Which Distro?

People that want to break into Linux are always asking what is the best distribution to learn?

My answer is, "depends what you want to do with it".

I see the computer users world as a spectrum. Starting with the individuals that just want to serf the web and write email and ending up with the campus level networking professional. In the middle are those operators that need a office suite for processing data (features like word processing, spread sheets and presentation software) and those that want to run servers for home or small business networks.

I think there is a distribution for every purpose under the digital heaven. Here I am going to address the desk top and servers for small business.

If you are new to Linux and just want a desk top for surfing the web and doing word processing. I would recommend getting and learning one of the commercial distributions. They are easy to install and most of the necessary desk top functions have a GUI (graphic user interface) to set up and use. You do not have to have a working knowledge of the operating system. It is safe, secure and probably easier to install than
proprietary operating systems. These distributions include Suse, Red Hat and Mandriva. I mention these because there are the ones that I have installed and used in the past. There are also some commercial distributions that I have not tried like Linspire (Linspire now has a free version) and Xandros.

All of these distributions come with an office suite, browsing software and email software. CDs of these desk tops can be purchased at your local computer store or ordered on line for less than $100.00. Note this is very cheap for an operating system and application software. The worlds most used operating system cost about $180.00 with very few applications. A full suite of office type software cost around $500.00.

Older versions of all open source software can be downloaded form the host companies web site usually for free.

If you are after free, do not forget the BSDs. FreeBSD is easy to install and as the name indicates, it is free.

Some web sites for free distributions are:

www.opensuse.org
club.mandriva.com
www.ubuntu.com
www.freeBSD.org

Now, on to the servers.

Face it, if you are going to run a server you have to have a working knowledge of networking and operating systems. If I were going to learn one distribution for this task I would learn Debian. This is one of the oldest, most versatile, best supported and most stable distributions. However, it is not a point and click distro.

Besides it strengths it is also father to all ".deb" distributions. "Deb" is the package manager that is specific to Debian. This disto is the father to all distributions that use the Debian package manager. These include Ubuntu and knoppix.

This distribution is so rock solid, I still have it running servers and I have not used it in at least 3 years.

The reason I have not used Debian much over the past couple of years is because I have gone back to the oldest continuous distribution, Slackware. I like slack because its internal mechanics are very simple. However, it is not nearly as supported as any of the commercial distros or Debian. That means that for specialty software you are going to have to down load the source and compile it. This is not hard but does require some knowledge if you run into problems. None the less, I find slackware easer to use and as stable as any other distribution.

Net BSD and Gentoo make good server software but require a good working knowledge of operating systems.

Of course there is also supported proprietary systems like Red Hat Enterprise and Novell open enterprise server and do not forget Solaris.

These Distros can be downloaded at:

www.debian.org
www.slackware.org
www.netbsd.org

A comment on the campus aria network:

Now if you are running an entire campus network you will probably know as much or more than I do. You definitely know what you are comfortable with. You also have other factors to consider when choosing software. Factors like routers, fire walls and those individuals that ware suits and sign your pay check. I would say that if you have never used any open source I would recommend trying some because I personally feel the open source world has a lot to offer. I am often surprised at how little most enterprise network operators know about the capabilities of open source.

Two other thoughts:

1. One way to try open source easily is with live distributions. These are distributions that can be run from you CD drive. They give you the look and feel of linux but do not require any installation. Simply set your computer to boot from the CD ROM, insert the distribution CD and turn on the power. Most do not change anything on your hard drive. A fairly complete listing of these may be found at "www.frozenteck.com"

2. If you just want to know linux to the bone then try linux from scratch or gentoo. I have never built a system with linux from scratch, but I understand that it teaches the bear bones of linux.

Good luck in the world of linux. I you want to know more come to a meeting. We usually have a question and answer period for questions for all degrees of proficiency.

Also read Carl's summery of specific distors under the "Distribution Bazaar" section of this web site.

"Have Fun."

Denis Oxford
Web Manager

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