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A newbie's guide to Linux distributions

First in an occasional series reviewing popular and unusual versions of Linux.

(LinuxWorld) -- The question I get asked most by folks considering their first foray into Linux is, "Which distribution should I try?" This is a difficult question to answer under any circumstances, but it is especially difficult right now because I haven't looked at any of the latest versions in depth.

Nevertheless, I'm going to give you my thoughts on how to choose a distribution, and even chat a little about the various distributions as I know them from their prior versions. Over the next few weeks I intend to try the latest versions, and I'll revisit the topic from time to time to let you know if my opinions have changed.

Before I get started, I want to remind my readers of a few basic facts. First, I'm a human being. Second, I write for other publications. Third, I have a life, such as it is. All this amounts to a guarantee I will not get to one or more distributions you feel are better than the ones I cover. Please accept my apologies in advance.

De-factos of de-matter

Naturally, the distribution you pick should match your needs and desires. In most cases, readers who ask me this question want to learn Linux because they want to learn the skills necessary to get a job. I get a lot of these letters, because a lot of employers are shifting their focus from Windows to Linux. One reason I know this is not just wishful thinking is that my sister is an MCSE (officially this stands for "Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer" but see below for a list of alternative definitions). She is looking for work, and is finding it difficult to find the right job because so many prospective employers are looking for people with Linux skills.

With a few exceptions, almost all Linux distributions are similar enough that what you learn from one carries over to another easily. But if you are among those who want to learn Linux in order to get a job that requires Linux skills, get Red Hat. In fact, the rule of thumb is, no matter why you want to try Linux, when in doubt, get Red Hat. I've looked at Red Hat 7.0, but I haven't actually used it on a regular basis since 6.1. So I cannot tell you anything good or bad about the latest version.

No matter what anyone thinks of the company or the distribution, you can't dispute the fact that Red Hat is the de-facto standard. If you learn Red Hat, you increase your chances of knowing the ins and outs of what an employer is using.

Red Hat belongs at the top of the list because it is the de-facto standard. However, I will address the remainder of the distros with which I am familiar in arbitrary order.

Mandrake

What's your favorite distro?
Red Hat
Mandrake
Caldera
SuSE
Debian
TurboLinux
Slackware
Yellow Dog
Other


The last version of Mandrake I used with any regularity was version 7.0, which I used more than any other distribution at the time. Mandrake is up to 8.1 now.

Nevertheless, you may learn something from the reasons why I gave up using Mandrake. The primary reason was that Mandrake wandered too far from its Red Hat foundation. Mandrake started out as "The Red Hat distribution compiled for Pentiums and with KDE included." It was an immediate hit because lots of people loved KDE and wanted to think they had better-performing software. At the time, Red Hat refused to ship its product with KDE and compiled its products for the least common denominator platform. Whether anyone gained appreciable performance with Mandrake because it was compiled for Pentium systems is something I cannot say, but the possibility was enough to lure customers.

One of the biggest reasons Mandrake rose to stardom quickly was not because of KDE or the fact that packages were compiled for their modern processors, but because it was so compatible with Red Hat. There were exceptions, of course, but it was usually a trivial matter to take any RPM package intended for Red Hat and install it on Mandrake. Since most RPM packages out there were created with Red Hat in mind, you got all the benefits of Mandrake and could download RPM files off the Internet and install them without the hassle of resolving endless dependencies or having to use RPM switches like --nodeps and --force.

One could argue endlessly about whose fault it was, but the fact is that by the time Red Hat 7.0 came out, Mandrake and Red Hat had drifted apart in terms of compatibility enough that I didn't want to use Mandrake anymore, despite the fact that tons of Mandrake RPMs were appearing on the scene. (I also didn't want to use Red Hat 7.0, but that's a different story, and one I don't want to address until I've had a look at 7.2).

The Mandrake folks contributed a lot of excellent extra value to the community in the form of DiskDrake (a Partition Magic clone) and other utilities, but Mandrake also focused too hard on things like the graphical installer and graphical boot-up screen. The problem is that these features were poorly planned. For example, when I recompiled the kernel without frame-buffer support it broke the startup scripts. I only had to change a couple lines of code in the scripts to fix the problem, but it was a symptom of sloppy design for the sake of eye candy.

