21 Jan 07
There are many different distributions of Linux. Distributions are often referred to as “flavors”, and that is really a good way to describe what they are. They are all Linux, and all run mostly the same programs, but each one has a slightly different look and feel. Each one uses slightly modified versions of the configuration files.
The great thing about Linux is that you have complete flexibility to modify the operating system however you want. You can even redistribute Linux with the modifications you have made. This is what has lead to the great number of distributions available. The number one question people have when they are new to Linux is “What distribution should I use?” The best answer that anyone can really give you is that you should use the one that you like the best. Distributions are made to suit different tastes, so find the one that fits your taste and use it. I can't tell you what distribution to use any more than I can tell you what car to drive.
With that said, you are here for some guidance, so I will give you a place to start at. There are two major distributions – Red Hat, and Debian. Many distributions fork off from them, but most of the forks will have very similar charactoristics.
If you are new to Linux, don't know where to start, and don't want to do a lot of reading (or aren't picky,) I recommend Ubuntu. Ubuntu is currently the most popular Linux distribution for desktop computers. Nearly every Linux home user has tried Ubuntu. Ubuntu took the rock solid stability of Debian and the awesome apt-get package manager, added support for the latest programs and hardware, and made it easy to install. Because of this, Ubuntu shot to the top of the popularity charts shortly after launch, and has only grown since.
Ubuntu is very friendly for beginners, and is very useful out of the box. It also has great community support. This means that if you run into a problem, it is likely that someone in the forums has seen the issue before and would be willing to help you fix it. It also means that outstanding applications, such as Automatix, have been developed by the Ubuntu community to make your life easier. If you don't know where to start with Linux, then I suggest you start with Ubuntu. Ubuntu uses Gnome, but there is a side project called Kubuntu that uses KDE.
Red Hat is definitely the most well-known version of Linux. Red Hat is produced by a company by the same name. They charge for the purchase and support of their operating system, but the support can be a lifesaver when a critical system goes down. They also offer certification programs for people to learn about their operating system and show proof of that knowledge to employers.
The operating system itself is very stable and feature filled. There is a graphical installer and many configuration tools. These tools include a way to configure the graphical interface, set up networking, join different types of domains, and control the services that run at boot.
The most notable feature of Red Hat is the powerful RPM package manager. RPM provides a very easy and reliable way to install new software and make changes to the configuration of the computer. Installing software from an RPM is usually as simple as double-clicking on the RPM icon.
For these reasons, Red Hat is run by some of the giants. Yahoo uses Red Hat on several systems. The rumor is that the Google search engine runs on several thousand Red Hat computers. Red Hat allows you to choose between a few desktops, including Gnome and KDE.
Fedora is the free, community-based, development version of Red Hat. It includes all the features of Red Hat, plus any features that Red Hat wants to test. The advantage of Fedora is that it is free. The disadvantage is that Red Hat does not provide support. It also tends to be slightly buggy due to the fact that some of the tools included in Fedora are still in development. The biggest problem with Fedora, especially in a production environment, is that security and stability updates are only provided for about one year on each release.
CentOS is based on Red Hat source code. It is almost the exact same operating system without the professional support. CentOS is a great operating system if you want to become familiar with Red Hat but can't afford to purchase it.
Debian just might be the most widely used distro. Between Debian and forks of Debian (like Ubuntu, Knoppix, and Linspire), Debian accounts for a huge chunk of the computers running Linux. Debian is know for its rock-solid stability. Every release is tirelessly tested for potential bugs before release. Unfortunatly, this constant testing makes for a long release cycle, and Debian is notorious for being behind the times.
Similar to Red Hat's RPM package manager, Debian has its own manager called apt-get. Apt-get makes installing the software in packages a matter of running one simple command on the client's computer, and everything is done automatically. This includes downloading the necessary files, configuring the system, and even restarting any services that need restarted. While apt-get isn't quite as powerful as RPM, it is impressively simple and reliable.
Mandrivia, formerly called Mandrake, is produced by a group of developers desperately trying to make money off of Linux. It isn't very difficult to set up, but they expect you to pay to get timely updates and support for your graphics card. Mandrake used to have a strong following because it was easy to set up and get into a graphical environment, but its popularity has been steadily slipping (although the recent releases have shown lots of improvement.) Distrowatch still rates them in the top 10 distributions, but I have trouble getting excited about it. Mandrivia uses KDE.
OpenSUSE is the free version of the SUSE operating system. SUSE is produced by Novell, the networking giant. As a result, the SUSE project has a much larger budget than most Linux distributions. This allows them to include driver support for almost any hardware out there, along with innovations such as the XGL graphical acceleration. While they often release features such as XGL as open source for everyone to use eventually, SUSE is always ahead of the curve. The major disadvantage of SUSE is that it is very bloated. It takes several gigabytes to install, and tends to run slower and more sluggish than any other distribution. SUSE uses KDE.
Slackware is a purist distribution. Maintained by a single, very devoted developer, it is seen as a clean, pure way to run Linux. It doesn't offer very many frills, but that's what people like about it. It's clean and stable, but its lack of utilities and a package manager can cause some difficulty for beginners. Some users switch to Slackware in order to learn more about Linux. My favorite thing about Slackware is minimalist practices which help it to run faster and use much less memory than other distros like Red Hat. This makes it better for older machines than many other choices. Slackware uses KDE.
Gentoo is another distribution that you might hear a lot about. Gentoo is famous for two things: Being fast, and being difficult to install. I don't recommend it for beginners, but it is great for someone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of Linux. It is probably better suited to servers than desktops becasue all applications have to be compiled from source. Gentoo allows a wide choices of graphical desktop.
Knoppix is a Linux distribution designed to be run from a CD. You can simply put the CD in your drive and reboot your computer, and Knoppix will boot up without changing anything you your computer. While many distributions include a LiveCD, Knoppix invented it and still excels at it. It is useful for trying out Linux without making any changes to your computer or to run on someone else's computer when you are away from home. Knoppix uses KDE.
There are thousands of different distributions out there, and I can't possibly cover them all. This should give you enough to get started. Where you go from there is completely up to you. That is the fun of Linux. Distrowatch.com maintains the most comprehensive list of Linux distributions if you want to explore the possibilities.
28 Jan 08