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As a Gentoo user I would do Gentoo, only on a few conditions.
1) Always stay with stable, Never, Never, Never, do ACCEPT_KEYWORDS="~arch". Always stay stable, and use /etc/portage/package.keywords to use specific testing packages.
2) Always try something out on another machine. I use a desktop and got used to gentoo for about 2 months before I tried to put it onto a server.
I would recommend Gentoo because of portage, and how new software/security fixes come out so soon.
I would like to warn you though, You will learn a lot.
On a sidenote, there is no specific feature that does "security-only" upgrades, you must use a program called "glsa-check" to do it. This, although called beta, has never given me any problems. Don't worry, this feature will be merged into portage(the package manager) soon.
Well I'm by no means a server guru (or know much about them to begin with), if you have the money I would go (personal bias) and use professional SUSE/Red Hat (bandwagon, I know).
Still, there seems to be a large consensus that screams FreeBSD for servers for a good reason or two (when I asked about the differences/suitable uses of Linux vs. BSD, many said they would go for BSD on a server, while also admitting both OSes work fine as either desktop or server platforms).
Debian Stable for a server. Etch will become stable very soon and has great hardware support. It installed without a hitch on my New HP Server with SAS RAID controller, GIG Ethernet, etc.. I did a base install which got the system up and running with NO extra software. I then had to add the things I wanted such as SSH, ntpd, Postfix, Courier, etc.. (mine is a mail server can you tell ? ) no GUI no extra services running out of the box that I don't need. the ability to do the base install is a bonus imho. I don't want some distro installing a bunch of junk I do not need on my server.
If this is truly a server that is going to be up 24/7/365 then stability/and availability should be your goals. Debian stable branch while not as up to date as some other distros, excels in the stability department. Debian has a very stringent Quality control process packages go through before they are moved into the stable branch.
I also believe if it ain't broke don't fix it. If all I need are security updates because everything is working fine than that's all I want. I don't need to be constantly updating versions of software. It's a server not a test/play machine.
Debian apt package management is hard to beat. quick, simple, and to the point. I need my server to be up and available I don't want to be sitting around waiting for applications to recompile, as with some of the source based distros.
I also look at silly things like What OS's are supported by the hardware manufacturers on their Server hardware ? the answer to this one is RHEL, SUSE Enterprise, and Debian (HP Supports Debian, Dell and IBM support only RHEL and SUSE) So if it's officially supported then I shouldn't have any trouble getting it to run on my own without utilizing support.. The RAID controllers and various other server hardware should all work out of the box.
I hope when you say Redhat you are referring to RHEL or CentOS (one of the enterprise branches) not Fedora.. Fedora imho is NOT an OS for a server. I do not believe Fedora qualifies in the stability department. just my personal opinion.
What it all comes down to is a few basic questions:
What are your goals ?
What do YOU want to accomplish ?
Which Distro works the way YOU want to work?
Which package management system are you most comfortable with ?
How much do you plan to mess around with the box ?
Do you plan to pretty much set it and forget it ?
What distributions are going to meet those requirements ?
We of course are all going to vote for our favorite distros based on the features we like about them. In the end it what is most important to you ?
I think it best to use what you have a good deal of experience with. No point putting FreeBSD on a production server if you've never used it before. From your list of choices and the distributions listed in your profile it would seem that Debian be your best bet.
My personal preference for general use servers is FreeBSD, if your looking for a Linux solution (as the subject states) then it would have to be Slackware.
In response to your latest post. I like the whole FreeBSD package, the way there is a distinct line between the operating system and application software, package management, documentation, to name but a few. Many liken Slackware's init system to FreeBSD's, I feel that FreeBSD's init system is simple and elegant, but Slackware's a little crude (Don't get me wrong though, I'd have Slackware's init system over Sys-V-Init anyday).
I'd go with Gentoo... I'm a long time Gentoo user, and I'm quite comfortable and happy with it. I'm using gentoo on my desktop/laptop/router, and now a couple extra servers. I like the gentoo way of doing this and I also recommend staying stable (glsa-check is really handy too). I don't upgrade unless I have to (as an example my router is still running 2.6.11, didnt do a major update in 1 year).
The downside with gentoo is quite simple - you have to compile everything (unless you're using binaries, https://e.ututo.org.ar can help you there and the gentoo wiki). With this also comes a lot of trouble - choose the CFLAGS wrong, forget a USE flag here and there and you'll end up asking yourself what is wrong. This things you learn from experience and the web.
I'm not a fan of RedHat, I never used FreeBSD, and I wanted to give Slackware a shot or two a couple of weeks ago. If you know your way around, stick to the things you know. Another important thing is the community: it can get you out of trouble really quickly, just RTFM, STFW and finally ask away on the forums.
If you're still not decided, just pick one that you think will be the best for you, try it out on a spare machine (or the server before going live with it), get used to the distro and try to solve the problems as they appear. I reinstalled Gentoo a couple of times before getting used to it, so you might end up doing the same thing.
Looks like Slackware and Gentoo are tied. To clarify for everyone how "long" it takes to install software:
I run a small server(SATA 500GB drive, Turion64 2.0Ghz) and every month I update(completely, I don't bother to sync and do glsa-check every day, because I have dialup) my system, and it takes, 4-5 hours, depending on how much gets upgraded. I think that Gentoo gets a lot of unneeded flak for taking too long to install/upgrade because of compiling. I myself haven't really had much trouble with taking too long.
I admit, I don't run a GUI on my server, and that is one reason why it doesn't take long to upgrade. I do run two desktops/multimedia boxes and it can take a long time to upgrade(mostly kde), about 1 day. KDE is a huge piece of software.
Switching gears, you can build binary packages for your servers by having another computer compile everything and then distribute them to your server. This method works particularly well with large farms of servers. An alternate approach is to install "distcc" on your network and have other computers compile everything. I can shave 1/2 of the time off by using distcc.
I voted FreeBSD and Slackware. I heard BSD systems mentioned sometimes when it comes to the server world AND well I am partial to Slackware. I have no experience with Debian but I would say it'd be a wise choice as well. In fact, I think everything you mentioned there would make a good server...well except...
Gentoo...just for the simple fact you gotta compile everything. I mean if you wanna tinker with it, that's fine but I tend to look at from a real world perspective. Lets say a company wants you to install a server for them, and you tell them that it'll be up as soon as everything is compiled and configured. I have heard quite a few people saying it takes 5+ hours to compile a Gentoo system. I am sure the company would want something that can be put up rather quickly. I know with my Slack server I can do a full upgrade to the latest version in about 30 minutes (no GUI and just the apps I need).