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Brownyworld: Linux Distributions, which one is for me?


As I hear again and again, especially from professionals working on Windows and not being interested in Linux:
"It is confusing, there is not one Linux! How can you trust a thing like this?"

Well, it is true, there is not one Linux, there are many. But the good news is, that they are highly specialized and... they are all Linux, meaning that they share a underlieing base, called the GNU tools.

Now since Linux is modular, much more so than Windows, the components can be put together in many ways, focusing on one or the other functionality. Just downloading the components, compiling them and putting them together is a lot of work. This work is done by the distributors and the result is a distribution.

Here a list of distros, what they are specialized on:
(Mind you, this list is far from complete, but it sums up the major ones)


RedHat
Is probably the best known and one of the oldest Linux distros. It used to be totally free, around 2002 or so, RedHat decided to go fully commercial, creating RedHat Enterprise Linux. The source is still GPL, but they cater to the needs and wants of enterprises, offering support (which is most important to enterprises when it comes to software)
The old RedHat distro has been released for community support and renamed to Fedora.
RedHat is a synonym for Linux for most people, since it is most recognized. RedHat is marketleader in Linux server sales.


Novell SuSE
SuSE, a german company, was bought by Novell in 2004. SuSE Linux has always been special in the way that it deviates in my oppinion farthest from the "normal" Linux core, not requiring the command line to do anything. The result is a totally user friendly Linux, automating everything. The result is a strong competitor to Windows, since it follows the same philosophy, but the drawbacks being complexity and slowness.
Currently, Novell is pushing SuSE to be the future enterprise desktop, an area where RedHat lacks product power in my oppinion.

Debian
Debian is for me the core of all Linux and years ago, when I met somebody using Debian, I did not get the idealism and enthusiasm that it was revered with. I did not get what apt-get was all about then and how clever it really is. (If you don't know yet, see here.)
I had the impression that Debian was only used by Linux cracks that thought that any kind of fancy UI was evil. I was far from the truth of course, since many things in Debian save you a lot of time compared to other distros.
Debian comes in three flavours, stable, testing and unstable. Stable is what it says, boring and old, as any robust software is. Testing is going to be the new stable and unstable is the cutting edge, newest of the newest stuff, expect breakage and new features all the time to drip in.


Knoppix
And then there was Knoppix. The first time I came in contact with Knoppix must have been at a networking seminar at IBM, when a teacher offered CDs of Knoppix to "try stuff on Linux". He could not just wipe the classroom machines and install Linux on them and said that Knoppix runs fully just from the CD... What a cool idea that is. Imagine that you can still use your system, right after you had your hd break. Pop in Knoppix and boot from it, complete with browser, OpenOffice and lots of tools. That was long before BartPE and I saved countless NTFS disks with Knoppix, after Windows XP recovery tools told me that it was hopeless.
Knoppix now moved over to DVD, including about 4 Gbyte of compressed software, which comes up to about double that much in reality. And I believe that any professional should have a disc handy.
Just when you are having trouble with a NIC or USB controler in Windows, it pays to see if it is a driver problem or a hardware breakage. Get a second oppinion with Knoppix.


I remember arguing with the teacher then that you would have problems running Linux on some boxes and he told me that I should go and find a system that Knoppix would not run on and he was absolutely right. It is extremely rare.

It is just about crazy on how much different hardware Knoppix will run and it beats Windows in hardware recognition and with that I mean, no driver installs allowed. Knoppix has it all out of the box.

(exception: wireless cards and analog (win) modems are still a roya PITA, unfortunately the manufacturers are to blame for that, changing chips on a weekly basis and withholding vital information and drivers from the Linux community.)


Ubuntu
Now Ubuntu is the new kid on the block and you might have heard about it. The one with the funny name. Well, Ubuntu makes big competition to SuSE for being very userfriendly and easy to install. It is, in fact, easier to install for anyone than Windows XP. There are no questions about networking, package selection. You just need to say your username, machine name and all things go automatic. It also does it a lot faster than XP by the way.
Ubuntu is the perfect example why the Linux desktop really does work and is the next big thing coming.
Ubuntu is based on the Gnome desktop environment, which is "dumbed" down for normal users, meaning that some things are not configurable and do not confuse or occupy normal users. This can mean less support cost, since users cannot mess around with the GUI.

The development of Ubuntu is driven by Mark Shuttleworth, a South-African enterpreneur millionaire that shares the view that the access to high tech information systems should not be restricted by the "wallet" and financial capabilities of an individual. He has rightly analyzed that while Linux is highly distributed and used on servers, it is very weak still on the desktop. Enter Ubuntu, debian based and really easy to use, desktop oriented. As an enterpreneur, he also sees the business side of it, the "what is is good for in the end" and "how can it boost efficiency and reduce cost".

Mark Shuttleworth answering community questions about Ubuntu: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/MarkShuttleworth
Listen to his podcast-speech at LinuxTag 2006 here: http://www.netzpolitik.org/2006/podcast-interview-mark-shuttleworth


There are even tutorial videos, something you have to pay on other OSes:
http://ubuntuclips.org/

Kubuntu
Basically the same as Ubuntu, but with the KDE environment as desktop. It is a matter of preference, which one you choose. I personally prefer KDE more, since it seems more intuitive to me, especially when you come from Windows. Refering to the paragraph above, you might want to have everything configurable and set things exactly as you like them. If you want this, Gnome can be highly irritating. You might end up asking a colleague that knows his way around Gnome about it and he might simply reply "you can't configure it and you are not supposed to!"
I always shake my head. Unbelievable! I definitely did not leave Windows to have less control.
But then, I am a power user, definitely not your run of the mill normal user.


Linux Devices

I am always amazed of how many devices are already running Linux, without anybody knowing it.

Here just a short list:

Tivo
TomTom navigation devices
Lots of firewalls

Windows, with its restrictive and expensive license is loosing big time there. The minumum hardware requirements for Windows are going up every year and many times only the modular built Linux can be customized to do only one thing, instead of bringing with it all the extra bagagge that Windows seems to need. You definitely do not need an internet explorer in a router.





this document was created on:
21. Nov. 2006
updated on:
21. Nov. 2006