June 5, 2011, 2:38 p.m.
posted by juff
Complete Linux systems are packaged into distributions, which describe not how Linux is distributed but rather how the operating system and the GNU programs are bundled. A few distributions are in common use: Slackware, Red Hat, Mandrake, and Debian. All are available for free via the Internet or for a small charge on CD-ROM. As a user, which distribution you use doesn’t matter because they all behave in much the same way. As a system administrator, though, you should consider the important differences the distributions have among them.
Slackware, the oldest of the three, has been around since the beginning of Linux. It is the most traditional distribution (traditional in the UNIX sense, as in not particularly user-friendly) and has relatively little in the way of utilities to facilitate the management of a Linux system. For this reason, those who have been around UNIX systems for a while tend to favor it.
Red Hat Linux is the most popular distribution. It features plenty of tools to make the life of a system administrator easier, most notably the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), which eases the installation, upgrade, and deletion of software packages, and even the operating system itself. For about $40, you can get a CD set with the Mozilla Web browser, OpenOffice office suite, KDE, GNOME, and about a hundred other packages. The $40 is for the CDs, not the software on them (which is free), and one month of Web-based software support. (More support — Red Hat’s main business — is available for more money.)
The Debian and Mandrake distributions, like Red Hat, also provide interfaces that ease the task of a system administrator. Although these distributions are not as popular as Red Hat, they both have plenty of followers.
If you enjoy editing lots of configuration files and moving them around by hand, the old-fashioned way (believe it or not, some people like to do it that way), you should go with Slackware. Everyone else will find life easier with Red Hat, Debian, or Caldera.
Many other Linux distributions are out there, of course, so you may want to do a little more investigating before deciding on a package:
Knoppix: For PC users without much free space, this version of Linux can run (kind of slowly) directly from its CD-ROM without needing to be installed on a regular disk. (See www.knoppix.org.)
Lindows: A combination of Linux and proprietary add-ons intended to be easy to set up and easy for Windows users to use. Costs about $50 at www.lindows.com.
SuSe Linux: Comes with all kinds of preconfigured software packages, X servers, and graphical utilities for novice users.
Turbolinux: Primarily intended for larger businesses and servers; developed in Japan and popular in Asia.