A guided tour of some notable and peculiar Linux distributions

One Wild Ride

© Lead Image © Jan Will, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Jan Will, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 192/2016

Linux distributions proliferate like butterflies. Linux Magazine went hunting for some strange and particularly surprising specimens.

Even if the syntax suggests otherwise, the name of the classic Linux tool awk does not stand for awkward, and it isn't even a reference to the bird known as the Auk, but rather, the name is derived from the names of its authors, Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger, and Brian Kernighan. Cryptic names are a long-established Unix tradition [1].

Developers often believe the names of their tools are self-explanatory, or they think the name is not of interest to the users anyway. Many developers of the 500+ Linux distributions worldwide clearly subscribe to this school of thought [2] (Figure 1). Even several very early Linux distros bore cryptic abbreviations (LSD, LST, DLD) or really curious names like Yggdrasil (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Only a small excerpt from the extensive family tree of Linux distributions. You'll find this graphic at http://futurist.se/gldt/.
Figure 2: Yggdrasil was among the early Linux distributions, and could be launched from a CD. CC BY-SA 3.0

It isn't difficult to see that humor is a primary motivation for much of the naming that happens around Linux. The Open Source community loves to rebel against the kitschy conventions of market-speak that dominate commercial software companies, with names that seem slightly satirical or, at least, summon up images and associations that would make a marketer cringe.

We're seizing the occasion of Linux's 25th anniversary to arrange an (admittedly incomplete) typology of strange Linux distributions. Although a few of these beauties are still looking fondly into the future, many are relics of the past, and, as you will learn, others are in a curious state that is neither alive nor dead.

Linux for Zombies

Speaking of undead: The Linux distribution best suited for zombies was very easy to find. Undead Linux, also known as Evil Entity [3], breathed its last back in 2003. The related domains are free, but copies may be haunting the BitTorrent universe, searching for the brains of Linux users. Evil Entity, incidentally, is the arch enemy of cartoon character Scooby Doo, and a "floating mass of dark green tentacles," according to the sci-fi fan site Wikia. If you immediately think of the light-green SUSE as a perfect fit for Evil Entity, you are wrong. Actually, Evil Entity was based on Slackware and sat on a rather gloomy-looking Enlightenment desktop (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A Czech blog still allows a retrospective look at Evil Entity, which once used Enlightenment as its desktop environment but is no longer among us.

The More Broken, the Better

Void Linux [4] was once declared dead by its main developer, but the announcement turned out to be an April Fool's joke [5].

Striking features for the rolling-release Void include its own build system, a self-developed package system called xpbs, and the absence of systemd. Void Linux, which is insistent about not being another distro's fork, relies on the Runit alternative init system [6].

Damn Vulnerable Linux (DVL) [7] is an interesting case. Like a fine wine, this contagious Linux keeps getting better even after its demise. Thorsten Schneider, a lecturer of the University of Bielefeld, published version 1.0 of DVL in 2007 as an admin nightmare so full of security holes that security researchers could use it for experimentation. Since 2012, apparently nobody has further maintained DVL, which is based on Debian and Damn Small Linux. The lack of attention means the number of security vulnerabilities is naturally growing – in this case, a classic win-win situation.

On the Edge

At first, Suicide Linux [8] sounds like an irony-laden and upwardly mobile Linux distro with an optimistic view and plans for the future, but it turns out to be a dream for sysadmins with masochistic tendencies. In fact, Suicide Linux is a Debian package that configures your system so that every incorrectly typed command deletes all the data on the hard drive with an rm -rf /. Poisonous pedagogy [9] for Linux administrators.

The name Devil-Linux [10] should also induce a hellish sweat among faint-hearted users, but completely without justification. The only diabolical thing about this lightweight Linux distribution, which boots from CDs or USB sticks, is that it is missing a graphical interface (Figure 4). However, that does not matter much; it serves experienced admins as a router and firewall system, and it also serves as a dedicated server for applications.

Figure 4: Devil-Linux dispenses with a graphical interface when booting.

The focus is on security: Most binaries are compiled with GCC stack-smashing protection, while the kernel relies on grsecurity and PaX. Down to earth, the makers are currently working on version 1.8.0, so exorcists can stay home.

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