Selecting a Linux Distribution
Any current Linux distribution most likely contains the software needed to do your job, including kernel and drivers, libraries, utilities and applications programs. Still, one of the most common questions I hear is “which distribution should I get?” This question is answered by an assortment of people, each proclaiming their favorite distribution is better than all the rest.
My new theory is that most people favor the first distribution they successfully installed. Or, if they had problems with the first, they favor the next distribution they install which addresses the problems of the first.
Let's use me as an example. SLS was my first Linux installation. Unfortunately, SLS had a few bugs—in both the installation and the running system. This, of course, isn't a surprise since this installation took place five years ago.
Now, about this time, Patrick Volkerding came along and created Slackware. Pat took the SLS distribution and fixed some problems. The result looked the same as SLS and worked the same, but without bugs. To this day, I find Slackware the easiest distribution to install.
I have, however, progressed beyond installation problems and found some serious shortcomings in Slackware which have been addressed by other distributions. Before I get into specifics, here is a rough estimate of the number of times I have installed various distributions, in order of first installation. I give you this information to help you understand the basis of my opinions.
5 MCC (a small distribution done for university students)
20 Red Hat
That said, here is my blow-by-blow analysis of what is right and wrong with each distribution. Note that this is my personal opinion—your mileage will vary.
All these distributions are easy to install and understand. They were all designed to install from floppy disk, and packages were in floppy-sized chunks. At one time, I could successfully install Slackware without even having a monitor on the computer.
There are, however, costs associated with this simplicity. Software is saved in compressed tar files. There is no information within the distribution that shows how files interrelate, no dependencies and no good path for upgrades. Not a problem if you just want to try something, but for a multi-computer shop with long-term plans, this initial simplicity can have unforeseen costs in the long run.
Yggdrasil offered the most promise with a GUI-based configuration. Unfortunately, development stopped (or at least vanished from the public eye), and it no longer offers anything vaguely current.
When I first looked at Marc Ewing's creation, I was impressed. It had some GUI-based configuration tools and showed a lot of promise. Over the years, Red Hat has continued to evolve and is easy to install and configure. Red Hat introduced the RPM packaging system that offers dependencies to help ensure loaded applications work with each other and updating is easy. RPMs also offer pre- and post-install and remove scripts which appear to be underutilized.
Version 4.2 has proven to be quite stable. The current release is 5.0, and a 5.1 release with bug fixes is expected to again produce a stable product.
The install sequence is streamlined to make it easy to do a standard install. I see two things missing that, while making the install appear easier, detract from what is actually needed:
The ability to save the desired configuration to floppy disk during the installation process (something that both Caldera and S.u.S.E. offer) would simplify subsequent installations on the same or other machines.
The ability to create a boot floppy disk during installation.
Red Hat has evolved into the most “retailed” distribution. First it was in books by O'Reilly, then MacMillan and now IDG Books Worldwide. It also appears to have a large retail shrink-wrap distribution in the U.S.
Versions of Red Hat are available for Digital Alpha and SunSPARC, as well as Intel.
The Caldera distribution was assembled by the Linux Support Team (LST) in Germany—now a part of Caldera. Caldera, like Red Hat, uses the RPM package format. Installation is similar to Red Hat with the addition of the configuration save/restore option.
Caldera is different from other distributions at this time in that it offers a series of systems including various commercial packages such as a secure web server and an office suite. Caldera is also the most “commercial feeling” as far as packaging and presentation.
One complaint I received from a reviewer of my original version of this article is that you cannot perform an upgrade. That is, you must save your configuration files and then re-install.
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