I'm assuming these things have long been fixed, but I wont' know until I burn the Mandrake 8.1 ISO images I recently downloaded and install it. But the fact is that I suspect that Red Hat compatibility is no longer one of the key selling points of Mandrake. That's fine as long as Mandrake can stand on its own merit. We'll see.

Caldera

Caldera was my favorite distribution for a long time, and not just because the company hired me to work on non-profit ventures. The last version I used was the Linux Technology Preview. I didn't like the fact that it didn't include GNOME, but I preferred KDE anyway, and Caldera used KDE by default.

In my experience, Caldera's installer has always been light years ahead of the competition. I know it has weak spots because I've heard from dozens of people who told horror stories of endless problems trying to get Caldera's product installed. I do not doubt they had problems, but the fact is, I never had these problems. The bottom line is that it's a crap shoot. If easy installation is your primary concern, Caldera's installer is unbeatable unless you happen to have the hardware that gives it trouble. What that hardware is, I cannot say, but it's always a good idea to browse a distribution company's Web site for compatibility lists regardless of the distribution you pick. If the distro you're considering doesn't have such a list and you're not up to searching the USENET or other sources for tips, then avoid that distribution.

The problem I had with Caldera is that most of the RPM packages I could find on the Internet were created for Red Hat or Mandrake, and it was rarely easy to install these packages on Caldera. It was possible, because I know enough about Linux to figure out how to resolve dependencies, create new symbolic links for libraries to provide the file names that applications are looking for, and when to use the --nodeps and --force options of RPM without worrying about breaking the system. If you don't understand any of this, then don't get Caldera or Mandrake. Get Red Hat. Otherwise, Caldera is another one to put at the top of the list to try.

SuSE

I know I'm going to get flamed out the wazoo for saying this about SuSE, but every time I tried a new version I was reminded of what Ed Asner's cranky character Mr. Grant said about nostalgia on the 1970's Mary Tyler Moore Show. "I hate nostalgia. I hated it then, and I hate it now."

The last version I looked at was version 7.0, and I hated that one as much as all the previous versions I tried. I couldn't stand the installer or the system configuration tools, even though these were the very things that most people rave about. Call it personal preference, but those tools drove me crazy. Nevertheless, it is such a popular distribution that there has to be something good about it. Put it near the top of your list as a consideration until I have a look at the latest version so I can either find out why I've missed its best features, or why it deserves to be shot and stuffed.

Debian

If you want to install Linux once and then never pop another CD-ROM in the drive to update your software, Debian is for you. The price you pay is that you can't stay on the bleeding edge of software without straying from what Debian offers on its servers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially if stability is your primary goal.

Debian's crown jewel is the apt-get system of software installation and upgrades. Once you have Debian installed, you may never use FTP again. When you want to install a package, you do so by typing the command apt-get install packagename. If you want to upgrade software you already have on your system, you type apt-get upgrade. If you want to upgrade your whole distribution, you type apt-get dist-upgrade. It's actually not quite as simple as that, but it isn't at all difficult once you know what you're doing.

You can get versions of the apt-get system for distributions that use RPM packages, but I can't tell you if that will give you the same satisfying experience you can get with Debian. I suspect it won't, simply because you can't just point to sites that store RPM files and upgrade your software that way, because all these sites aren't governed by a single structured set of guidelines like Debian is. Having an apt-get that understands RPM files doesn't necessarily mean you're not going to run into numerous conflicts and dependency issues. If you know differently, then tell me.

There are three branches of Debian. They have the nicknames Potato, Woody, and Sid, but it is more informative to call them by their true names: stable, testing, and unstable. I run Debian unstable on all my systems, and upgrade my software to the latest unstable versions at least once a week. Even so, much of the software I use is still lagging behind the versions other distros provide.

Regardless, I would never recommend others to use unstable and upgrade their software as frequently as I do, especially for systems in production. I do it on my production systems because my production systems are not critical, and I have a systematic way of upgrading. I upgrade my workstation first, test the results, then upgrading the next machine that is a little more important, and so on. On those occasions when I either break my own rules or simply forget what I'm doing and the latest software upgrade breaks something critical, I can usually fix the problem quickly, and I learn a lot in the process. But this is definitely a case of "don't try this at home kids" if you need your systems to be reliable or if you aren't up to the challenge.

