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Linux Distributions Guide

by Rod Smith,

Last update: 3/27/2004

I've written this page to present my opinions of several Linux distributions. Linux (referred to by some as GNU/Linux rather than Linux in order to spread the credit more equitably) is a free re-implementation of the UNIX OS. It's been gaining in popularity for the past several years, but many Linux newbies are faced with an important question: Which Linux OS to get? Unlike most OSs, the individual components of Linux (the kernel, the core libraries, startup scripts, shells, GUI tools, and so on) are all available separately. Over the years, therefore, several Linux distributions have arisen. Each distribution takes some set of components and packages them together, typically on a CD-ROM, along with custom install routines. Different distributions can take different approaches to creating a working Linux system. For instance, the popular Red Hat Linux distribution uses sendmail as its mail transfer agent (MTA), whereas Mandrake uses Postfix in this role, and Debian uses Exim. The end result is that each distribution has its own personality, and some distributions are better suited to some tasks than others. This web page summarizes my experience with several popular Linux distributions.

Shameless plugs: Linux System Administration, 2nd Edition, a title I co-authored with Vicki Stanfield, is an introductory Linux book geared towards system administrators. The Linux+ Study Guide, 2nd Edition is a textbook I've written for people studying for the Linux+ certification from CompTIA, but it can serve as a good tutorial and reference even if you don't intend to take the Linux+ exam. My Linux Power Tools is geared towards more knowledgeable UNIX or Linux users who want to dig a little deeper into Linux system administration and user tasks. I've also got a web page devoted to Linux books more generally -- both those that I've written and those written by others.

Preliminary Information

Distributions vary on several dimensions, including:

The Distributions

Now on to the whole point of this page. I describe several distributions here. The following links take you to the official "headquarters" sites of these distributions:

Note that the preceding is far from a complete list; it includes only distributions with which I have reasonably recent experience (as in the current or immediately preceding version). Distributions like Lindows and TurboLinux are also popular, but I've either never used them, or haven't used them in years. I've removed some distributions from this page because I haven't used them in a while; and others, such as LinuxPPC and Storm, seem to be no more. I've added others, such as Fedora and Gentoo, with this latest revision, though.

Debian GNU/Linux 3.0

Debian GNU/Linux

Debian GNU/Linux is unusual in that it doesn't have a commercial organization backing it, as is true of most other major Linux distributions. (Gentoo is the other major exception to the commercial backing rule.) There is no "official" boxed set of Debian, but you can download the distribution, buy inexpensive CD-ROMs, or buy a book that comes with Debian on CD-ROM.

Compared to most other distributions, Debian's installation and system administration tools are awkward. Debian relies on an unfriendly (at least to the inexperienced) text-mode utility for package selection and management, even during installation. Once installed, you can add GUI package management tools such as the Storm Package Manager, which can help ease package management issues if you're unfamiliar with the powerful but potentially confusing APT utilities. System configuration usually requires you to edit text files, although Debian 3.0 ships with GNOME and KDE, both of which include some system administration helpers. You can also install and use a third-party package such as Webmin, which provides Web-based system administration. Because of the administration difficulty compared to other distributions, I recommend that newbies avoid Debian unless the goal is to learn a UNIX-like OS without the benefit of the "crutches" provided by GUI administration tools. In this case, I must strongly recommend that you buy a book, such as Debian GNU/Linux Bible, Learning Debian GNU/Linux or Debian GNU/Linux 2.1 Unleashed, to help you survive the experience. (The first of these three titles covers the 2.2 version, and the others are written for Debian 2.1, though; to the best of my knowledge, no books covering Debian 3.0 exist.)

When I installed Debian 2.2 on an x86 system, I was annoyed to discover that it wouldn't install LILO to a logical partition, only to the MBR or a primary or extended partition. This fact slowed down installation to my system. So did the fact that Debian 2.2 failed to work with my Linksys LNE100TX Ethernet card, although using a kernel that works with my SUSE system corrected this problem. Once working, I had no trouble modifying the configuration using text-mode tools; Debian doesn't insist on changing the administrator's configurations.

I've now tried Debian 3.0 on a PPC system, but not on x86 hardware. Debian 3.0 installed smoothly on my iMac, but required some manual changes to configuration files. For instance, X didn't work at all on my iMac until I futzed with the XF86Config file, and sound was difficult to get working. (To be fair, these issues have cropped up with most distributions I've tried on my iMac.)

Debian 3.0 is distinctly behind the times in the versions of GNOME and KDE with which it ships, although it's possible to upgrade both to more recent versions. Development versions of Debian ship with more recent versions of these popular desktop environments.

