How to Pick a Distribution
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Don Marti is the Technical Editor for Linux Journal.