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Old 06-21-2011, 07:35 AM   #1
Blackened Justice
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How to decide on a distribution?


Hey everyone, I just recently got into Linux and have had this doubt from day one: How do you decide on a distribution?

I've been trying out various variants of Ubuntu (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint, Ultimate Ubuntu, to be specific) as well as the latest Fedora. The only thing that I can distinguish between the various distributions is the desktop environment that it uses (but some distributions, like Fedora, have multiple versions) and the software packages it comes with.

But sofware can always be installed afterwards, and so can desktop environments, so what varies between the various distribution branches on a deeper level, on the things that the newbie user like me can't directly see? And is there any easy way to compile my own version of Linux?
 
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Old 06-21-2011, 07:55 AM   #2
sycamorex
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Distros usually differ in terms of:

1. versions of programs (stable vs experimental)
For example: Debian tends to have older (but thoroughly tested)versions of programs while Fedora or Ubuntu ship with the latest (but not extensively tested) versions.

2. a set of programs/libraries included (and available from official sources)
For example: Slackware includes all the development tools by default, whereas Ubuntu doesn't include them by default. Of course, you can install them afterwards.

3. desktop environments / window managers
Different distros ship with different DE/WM by default. In most cases you can then install a DE/WM of your choice, but it might not be officially supported.

4. package management
Some distros use package management with automatic dependency resulution. Some don't. Some use yum/rpm, some others apt-get/deb, while some others require building your own packages and taking care of dependencies by yourself.

5. configuration methods.
Some configuration files/tools may sligthly differ accross the distributions.

6. GUI vs CLI focused
Some distros are GUI focused (Ubuntu, Fedora, etc.) while other ones require you to extensively use the command line (Arch, Slackware, Gentoo)

7. inclusion of non-free software
For example, Linux Mint comes with some proprietary stuff like Adobe Flash by default. Other distros don't ship with them, which doesn't mean that you can't install it afterwards.

8. Customisation
Some distros custmise the kernel and some packages their way. Slackware, on the other hand, comes with an unmodified version of the kernel.

9. Some distros provide a live medium (so that you can run/test it without actually installing them on the drive.

I am sure I forgot about something but I think they are the most basic differences that matter for an average user.


I've just come across a distro chooser that may help you determine the right distro for you.
http://www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/

Last edited by sycamorex; 06-21-2011 at 07:56 AM.
 
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Old 06-21-2011, 08:40 AM   #3
salasi
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
Hey everyone, I just recently got into Linux and have had this doubt from day one: How do you decide on a distribution?
You try them, and what you like best, you like best. You might even decide that one is best on the desktop and a completely different one is best in the server room.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
The only thing that I can distinguish between the various distributions is the desktop environment that it uses
That is the most immediately obvious difference. In general, the GUI that is the default, if there is one, is what is most likely to receive TLC from the maintainers/packagers, but, if you are prepared to work at it, you can make more-or-less any distro work with any GUI.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
But sofware can always be installed afterwards, and so can desktop environments...
Software can always be installed afterwards, that is true, but some distros have more adequate repos (more extensive, more up-to-date) and, as far as GUIs are concerned, some do more 'fine tuning' than others to improve the user experience.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
... so what varies between the various distribution branches on a deeper level, on the things that the newbie user like me can't directly see?
Sorry, but that question is too hard; you'll find distros that stick to older apps/functions (say LILO/Grub/Grub2 as an example of how that can go), are very limited in their choice of journalling file formats (ext3/4/btrfs/xfs/jfs/reiser/nillfs...and on and on); some to to 'the old favourites, some offer so much choice that you could take a PhD in choosing the right file format (I hope that's a joke, I really do). Some are better (faster, more likely to provide support for old versions) at providing security fixes. Some are harder work than others to learn (LFS, BLFS are probably good examples, but you'll get people put Gentoo and Arch into the 'not for newbies' category).

And the Enterprise/Server distros are likely to support and help you keep going an existing installation a lot longer than a desktop which is likely to give you only a year or so worth of security updates.

Try looking at the details on distrowatch for any distro that you fancy.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
And is there any easy way to compile my own version of Linux?
If you think that LFS (Linux from Scratch) is easy, then the answer is a definitive yes. You should probably read the LFS manual anyway; I found it quite educational, even though I have no intention of doing LFS (yet?).

PS: Most people, when they talk of making their own distro really only mean 'Ubuntu with a different selection of Wallpapers/graphics'; you probably don't mean that, but that would be easy, too, but there isn't much point in it, given how easy it is to install Ubuntu and then customise it, if you want.
 
Old 06-21-2011, 08:57 AM   #4
i92guboj
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
Hey everyone, I just recently got into Linux and have had this doubt from day one: How do you decide on a distribution?

I've been trying out various variants of Ubuntu (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint, Ultimate Ubuntu, to be specific) as well as the latest Fedora. The only thing that I can distinguish between the various distributions is the desktop environment that it uses (but some distributions, like Fedora, have multiple versions) and the software packages it comes with.

