Choosing a Linux Distro, Part 2: Favorite Flavors

For a computer addict, choosing a Linux distribution is much like being an unsupervised child in a candy store. So many flavors with so many choices make the task of picking just one type of candy a near-impossible — but fun-filled — task.

For a consumer or business exec who must pick a Linux distribution (known as “distro”), the task is even more formidable. The Linux OS comes in dozens of versions. All are based on the same Linux core, but each distro is built around a specific theme or goal.

“For normal business users, the answers to three key questions will point to a good distro choice. Who are you? What are you looking for? What kind of support do I need?” Aleksander Farstad, CEO of EZ Systems, told LinuxInsider. His company, based in Norway, develops open source enterprise content management software.

Part 1 of this two-part series discusses what one should first look at when deciding whether to go to Linux at all. In this second part, LinuxInsider talks to a panel of Linux experts who offer useful suggestions should someone decide they want to go Linux. Ultimately, businesses must consider four variables, they said. What hardware is available, what software needs are present, what is the intended use and what level of support is needed. (Also see “Who Needs Linux Support?”)

Possible Steps

Decision makers will have an easier time picking a Linux distro that fits their companies’ needs by answering this hardware/software/usage/support formula in one of three ways.

“Ultimately, there is a distro to give a company the best possible solution at the best cost with the least amount of risk. Our customers usually don’t care what flavor Linux they use — they are more concerned with what software they have to run,” Farstad said.

Option 1 is to identify your needs. This process involves determining the software you need, the support that you will require, what amount of system integration will be required and product interoperability.

Option 2 is to determine what kind of machine the company will use to run the selected Linux OS. Running a network server, desktop workstation, storage systems or Web servers will affect the ideal distro choice. A combination of machine types could impact on the distro selected as well.

Option 3 hinges on cost. Figure out how much you can afford to spend on migrating to the Linux platform. Open source does not mean “no cost.” Some distros are available for free but come with paid support. Other commercial distros are built around a service subscription. It is essential that you compare features of the different versions of the Linux OS.

Know Your Purpose

Each distro has its own set of strengths and weakness. For instance, Puppy Linux runs on very old hardware. It is compiled to run in available system RAM so it is very fast. However, limitations on expanding the amount of user storage is limited if this distro does not have adequate hard drive storage space.

“Eye-candy distros rely on more graphic displays, so the hardware demands are much greater. Other distros, such as Gentoo Linux, are more for hobbyists than serious workers. Users have to download the source code and compile it themselves before installing the OS,” Kohn explained.

However, Gentoo is very flexible and can be tailored to a company’s unique needs. For instance, E*Trade is using Gentoo Linux. Since E*Trade is a conglomerate of numerous companies running different hardware, Gentoo can be compiled to maximize each specific hardware set, he explained.

“Each Linux distro comes with its own powers and problems, and to say which one you should use would be tantamount to answering, ‘What kind of car should I drive?'” Scott Whitney, IT manager for Journyx, told LinuxInsider. Journyx is a provider of Web-based software located in Austin, Texas.

Does It Matter?

Whitney has a strong view about not getting too fanatical over the differences in Linux distros. Ultimately, the particular flavor you select will matter less than the fact that you are not using the Mac or Windows platforms.

One of the most frequent questions he gets from other IT guys and people experimenting at home with Linux is which distribution is better. His quick answer is that it does not matter.

“No matter which distro of Linux you get, you’re going to get functionally the same package,” he explained. “The biggest question that you’ll need to answer with regards to what distro to use is how comfortable are you with it.”

To make a decision on which version of Linux to choose, Whitney suggests doing your due diligence and making a list of answers to key questions. That list is: What is this computer going to be doing? What’s the required software? Is it corporate or personal? What are the security implications? Who’s going to be managing it, and what’s their familiarity with Linux in general?

Doing Research

Here are a few well-visited information centers online that will help you put together a list of final candidates for the best Linux distro for your company.

Here are other key Web sites to check for details about choosing a Linux distro:

Top Consumer Choices

Industry watchers point to these Linux flavors as among the most popular with consumers and small business owners.

Enterprise and Corporate Choices

From a corporate viewpoint, these distros are often found at large companies. However, they are by no means the only options available for corporate computer systems.

Distro Picker

Perhaps one of the best starting points in making a decision on which Linux distribution to use is a distro picker Web site provided by the Norway open source company Zengenie Studies. This Web site is an interactive questionnaire designed to help you select the most appropriate distribution of Linux based on your needs and business circumstances.

Another must-see source of Linux information is “Choosing a Distro — A Newbies Guide.”

Choosing a Linux Distro, Part 1: Kicking the Tires

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