holds the Lindows name. Linspire is a commercial distribution whose original goal was to run Linux and Windows applications (by means of the wine layer), but this didn't work out and Linspire focus is now on ease of installation.
They name their releases after fish found near their California headquarters.

That's it, hope you enjoyed it.

If you want to compare the different distributions, here's a good comparison that appears in Wikipedia with over 70 distributions in it.

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