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
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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At any given time, about half a dozen distributions are the most widely used and influential. Few GNU/Linux users will not have at least one of these distros installed on a machine somewhere at home or work. They are the ones that are most often mentioned in the media, and the ones that other distros are derived from. Most -- but not all -- have both a strong commercial and community face, and all have been in existence at least eight years
Occasionally, a first tier distro may slide -- it's hard to believe now, for instance, that TurboLinux was a distro to watch in 1999 -- but the attitude towards first tier distros remains remarkably stable. Their positions may change on Distrowatch's list, but most of them remain consistently in the top ten.
Debian: In the last couple of years, Debian has slipped a few positions at Distrowatch, partly because of the rise of Ubuntu. However, Debian retains a respectable following. If it is now valued less for itself these days, no other distribution comes close to it in inspiring spinoffs. In fact, of the top ten at Distrowatch, six are currently based on it, and some of these now have spinoffs of their own.
Fedora / Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL): Fedora is the community version of the code that eventually becomes Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Both are the modern descendants of Red Hat, which was probably the number one distribution between about 1996 and 2000. The reorganization caused the two modern distros to sag in popularity in the earlier part of the millennium, but both have recovered nicely in recent years. Fedora is known for introducing new programs into the greater community, while RHEL is a stable and successful commercial distribution.
Mandriva: Formerly Mandrake, Mandriva ruled the desktop in 2000-01. However, financial troubles, buggy releases, and some bad publicity over the firing of founder Gael Duval has caused it to slip until it just barely belongs in the first tier at all. Despite all these troubles, Mandriva continues to be one of the most innovative desktop distributions.
Slackware: A hardcore geek's distribution dedicated to high performance, Slackware could not claim a first tier position on popularity alone. However, its influence on other distros remains as strong as ever, with only Debian claiming more derivatives.