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Linux Distribution Guide - Part 2

Linux Distribution Guide

What are the differences between Distributions?

Generally speaking, Linux distributions can be:

Targeted for a specific audience

Some distributions have paid extra attention to making a beginners' journey into the world of Linux a more seamless transistion.  This can be achieved by providing extensive documentation such as printed manuals, easy installation and set up, eye candy, configuration of the desktop to give a windows look and feel, and good hardware detection.

Other distros are better suited for intermediate or advanced users.  They rely less on graphical configuration tools or easy installation routines.

Designed for servers, desktops, or embedded devices. 

Distributions designed for the desktop will generally have a friendly graphical interface, and a common set of applications, for installation at home on a regular PC or laptop, whereas server editions are predominately used in a business environment, often being accompanied by a support contract charged at commercial rates. 

There are also distributions which are developed for specific hardware such as PDA, mobile phones, smartphones, robots, tablets, thin clients, smart devices, even gaming consoles.  For example, the GP2X is a dual CPU handheld gaming console running Linux.

Commercial or non-commercial

The vast majority of Linux distros can be downloaded over the internet at no cost, or are available to be purchased on physical media (CD/DVD) for nominal sums.  There are a number of companies which provide a free edition, but also sell a commercial variant with added extras, technical support etc. For example, RedHat, Mandriva and Novell all release a 'no cost' distribution, but sell editions which include commercial software, offer phone and email technical support, provide training etc.  There are also a few Linux companies which only produce commercial distributions e.g. Xandros.

General purpose or have a specialist function

Linux can be installed on a machine for one specific function.  For example, the machine may act as a dedicated router/firewall, it may function as a terminal server, or as a Voice over IP (VoIP) phone system.  Alternatively, the selection of software packages included in the distro may specifically target a particular type of user.  For example, 64 Studio develops a distribution of free software for digital content creation, which may appeal to you if you like to compose and mix music.

Designed for specific hardware

Most home PCs have an Intel or AMD processor inside the case. Like Windows, there are different editions available in Linux for computers with 32 and 64 bit processors.  Consequently, a user needs to choose a distro that is actually able to run on their machine.

Matters are complicated a little by the fact that Linux doesn't just run on processors manufactured by Intel and AMD.  There are editions of some distributions available for other architectures including SPARC 32, SPARC 64 (both developed by Sun Microsystems), ARM (Arm Limited), HPPA (Hewlett-Packard), MIPS (MIPS Technologies) , SH , S/390 (IBM zSeries), Alpha (DEC), and 68k (Motorola).  A distribution designed for one of these architectures is not going to work on an Intel or AMD machine.

Installed to a hard drive or to other bootable media

On your hard drive you have all your personal files, email, and applications customised to your liking.  Even if you have a complete backup of this information (which you should have!), installing Linux to that drive is going to require some effort.  There is a solution at hand. lists approximately 200 LiveCD distributions.  The term 'live' refers to the fact that these distros can be run from the media itself without installation to a hard drive.  This means that a user can test-drive a real Linux desktop without affecting the existing operating system stored on the hard drive.  By using on-the-fly decompression, the CD can have up to 2 GB of executable software (and for DVD editions up to 8GB) available to be tested.  Running an operating system from a CD or DVD is going to be significantly slower than using a hard disk, but many of these LiveCDs can be subsequently installed to the hard drive if you wish.

Besides CD and DVD media, Linux can also run from bootable flash memory such as USB keys (which are faster than CDs).  This lets you take your full-featured Linux system anywhere you go; to the office, at home, even to a foreign country, accessing all your own files, and as USB keys make no noise, you can have a totally silent PC.   It is even possible for Linux to run purely in RAM. 

Installed with all the software you need, or don't need

 Ideally, the distro will come with all the types of programs you want to run.  Windows ships with a relatively small set of applications, whereas many Linux distros come supplied with thousands of applications covering office suites, internet applications, games, utilities, programming tools, productivity tools, and more. 

However, this vast number of applications can be very confusing to a newcomer, who not only has to contend with becoming familiar with Linux, but also that some or all of the Linux applications differ from their Windows equivalents.  With this in mind, some Linux software companies have made a conscious effort to reduce the number of applications that are provided in a distro, choosing only 1 or maybe 2 applications that cover a specific task.  After all, there is often little benefit to a newcomer being presented with 5 different web browsers, especially when Firefox is so popular.

Suitable for high or low spec machines

You may have 2 computers and intend to try out Linux on your 'old slow' computer.  Alternatively, the 'old slow' computer may be all you have.  It could be a 6 year old computer with a Pentium III processor, with 128MB of RAM and a 10GB Hard disk, or even a 10 year old computer with a tortoise-like Pentium II with 64MB of RAM and a 5GB Hard disk.  Fortunately, there are Linux distributions which cater for older hardware.  For example, Damn Small Linux needs just a 486 processor with 16MB of RAM.  The above machines are overspecified, bet you never thought you would hear that again about your old hardware.  As Linux is quite suitable for older hardware, it can extend its lifespan considerably. Why throw away a perfectly good computer when it can be put to real use?

On the other hand, you might own a more powerful PC, it might sport a 64-bit processor, have buckets of RAM, and oodles of hard disk space. Many types of applications (e.g. encoding, database and rendering) all show a distinct speed advantage with a 64-bit operating system over a 32-bit one, but there is little speed improvement by using a 64-bit processor with a 32-bit operating system.  Fortunately, there are a good number of distros which are available in 64-bit versions. 

Other differences

There are lots of other differences between distributions.  Some have unique methods of managing start up scripts, some make custom changes to the Linux kernel, use different tools to update the system, or favor using the latest versions of software even if it has not been fully debugged.

Next Page: What other factors might influence my choice of Distribution?

Read ahead

1. Introduction
2. What are the differences between Distributions?
3. What other factors might influence my choice of Distribution?
4. So what Distribution should I use?

Last Updated Sunday, August 05 2007 @ 06:25 AM EDT

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