Selecting a Linux Distribution
Debian is one of the oldest distributions, but because development is strictly by a team of volunteers, it has tended to evolve more slowly. Since development is performed by a geographically diverse group, the ability to manage and integrate upgrades is of primary importance. To that end, you can always upgrade a system by pointing it at an FTP site and instructing it to get the latest versions of all the packages currently installed. In some cases, a service needs to be stopped. (For example, to upgrade sendmail, you would need to stop it, replace the program and then restart it.) This is all done automatically.
Debian deviates from the common RPM packaging format (although it can install RPMs) by using its own .deb format. The .deb format is the most versatile and includes dependency checking as well as pre- and post-install and remove scripts. This is why the sendmail example in the previous paragraph can be handled automatically.
The most difficult thing about Debian is the initial installation. Or, put another way, fear of dselect, the installer program. The design of dselect is old, and while it made sense when there were only 50-100 packages in a Linux install, it is out of control now that there are around 1000. A replacement for dselect is being developed and will be available in Debian 2.1.
Versions of Debian (with limited applications/utilities) are available for Digital Alpha and M68k.
S.u.S.E. is a German distribution with an installation “look and feel” similar to Caldera. It also uses the RPM package format and offers a save/restore configuration option during installation.
Two things make S.u.S.E. stand out from the others. First, XFree86 support tends to be better than other distributions because S.u.S.E. works closely with the XFree86 team. Second, there are more applications and utility programs in this distribution. A full installation takes over 2GB of disk space.
YAST, the install/administration tool, can handle .deb and .tgz packages as well as RPMs. Also, upgrades are quite easy and can be performed by putting in a new CD or pointing YAST at the files and telling it to perform the upgrade.
It depends. I have one system running Caldera, three running Red Hat (a PC, a Digital Alpha and a SunSPARC), two running Slackware, one running S.u.S.E. (a laptop) and quite a few running Debian. (Yes, I personally own too many computers.)
Further, there are problems with all the distributions—not the same problems, but problems nevertheless. As a result, I don't see a perfect answer—yet. This is not to say they don't work—just that each has its inconsistencies and limitations. They all suffer from the lack of a common administration tool.
At USENIX in 1997, Caldera announced a project called COAS (Caldera Open Administration System). The discussion at the conference showed there were more concepts to consider and a lot of implementation work before COAS could offer a uniform installation system that would meet the needs of the majority of Linux users.
Today, for a general-purpose system I tend to install Debian. I do, however, install other systems for other purposes. For example, I have S.u.S.E. on a new laptop because the volume of software included makes a more impressive demo system.
A better question is, “which one should you choose?” The answer is still, “it depends.” Here are some hints to help you along the way:
If everyone you know is running a particular distribution and you are a newcomer, use the same one they do.
If you like to roll your own—that is, you expect to compile and install everything yourself—Slackware is probably for you.
If you want to “go with the crowd” today, install Red Hat.
If you want “everything”, install S.u.S.E.
If you need the most “commercial” looking product or you are a VAR (value-added reseller), pick Caldera.
If the politics of free software is important to you and/or you want to get involved in development of a distribution, pick Debian.
If you have a bunch of systems you need to interconnect and upgrade, pick Debian or hope Caldera gets COAS completed.
There is my input. Ask any other Linux user, and you will probably get a different opinion from mine. If you are not sure you have the right answer, there are some things you can do to make it possible to change distributions in the future with minimal impact.
Make /home a separate file system. Then, if you change distributions, you don't have to save and restore your files. This also means you could have multiple distributions on one computer and share /home between them.
Select hardware supported by most distributions.
If you need to add applications that don't come with the Linux distribution, try to get ones that come with source code so you can upgrade them and port them to different distributions.
Start with a Linux archive CD set (such as InfoMagic's Developer's Resource). That will give you at least three distributions (Slackware, Debian and Red Hat) with which to play.
Good luck and happy Linuxing.
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