How-to choose a Linux distribution

So you now know about the wonders of open source and you want to try out open source’s main operating system (OS) Linux. Where do you start? Linux is actually just the bare bones of the system called the kernel. It is very similar to DOS on windows machines. It handles low level system processes and resources. When we refer to Linux we are usually talking about distributions which includes the software packages, like firefox, open office and gnome, as well as the Linux kernel. So we already know we want Linux how do we go about picking a distribution?

Linux offers hundreds of different distributions. But, there are three main branches of Linux. The two biggest is Red Hat Linux and Debian Linux from these stems the majority of our other Linux distributions. The third is SUSE Linux which has spawned open SUSE. From these you get Red Hat based distributions and Debian based distributions (Fedora being the most famous Red Hat and Ubuntu being the most famous Debian). On the surface, or in the gui, there isn’t much different between the systems, but underneath there is a big difference in configuration files and installation packages (RPM and DEB). The two aren’t incompatible with each other, but if you learn one it does take a little bit of time to learn the other. If you are new to Linux you likely want to stick with a distribution based on either RPM or DEB as both standards are well supported and easier to use in the Linux world.

Now remember I said open source is often free.  That is mostly true. Red Hat and SUSE both charge a license fee for the OS, which in return gives you user support similar to what Microsoft offers for Windows. This comes in handy when your machine dies and you have nowhere else to go, but at the core of open source is free. So it sort of runs amuck to the core values of open source. Debian (remember it is one of the major branches) has always been free. It focuses on stability and robustness. As a result if you run Debian and your machine goes down you have no one specific to call for support, however, often the systems don’t go down and there is a huge forum based user support group to help solve problems and configuration issues. Both Red Hat and SUSE have free branches of their OS.

What else should we consider? So we have decided to use either RPM or DEB based systems the next step is to see what is out there in those categories. For Red Hat based machines here is the top few choices: Fedora, CentOS. And for Debian based: Ubuntu, Debian. This list is short, but highlights the best options in both categories if you are looking for an absolutely free version of Linux. From here you should consider how widespread the use of the OS is, and how large the userbase is (the userbase is where you turn to if you have problems so you look at the forums or online documentation to see how active they are).  The two that win out is Fedora (RPM) and Ubuntu (DEB), both are widespread and used by a number of people, and both have huge amount of documentation and a large userbase. From here you get to choose and the four highlighted distributions are a very good places to start if you are new to Linux. Later, when you are more comfortable, you can branch out and look at other distributions.

Now what do I use? I find Ubuntu to be very robust and scalable while maintaining a user-friendliness that is a welcome relief. It is the most popular and widely used distribution ever, and yet is powerful enough to be used by Universities like Harvard and the University of IL. While it is powerful it is also easy to configure and built with the new Linux user in mind. Most of my articles will be based on Ubuntu/Debian, but often, with a few changes, could be applied to a Red Hat based systems as well.

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