which linux? (not flame bait, thank you)

andi payn andi_payn at speedymail.org
Tue Nov 4 11:58:18 PST 2003

On Tue, 2003-11-04 at 00:20, DavidB wrote:
> My question is this, I would like to have a little exposure to linux and 
> am wondering which distro to run, I used redhat back at the same time I 
> started with FreeBSD3~ , not sure if I should check them out.

My personal favorite distro is Mandrake--not because it's easy to use,
but because it's easy to use as a development box. My next choice is
Debian, for all the usual reasons. Mandrake and Debian also have by far
the best user/community support networks.

As for what's best for you, it really depends on what your goal is. Are
you looking to get exposure as a user, an admin, or a developer? Is this
to flesh out your resume, or to make you a better open source
contributor, or just for fun?

Without knowing all that, the best I can do is list the pros and cons of
the distros I've ever played with that aren't defunct (I'll start with
the ones you mentioned): Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, Redhat, Mandrake,
SuSE, Crux, Elfstone, Conectiva, TurboLinux, Lindows.

Also, you may want to take a look at
http://www.linux.org/dist/index.html before making a decision.
Apparently, there are 146 English-language, i386-platform,
currently-maintained distros, and I've only tried a little over a

Slackware is the most FreeBSD-like in administration. However, for my
taste, it's too barebones. Not barebones as in "secure by default," but
as in "missing things you need." You have to know exactly what you want
to install, and how to configure it, to get into Slackware. The
advantage is that if you _do_ know all of this, it's easier to get a
slimmed-down system (to run as fast as possible, in as little disk space
as possible). The disadvantage is that you probably don't know all of

Still, some of the problems that linux people have with Slackware
probably won't affect a FreeBSD user as much. For example, last I
checked, they still don't follow the FHS, so nothing's where you expect
it to be--but then that's going to be true on _any_ linux for a
FreeBSDer. Similarly for initscripts, again irrelevant to a newcomer
from the FreeBSD world.

Also, some of the admin tasks that I found difficult and poorly
documented turned out to be pretty close to the FreeBSD way (which _is_
well documented--plus, you already know it). So, if you already know how
to administer a FreeBSD box, you'll probably have less to learn on
Slackware, although there will be less guidance in learning it. 

Overall, I wouldn't recommend Slackware to anyone who hasn't already
been using Slackware.

Debian is the most FreeBSD-like in philosophy. For example, they have a
STABLE branch that always works, period, even if it has to be a bit
behind the times to do so. They have the least-patched kernel, gcc,
glibc, etc. of all the major distros, and they put the most work into
making sure everything integrates properly.

Whenever Redhat seems to be going the wrong way, most of the other
distros try to copy them and then fix what they screwed up--but Debian
instead ignores them and spends the time findind a better solution.
They've come up with some unique innovations, like the menu system and
update-alternatives, which have turned out to be useful even on top of
Redhat-based distros.

The main disadvantage of Debian is that it's less like other distros
than most distros, so if you're looking for general linux experience, it
may not be the way to go. Also, even on UNSTABLE, Debian tends to be
further behind some other distros (old versions of some packages, other
packages not even there yet, etc.).

But, if neither of these issues bothers you, then go with Debian.

There are a number of Debian-based distros that will install a complete
system ready to go as a workstation, server, etc., but that can be
administered from there just like any other Debian system.

For example (this is a while back, so it may be out of date), I used
Libranet in teaching linux, because it installs a complete KDE
workstation out-of-the-box, but whenever you want (or need) to play with
something, it's just like a stock Debian box. 

But don't use Xandros--although it's Debian-based, it's heavily modified
in peculiar ways.

Gentoo is the most FreeBSD-like on the surface. It's based around
portage (emerge), which is essentially ports without a base system. The
fact that everything is a port--even the kernel--seems really nifty at
first, but it also seems to lead to serious problems keeping the whole
distro in sync. (Or maybe it's just that they don't have as large of a
following as FreeBSD?) 

Also, there aren't nearly as many packages for gentoo as for FreeBSD
(much less Redhat or Debian), and portagifying a package given an RPM
specfile (or even a FreeBSD port) is generally non-trivial. Plus, I've
played with gentoo a few times, and each time I have lots of fun until I
run into some dependency problem that takes days to sort out.

And, while it's nice to be able to build everything from source, it's
sometimes nice to not have to. With RPM-based distros, you can build the
SRPM when you want to, or install the binary RPM when you just want to
check something out. (How fast can your box build the kernel, XFree86,
KDE, Mozilla, ghostscript, etc.?)

Gentoo is fun to play with (and it'll certainly give you some ideas for
improving ports management), but I wouldn't recommend using it

Redhat is by far the most popular distro, so if you're looking to get
experience so you can get linux development/admin/whatever jobs, you
might as well go with Redhat, since you're going to be using it most of
the time anyway. Plus, the fact that they have more users means more
people to help out when things don't work. 

While Redhat is just coming around to the idea of an organized contribs
repository, there are a number of de facto collections--plus, many
developers provide Redhat RPMs (source and binary), so this isn't much
of a negative. In fact, there's far more software available, ready to
run (or build) out-of-the-box, for Redhat than for anything else in the
free *nix world. However, the fact that there's nobody managing this
process means that there's nobody making sure that all of this software
works together.

