When reviewing different flavors of Linux, you’ll frequently come across phrases like “Ubuntu is based on Debian” but what exactly does that mean?

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader PLPiper is trying to get a handle on how Linux variants work:

I’ve been looking through quite a number of Linux distros recently to get an idea of what’s around, and one phrase that keeps coming up is that “[this OS] is based on [another OS]”. For example:

  • Fedora is based on Red Hat
  • Ubuntu is based on Debian
  • Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu

For someone coming from a Mac environment I understand how “OS X is based on Darwin”, however when I look at Linux Distros, I find myself asking “Aren’t they all based on Linux..?”

In this context, what exactly does it mean for one Linux OS to be based on another Linux OS?

So, what exactly does it mean when we talk about one version of Linux being based off another version?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor kostix offers a solid overview of the whole system:

Linux is a kernel — a (complex) piece of software which works with the hardware and exports a certain Application Programming Interface (API), and binary conventions on how to precisely use it (Application Binary Interface, ABI) available to the “user-space” applications.

Debian, RedHat and others are operating systems — complete software environments which consist of the kernel and a set of user-space programs which make the computer useful as they perform sensible tasks (sending/receiving mail, allowing you to browse the Internet, driving a robot etc).

Now each such OS, while providing mostly the same software (there are not so many free mail server programs or Internet browsers or desktop environments, for example) differ in approaches to do this and also in their stated goals and release cycles.

Quite typically these OSes are called “distributions”. This is, IMO, a somewhat wrong term stemming from the fact you’re technically able to build all the required software by hand and install it on a target machine, so these OSes distribute the packaged software so you either don’t need to build it (Debian, RedHat) or they facilitate such building (Gentoo). They also usually provide an installer which helps to install the OS onto a target machine.

Making and supporting an OS is a very complicated task requiring a complex and intricate infrastructure (upload queues, build servers, a bug tracker, and archive servers, mailing list software etc etc etc) and staff. This obviously raises a high barrier for creating a new, from-scratch OS. For instance, Debian provides ca. 37k packages for some five hardware architectures — go figure how much work is put into supporting this stuff.

Still, if someone thinks they need to create a new OS for whatever reason, it may be a good idea to use an existing foundation to build on. And this is exactly where OSes based on other OSes come into existence. For instance, Ubuntu builds upon Debian by just importing most packages from it and repackaging only a small subset of them, plus packaging their own, providing their own artwork, default settings, documentation etc.

Note that there are variations to this “based on” thing. For instance, Debian fosters the creation of “pure blends” of itself: distributions which use Debian rather directly, and just add a bunch of packages and other stuff only useful for rather small groups of users such as those working in education or medicine or music industry etc.

Another twist is that not all these OSes are based on Linux. For instance, Debian also provide FreeBSD and Hurd kernels. They have quite tiny user groups but anyway.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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