Originally Published: Friday, 1 October 1999 Author: Ken D'Ambrosio
Published to: corp_features/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Distribution Dilemma

Ken D'Ambrosio presents an interesting analogy to help clarify the definition of a Linux distribution. This piece is ideal for those of you who want to try Linux but are trying to figure out what a "distribution" is and how it may affect your IT choices.

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Recently, I've been hearing a lot of questions regarding distributions:
"Which distribution is best?"
"Are distributions compatible with one another?"
"What do I get with a distribution?"
"What, exactly, is a distribution?"
The concept of "distributions" is very important to the Linux community, and I think it probably deserves some clarification. I guess a good place to start would be the last question in the list, perhaps better summed up as "What is a distribution, and how does it differ from 'Linux'?" I find that computer people are fond of analogies, and I, alas, am no exception. So, here comes mine: Linux, in the strictest sense, is the kernel -- somewhat akin to the engine of a car. Powerful and vital to the function of a car, it just isn't much good without a a body, upholstery, and rear-view mirrors. Now, further, imagine that the engines were all free! Instantly, they've become totally commoditized, and the only thing that truly differentiates them is the infrastructure built around the engine. This is where distributions come in; they offer additional functionality such as GUIs, command-line utilities, web servers, and so on. A distribution is really a bunch of "options," consisting of add-on utilities, services, and interfaces. Some distributions have different interfaces ("So, do you want the leather upholstery, or the vinyl?"), while some have differing versions of the Linux kernel ("Shall I put you down for the old, familiar V-6, or would you like a new, experimental V-12? Just sign this disclaimer first, if you please...").

Bottom line? The only thing guaranteed in a Linux distribution is some form of the Linux kernel, with at least some supporting programs. Major distributions such as Red Hat, Caldera, Debian and the like (see http://linux.com/linux@work/dists/index.phtml for a complete list) try to have the most powerful, stable kernel, tons of supporting features and application programs, and an easy install. Because most distributions have similar kernels and supporting utilities, programs that run on one distribution usually run on another without modification -- akin to running a program on Windows '95 vs. Windows '98.

Now the tough question, "Which is the best distribution?" Much like cars, it really depends on what you want to do. Some distributions are fine-tuned to run as web and file servers, whereas other distributions are tweaked to be desktop systems. Some straddle the middle of the road. The most popular distributions are generally ones that have a broad range of abilities, but yet are also able to be modified for a particular purpose. In terms of popularity, Red Hat, for example, is currently enjoying "top dog" status, especially in view of its recent, highly-successful IPO. On the other side of the Atlantic, the S.u.S.E. distribution, out of Germany, is all the rage. In Japan, Pacific High Tech's distribution actually out-sold Windows for a while.

"That's all well and good," you might say, "but with all these options, where do I start?" The answer is surprisingly simple. Almost all distributions can be had for around $5.00 from sites such as www.cheapbytes.com. For that little money, it doesn't hurt to get a CD, and either toy around with it yourself, or pass it along to your IT department's resident nerd. Or, if you'd prefer some support from the distributor, as well as pre-printed documentation and instructions, you can buy a package of, say, Mandrake (a re-worked Red Hat version, tuned for ease-of-use) from your local Comp-USA for around $30. As the Linux bug starts to catch on within your company, you might very well start to hear conversations that have all the furor of hot-rodders comparing carbeurators.

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