Moving to Linux - Picking a Distribution

Moving to Linux - Picking a Distribution

After deciding to move to Linux and determining that my hardware is compatible with Linux, it's time to pick a Linux distribution.

Choosing the right distribution for you is exactly that. You have to choose the right distribution for YOU. There is no one size fits all Linux distro. You have to think about what you're looking for in a Linux distro and essentially rule out the ones that won't fit you. Lou Grinzo said it best. In an article on ZDNet on 11 Sep 2000 he wrote, "Picking the right version just takes planning." This still holds true today. I'm trying to determine which Linux distro is going to work for me and the users in my household. Should I go with a major or minor distro? Should I pick an easy to use distro or a more pure Linux distro? What about support? What differentiates the distros? There are a few things I'm looking for specifically for my Windows replacement Linux distro.

The first hurdle I'll clear is whether or not I should choose a major or minor Linux distribution. There are questions about which Linux distros are major Linux distributions. I've done quite a bit of looking around and have seem to found a common grouping of five major Linux distributions; Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, Debian, and Slackware are all very good and widely distributed Linux distros. They are also what I'm going to refer to as major Linux distributions. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of minor Linux distros out as well. CollegeLinux, Caldera OpenLinux, and Gentoo Linux are all viable Linux distributions but aren't exactly designed for the commercial or "Oh dear God, who can I call to fix this" user. The minor Linux distros also don't have the robust support networks that the major Linux distributions do nor do they have as wide a user base. So needless to say, due to the need for corporate as well as user support and the need for dependability, in terms of the development cycle/capability, my distribution needs to be a major one. So potentially thousands of choices are narrowed down to five. Now I just have to take five and narrow it down to one.

The next question is: Should I choose an easy to use Linux distribution or a more pure Linux distribution. The advantage of going with an easy to use Linux distro is obvious. The learning curve won't be as steep, the installation will go easier, and the total move to Linux will go faster. The advantages behind going with a purer Linux distro is that I'll be pushing towards a Linux PhD from day one, adherence to standards, and rock hard stability. The advantages of easy to use are the disadvantages of a more pure Linux distro and vice versa. The easy to use Linux distribution will adhere to standards but may deviate slightly in certain areas while the pure Linux distro will hurdle after hurdle just trying to get everything the way it needs to be for all users in my house. The idea is to find the right combination of purity and ease. In my case, I'll be leaning a little towards the easy to use Linux distributions. So that rules out Debian and Slackware. Both are great distributions but both have a reputation of being the Linux user's Linux. Debian is a rock steady, openly developed Linux distro but is usually a little slower with hardware support because of that. Slackware typically distributes the sources to its distribution and requires that user compiles and installs everything. This definitely has its advantages but I don't want my learning curve to be completely vertical so I'll have to choose between Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSE. Five have been narrowed down to three.

Support is probably my biggest concern. There are numerous online Linux resources available which is great unless of course you can't get online because you have just crashed your Linux box (which happens to be the only computer you have). So the need for a corporate support network becomes a certainty. But, one cannot discount Linux User Groups (LUGs) as a strong source of support. Linux users are proud and are usually more than willing to donate their time and experiences to help others learn Linux. But, calling up your local LUG members in the wee hours of the night probably won't win you over too many friends. Linux oriented newsgroups, forums, and message boards are plentiful these days and are full of highly intelligent people. But, there is often a day wait for an answer and you still have to have a computer and Internet connectivity to get help from those that frequent newsgroups, forums, and message boards. The quest is on to determine who has the best corporate support network: Red Hat, Mandrake, or SuSE?

The Red Hat Network (RHN) is Red Hat Linux's answer to a support network. RHN has essentially three tiers; Demo, Basic, and Enterprise. The Demo tier comes standard to any Red Hat Linux user and provides access for the Red Hat up2date software update system and RPM package search. The Basic tier costs $60/year/system and provides early access to ISOs, priority access during high load times to updates and RPM package search. The Enterprise tier costs $96/year/system and offers everything that the Basic tier does and additional business class, enterprise support that wouldn't really benefit home users unless they had multiple home Red Hat Linux systems. Per incident phone support is available for $35. This isn't a bad deal but essential with RHN all your paying for is higher priority access to content that's always available someplace else.

