Linux Distributions Compared

Back in March, we compared the available Linux distributions. This review draws heavily from that work and offers updated infromations on what is available on PC platforms.

Many distributions are available solely on CD-ROM. There are several reasons for this:

  • So much software is available for Linux that it is impractical to provide it all on floppies.

  • It is much easier to install software from CD-ROM than to change floppies once a minute.

  • An inexpensive CD-ROM drive costs the same or less than the stack of floppies needed to install a complete Linux distribution.

However, some distributions (including Debian, Red Hat, and Slackware) are available via FTP over the Internet in a form designed to fit on floppies.

Copyright Considerations

Many distributions are freely available over the Internet, although only some are actively distributed in a way that makes it feasible to install them directly from the Internet. You should be aware that while distributors can restrict you from running commercial software components on more than one machine, they cannot restrict you from installing the base Linux software on multiple machines. A Linux distribution packaged in a form which cannot be installed without installing proprietary software under copyright licensing terms more strict than the GNU General Public License is probably in violation of copyright law.

Missing Bugs

One thing you may notice missing from this overview is a list of bugs in each distribution. In general, we assume some noticeable bugs are inevitable in software that is evolving as quickly as Linux, and vendors will be responsive in tracking and eradicating bugs. If they aren't, word of mouth between users will be more effective than any sort of complaining on our part. We also want to avoid showing any bias, and if we start listing bugs we find, we will either show bias or appear to show bias simply by the “choice” of bugs we publish.

Since we can't do a fair comparison of the number and severity of bugs between distributions, we have tried to note only bugs that involved completely missing functionality or which were difficult to work around and hard for the user to avoid.

If working around simple bugs is a problem for you, we urge you to purchase a distribution from a vendor who offers technical support for the installation process. By providing installation technical support, these vendors not only help you with the problems, but force on themselves a vested interest in fixing those bugs. Providing support is expensive, and solving the same problem over and over again is a waste of their time and money.

At the same time, if you buy installation technical support, understand that you aren't buying a lifetime warranty for every part of the system. None of the vendors here provide that as part of their base product. You can buy very comprehensive support packages from several vendors if you need them. Happy shopping!

Caldera Network Desktop 1.0

The Caldera Network Desktop, by Caldera, Inc., comes as a boxed set of 1 CD-ROM, two floppy disks and a user's guide. Caldera Linux is based on Red Hat Linux 2.1 but uses its own installation system and desktop environment, and it includes many applications which can be found nowhere else.

Installation is very simple. The two disks included are a standard boot disk and a PCMCIA boot disk; you'll only need one of them. Simply boot your machine with the boot disk, insert the CD-ROM, and follow the messages which prompt you along the way. The initial package selection is somewhat granular, providing three predefined choices: Minimal Installation, Default Caldera, and Maximal Installation. But you can always fine- tune package selection later from within the Desktop. The installation process covers all the bases—from network configuration to X setup to LILO—and then requires you to make a rescue disk for safety. Overall, installing Caldera is very easy, and I encountered no unexpected surprises.

Once the system is installed, you can reboot into Caldera Linux, which will prompt you to set a root password and create a user account. After this, you can log in as your new user and start the desktop by typing startx. The Caldera desktop looks somewhat MS Windows-like. It has a toolbar at the top which includes options such as File, Window and Help; it supports quick-keys, like ALT+F3 and ALT+F4; has “program groups” and makes extensive use of icons. It has several additional features not found in Windows, however. It supports virtual screens; uses an additional, customizable icon toolbar (similar to fvwm's GoodStuff module); and of course, since it's on top of X, has all the power and configuration capabilities (not to mention stability) of X.

Since Caldera is based on Red Hat Linux, all the standard Red Hat system administration tools are available within Caldera, and all packages are stored in RPM format.

Caldera includes Motif, Accelerated-X (by X-Inside), Netscape, the CRiSP Lite editor, Caldera's Font Server and a full NetWare client (Netware 3.x and 4). Caldera has also ported to Linux WordPerfect 6.0, among other applications. These applications are generally available separately as an “add-on” package, to Caldera users.

Caldera is a very professional Linux distribution which I would recommend to anyone who wants a user-friendly, commercial-grade Linux system or to anyone who wishes to integrate a full-featured Linux network server into a NetWare environment.