Debian follows a much longer release schedule than most other Linux distributions, and Debian 3.0 is quite old by Linux standards; it first appeared in July of 2002. The latest incarnation, 3.0r2, was released in November of 2003. Fortunately, although Debian hasn't changed its major version number in quite some time, the Debian developers do a good job of keeping their packages updated, at least in terms of major bug fixes and the like. Still, if you want the latest and greatest versions of packages, you may want to pass on Debian (unless of course a newer version is available by the time you read this).

Fedora Core 1

Fedora logo

Fedora Core is essentially a new name for the low-end, freely-redistributable Red Hat product. As such, it has the same basic strengths and weaknesses as Red Hat. Because Red Hat has changed substantially in recent years, I'm providing a new and separate review of Fedora for this page.

Like most major distributions in 2004, Fedora comes on multiple CD-ROMs (or CD-ROM image files). I've run Fedora Core 1 on x86 and AMD64 platforms, and found the experience to be quite similar on both. The installation process is GUI-based, assuming the installer can correctly identify the video chipset. (My Athlon 64 system uses a SiS Xaber 200, aka a SiS 330, video chipset, and the Fedora installer didn't correctly identify it. I therefore had to install in text mode.) Aside from the SiS video card, the installer correctly identified all the major hardware components on all three of the systems on which I installed it, even including an SATA hard disk on the Athlon 64.

Once installed, Fedora runs smoothly, but the default configuration is a memory hog, due largely to the fact that it uses GNOME as the standard user interface. (KDE isn't really any better.) Although GNOME and KDE have both become much more useable in the past year or two, I ultimately ditched them both in favor of XFce, which is much less bloated than the more popular desktop environments. I had to download and install XFce from links on its Web page, though; it doesn't ship with Fedora.

I also had serious video card problems with the SiS 330; the system was extremley unstable until I replaced the sis_drv.o XFree86 driver file with the equivalent file from a Gentoo system. (Gentoo uses the 0.7.0 version of the SiS driver, as identified by the XFree86 startup messages, vs. version 0.6.0 for Fedora.) In fairness, this isn't really a Fedora-specific issue; it's one of XFree86 and my video card. (I had the same problem with Mandrake 9.2 on the afflicted computer.) I had no problems with the ATI drivers for my two x86 test systems.

Fedora and recent versions of Red Hat include GUI tools to help keep your system software up to date. These tools work, but I've never really liked them very much. On my x86-based systems, I installed apt4rpm and used it instead, with good results. (I haven't yet gotten around to installing it on my Athlon 64 system, though.)

Fedora's system administration tools are more-or-less identical to those in Red Hat 9, and so have the same problems and benefits. It also performs the same annoying ownership changes on certain key device files as Red Hat.

The only Fedora Linux book I know about is Red Hat Enterprise Linux & Fedora Edition: The Complete Reference. Red Hat 9 books should be helpful, as well. A few details are different, but Fedora 1 looks and feels a lot like Red Hat 9.

Gentoo Linux 2004.0

Gentoo logo

Gentoo Linux is one of the most atypical Linux distributions in existence. This isn't to say that Gentoo is bad or even weird in any absolute sense; it's just not like other Linux distributions.

Perhaps Gentoo's most striking unique feature is its package management. Rather than use RPMs, Debian packages, or even binary tarballs, Gentoo uses a system called Portage, which enables relatively painless package installation from source code. Portage is quite similar to the ports system of FreeBSD. To use it, you type the emerge command followed by various options and the package name. The system then downloads the source code from the Internet, compiles it, and installs it. You can also uninstall packages with emerge, but the tool lacks some of the features of rpm or dpkg for handling other distributions' packages. For instance, I don't know of any way to discover what files are associated with any given package. Portage also won't complain if you try to remove a package that's depended upon by other packages. Furthermore, the Portage system has the obvious drawback that it takes more time to install a package; Gentoo must compile it, after all. (The emerge utility does provide options to install precompiled binaries, but aside from the basic system files, precompiled Gentoo packages are hard to find.) On the other hand, Portage enables you to customize compilation options for your system -- the target CPU, compiler speed optimizations, libraries to be included, and so on. In theory, this should result in a modest speed boost over a "generic" distribution, and it can certainly help to work around the tangled mess of dependencies that too often plague RPMs and Debian packages.

Another unusual Gentoo feature is its handling of startup scripts. Most Linux distributions use numbered runlevels and rely upon links with specific filenames in runlevel directories to control what processes start up at system boot time. Gentoo, though, uses a named runlevel system, so you can give runlevels descriptive names, which can be handy if you need to regularly switch between several environments, as for instance when linking a notebook to different networks. The Gentoo startup scripts also support an automatic dependency-checking system, so if you try to start a subsystem that relies on another that's not yet running, there's no problem -- Gentoo automatically starts the depended-upon subsystem.

