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Which Linux Distro Is Best For You?

Choosing Linux Wisely

  • September 29, 2003
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

From Red Hat, SuSE, and the other major off-the-shelf distributions to "pocket distros" such as ZipSlack, the roster of Linux distros is long. Out of all of these, which is best for you? "There are different ways of deciding," advised Heather Stern of Starshine.org.

During Linux Bootcamp at the recent PC Expo show, Stern listed the following as "off-the-shelf/general purpose distros": Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Slackware, and Debian.

"You'll need a commercial off-the-shelf distro if the implementation you're planning is purely commercial," said Stern, in a follow-up interview with LinuxPlanet later.

In deciding among commercial distributions, it's important to look at support being offered by the vendors you work with, Stern observed. Right now, for example, some ISVs and hardware vendors are only supporting Red Hat and/or SuSE.

Slackware and Debian, on the other hand, are more along the lines of "progammers'" or "build-your-own" distributions. So, too, are emerging distributions such as Gentoo, Knoppix, and Morphix, a distro Stern described as "modular Knoppix."

Generally speaking, "build-your-own" distributions are well geared to creating special purpose applications. However, users need to weigh their companies' needs for customization versus expenditure of IT time and energy, she said.

It doesn't hurt to know the ins-and-outs of programming environments such as Perl or Python, as well as non-RPM software packaging methods such as tarballs.

Gentoo, the "new kid on the block," provides "fine-tuned granularity," Stern contended. "Debian, though, can be less tricky," she conceded.

Stern cited a number of distros already in the works for special purposes. Some Debian developers, for example, are building a medical distro called Debian-Med (www.debian.org/devel/debian-med ).

Gentoo developers have created a LAN-based gaming demo that uses NVidia cards, according to Stern.

Meanwhile, Linux in Schools (www.k12linux.org) is working on a distro for grade K-12 classrooms. The implementation is highly centralized, she added. Linux Terminal software is used on classroom workstations.

Other projects are creating "pocket distros" that run on a floppy, standard-sized CD, or miniature CD, for instance. "You can carry them with you," Stern said. Examples include ZipSlack; DamnSmallLinux (DSL); Smoothwall; LNX-BBC; Tom's RtBt; Trinux; and Gibraltar.

Also available to users are all-in-one software solutions, along with hardware appliances dedicated to specific functions.

Software solutions range from Web servers such as Apache and thttpd to software for mail (sendmail, postfix, qmail); DNS (BIND, djbdns, MaraDNS, pdnsd); and ISP connectivity (wvdial, xisp).

Appliances include pre-loaded rackmount servers; mail appliances; file sharing servers; programming repositories; and database servers.

"The appliances tend to be expensive, however," Stern acknowledged. "Many of them have FreeBSD (Unix) under the hood, and that's fine, too.

Stern also gave some tips on how to ease customization. "Customize something normal. Then burn it," she recommended. "Check Freshmeat." Freshmeat (www.freshmeat.org ) contains links to pre-built software programs, documentation, patches and desktop themes.

In deciding on the best distro of Linux, support for older hardware can be a factor, too. Often, for instance, non-profit organizations inherit donated PCs. "Or maybe you have an old 486 lying around somewhere in your garage."

Again, functionality varies according to specific Linux distro. Due to its modularity, Debian can be made to operate on even a 500 MB hard drive. "But you'd never be able to get Mandrake to run on a 486," Stern maintained.

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