But sofware can always be installed afterwards, and so can desktop environments, so what varies between the various distribution branches on a deeper level, on the things that the newbie user like me can't directly see?
Well. They all share the same kernel, and the software you use under all of them is available on the network. So, for me, the difference lies in:
  • The package manager, it can seem a trivial thing, but it's not a trivial thing at all. It ultimatelly defines the set of package that you can install (natively) and the degree of difficulty that you will face when building your own packages (when native ones can't be found).
  • The default configuration. Of course, you can always change that, but some distros highly favour the default configuration and set of applications, to the point that diverging from that can be an epic task.
  • The set of patches, which is directly related to the previous point (the default set of apps usually gets more attention, i.e. SuSE uses to patch KDE heavily).
  • Some distros might have a very specific focus, which means that the defaults apps and the patchsets they use can be decisive. For example, distros aimed at sound production will usually have kernels patches for real time and will be heavily integrated with the jack sound server. Distros aimed at security will probably never ship the absolute latest version of your favourite package, and will only ship packages and features that have been widely tested and audited.

You can theoretically achieve the same degree of safety with Ubuntu that you'd get with RedHat, but in practise that'd be not easy do, nor so smart (unless your skills are vastly superior to these of the RedHat/CentOS team.

Quote:
And is there any easy way to compile my own version of Linux?
I'd start in Gentoo, and follow with the catalyst tool which is aimed at producing Gentoo based live disks. LFS is ok for learning purposes as well.
 
Old 06-21-2011, 10:55 AM   #5
Blackened Justice
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Thank you very much for the detailed explanations, I appreciate it

What do you mean with: "You can theoretically achieve the same degree of safety with Ubuntu that you'd get with RedHat, but in practise that'd be not easy do, nor so smart (unless your skills are vastly superior to these of the RedHat/CentOS team."
How is Red Hat safer than Ubuntu? And why is it said that Ubuntu is built on an unstable branch of Debian?

Can't multiple package managers coexist in order to support every package natively? And why are different kinds of package needed in the first place, shouldn't there be a single standard?

And by patches you mean that the version of KDE available to Suse users will ultimately be different from the version of KDE that I get if I install the package?

Cheers
 
Old 06-21-2011, 11:13 AM   #6
MTK358
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
Can't multiple package managers coexist in order to support every package natively?
I guess you can install multiple package managers, but packages installed with one manager will not be tracked by the others, leading to dependency hell. Also, how are you supposed to remember what manager you used to isntall a package when you want to remove it?

Also, since some distros use slightly different filesystem hierarchies, foreign packages might not work.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
why are different kinds of package needed in the first place, shouldn't there be a single standard?
Because everyone has their ideas about what's best, and I think it's mostly a good thing. One of the main reasons to use Linux is choice and freedom.

Last edited by MTK358; 06-21-2011 at 11:16 AM.
 
Old 06-21-2011, 11:18 AM   #7
TobiSGD
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
And why is it said that Ubuntu is built on an unstable branch of Debian?
Because it is. The Ubuntu developers built Ubuntu on top of the Debian Unstable branch (in Debian unstable means that package versions change often, not that the software is broken). Only the LTS versions are built from Debian Testing.
 
Old 06-21-2011, 11:30 AM   #8
floppy_stuttgart
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
Hey everyone, I just recently got into Linux and have had this doubt from day one: How do you decide on a distribution?

I've been trying out various variants of Ubuntu (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Linux Mint, Ultimate Ubuntu, to be specific) as well as the latest Fedora. The only thing that I can distinguish between the various distributions is the desktop environment that it uses (but some distributions, like Fedora, have multiple versions) and the software packages it comes with.

But sofware can always be installed afterwards, and so can desktop environments, so what varies between the various distribution branches on a deeper level, on the things that the newbie user like me can't directly see? And is there any easy way to compile my own version of Linux?
Recommendation: have a look at knoppix,TinyCoreLinux,Slitaz,antiX: you will se another world.
I think TinyCoreLinux is the most modular. You can work and try a lot of things with a certain freedom (the other Ubuntu you have are fat and load a lot of things).
 
Old 06-21-2011, 11:32 AM   #9
salasi
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MTK358 View Post
I guess you can install multiple package managers, but packages installed with one manager will not be tracked by the others, leading to dependency hell.
The last time that I played seriously with Ubuntu, I had three package manager GUIs (asssuming that is what was meant); synaptic, kpackage and another. While you obviously didn't want to use more than one simultaneously, provided that you avoided that, everything worked out fine. Of course, those three GUIs all worked with the same set of underlying utilities, and the same package database, so you would expect it to work out.
 
Old 06-21-2011, 11:36 AM   #10
MTK358
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Quote:
Originally Posted by salasi View Post
so you would expect it to work out.
It actually doesn't work out?
 
