Chapter 2: Choosing a Linux Distribution

Topics covered in this chapter:
2.1 What exactly is a Linux Distribution?
2.2 What Linux Distribution should I choose?

As described in the previous chapter, we discovered that Linux was a flavour of the UNIX family of operating systems. This chapter talks about what types of Linux are available in the market today. These flavours are called distributions and all have their own merits and disadvantages. We will cover the most popular distributions in this chapter.

2.1 What Exactly is a Linux Distribution?

If you ever watch the IT press, you will have probably heard of company names such as Red Hat, SUSe (pronounced Soozah), Debian and possibly Caldera OpenLinux.
These are all companies that have created their own 'distributions' of Linux.

In any distribution, the fundamentals stay the same:

    The Kernel is the original Linus Torvalds Linux Kernel*
    The default GNU software*
    General software to be expected of a Linux distribution

    *: May differ in version.

What differs from distribution to distribution is usually:
    Installation Software (good, bad, none at all!)
    Extra software: (Office Apps, Prog. Languages, Games, Web Software etc)
    Documentation and Manuals (Quality of, Lack of, Quantity of)
    Quality of software (buggy or not buggy software, latest versions of software)
    Up to date
    Offers Support
    Ease of Use

So, as you can see, whatever distribution you choose. You get Linux, whatever you buy, but you may get a better range of options with distribution X over distribution Y. The choice is for you to decide, and because of Linux's excellent Copying/Licensing properties, you can try it out before you commit to anything.
Of course, you don't have to buy Linux at all. You can take a copy from your friends, or from a magazine or book and use it quite happily, but you usually get lots more goodies (extra cds, manuals, free support, etc) when you buy the product. I purchased Red Hat Linux 7.0 for only 29.99 (pounds sterling), and it has a great deal more software with it (5 CDs!) than the 1 CD publishers version costs.

2.2 What Linux Distribution should I choose?

Choosing a Linux distribution is a personal thing. It greatly depends on what you want to do with it all.
If you are a complete newbie and you are looking for an easy introduction to Linux, then I would probably choose Mandrake Linux. Have a look at this rough guide to get an idea of which Linux distribution is right for you.

Note: If a distribution is at release 7.0 (ie: Red Hat), but another distribution is only at 2.2 (ie: Debian), this does not mean that Debian is an old version of Linux. The release numbers are only an indicator of how many releases that particular vendor has made. It is quite likely that Debian 2.2 and Red Hat 7.0 share the same kernel version (2.2.16).
Vendor Logo Release Number User Level Good Points Bad Points
Red Hat 7.1 Beginner to Advanced Server De facto Linux Standard, easy to use, good installer Has some odd conventions
SuSE 7.1 Intermediate to Advanced/Server Good all rounder, good manuals & docs YAST 2 Installer has had troubles
Mandrake 8.0 Beginner to Intermediate Very easy to use and set up, nice control panel Not as professional as some others, mainly home oriented
Slackware 7.1 Advanced to Server A professional linux system, made for server market quite hard to install and use, is not an RPM based distribution, on the upside, it installs .tar.gz archives much easier than RPM based distros.
Debian 2.2r2 Intermediate to Advanced Very into the whole Free GNU thing, a Linux standard. DEB packages are good. Further behind than some other distros, but rock solid!

For a really nice representation on all of the ups and downs of each distribution, I recommend visiting Ladislav Bodnar's Comparison of Linux Distributions Web Page