Choosing Your Linux Distro
Whether you’re a longtime Windows user looking to migrate, or a novice choosing Linux as your first Operating System, chances are you might be confused over the sheer number of distributions or ‘distros’ to choose from.
What are distributions? And why are there so many of them?
Well, at the heart of an operating system is something known as a kernel. It manages the hardware and supervises running programs, among other things. However, it is unusable all by itself and needs to be configured and compiled.
In Linux’s case, the kernel, written by Linus Torvalds, was made available to the public for their use and development (which, many people did). The resulting variety of installation methods and bundled applications developed for that kernel became what are now known as the different Linux distributions. An overview of some of the more popular ones can be found in a previous posting.
So, how do you decide which distribution to use?
It largely comes down to your needs and preferences, but Suresh Ramasubramanian offers the following suggestions in his FreeOS.com article, ‘Choosing a Linux Distro.’
1. Kernel – Since it basically runs your Linux, you need to choose a distribution that is relatively recent. Why? Because it usually gets better with each upgrade, that’s why
2. Bundled programs – choose a distribution whose bundled programs suit your needs.
1. Operating System programs – harness the kernel’s power (various servers which handle your mail, web and other services)
2. User level programs – such as browsers (lynx, Netscape), mail user agents (pine, mutt), word processors (Star Office, Abiword), text editors (pico, emacs) etc.
3. Window managers – different distributions have different window managers that are available for download. You may want a Windows-style interface (Gnome or KDE) or something lighter (IceWM, Blackbox). You may even opt to just use the “command line” shell prompt (like some Linux fanatics)
Other considerations include:
* ease of installation
* ease of maintenance
* bundled software
The best way to really know for sure which distro suits you is to try a variety and make your choice from there. But that can be time consuming, and (depending on which distributions you try) would cost you. Most distributions such as Red Hat Fedora, Gentoo and Debian are free. Others, such as SUSE and Lindows, cost money.
To make things a little bit easier for you, here’s a compilation of recommendations from a variety of online resources:
* if you’re a novice in all things Linux, Red Hat Fedora, Mandrake Linux or SUSE make good choices as they’re easy to install, have good hardware compatibility and come with lots of software
* if you’re planning purely commercial implementations, opt for “off-the-shelf/general purpose distros” such as Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Slackware, and Debian (make sure you look at the kind of support your vendor is offering)
* if you’re just looking for an alternative to Windows (want point and click types) then Red Hat could be for you
* if you want to know how everything works and edit the configuration files by hand, you can opt for Slackware (it is also very stable)
* if you are a developer, want to participate in the open source project, and don’t mind editing configuration files, consider Debian a good choice
* if you’re interested in “build-your-own” types of distributions, consider Slackware or Debian*
* if creating special purpose applications, Gentoo, Knoppix, and Morphix make good choices (though you need to weigh your needs for customization versus the expenditure of IT time and energy)*
* if you want a server and need something secure and stable, Debian and Slackware make good candidates as they give reasonably secure install (Red Hat Linux in a default install is vulnerable to hacking and needs a custom configuration and downloaded upgrades before it can be deployed as a server)
*you might also need to familiarize yourself with Perl or Python, as well as non-RPM software packaging methods such as tarballs, before you can use these distros
Several distributions that are already in the works for special purposes are:
* medical distro called Debian-Med (www.debian.org/devel/debian-med)
* Linux in Schools (www.k12linux.org) – distro for grade K-12 classrooms
* “pocket distros” – ZipSlack; DamnSmallLinux (DSL); Smoothwall; LNX-BBC; Tom’s RtBt; Trinux; and Gibraltar .
Additional food for thought:
According to the February 16, 2004 Internet News report by Sean Michael Kerner, Who’s The Fastest Growing Linux Distro?, which focused on Internet research company Netcraft’s January 2004 survey, of the distros available, Debian has seen the fastest growth from July 2003 to January 2004. Redhat, though, still enjoys the largest market share.
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