What Is a Linux Distribution? (Simplified)

Making sense of GNU, package managers, and graphical desktop environments

Joe Cardillo
3 min readOct 27, 2021

A distribution is another word for an operating system, or OS.

There are a variety of distributions. However, all of them are essentially a collection of software based on the Linux kernel. (Remember: the kernel is the thing that communicates between the hardware and software.) The kernel is the base of the OS.

In addition to the Linux kernel, a typical Linux distribution includes:

  • GNU tools and libraries
  • Graphical desktop environment (window system)
  • Package manager
  • Default software

Let’s go through these one-by-one.

GNU (pronounced guh-noo)

GNU is a collection of free software developed by Richard Stallman (who understandably argues Linux should be called GNU/Linux).

  • It includes some of the libraries you need to execute programs.
  • It can be used as an OS, or in parts with other operating…