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 systems.
  • Some common GNU tools you might recognize are GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), glibc, coreutils, binutils, and the Bash shell.
  • These are the tools that allow you to interact with the kernel, and to issue commands to your computer.

Graphical desktop environment (window system)

This is the screen that allows you to interact with your computer visually, rather than through the command line interface.

  • The window system is software that allows your computer to display graphical elements.
  • Without the window system, your graphical environment won’t work or exist.
  • As a Linux admin, you will primarily interact with…



Joe Cardillo

Technical Support Engineer at Linode | Linux & Kubernetes