Old 06-21-2011, 12:14 PM   #11
rohit_87
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If you have time take the linux distro test http://www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/
 
Old 06-21-2011, 04:06 PM   #12
Mojojo
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I have been using Linux solely for over 10 years, I have tested almost every distro out there. I run my Servers with Debian and my Desktops run Linux Mint! I am not taking away from the other distro's they all work about the same. But after years of setting up Linux machines I just want my Desktop to work with minimal work. I do not want to take hours adding repo's and downloading software to do simple things like listen to music or watch a movie. I also don't want to be messing with my .conf files to get my video cards and network working. I just want to boot into a working GUI.

As far as building your own distro? I would point you to customising a live cd's first. There is plenty of documentation on the subject and this is slightly easier then building a distro from scratch! There is also great documentation on customising other distro's if you want to look into that instead? If your interested in building a distro from scratch LFS (Linux From Scratch) has wonderful documentation on the subject.

Good Luck!
 
Old 06-21-2011, 04:49 PM   #13
i92guboj
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Blackened Justice View Post
Thank you very much for the detailed explanations, I appreciate it

What do you mean with: "You can theoretically achieve the same degree of safety with Ubuntu that you'd get with RedHat, but in practise that'd be not easy do, nor so smart (unless your skills are vastly superior to these of the RedHat/CentOS team."
How is Red Hat safer than Ubuntu? And why is it said that Ubuntu is built on an unstable branch of Debian?
RedHat is aimed towards the server market much more than Ubuntu will ever be. It's not aimed to get the best looking desktop like debian. For that, you usually need the latest unstable driver of the day, the absolutely latest X with the latest unstable mesa drivers, a lot of untested libraries and stuff that can potentially be vulnerable in a million of colourful ways. Debian and RedHat are old, ugly, and -well, maybe- secure; Ubuntu is a shiny desktop aimed to be easy to use for user coming from other easy to use OSes.

Of course, the fact that one of another distro is *potentially* more insecure than another one doesn't mean a thing per se. At the end of the day, any OS is as secure as skilled is its administrator.

Quote:
Can't multiple package managers coexist in order to support every package natively?
Nope. Not easily.

Quote:
And why are different kinds of package needed in the first place, shouldn't there be a single standard?
Each distro likes to reinvent the wheel. It would also be nice if war didn't exist and if everyone in the world agreed in everything. But that's called "utopia".

Quote:
And by patches you mean that the version of KDE available to Suse users will ultimately be different from the version of KDE that I get if I install the package?

Cheers
Patches are pieces of code that are applied to a given program and that diverge from the upstream (official) versions. Distros apply patches for lots of things. For example, Suse will add patches to KDE to make it look different, to add a control panel (yast or whatever is called today). Most distros will apply security patches to the kernel as soon as a vulnerability is discovered, or experimental patches to add support for a given filesystem or for a webcam that's not supported by the official kernel as is on kernel.org.

Patches usually change minor capabilities, but sometimes they can be very significant. A given distro, for example, might shipt an higly customized/patched version of gnome to make it act in a different way, while providing vanilla packages for kde that are not that integrated into the distro.
 
Old 06-22-2011, 02:02 AM   #14
salasi
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MTK358 View Post
It actually doesn't work out?
As I said earlier, it does work provided that you don't start the different GUIs at the same time. Sequentially works fine.

If I remember correctly, you can't start the different GUIs at the same time because of lock files, but, if you are really determined to break something, you can probably get around that.
 
Old 06-22-2011, 03:25 AM   #15
i92guboj
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Quote:
Originally Posted by salasi View Post
As I said earlier, it does work provided that you don't start the different GUIs at the same time. Sequentially works fine.

If I remember correctly, you can't start the different GUIs at the same time because of lock files, but, if you are really determined to break something, you can probably get around that.
Well, nowadays it should be hard to break something that way, because of inotify (I am happily assuming here that all the package managers for the mainstream distros will use it, which might be too much of an assumption on my side).

However, we are not talking about package managers here, but about frontends, which is a different thing. You can use many frontends and that shouldn't be a problem as long as all of them are using the same package manager as their backend. But mixing different package formats is usually not an easy thing to do without some manual intervention, because they speak different languages and store things in different places. It's not only about package formats. Sometimes a .deb package that's planned for Debian will probably not work in Ubuntu because of the names of dependencies, system paths or whatever else. It's probably the same for RedHat vs. CentOS vs. SuSE RPMs, etc. etc. etc.

In Gentoo you can partially work around this using the package.provided file, which lets you tell the system that a given package is installed when it's not, so you can install it manually from either a binary package or the original source files, compiling by hand. No need to say that this has other side effects: you'll have to take care of the updates yourself, recompile each time that the ABI of a needed lib breaks, deal with the crap and leftovers by hand when updating the package and resolve conflicts generated by this yourself. However, package.provided should take care of the dependencies. That alone is a big advantage.

Usually, making your own ebuild will be easier for the long term. Just like in any other distro, making a native package is probably easier than dealing with alien stuff.
 
  


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