The rise of the Linux hyper-distro

Specialized distros may be new upcoming trend

Linux as a one-size-fits-all operating system may be fading into the background as new specialized distros assert themselves in consumer space.

This is not to say that Linux is going away. Hardly. If anything, the sheer pervasiveness of Linux is what's fueling the trend to which I refer: the rise of more specialized distributions with one or a few major objectives that stand apart from the idea of an all-in-one operating system.

This outcome was inevitable, really. The modularity of Linux as a kernel and operating system has fostered a steady stream of appliances devices and software platforms for some time. Whole businesses have been created (yeah, looking at you, rPath) just for the creation of custom software appliances. SUSE Studio is a tool that puts appliance creation in the hands of users. Indeed, the whole concept of platform as a service (PaaS) is basically hosted Linux-based software appliances with some nifty cloud management software thrown in.

For the most part, many of these custom Linux platforms were mainly targeted for the enterprise user, and were not something the average user on the street would really see. They might sit in the back-end of a consumer website somewhere, but nothing the end-user was really going to use directly.

But that is changing, as user-facing distros with specialized desktop objectives are becoming increasingly common. For lack of a better term, I've been calling these hyper-distros--distributions with a narrowly focused set of functions and goals.

The open source Chromium OS (and its commercial counterpart ChromeOS) could be considered one of the first of this new breed of hyper-distros. Chromium OS is built as a netbook platform that runs web apps--a relatively specialized goal.

The recent announcement of GNOME OS is another member of the hyper-distro club. This GNOME-based distro has a very narrow intent: the development and testing of GNOME itself.

Not every new distro with a specialization should fall into this category. Android is for the consumer, obviously, so one could argue that was an early entrant the hyper-distro category, too. That could put Firefox OS squarely into this new wave. But that would also label pretty much every device running embedded Linux as a hyper-distro device.

That's one way to go, but the trend that I am noting are appliance-like platforms that have traditionally sat in the desktop space. ChromeOS and GNOME OS are the start of this trend, I believe, as the operating system layer becomes less important compared to the applications that run on top of it.

PaaS offerings already serve as a model for this kind of Linux use in the cloud. We may be seeing a similar model here in the physical world, as the ease of development makes hyper-distros more attractive than the jack-of-all-trades offerings on desktop Linux.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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