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i'd have to say debian, and i've actual arguments to bolster this claim:
- a standardized, extremely well-organized packaging system -- this lets you easily add/remove components and try out different servers for each of your tasks (be it web, ftp, whatever) without messing up your server or going through RPM 'dependency hell'
- ultra-robust upgrade system (you can bring entirely new versions of different server programs up in minutes, most often without rebooting); you will most likely never have to reinstall the system entirely (i.e. go back to your install CD's)
- regular, well-structured security update system, especially for the 'stable' branch of the distro (if you can live without the bells and whistles), and implemented using the same brilliant 'apt-get' mechanism used to update all other software (no patching or compiling of anything is necessary if standard packages are used)
..now, many people will say that the debian packages are 'behind' some of the more glitzy distributions like SuSE or RedHat, but this is a two-fold misunderstanding in the server context:
· first, when running a 'serious' server of any kind, your goal should be overall stability, not running the latest kernel for its own sake. i've servers running debian stable with 2.2-series kernels which are still robust and secure, because the debian security update system insures that they are always up-to-date and protected from any known vulnerabilities.
· second, debian is not really 'behind' in any real sense -- if running 'stable' is not exciting enough for you, go for 'testing' or 'unstable'. these branches feature much more bleeding-edge versions of the available packages, and contain many other packages as well. also, packages can easily be obtained from sources other than the official debian repositories, using the same apt-get mechanisms as for everything else.
for instance, if i need a recent 'ffmpeg' on a server to process video clips, all i've got to do is mention ftp://ftp.nerim.net/debian-marillat/ in my /etc/apt/sources.list file, and voilą, i can install it immediately by entering apt-get install ffmpeg ..
One of the things I like about Debian is that it's super easy to update from the command line (via ssh). Typically, after installing debian, I will edit the /etc/apt/sources.list and comment out all the sources except the security updates. This way, I get to stay current with security without disrupting my system in case a new version of software blah doesn't play well with the code on my server. I'm sure other distro's have a way of doing this, but I've yet to run across how to do it in say Arch linux.
Debian is pretty good for servers.. but it sounds to me like this is going to used fr a learning tool for you right?? In that case.. go with what you're most comfortable with...
Personally I would use FreeBSD because it has amazing performance, stability, security.. I have also heard the new NetBSD 2.0 is performing just as well as FreeBSD these days.. but I've never used it...
Debian is indeed very stable... but it doesn't peform as well as BSD... I use FreeBSD at home for my webserver.. and Debian at work for my Intranet/File server.. simply because Other people need to use it at work.. and it's easier for them to learn apt than ports...
anything can do PHP and MySQL... as I said..my home webserver runs FreeBSD (5.3) and it runs apache 1.3, PHP 4.3, MySQL 4.x, and phpBB 2.0.11. And relatively speedy considering it's an old Compaq Proliant 800 (PentiumPro 200MHz, 192 MB RAM, 18 GB Ultra-Wide SCSI2 RAID-5)
The Intranet server at work runs Debian Sarge with Apache 1.3, PHP 4.3, and PostgreSQL with phpBB 2.0.11 on a Compaq Proliant 1600 (Dual Pentium III 500MHz, 1 GB RAM, 60 GB Ultra SCSI3 RAID-5) It also does some file serving and I'm thinking about making it a proxy server, but I may use a seperate box for that.
Either way, both of them do their job effieciently... It's really up to you what you'd like to use. SuSE makes a fine webserver and file server, among other things... If you were going to use a seperate box, just don't install all the GUI stuff... you can always use the original, ncurses based version of YaST under console...
As always, the choice is yours. Hope I helped a little..