TurboLinux, Slackware

I plead ignorance on these. It seemed like I used to get a copy of TurboLinux almost weekly, each one a new version. And yet when I installed it, it had nothing but old versions of software on the CD-ROM. But that was so long ago that I don't even have to look at the latest product to know it no longer resembles what I had way back then. Likewise with Slackware. The last time I used it was so long ago I can't even recall what it was like. I'm itching to try the latest version, but haven't had time.

There are more distributions to talk about even without installing the latest versions, but that's enough for this week. I'll pick up the topic from here when I've had time to try at least one new version.

MCSE Classes Suspect Exploitation

Here's an alphabetized collection of alternate definitions for the acronym MCSE, all of which I gathered from various second-hand sources on the Internet. My personal favorites are "Minesweeper Consultant / Solitaire Expert", "More Co-opted Standards Everyday", "Making Computers Susceptible to Exploit", "Moe and Curly's Software Emporium" and "Management Conned by Something Expensive", but there are many others that would rank a close second. Actually, my very favorite is "My Cat Studies Ecclesiastes", but I don't see how that and a few others in the list have anything to do with computers.

"Mayday", Called Some Experts
Mad Consultants Slurping Ethanol
Madly Causing Slashdot Effect
Mail Consumed Somewhere in Exchange
Mainframe Computers Seemed Extinct
Maintenance Contracts Seem Expensive
Maintenance Costs Significantly Extra
Making Companies Surrender Everyday
Making Computers Slow Everyday
Making Computers Spew Errors
Making Computers Susceptible to Exploit
Making Cretins Self-Employed
Maledictis Confutatious Sounds Exquisite
Management Can't Send E-mail
Management Conned by Something Expensive
Management Coronaries Soon Enough
Management will Catch you with a Screenful of Erotica
Managers Contain Significant Egos
Managing Computers by Slapdash Empiricism
Managing Crap Systems Everyday
Manipulative Closed-Source Economics
Many Collisions Saturate Ethernet
Marginal Computer Software Enthusiast
Marketing Cancels Software Efficiency
Marksmanship Can Solve Everything
Mass C Squared is Energy
Massive Computational Solar Eclipse
Massive Cyberspace Sheepshearing Empire
Maybe Could Suggest Exorcism
Me-too Computer Science Education
Meandering Cosmicrays 'Sodded Explorer
Megabytes Can Soon Evaporate
Meowing Cats Suggest Evil
Microsoft Certified Slave of the Empire
Microsoft Constantly Screws Everyone
Migrane-Causing Suckage Extravaganza
Millenium Caused Societal Extinction
Mindfscked Computers Swapping Egregiously
Minesweeper Consultant / Solitaire Expert
Minesweeper Consultant, Solitaire Engineer
Minimally Cheerful Software Experience
Minimizing Competence is So Exhausting
Minion of the Crappy Software Empire
Mischief Causing Shipwrecked Equipment
Misconceived Computer Science Experiment
Misguided Consultant Slagging Eunuchs
Misunderstanding Cryptically Strange Errors
Moe and Curly's Software Emporium
Molasses Comparatively Seems Expeditious
Molotov Cocktails Shutdown Electricity
Monetary Compensation Sounds Exciting
Mongolian Clusterfsck Swallows Everything
Monkeys Composing Shakespearian Equivalents
Moot Crypto Software is Exportable
More Co-opted Standards Everyday
Morning Comes So Early
Moron Confused by Sun Equipment
Morons Crudely Simulating Expertise
Mortifying Crackle of Static Electricity
Most Computers Suck Eggs
Most Computers Suck Exasperatingly
Motherboard Chips Simulate Encephalopathy
Mountebank Causing Significant Expenses
Mouse Clickings of Sophomoric Experimentation
Mouse Clicks Selected "Erase"
Mozilla Couldn't Stomach Explorer
Multiple Corrective Servicepack Exorcist
Must Consult Someone Experienced
Must... Contain... STR. Eaaaaaaaaaaaurgh!
Mutant Computer Solutions Evangelist
Mutant Computers Seem Eviscerated
Mutated CP/M System Emulator
Mutated Convoluted Strokery Everywhere
My Cat Studies Ecclesiastes
My Company Screws Everyone
My Computer's Software Exploded
My Cranium Softened Easily

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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