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The Many Flavors of Linux

May 13, 2009 8 comments

Even the smallest amount if research into Linux will have illustrated the sheer range of distributions out there. They are all based on the original Linux kernel built by Linus Torvalds (the father of modern Linux) and can all inter-operate to varying degrees. We have large selection of Linux distros on CD and DVD.

There are three base values that ensure all of the different distros will work together, and what application works for one should work for all.
Firstly there something called the Linux Standard Base. This is a set of specifications that the major distros adhere to which ensures interoperability between systems. It defines how packages are built and formatted, how file systems should work, and minimum criteria like applications and utilities to be available with the distro. This ensures that all Linux distros work from a common ground which makes sure everything will play nicely together.
There is also the Open Source Project. You will see this name a lot when you enter the world of Linux. Most distros include the same or very similar projects. Things like Apache, Samba, Mail, GNOME and KDE are all examples of Open Source Projects. The packages mentioned will work in whatever distro you have that conforms to this project.

Finally there is the Shell. This is the command line window most experienced Linux users seem to live in. It is the core of the machine/user interface and has to be standard across all distros. A command that works on one must be able to work on another.

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I will list a few of the major distros currently in the world to whet your appetite. There are lots and lots out there and it would be impossible to do justice to all of them. If you are interested in them I heartily recommend doing some further research.

Debian
Debian is regarded as the largest Linux distribution to date in terms of users. It is renowned for its stability and quality and its interoperability with other software. It has a very large following and over 28,000 packages you can add to it. It is very stable and newbie friendly. The community is knowledgeable and helpful and most of the questions you may have will have been asked before on their forums. Debian seems somewhat over engineered to me, which isn’t a bad thing. It just means that it is never the latest and greatest, but is very, very stable. Currently on Debian Version 5, Lenny.

Ubuntu
Seemingly the most popular distro out in the world right now, since its release five years ago. Some suggest it has as much as 40% of Linux desktops. It is another good quality, stable release that is very newbie friendly. It even has a migration assistant for Windows refugees. This eases the pain a little by helping you in your first steps. Another distro that works with most hardware straight out of the box. Current version 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope.

Fedora
This is a distribution with a long history. Once part of Red Hat, Fedora was launched for the ‘Linux Hobbyist’. It is very secure and has a large number of packages available for it. This one seemed to be less newbie friendly than others, with not so many options for desktop users. If you want to run a web server or something then this would be ideal. Current version is Fedora 10, new version shortly

OpenSUSE
This is another distro with a rich history, now owned by Novell. It is a comprehensive package with some good documentation. The following is helpful and informative and there are lots of packages available for it. There is however some controversy over a deal it has with Microsoft, something about use of patents. This doesn’t detract from the usability of the product though. It does have graphical tools for an administrator. Current release is 11.1

Mandriva
Mandriva used to be Mandrake, and even as a Windows user back then I knew what that was. It is one of the distributions that offer both free and commercial versions of the software. The commercial version is regarded as one of the best distros for newbies. Although I don’t see that it has much that Ubuntu or Debian doesn’t offer and for free. Current version is Mandriva 2009.1.

Slackware
This is allegedly the oldest Linux distribution still around today. It is supposed to be the cleanest and most bug free edition available, but seems quite hard core. You definitely need skills to get into Slackware. It lags a little behind other distributions and doesn’t have all the cool bits to make your desktop smart. Current version 12.2

FreeBSD
Yes I know…it is not Linux but it is worth mentioning. It is primarily directed a server applications and is rated as one of the most stable. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that some of the more popular distros have but if you need something to run a server, you can’t go wrong with this. Current version 7.2.

Mint
This is my personal favorite, and not only for its cool name. It is based on Ubuntu, but is developed mainly ‘on demand’. The programmers have forums and feedback loops which they subscribe to. They listen and try to implement the best suggestions into the distribution. It has many specific tools, and to my mind is the most useable out of the box. Current version is Mint 6 Felicia.

PCLinuxOS
Despite the not so catchy name this distribution is supposed to be very good for the Linux newcomer. Another distro that works out of the box, natively supporting lots of hardware. The documentation and website are pretty good if a little disorganized. This one also seems to be English only, so if you speak something other, then you had best look elsewhere. Current version is PCLinuxOS 2009.1

Like I said, there are many other versions of Linux out there, and this is just a snapshot of the most popular. Now it’s up to you to choose your flavor…

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