Mandrake Linux has quite a few support options. The Mandrake Linux Users Club is similar to the Red Hat Network but also offers e-Learning, extensive documentation, and discounts on various products and services (including a discount at The Mandrake Linux Users Club has four levels (Standard, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) ranging from $60/year to $1200/year. But the true gems of Mandrake Linux support are and provides extensive documentation and user-to-user discussion for free. provides user-to-user and user-to-expert support for free and at a price (with a time guarantee). Per incident support for Mandrake Linux via costs (at most) $15 per incident. The only flaw I see with this is that there is no phone support from what I could find. But, Mandrake's free support far exceeds the Red Hat Network but both offer higher priority for downloads when you pay for support.

SuSE corporate support is lacking. There is a very limited, free installation support system which requires you to get a support key before receiving support. SuSE online support is allow very limited. They do have per incident phone support for $39 per incident. SuSE corporate support is almost no existent.

In terms of who has the best support network it would appear that Red Hat and Mandrake have invested some time and effort into providing user support. Mandrake has gone above and beyond Red Hat's offerings with its free services and has lower priced per incident support but doesn't offer phone support like Red Hat and SuSE do. In terms of cost I would imagine that Red Hat would have to more effective support network for the money but Mandrake offers its services for nothing, cost only comes in when you want a definite answer in a certain time frame. Between Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSE; Mandrake Linux wins in terms of corporate support, Red Hat comes in second, and SuSE comes in a far behind Red Hat. SuSE Linux has been eliminated from my list of viable Linux distributions. Three distros have now been narrowed down to two.

So what are the big differences between Red Hat Linux and Mandrake Linux? To start Red Hat Linux is considered the most popular in the Linux community and is starting to show some serious leadership in bringing Linux to the desktop with ushering in its Bluecurve desktop which combines the best of both GNOME and KDE (the two most popular desktop environments for Linux). Red Hat is also headquartered in North Carolina (my home state). Mandrake Linux was my distro of choice back in 1999. It provides essentially all the functionality of Red Hat but with its own installation wizards and Windows Control Panel look-alike configuration utilities. Mandrake also optimizes its distributions for today's faster processors and eliminating older 386 and 486 codes. Mandrake Linux is also renowned for being more oriented for the desktop where Red Hat tends to lean more toward the business environment.

So from that it seems that Mandrake Linux is more suited for the desktop. Mandrake has been rated as one of the easiest Linux distributions to use and learn, which would be perfect in my case. But, Red Hat has started showing some significant interest in the desktop arena lately. Mandrake has also been deemed too easy to use in some respects making it more difficult to do some things in the nuts and bolts of Linux. Mandrake also lacks phone support. Red Hat's difficulty is typically rated from easy to medium. Installation in both distributions has become easier and easier. So I would imagine that installation support won't be needed but phone support after a crash is always helpful. Red Hat offers phone support but Mandrake doesn't. However, Mandrake offers far more online resources than Red Hat does, free of charge. Either way, paying $60/year for extended support is a good idea. Which support is better for the cost? I'd initially say that Mandrake would be but after looking at it further it seems to be the $60/year is for discounts on various other services that Mandrake provides. The free commercial software is nice but I'm trying not to develop a dependency on commercial software so I don't see a need for that service. So even after extensive research and comparison the decision on which distribution is right for me is still a difficult one. So in an attempt to narrow things down to one looking at the bigger picture might help. The industry leader is considered to be Red Hat (which is also headquartered in North Carolina, my home state). Red Hat isn't exactly "the" desktop Linux but they have indicated they are going to make a big push in that direction. Mandrake has been called too easy in some instances while Red Hat remains a solid distribution. So considering all the things mentioned in this article the Linux distribution I'm going to pick to power my desktop is...

Red Hat Linux

Resources: DistroWatch, Linux Questions ISOs, Red Hat Network, SuSE

Chris Short

Chris Short

View Comments