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.
Slackware 3.0

Slackware has evolved from a distribution that was available only on the Internet (and on archive CDs provided by various vendors) into an official distribution from Walnut Creek CD-ROM. Much like Red Hat, Slackware is still available on those archive CDs and can be used as the base of other Linux distributions, but again, Walnut Creek offers the official version.

Slackware Linux is commonly downloaded from ftp sites around the globe, but it is also frequently mastered on CD and bundled with other Linux material to be resold. It is organized into several “disk sets” which make up the main categories of packages to install, such as “networking” or “X Windows”. Each category is broken down into individual packages for you to choose from at installation time. Due to Slackware's highly categorized organization and its history of being available on the Net, it is one of the easiest distributions to install from floppy (provided you're patient enough to download it). Its package format is a plain Unix .tgz file, gzip-ed tar file. Each disk set also includes a file that describes the contents of the files that make up the set. This format, while highly portable, offers little in the way of dependency checking or upgradability. This will barely slow down a Unix Wizard, but it can be a moderate hang-up for a newbie. Fortunately, Slackware's text-mode installation program can be very verbose and helpful and should suffice for all but the more advanced users, anyway.

Slackware requires a single boot and root disk and will install in 4MB of RAM. It can install from floppy, local partition, CD-ROM and NFS, and has a mature range of non-commercial packages to choose from. Slackware 3 is an all-ELF distribution based on kernel 1.2.13.

Once Slackware is installed, you're pretty much ready to rock 'n' roll. Slackware does provide some configuration tools for networking and basic package maintenance, but it does not really posses any kind of “desktop administration” utility. However, one of Slackware's greatest strengths is its age. Many software packages out there on the Net have been modeled after Slackware, so you should be able to install pretty much anything without a hitch.

Slackware is a good distribution for beginners because it is available freely on most archive distributions and from ftp sites. It's also a great distribution for people who like to really get their hands under the hood and tweak their system (custom configure, edit rc files, etc.).

WGS Linux Pro 3.0

WorkGroup Solutions' WGS Linux Pro 3.0, or Linux Encyclopedia, is a large Linux encyclopedia (approximately 1200 pages) containing all the freely redistributable documentation from the Linux Documentation Project and 4 CD-ROMs of Linux-related material and distributions. There are more FAQs, docs and HOWTOs here than I could list, examples of which include the “Network Administrator's Guide”, “Firewalling and Proxy Server HOWTO”, “Linux SCSI HOWTO”, “Kernel Hacker's Guide” and many, many more.

Disc one contains the main distribution, which is Red Hat Mother's Day Release. Mother's Day Release is based on Linux kernel 1.2.11 and uses the a.out binary format as its primary file format. Note that WGS Linux Pro version 4 will be released shortly and will be based on Red Hat 3.0.3, described above. The other three discs are supplemental and contain all sorts of software, which is provided for the user who requires later releases of software(and possibly developmental material), which may not be stable.

The installation of Linux Pro could not have been simpler. Although it does not contain any boot or root floppy disks, if you're using DOS, you simply insert the first CD-ROM into your drive and type “install” (or double click the icon from Windows). An installation program will prompt you for your CD-ROM drive type, Ethernet card type and SCSI type, and build boot and root floppies for you. Then, simply reboot and the installation begins. If you don't have DOS handy, you can build boot and root floppies the same way you normally would for this version of Red Hat, using rawrite, dd, cat or a mkfloppy script. Since Linux Pro 3 is based on Red Hat, the section on Red Hat mostly applies, with a few exceptions. The version of Red Hat used for Linux Pro is a.out and requires 4MB of RAM to install. Its packages are in a format called “.rpp” instead of Red Hat's current package format, which is “.rpm”.

If you're looking for an easy-to-install Linux distribution with a lot of hard-copy documentation, this might be the one for you.

Yggdrasil Plug and Play Linux, Fall '95

The first Linux distribution designed for CD, Yggdrasil has had continued popularity due, in part, to graphical configuration, bootable floppies included with the distribution, and multimedia support. Yggdrasil also has a history of including kernels with patches they have tested but aren't included in the standard Linux kernel. Fall '95 continues this tradition.

After installing the “Suggested” configuration—at 250 MB, the only choice smaller than “Everything”, which takes 600MB—it is impossible to compile the kernel without either mounting the CD or installing some packages that aren't installed as a part of the “Suggested” configuration. The manual doesn't say what packages need to be installed to build the kernel with the CD removed, and since the control panel doesn't show which packages are already installed, it's not clear what packages need to be installed. Even after installing all the needed software components, we still had to figure out we had to remove /usr/src/linux/include/linux/version.h in order to successfully build the kernel; we were not able to find that in the documentation. This would not have been an important issue except for the fact that the standard kernel didn't support the 3C509 Ethernet card, and we needed to build a kernel with 3C509 support in order to test the networking setup. Further testing showed several functions of the basic control panel, such as printing, also did not function with the “Suggested” configuration unless the CD-ROM was mounted.

Although running Yggdrasil without the system CD mounted can take some work, Yggdrasil is one of the few distributions able to run entirely from the CD. This capability has been included with Yggdrasil for some time and is a great way to demonstrate Linux to skeptical friends. Not surprisingly, running multimedia applications under X entirely from the CD-ROM takes considerable memory; it doesn't work well with less than 16 MB of RAM.

Yggdrasil doesn't set up networking as part of the installation, but it does provide a graphical tool for setting up basic networking once you get X set up. It also has a reasonably easy X setup program that gets invoked automatically when you start X, if you haven't already configured X.

Yggdrasil doesn't come with some programs that are now considered standard with Linux, such as