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The Range of Linux Distributions

A comment from Tezzer on my recent post aboutPCLinuxOS got me thinking again about the range of Linux distributions. Tezzer mentions using Debian, but looks at others, in particular PCLinuxOS, for systems where Linux sometimes has "issues".

A comment from Tezzer on my recent post aboutPCLinuxOS got me thinking again about the range of Linux distributions. Tezzer mentions using Debian, but looks at others, in particular PCLinuxOS, for systems where Linux sometimes has "issues". This is a good point, and it is something that has been mentioned before in comments on this blog - in fact, specifically about PCLinuxOS, someone said that it worked on a system where numerous others failed.

My friends and family, and others commenting on my blog, frequently ask me why there are so many different Linux distributions, and how someone is supposed to choose between them. I won't dwell on the "why", other than to say it is because it is possible, and that is one of the real beauties of Linux. But on "how to choose", I will comment on what I see as the range and position of the distributions.

There are a few Linux distributions which I consider to be a "base", on which one can build. Two of the best examples of this group are Debian and Slackware. If you have the time, knowledge and desire, you can start from one of these and add exactly what you want to it. The advantage is that you end up with a system that is very well suited to your needs, and which does not include a whole lot of stuff that you don't need or want. The disadvantage, of course, is that you have to make the effort to find and install what you want (and whatever dependencies those things might have), and you are implicitly taking on responsibility for keeping it all as current as you need it to be.

At the other end of the distribution scale are Ubuntu, Mandriva, SimplyMEPIS, PCLinuxOS and lots more. They take one of the "base" distributions, they add lots of packages, and often a variety of their own utilities, and they wrap it all up in a way to make it easy to install and maintain. The advantage, obviously, is that they have done a lot of the hard work finding and integrating packages for you, and they take over tracking and distributing updates to you. The disadvantage is that it often takes longer for package updates to get to you (as of this writing Ubuntu is still on OpenOffice 2.4, for example), and you may have to look at quite a few different distributions before you find one with the combination of packages that you want.

Elsewhere along the scale are what I consider the "focused" distributions, which concentrate on adding a few specific things to one of the other distributions. One of the best known of these areas are the "small" Linux such as Puppy Linux, TinyMe, Damn Small Linux and various others. Rather than add to whatever distribution they are based on, they focus on stripping them down, getting the disk, memory and processor requirements as low as possible. Others focus on security, multimedia, non-English languages, and there are lots of others.

There are, of course, many distributions that are second- or even third-generation derivatives. PCLinuxOS, which started this discussion, is actually derived from Mandriva; SimplyMEPIS was based on Ubuntu for a while (but will not be with their next release).

There are two exceptions which don't fit neatly on my "scale" of distributions - openSuSE and The Fedora Project. Both are the "open source" distributions of their commercial parents (openSuSE from Novell SuSE Linux, and Fedora from Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Both appear to start as what I consider the "base" distributions, but then integrate lots of packages.

It can be very useful in choosing a Linux distribution to keep this scale in mind, and decide where you want to be on that scale - how much time and effort are you willing to put in to creating and maintaining your own system, and how much delay and overhead are you willing to accept in order to have someone else do that for you?

jw 15/12/2008