Rundown of Linux Distributions

Within the Linux world, there exist several distributions. A distribution is a compilation of a Linux kernel, startup scripts, configuration files, and critical support software. Distributions also include some type of installation routine so that you can get a working Linux system. Any two distributions may use different versions of any or all of these components, which will produce distinctly different feels. Critical components, though, such as the kernel and certain support software, come from the same line in all distributions. For instance, one distribution might use the 2.4.2 Linux kernel and another might ship with 2.4.3, but they're both Linux kernels.

One important distinguishing characteristic of Linux distributions is which packaging methods they use. Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), Debian packages, and tarballs are the three most common package formats. The details of using these three package formats are covered in Chapter 3.

Depending upon your definition of "major," there are anywhere from two or three to a dozen or more major Linux distributions. In addition, there are less popular and specialized distributions. Many Linux distributions are derived from either Debian or Red Hat. Some common Linux distributions include the following:

Caldera eDesktop and eServer These distributions, from Caldera (http://www.caldera.com), are targeted at workstation and server use, respectively. Both spring from the earlier OpenLinux product. These distributions are RPM-based and include moderately sophisticated GUI configuration tools. Although Caldera is RPM-based, its distributions aren't directly derived from Red Hat Linux. Caldera's distributions are available only for x86 CPUs.

Corel Linux Corel (http://linux.corel.com) based its distribution on Debian GNU/Linux, but it added a very user-friendly installation routine and GUI configuration tools. In doing so, though, Corel made its distribution less easily configured through traditional Linux command-line methods. This distribution is targeted at new Linux users who want to use the OS as a desktop OS to replace Windows. Corel is an x86-only distribution.

Debian GNU/Linux This distribution, headquartered at http:// www.debian.org, is built by a non-profit organization, rather than by a for-profit company, as are most other distributions. Debian eschews many of the GUI configuration tools used by most other distributions, and instead it aims to be a very stable and flexible distribution. For these reasons, it's well liked by open source hard-liners and those who like tinkering with the underlying text-based configuration files. Debian is available on a very wide array of CPUs, including x86, PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, and 680x0.

Linux Mandrake This distribution is a French-based offshoot of Red Hat Linux. Originally developed as a Red Hat with integrated K Desktop Environment (KDE), Mandrake has since developed more of its own personality, which includes a good GUI installer and some unusual choices in standard server software, such as Postfix rather than the more popular sendmail for a mail server. Its English Web page is http://www .linux-mandrake.com/en. Mandrake is available for x86, IA-64, SPARC, Alpha, and PowerPC CPUs.

LinuxPPC This distribution is a Red Hat derivative for PowerPC (PPC) processors—the CPUs at the heart of modern Macintoshes. LinuxPPC is very similar to Red Hat, but the GUI installation routines are unique, designed for the Macintosh market. The LinuxPPC Web site is http:// www.linuxppc.com.

Red Hat Linux Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com) is one of the older major distributions today, and one of the most influential. Red Hat developed the RPM format that's used by many other distributions, including some that aren't otherwise based on Red Hat. The distribution includes GUI installation and configuration tools that are unusually complete. Red Hat is or has been available on x86, IA-64, SPARC, and Alpha CPUs, although Red Hat has ceased SPARC development with version 6.2.

Slackware Linux Slackware is the oldest of the surviving Linux distributions. Like Debian, Slackware favors manual text-based configuration over GUI configuration tools, so it's often recommended for those who want the "Unix experience" without GUI "crutches." Slackware is the only major distribution to rely upon tarballs for package management. You can read more at http://www.slackware.com. This distribution is available for x86, Alpha, and SPARC CPUs.

Storm Linux This distribution, from Stormix (http://www.stormix .com), is another Debian variant. Like Corel Linux, Storm Linux adds GUI installation and configuration tools to Debian's core, but Storm Linux is less tightly tied to these tools. Storm Linux is available only on x86 CPUs.

SuSE Linux The German company SuSE (http://www.suse.com) produces a distribution that's particularly popular in Europe. SuSE uses RPMs, but it's not otherwise based on Red Hat. Some SuSE packages use a DVD-ROM for software distribution, which is very helpful if your system has a DVD-ROM drive—SuSE ships with an unusually large number of packages, so juggling the half-dozen CD-ROMs can be awkward, compared to using a single higher-capacity DVD-ROM. This distribution includes GUI installation and configuration tools. Versions of SuSE for x86, IA-64, PPC, and Alpha are all available.

TurboLinux This distribution (http://www.turbolinux.com) is a

Red Hat derivative. As of early 2001, the TurboLinux installation routines are somewhat simple, but effective. This distribution includes unusually strong support for Asian languages, and is targeted at the server market. TurboLinux is available for x86, IA-64, and Alpha CPUs.

Yellow Dog Linux Like LinuxPPC, this is another PPC distribution based on Red Hat. Yellow Dog (at http://www.yellowdoglinux.com) uses its own unique installer, but once set up, it and LinuxPPC are quite similar to one another—and to Red Hat.

When deciding on a Linux distribution, some of these will fall out of the running for very basic reasons. For instance, there's no point in considering Yellow Dog for an x86 system, or Corel for an Alpha CPU. The RPM and Debian package management systems are, on the whole, quite similar in overall features and capabilities, so if you're not already familiar with either, there's little reason to favor one over the other. (Chapter 3 covers both systems in more detail.) Any of these distributions can be configured to do anything that any other can do, with the exception of running on an unsupported CPU.

As a practical matter, you do need to decide between distributions. As a general rule, Caldera eDesktop, Corel, and Mandrake are probably the best suited as delivered to function as workstations, particularly for new Linux users. SuSE ships with an unusually wide array of software (particularly the Professional package, which ships with a DVD-ROM and half a dozen CD-ROMs). Red Hat is unusually popular, so finding support for it on newsgroups and the like is particularly easy. Caldera eServer and TurboLinux are specifically marketed for the server market, but others can fill that role just as easily. Some distributions come in variants that include additional software, such as secure servers, third-party partition managers, and so on.

If you have a fast Internet connection, a CD-R drive, and you want to experiment with several Linux distributions, check out the Linux ISO Web site, http://www.linuxiso.org. This site includes links to CD-R image files for most Linux distributions. You can also obtain distributions on no-frills CD-ROMs (with no manual and no support) for less than $10 from the likes of Linux Mall (http://www.linuxmall.com), Linux System Labs (http://www.lsl.com), or CheapBytes (http://www.cheapbytes.com). Official boxed sets typically cost $20 to $100, or occasionally more for the most feature-packed versions. The boxed sets typically include printed manuals, support, and occasionally, a commercial software product or two.

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