But the real problem with Redhat is that their development is
ridiculously haphazard; some programs are far out of date, which others
are pushed out the door before they're working. Their kernel, gcc, etc.
are often extensively patched (sometimes it's not even possible to
rebuild the same kernel they distributed--and getting a stock kernel
from kernel.org to work on a Redhat system can be challenging).
Sometimes there are version mismatches between system tools and the
admin interfaces for them. And so on.

Of course these issues are all fixed if you buy the Enterprise version
for a few hundred dollars more.... Plus, you can get excellent
commercial support if you're willing to pay for it. But I assume you're

In short, use Redhat if you have to; avoid it otherwise.

Everyone knows that Mandrake is "Redhat made easy." But that isn't quite
true anymore--and it's certainly not a reason to dismiss it. It's also
not very Windowsified (compare it to Lindows, or even TurboLinux).

What Mandrake _really_ is, their own marketing aside, is "Redhat pushed
to the limits." They're consistently the first major linux distro to
adopt new technologies (e.g., zeroconf), and usually the first to get it
right (barring a few exceptions, like wifi). If there's no decent admin
tool, they'll slap one together; they're not obsessed with creating a
slick, monolithic tool that covers half of what you need like SuSE's
YaST, but rather with getting something done for everything you need. 

Who else provides a kernel with all the latest experimental multimedia
and scheduling patches ready to download and build or install (as well
as a pure stock kernel, a kernel patched and optimized for SMP
enterprise servers, a kernel with grsecurity, etc.)? 

Mandrake also thinks much more about package management than Redhat. For
example, their urpmi system wraps up dependency tracking, fetching, and
all of the other features that are missing from RPM. They have a
well-maintained collection of outside contribs. They have a consistent
library naming policy which makes keeping up to date much easier.
They've adopted Debian's menu system and alternatives. And so on.

As their CURRENT equivalent, they have Cooker, which is usually pretty
solid, despite tracking new software and updates (from kernel
pre-releases to new contribs) more closely than any alternative I've

Mandrake is also the only working hybrid behind a commercially-driven
distro (like Redhat) and a community-driven distro (like Debian). Many
non-Mandrake-employees have commit privileges, for example, and many
decisions are made on the lists. However, sometimes a pure community
distro is better than even a good hybrid....

On the downside, Mandrake's insistence on free software purity sounds
nice, but it makes it hard to get some software. First, if there's any
question at all about distributing something, Mandrake won't
(fortunately, there's PLF, but there's some stuff even they won't
carry--e.g., dosbox, because you can't build it from scratch on a linux

Mandrake's close-to-the-edge development cycle means that sometimes
things don't work right (occasionally even in the releases). While I've
had fewer problems with Mandrake than with Redhat, even despite the
usually newer versions (and fewer patches), I've had even fewer with

And, unlike other RPM-based distros, you generally can't just install
Redhat packages if nobody's made a Mandrake package, and sometimes
porting the specfile isn't as easy as it could be. This almost defeats
the point of being RPM-based. I'd rather have "RPM done right" than "RPM
done the same way as everyone else," but maybe you'd rather have "apt
done right" on Debian.

I wouldn't recommend running a production server under Mandrake
(although I actually do, come to think of it), but if you're looking for
a multimedia workstation, a playground for bleeding-edge server
technology, or a devstation for working with the newest code, you can't
beat Mandrake. (There are a few distros that push things even
farther--chainsaw, PLD, etc.--but I wouldn't recommend any of them.)

SuSE does a great job translating everything to all of the major
European languages, and providing multilingual commercial support, but
neither of those is probably important to you. 

Their universal setup and admin tool, YaST, is spiffy, user-friendly,
and amazingly consistent. Unfortunately, it's also incomplete.

They also provide a well-put-together and well-documented system if you
buy the boxed distribution with manuals. Unfortunately, if you don't,
you're SOL as soon as you try to go beyond the limits of YaST. And the
user community is not nearly as helpful as with Debian, Mandrake, etc.
(maybe this is just because I'm asking the English-speakers rather than

Overall, I can't imagine anyone new to linux getting SuSE working from a
download and the online documentation.

Crux is an attempt to strip linux down to its roots, then rebuild
anything that turns out to be important in a FreeBSD style. This may
sound appealing, but the problem is that it's often just close enough to
confuse you. 

Also, there's a lot of software that just isn't there. Think about it
this way: there are dozens of ports for crux, hundreds for gentoo,
thousands for FreeBSD. So after spending time breaking your habits to
learn their similar-but-different package/ports system, you'll end up
having to install most software manually behind ports' back anyway.

The Elflinux distro is designed to be easy to use for people coming from
commercial BSD-based Unixes (especially Solaris). So, although it's
RPM-based, the administration tends to be pretty BSD-like in every
respect except package installation (and the fact that they really love

If this sounds perfect, you should read more about it; otherwise, skip

The last version of Conectiva had some very nice features--for one, a
great port of Debian's apt tools to rpm, which should have developed
into something better than urpmi.

What happened? Three words: S, C, O. They bought into the UnitedLinux
thing completely, and they no longer have a useful distro.

They've gone from being Redhat for power-users to competing with Lindows
for easiest Windows migration. And yet they still do things like ship
the 2.6 kernel, which won't work for half their users. Sigh....


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