Selecting a Linux Distribution

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

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.

  • 100+ SLS/Slackware

  • 5 MCC (a small distribution done for university students)

  • 5 Yggdrasil

  • 20 Red Hat

  • 10 Caldera

  • 20 Debian

  • 5 S.u.S.E.

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.

SLS/Slackware/MCC

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

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.

Red Hat

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

Caldera

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.

______________________

Phil Hughes

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Which distribution?

Andrew's picture

Hi Phil,

I read your article [http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2999] 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.

Regards,
Andrew

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