The rise of the Debian distro family of Linux over time

DistroWatch currently ranks Linux Mint, Debian GNU/Linux and Ubuntu as the first, second and third most popular distributions, respectively, based on the number of times their pages are visited on the DistroWatch web site. Ubuntu takes a snapshot of the Debian unstable repository every 6 months and adds its changes on top. Mint adds a few packages, but the rest of its packages it gets directly from the Ubuntu repositories. In other words, Ubuntu is the child of Debian and Linux Mint is its grandchild, but they are all part of the same distribution family.

It is very difficult to measure the use of a Linux distribution, since few installations of Linux have paid for a support contract or license from Red Hat, the SUSE division of Micro Focus, Canonical or one of the other Linux companies. The annual surveys of the readers at or Reddit’s r/Linux group poll readers who are probably not representative of the average Linux user. For example, Slackware was selected as the desktop distro of the year 2017 at and Arch won in the last r/Linux poll conducted in August 2015. There is likely a self-selection bias to these polls, since both Slackware and Arch users are reputed to be more hardcore and dedicated than the average Linux user, so they are more likely to participate in these online forums and to take the time to participate in these polls.

People go to DistroWatch to find out information about a distribution and to see which version of software is installed in each release of that distribution. The number of page hits for each distro at is probably the best measure currently available of a distro’s relative popularity, since no scientific polls have been conducted on Linux usage and the only reliable data is for limited areas such as Linux images in Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) or downloads of Vagrant Boxes.

Unfortunately, DistroWatch does not have pages for most of the embedded distros, such as Android, Sailfish OS, OpenWRT, and OpenEmbedded-Core, nor does it cover all the netbook distros like Chrome OS and its derivatives. DistroWatch’s statistics are probably a little biased against commercial distributions, because people seeking to find out information about these distros are more likely to go straight to their web pages rather than to When searching for “Red Hat Linux”, “SUSE Linux”, “Oracle Linux”, and “Ubuntu Linux”, Google offers their DistroWatch page as the 15th, 146th, 5th and 109th option in the search results, respectively. In contrast, when searching for non-commercial distros, such as “Debian Linux”, “Mint Linux”, “Solus Linux”, “Slackware Linux”, “Gentoo Linux” and “Arch Linux”, Google offers their DistroWatch page as the 3rd, 5th, 5th, 6th, 6th and 7th option, respectively. It appears that SUSE and Ubuntu (and maybe Red Hat) are using techniques to get news about their distros listed higher in Google searches, so DistroWatch appears later in the list, whereas Oracle doesn’t bother gaming the search results.

With these caveats in mind about the DistroWatch statistics, it is still interesting to observe how the relative position of the Linux families have changed over time. In 2002, when DistroWatch first started keeping statistics, Mandrake (a derivative of Red Hat) and Red Hat were the first and second most popular distros. Red Hat and its derivative distros received 34.4% of all page hits at DistroWatch, and the rpm family in general received 55.4%. In contrast, the Debian family received just 13.5% of page hits.


Today, the relative position of these two families has entirely reversed. In 2016, the Debian family received 50.8% of page hits, compared to 9.2% for Red Hat and its derivatives. The rpm family as a whole, which includes all the derivative distros from Red Hat, SUSE, Mandriva, Caldera and a few independent distros that use rpm packages, received just 16.9% of page hits.

DistroWatchFamiliesDataTableExamining the relative popularity of each of the rpm branches shows that Red Hat is still the leader in the rpm family, but it has lost significant ground over time. Between 2002 and 2006, when Red Hat Linux split into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora Core, the popularity of the Red Hat subfamily dropped dramatically from 34.4% to 14.4% of page hits on DistroWatch. Since that time, both RHEL and Fedora, as well as their derivatives, have gradually lost ground in the DistroWatch rankings. In 2016, Fedora and RHEL were number 6 and
The Red Hat derivative, Mandrake, which was renamed Mandriva after it merged with Conectiva, was the top ranked distro in 2002 – 2004, but then it slowly dropped in the rankings, falling to number 10 in 2011, when Mandriva S.A. went bankrupt. Mandriva’s community-based derivatives, PCLinuxOS, Mageia and OpenMandriva Lx enjoyed some popularity after the collapse of Mandriva, but they have all gradually declined in popularity over the last 5 years.

At the same time that Red Hat’s popularity crashed between 2002 and 2006, it was largely replaced by Debian derivatives. Between 2002 and 2003, KNOPPIX, which is a live CD based on Debian, skyrocketed from 21st to third in the DistroWatch ranking. Although there had been Linux live CDs before, such as Yggdrasil, KNOPPIX did it far better than previous attempts. It incorporated excellent hardware detection, plus it included proprietary firmware, networking and system recover tools, so KNOPPIX became an essential tool for checking whether it was possible to install Linux and for fixing a borked system. KNOPPIX inspired many derivatives and convinced many Linux users to switch to the Debian family, but its own popularity waned once its live CD functionality was incorporated into other distributions.

The distro another Debian derivative named Ubuntu, which was founded by South African multi-millionaire South American multi-, but its unique live CD capability was ra able to boot up most PCs. It included networkingthe  In 2005, just a year after its founding, Ubuntu had become the number 1 distro, according to DistroWatch. Linux Mint followed more slowly in the footsteps of its parent, Ubuntu, but by 2008 it was occupying the third spot in the rankings, which it held for the next 3 years. Ubuntu’s switch to the Unity desktop in 2011 alienated many of its users, who departed en masse for Linux Mint, which was developing the Mate and Cinnamon desktops for people who resisted the radical change of the GNOME 3 Shell and Ubuntu’s Unity. Due to its promotion of a traditional desktop that was familiar to most Linux users, Linux Mint jumped to the number 1 spot in 2011 and has held it ever since. What is surprising is the fact that stodgy Debian also overtook Ubuntu in 2015 and has been the number two distro ever since.


