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Choosing Linux distros


Linux is something wonderful, which until today I am still learning. Not only the command-line, but also filesystem, distributions, philosophies, open source, packaging, Linux kernel, desktop environment, etc…

It is very interesting to know why there are so many Linux distros. As I was a newbie in Linux, I was thinking on how to choose the distros and what are the differences of these distros. Some users state that Linux is the kernel, not a Linux distribution. And even some users say that whatever Linux distribution, it can be customised until identical to the other distribution (interface only).

There are a lot of reviews and comparisons on the Linux distros on the internet, I will not go through those things.

Philosophy

Firstly to choose Linux, besides we need to try the distro itself, we also need to know the distro’s philosophy, or the purpose of the Linux distro project started. There are so many distros, the main reason is the project leaders have different ideas. That is why they start the project to build their ideal OS using Linux kernel. Some distros adopt open source software and format only, as a result no proprietary software is supported. Then the users may need to get the software through other repository or download the binary files and install. The most prominent issue is the multimedia codecs. For example, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu CDs do not contain the restricted multimedia formats. However, the users can still install these codecs after OS installation. Some of the distros are more lenient with the license, such as Linux Mint or even Arch Linux.

Packaging (distribution)

The philosophy decides how the Linux and the other packages are distributed. Some distros target for the server, some for desktop computer, some for live media only (USB flash drive), some for old computer, some for gaming. Because of the target audience, the developers will package the related software to distribute to the users.

Based on the philosophy, some of the distros will distribute latest packages, or cutting edge packages (such as beta version), or old and stable packages. For example, Debian is well-known for the stable packages; Fedora is well-known for the cutting edge packages.

Package manager

In order to distribute the packages, a package manager is a must. That is why, there are Debian-based, RPM-based, pacman-based, or others. The purpose of the package manager is to manage the packages. It can get the packages from the repository. We can use it to install and uninstall the packages.

Each Linux distro should only use one package manager. It is possible to install several package managers in an OS. It is even possible to run the other package manger and install the package to the OS. For example, let say I am using Arch Linux, I get the source for aptitude (Debian’s package manager) and compile it. Then I can install the packages from Debian’s repository. However, the effect is not good. This is because the packages are built for target distro (for instance, Debian). Even the binary executable file may be compatible, the filesystem hierarchy may be different. In practical, using multiple package managers normally do not work, this is because the package manager will check for the dependencies. Therefore, do not think that you can have an OS which you can just get any packages from any repository.

(But please remember that, you can always build your own package from the scratch. However, some of the application really depending on the distros.)

Patch

Linux is an open source kernel. As a result, some developers may patch the Linux kernel in order to do something special. For example, linux-ice from Arch Linux AUR, it is a patched kernel to support TuxOnIce (suspend and hibernation features). So, no need to surprise why some distros can work like this, some distros cannot work like this.

Similar to the Linux kernel, the kernel modules (normally drivers) can also be patched for special purpose.

Community

Though the community is not part of the Linux distro, it has some influences on the distro. When we have the problems dealing with the distro, we can get some help from the forum. Each distro has different community. We should not ask the questions about other distros in an unrelated forum. Nobody can help. And no one likes to help. Because you are in a wrong channel.

Documentation

Similarly, documentation is not part of the Linux distro, but it is part of the project. Well documented information is very important for the self-learning users.

 

Therefore, to choose the Linux distro, we need to know the philosophy of the distro. Find a distro which fits to our appetite. If there is any problem, read the documentation and ask the correct community. Always bear in mind that, bugs are always there. Even we are using Windows, there are also bugs. The only problem is the severity of the bugs and how long will the bugs be fixed. Use the channel such is IRC, forum, bugs report, or mailing list to help us to utilise the OS better.

And always bear in mind, we can change to another Linux distro any time when we want.

About Allen Choong

A cognitive science student, a programmer, a philosopher, a Catholic.

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