Selecting a Linux Distribution

Having trouble deciding which distribution to go for? Here's help.

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.

Which Do I Choose?

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.

Phil Hughes is the publisher of Linux Journal. He can be reached via e-mail at


Phil Hughes


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Which distribution?

Andrew's picture

Hi Phil,

I read your article [] with interest, as I am thinking about moving over to Linux, after having used some version of DOS (from v.5) or Windows (from 3.1) since 1992. I've worked with Solaris/HP-UX/Irix and installed a handful of RedHat releases, but it hasn't quite felt right to move over until now:

As a young(er) adult, gaming, or lack of it on Linux, was an issue. I no longer use a PC for gaming, so that argument has disappeared.

Linux desktops (both Gnome and KDE) we're rudimentary and not well thought through when I last looked 5 years ago - there was no single theme which applications adhered to, and there were many apps. installed in a single distro that performed duplicate functions to one or two other apps within the same distro, that were auto installed! Several times after installing a RedHat distro, I would be disappointed to find that a default installation had broken applications that would not start.

I recently tried a few Live CDs, and this feature is fantastic! That I can pick and choose without bearing the pain of a full installation (I don't have a spare PC and there is a significant time factor involved in 'trying out Linux').

First impressions were that I still don't like the lack of a professional looking theme in Gnome on Knoppix and Ubuntu, but I was very very impressed with Kubuntus implementation of KDE!! This is what I'm looking for; finally, a Linux distro that a Windows convert can seriously consider. All standard apps. have a similar theme, there is a diverse collection of apps to perform most used functions, but it's not complete overkill like with other distros, and I could find my way around after only 5 minutes usage.

I use WinXP at the moment, on an Acer laptop, but I use many open source programs, like Firefox, Thunderbird, Open Office, Scite, BonkEnc, VideoLAN, Gaim, Azureus etc, and all of these are available for Linux, so there would be very little learning curve in moving over to Kubuntu.

However, there are two serious issues that will stop me moving over, despite really wanting to move over:

1. Lack of hardware support from manufacturers.

I just bought a Canon PIXMA MP450 multifunction printer. There is no Linux driver and the best option is currently to buy Turboprint and use an ip4200 driver so I've heard. My memory card reader in my laptop will not work under any distro. I have to perform major configuration surgery to get my Wlan button to work, and some things, like gfx card, wlan and mouse pad do not always work out of the box with some distros.

This is a major catastrophe and one of the reasons why Linux is still not ready for the average PC user! Until manufacturers start releasing Linux drivers for all products, Linux uptake in the consumer sector will not increase. The argument of the community supporting and creating drivers has no ground to stand on. After several months, there is still no driver that has been released by the community despite many questions and try-outs on forums. Not everyone is a programmer, not everyone has the time to contribute code, and most people expect things to work reasonably painlessly. When was the last time you had to go on the internet to find code that would allow your fast forward button to work on the VCR? PC's are now consumer items and the OS should be the same.

2. Perceived lack of responsibility towards security.

Everyone loves to hate MS for it's patch hell. I am one of the people who believe in trial by fire--yes Windows security is shite, but they've had so many complaints that they have been forced to patch many bugs. Its not over and never will be as long as people produce new software, but they have patched their software to the point where it is arguably more secure than the Linux equivalent. Arbitary execution/buffer overflows, despite popular belief, are not solely the domain of a WinBox, and I am concerned at the apparent complacency in the Linux world with regards to security. There are no Anti-Virus products that have reached my sphere of news watching, and the general consensus seems to be that Linux is so secure it doesnt need an AV product. Also, as there are very few commercial app. manufacturs of consumer apps, security is possibly at best an afterthought of most OSS projects, run by contributors in a loose community of devs. Everyone can do buggy software but only commercial shops have the incentive (via shareholders/angry customer) to fix them.

I realise this comment is pure flame-bait, but they are nontheless, valid issues faced by everyday PC users who want a PC that allows them to be productive, and not just end up administering the OS, and believe me, ive done that plenty on my winbox, but its 10 times worse on Linux. There is a lot that needs to be done to make both Win and Linux more transparent with regards to admin work, whilst still leaving the possibility to tune for the petrol heads of the software world, but Linux needs to do this to gain market share. Windows doesn't.