Another way to measure the popularity of distributions is to count how many derivative distribution are created from them. In 2002, 49% of the active distros tracked by DistroWatch were based on Red Hat and the rpm family represented 60% of all distros. In comparison, Debian and its derivatives accounted for just 13% of active distros in 2002.


Between 2002 and 2006, there was an enormous surge in the creation of new distros. According to DistroWatch the number of active Linux distros during this period grew from 96 to 335, and almost half of these new distros were derivatives of Debian. The Debian family grew from 12 to 131 distros between 2002 and 2006, and that number has maintained steady ever since. In contrast, the number of distros based on Red Hat grew from 47 in 2002 to 75 in 2006, but it has gradually fallen to 33 in 2016. The Mandriva-based distros peaked at 18 in 2007 and have since fallen to 6 in 2008. The number of SUSE-based distros also peaked at 7 in 2007 and fell to 3 in 2013. Nonetheless, SUSE Linux Enterprise and especially openSUSE have enjoyed a startling resurgence in recent years. Five new distros based on openSUSE appeared in 2016, which has helped arrest some of the decline in the rpm family.


The growing dominance of the Debian family, is due partly to the missteps of the companies Red Hat, SuSE and Mandriva. Red Hat essentially gave up on the Linux desktop when it split Red Hat Linux into RHEL and Fedora. The RHEL kernels were too out of date for modern hardware and its repositories were too limited and out-of-date to supply the software needed by desktop users. Fedora was too bleeding edge and not user friendly enough to be an adequate distro for desktop users. The purpose of Fedora was to be a testing ground for software that would eventually find its way into RHEL, not to provide a compelling user experience and grow the total number of Linux users.

Red Hat grew to be the biggest Linux distro in the mid-1990s by focusing on making the rpm package manager that made it easy to install and uninstall software and by making the Anaconda installer which auto-detected the hardware and provided a user-friendly graphical interface to install Linux. By focusing on making on making Linux easy to use and providing a good desktop experience, plus acquiring the largest assemblage of Linux engineers and consultants, Red Hat established itself as the most important distro and the largest Linux company, but its wasn’t generating much profit. The dot com bust in 2000 – 2002 wiped out most of the new Linux companies, and the trauma of that experience turned Red Hat into a conservative company that focused exclusively on short-term profits and the sectors that were generating revenues, such as servers and software for compilers, Java and internet infrastructure. Rather than taking a long-term gamble on the Linux desktop and trying to promote Linux as an alternative to Windows and Mac OS, Red Hat started taking measures in 2002 that made it harder to use its distro on servers without paying the company. In 2003, the company created a new server distro in which only paying customers could access its repositories. By 2003, Red Hat was generating profits again and its revenue has grown roughly 15% a year ever since. Red Hat’s exclusive focus on the profitable sectors of the Linux stack have turned it into a tech giant with 10,000 employees and a market capitalization of over 15 billion dollars. It also gave Red Hat the resources to hire a drove of talented programmers who have beavered away on many of the essential programs that make the Linux ecosystem work. The Linux kernel, GTK+, GNOME and hundreds of other free/open source programs have benefited from Red Hat engineering over the last 2 decades.

With the revenues Red Hat was generating from servers, the company had the resources to be the biggest evangelist for Linux on the desktop. It could have turned Fedora into an effective alternative to Windows. It could have contacted every school and offered to install Linux for free. It could have lobbied every PC company to sell machines with Fedora pre-installed. It could built a Linux industry coalition that lobbied governments around the world to enforce anti-monopoly regulations on Microsoft. It could have used that coalition to cajole or force every hardware manufacturer to either create free/open source drivers or to hand over the specs so Red Hat could create them. Red Hat could have turned the Linux Foundation into an organization that advocated for Linux on the desktop and for the rights of users, rather than just advancing it as a tool to build servers and embedded devices. It could have expanded the Open Invention Network to cover more user interface patents and software applications.

If Red Hat had put its resources into promoting Linux on the desktop, it would have been a less profitable company, at least in the short term, but it would have established its distro as the standard Linux, that every proprietary software maker could target.  that every could have easily gr





nfrastructure, It is hard to criticize Red Hat Nonetheless, Red Hat Enterprise Linux proved enormously successf


Red Hat was superseded to some degree in 1998 by the French distro, Linux-Mandrake, which originally used Red Hat’s repositories, installer and package manager, but added easier configuration tools called Drakes and a more compelling desktop on top of Red Hat, in the same way that Linux Mint today adds its Cinnamon desktop on top of Ubuntu. Nonetheless, the popularity of Linux-Mandrake, which was later renamed as Mandrake Linux, and then finally Mandriva Linux, was helping to draw new Linux users to the rpm family and many of them ended up using Red Hat servers and learning the Red Hat way of ding th      decision to focus exclusively on the profitable understandable tBy focusing on profitable serversIro  Red Hat stopped dedicating resources to winning over new Linux users. After the dot com bust of 2000-2002, SuSE couldn’t raise enough capital, so it was bought up by Novell, who mismanaged the company. Nonetheless, Novell also bought Ximian in 2003 and continued to invest in Linux for the enterprise desktop, unlike Red Hat, which improved the popularity of the green lizard among Linux users. In 2006, when Novell made a deal with Microsoft, openSUSE was ranked number 2 by DistroWatch, but paying Microsoft for its intellectual property, alienated many Linux users, who worried that SUSE was establishing a precedent that would damage Linux as a whole. OpenSUSE has bounced between number 3 and 5 in the rankings ever since the deal with Microsoft, but it generated remarkably few derivative distros.

[more to come]

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