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How the Linux Community Ranks Distributions

Deeds and Words Can Judge

  • February 19, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield
At first, ranking GNU/Linux distributions seems alien to the spirit of free software. After all, free software is all about choice. What should matter is that your distro suits you, not how others judge it.

Yet, in practice, community members judge distributions all the time. They don't use a single metric, and at times a distro's appeal is as simple as the fact that it is new or has released a new version. Yet, whenever community members choose a distribution to download or to build their own distribution upon, or to borrow a tool from, they are making a verdict on it.

The exact position on the Page Hit Ranking on the front page of Distrowatch may change, but, if you ignore the new distributions, over several years, a reasonably consistent picture emerges of how distributions are ranked relative to each other.

Looking at Distrowatch and daily news stories, I suggest that many distributions that have existed for more than a couple of years tend to fall into four main tiers. On the first tier are about half a dozen that have the attention of the majority of users. In fact, for some users, especially new ones, one or more first tier distros could be GNU/Linux, for all they know.

On the second tier are distributions that attract a dedicated, but small following. And on the third tier, those that, while not necessarily inferior to those on higher tiers, occupy specialized niches and hold little in popular appeal.

Finally, there are the rest: Distros too new to have found their place, and those that, for one reason or the other, are unlikely to attract much attention.

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