As this amazing chart shows, there are basically three great families of GNU/Linux distros: those based on Red Hat, Slackware and Debian.
The last of these was created as a reaction to an even earlier distro, SLS, as Debian's creator Ian Murdock (the “Ian” in “Debian” - Deb is his wife) told me a few years ago:
One person increasingly impatient with SLS was Ian Murdock, who was studying accounting at Purdue University at the time.
He later wrote an article for the first issue of the then-new Linux Journal, dated May 1994, in which he said that SLS was “possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately it is also quite possibly the most popular.”
These are typical young man's words; Murdock was in his early twenties at the time. “I regret how harsh I was,” he says now, “because the guy was just trying to do something good.” Nonetheless, “there were a lot of problems with SLS, and I really wasn't the only one to feel that way. In fact, what I wrote is largely a kind of community view at the time.”
Murdock realised that SLS's problems “came out of the fact the fellow who was doing it was trying to do everything by himself. And so I looked on that and I thought, well, you know, if Linux has taught us anything it's that that kind of model is suboptimal,” he recalls. “What we really ought to do is we ought to try to take the model that Linux pioneered, intentionally or not, and try to get the same benefits from that for building the system around it.”
And thus was born the distro as we know it, building upon the work of many people, just as its individual components were written by many collaboratively.
This was back in the early 1990s, so clearly Murdock is someone who has long understood the process of creating distros. Given that impressive track record, the following post from him, applying those insights to today's computing, carries a certain weight:
I’ve been following the evolution of what is now called cloud computing for some time, and with great interest. Over the years, facets of cloud computing have had many names: ASP, grid computing, utility computing, Web services, SOA, mashups, SaaS, Web 2.0. In many ways, the emergence of cloud computing is the great coming together of these trends and technologies.