Business Internet and Telephony, since 1985

DistroRank is a Fresh, Honest New Survey Seeking to Track Linux and BSD Popularity

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

After the fall of Microsoft, and the overwhelming adoption of Linux as a personal computing platform, a group calling themselves the American Laboratory Scientists has launched a project called DistroRank, which seeks to introduce a fresh, new, and purportedly honest methodology for ranking the 20 most popular Linux distributions and the four most prominent BSDs.

In a world where Android commands over 52% of the mobile market in smart phones, Apple controls less than 18% with their iPhone, and Samsung alone sells more Androids than Apple sells iPhones; the debut of the first new Microsoft UI for smartphones since those based on the familiar Windows 95 has enjoyed a respectable showing of sales, even though it doesn't appear to be doing much to affect the existing sales rankings of the market... 

American Laboratory Scientists is listed as an organization that operates the DistroRank project from Sunnyvale, California, having registered a domain for the effort with Melbourne IT.

The DistroRank project attempts to track the relative popularity of the Top 20 Linux distros and rank them accordingly, while including a parallel corollary for the BSDs as a separate tally.

The reasons cited by the DistroRank project, for separating the Unices into two separate camps, one for Linux and one for BSD, are the following:

  • The two systems are fundamentally different
  • DistroRank is not a Linux versus BSD ranking
  • The Linux and BSD camps are not interested in direct comparisons

We agree with these premises. Direct comparisons between the two would only serve to cloud the resulting rankings of some Linux distros with each other, since the BSDs would rank within and among the various Linux distros, diluting the relative popularity and displacing the rankings of Linux distributions with each other, and vice verse. Not only that, but it would cause those engaged in the survey to choose from between a Linux distro and a BSD variant, further contaminating the ability to rank the popularity of these two bases among other operating systems.

The one major contention we have with the surveys are that the Linux distros and BSD flavors are listed in a drop-down box generated by a select tag, and ranked from top to bottom, in descending order beginning with the "currently" most popular selections in the survey.

While there is no easy solution to providing an impartial methodology for choosing among several choices, and considering that many will simply identify and choose the one on top without ever scrolling further down the list for their preferred distro; perhaps listing the options in either alphabetical or reverse order of their popularity, or even providing a grid of Radio buttons to choose among would be less likely to produce contaminated results.

The sites offers that although there is no perfect way to calculate popularity rankings, and seeks to disclose a few of the factors and resources used. Ultimately, however, the methods  used by the DistroRank project admittedly arrive at conclusions for resulting ranks of the various distros and flavors with some degree of subjectivity.

Without any real metrics at this point to evaluate the environment for selecting actual popularity rankings, the following methods and resources are cited as part of the mined information pool that the project draws upon in addition to the straightforward survey offered to the visiting participants:

  • Number of several search engine results
  • Number of news articles about the distro
  • Percentage of servers reported running the distro
  • Percentage of desktop users reported running the distro
  • Data collected from mining resources such as Netcraft, Bing, and Google

Although more particulars about the actual sort of data, methodologies, weighting, and criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of information leading to the end results would go a long way in contributing to the understanding of just how relevant the projects rankings are to each observer, it certainly appears that this is a fresh and new way of looking at the relative popularity of the various Unices.

We've asked the folks over at American Laboratory Scientists for additional stats and information on the points mentioned above and will report back when we hear more. In the meantime, why not head on over and offer your two cents in the matter, all data collection is anonymous with the exception of a single aggregated statistic about participants, that being the IP address of the participant.

The project website and the two surveys are located here:

Another longstanding project is the well known Linux Counter Project, otherwise known as LiCo, which has been around for two decades, and has served the community well by documenting actual usage of Linux by those with machinery running that operating system. The Linux Counter was created and launched by the prominent computer scientist, former longtime chairman of the IETF, and notable RFC author, Harald Tveit Alvestrand, in 1993.

One of the nicest aspects of the Linux Counter, is that each person who registers receives their own registration number, which started way back with single digit numbers 20 years ago. In many forums and discussion lists, as well as websites, these registration numbers are often prominently displayed as links or badges to the profile belonging to the registered user, indicating the relative amount of time that the registrant has been using Linux.

The Linux Counter also maintains a list of machines, each with their own respective registration numbers (again, indicating the relative amount of time that the host has been in existence), along with an optional installable script which automatically updates various statistics about those machines via cron.

You can register as a Linux user with the Linux counter project, and register any or all of your machines there too, at

For ranking the popularity of Linux distributions various other popular sites offer informal surveys or polls, with two of the most prominent sources being:

This site is traditionally a very grassroots help oriented forum for most of the classic Linux distros and BSD variants and flavors, This annual survey is a members only (membership is completely free) poll held for the past thirteen years and is heavily influenced by the preferences of active community participants. The 2012 Survey found Slackware Linux being voted the most popular desktop distro, while Debian GNU/Linux was selected as the server distro of the year. Linux Mint has also maintained a strong showing over the last few years as one of the most popular distros.

The daily Linux distro rankings are calculated anonymously by the number of page views related to each particular distros respective page. The list of distros is comprehensive, and BSDs are mixed with Linux distros as well as a few other operating systems. Although this isn't a tally of what might be the most popular or prevalent distro, it does indicate how many people are looking at the information pages for particular distros, at that particular site, and has been used as a metric revealing relative interest for various particular distros at any point in time.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of ascertaining the popularity of any aspect of Linux and BSD usage is the fact that there is no centralized or aggregation method for accurately determining just how many machines are actually out there running these operating systems. They are free operating systems, comprised mainly of free and mostly open source software, and the FOSS community doesn't have any sales to track, so to speak.

Add to this mix the fact that almost any PC or x86 based laptop is counted as a Microsoft Windows machine due to manufacturing and other license agreements between OEMs and Microsoft, and also the fact that most x86 based machinery is sold with specific BIOS firmware signatures that result in these machines being counted as running a Microsoft operating system, it is virtually impossible to estimate with any degree of accuracy how many of these machines are running BSD or Linux instead of Windows.

And that makes for probably the most compelling reason of all to participate in the DistroRank survey, because tracking the number of people who use Linux and BSD might be more revealing than trying to determine how many Linux or BSD machines are being used.

Let us know what you think :)