How to Pick a Distribution

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Whether starting from scratch or building a new system, our tech editor suggests important factors to consider in order to avoid incompatibilities, high maintenance and lack of support.
Proprietary Software

This is a potential deal-breaker that can narrow your distribution choices fast. If you will need to run a proprietary program on your system, check the vendor's list of supported distributions. If the vendor only supports the program on one or a few distributions, stick with one of those even if you think you can get the program to run on another. If you run into a problem and have to go to the vendor for support, you want to be able to rule out the Linux distribution as the problem's source and go straight to the real issue.

Support

Where will you be getting support for your operating system? From the distribution vendor, from a consultant or from your local user group? If you'll be using a consultant, ask that person which distribution you should use. He or she will be much more helpful to you if he or she is on familiar territory. If you're going to a user group for support, identify the most helpful posters on the mailing list, and pick a distribution they know and use.

Hardware

If you can, put this item last. You'll be happier picking out hardware you know works well with your distribution of choice rather than trying to make Linux work on random hardware. If you already have the hardware, and won't be buying more, check the hardware compatibility lists of the distributions you're considering. If you don't know what's inside your case, use the world's best hardware detection utility: a Philips screwdriver.

Security Advisories and Updates

You should probably be down to a short list of distributions by now. Browse their web sites for security updates. Is it easy to tell what updates you will need to install in order to make your installation from CD-ROM current and secure? Also, look at the security mailing list. Does the distribution provide timely security advisories and updates?

Automatic Upgrades

Some distributions can do automatic software upgrades over the Net. This can be a great time saver and a relatively painless way to stay current on security updates. If the idea of upgrading with one command or a few clicks sounds good to you, check to see if a potential distribution offers this feature.

Installation

Nobody only installs once. As a hobbyist getting started, you might install a couple of times and then blow your system away, either by mistake or because you decide you don't like something. In a business, you'll need to be able to install quickly, either to recover from a crashed disk or to deploy a new system.

Browse different distributions' install instructions on-line. Look for an install that will save time in the long run, not just one that offers a pretty GUI. You'll want to look for the ability to make all the decisions up front, then let everything install unattended. Better yet, look for the ability to make a floppy that includes all your preferred options, so you can boot from the floppy and walk away while the install does itself.

Hardware Again

Now that you've chosen a distribution, this is the best time to look for hardware. You will have the luxury of a supported hardware list, plus hardware picks from your source of support--either user group mailing list archives or a consultant's recommendations. Keep your list with you when you shop, and don't forget to check ``Linux'' on your warranty registration card.

Resources

Don Marti is the Technical Editor for Linux Journal.

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Distro

Anonymous's picture

Here is a suggestion that someone who builds their own towers with Linux.
They said ,When you think that you like a certain Linux Distro;Do the following.
obtain ,through web sites,Forums etc. all the hardware and peripheral requirements that will work with the Distro that you like.
e.g. If you like Mepis; Then you go onto Google,the Mepis forums Linux clubs ,talk to whoever you know that is compatible,such as Ram, video card,sound card,etc. Then when you have all of the information and items ,then commence to build the tower,and install the Distro, and you should have few, if any problems.

Lurk, lurk, lurk

dmarti's picture

If you're a hobbyist, get on some user group mailing lists until you're comfortable with one or a few that you like and will feel comfortable asking questions on. Become familiar with the local netiquette rules (Linux lists tend to be tidier about formatting and trimming quoted material than other lists) and browse the archives so you don't ask the question that started last month's discussion again.

If your list is your main source of support, watch for which distribution the most helpful posters use, not just who seems to win the "what's the best distribution" argument. Often the helpful people won't join that one when it comes up.

Re: How to Pick a Distribution

dmarti's picture

After "Proprietary Software" and before "Support" should be special-Purpose sub-distributions such as Planet CCRMA -- if you want to do one of those, you should be sure to use one of the supported distributions.

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