My experience with Gentoo began a few months ago, when I installed a prerelease version of Gentoo 1.4 on an x86 system. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to using it much. More recently, I've installed the latest version (2004.0) on my Athlon 64 box. (Gentoo, like Debian, is released simultaneously on several platforms; this gives it an edge over most other distributions for non-x86 users.) In part because of its use of Portage, Gentoo installation is atypical. It's text-based and requires you to type assorted Linux commands to partition the disk, install core system files, and so on. I chose to do a stage 3 install, which means that many of the most common packages were installed in binary form. Typically, Gentoo installation is Internet-based, but there are options to install entirely from CD-ROMs. My install proceeded smoothly, with the help of the online Gentoo installation instructions. It also took only a couple of hours, although it required constant interaction. Despite the excellent installation instructions, I don't think most Linux newbies would be comfortable installing Gentoo. (Those familiar with other UNIX versions, or with a strong technical bent, might be happy with it, though.) Seasoned Linux users shouldn't have problems installing Gentoo.

In use, Gentoo has performed quite well. In fact, as noted in the reviews of Fedora and Mandrake, the Gentoo XFree86 installation worked with my SiS 330-based video card, whereas these other distributions didn't. I particularly like the Gentoo startup script system, and I appreciate its extreme configurability -- you can easily select which of several alternative packages you want to use, such as inetd vs. xinetd or Postfix vs. sendmail. The ability to tweak compile options is theoretically nice, but unless you have a deep understanding of the options, they can be overwhelming. Gentoo configuration is very much intended for users comfortable with text-mode tools; it doesn't provide any GUI tools comparable to SUSE's YaST or the assorted small programs of Fedora/Red Hat. In this respect, Gentoo definitely falls into the same camp as Debian and Slackware.

I don't know of any books on Gentoo Linux, and the distribution is unique enough that no other distribution-specific book is likely to be of much help. Fortunately, the online Gentoo documentation is quite good, although at times it's a bit too detailed for the type of user who's most likely to want to run Gentoo.

Lindows 4.5

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This distribution's goal is to provide a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows on desktop PCs. As such, it attempts to be easy to install and use, and makes certain design decisions that deviate more than usual from the typical. These design decisions have the effect of making the distribution simpler to configure but less flexible than is typical.

I tried installing Lindows 4.5 on two computers: a desktop PC with an AMD Duron 1.2GHz CPU and a typical mix of desktop hardware; and a somewhat elderly Compaq Presario 1200XL/106 notebook with a 475MHz AMD K6-2 CPU. Neither install went smoothly, although I suspect the reason for the problems was the fact that I tried installing to systems with hard disks that were configured in a decidedly atypical (for a target Lindows user) way. Specifically, both systems had multiple partitions with multiple OSs. My problems began when I selected install partitions. The Lindows installer misidentified the OSs on several partitions (for instance, it called a FreeBSD partition a Linux partition), and presented partitions in a strange order. I had a hard time picking the correct target partition. The installer also presented very few options; for instance, I saw no way to tell Lindows where to install the boot loader (it uses LILO, and installs it in the hard disk's MBR). Lindows will only install to a single large partition -- you can't split off, say, /usr into its own partition, at least not during the main install process.

When I rebooted, Lindows didn't start. Selecting the Lindows option in the boot loader produced a graphical startup screen and a progress bar that progressed only about 1/3 of the way. Unfortunately, Lindows doesn't present an option to show verbose startup messages similar to the options in recent versions of Fedora and Mandrake. It does offer a troubleshooting option in its LILO configuration, though, and that presents a typical text-mode kernel message startup. When I selected this option on my notebook, it revealed that Lindows was attempting to fsck an ext3fs partition it had detected and tried to mount. I managed to get the system to boot by editing the /etc/harddrive.inf file (Lindows uses that file to generate /etc/fstab at boot time) and commenting out references to partitions I didn't want it to mount.

Overall, then, Lindows earned very low marks on its installation procedures. The problems I encountered could be overcome, but probably not by the distribution's target audience. On the other hand, that audience wouldn't be likely to have pre-existing Linux partitions or so many other OSs' partitions on their hard disks, so the problem might not crop up for them, either. Also, Lindows is being marketed heavily as an alternative pre-load option, and users who buy a PC with Lindows installed obviously won't need to deal with these issues.

Once booted, Lindows caused more problems. During installation, it asked for a password (the root password, although it wasn't identified as such). The Lindows KDM login screen is modified to not ask for a username; type the root password and you're in. An advanced configuration option enables you to create user accounts, but that option is well hidden. Even after creating a user account, I couldn't see any way to specify the account to use at the KDM login prompt, thus effectively necessitating the use of root for ordinary tasks. As any experienced Linux or Unix user knows, requiring users to operate as root is a security no-no of the highest order; this is, in my view, an inexcusable design flaw in Lindows, and should single-handedly disqualify the distribution for use by anybody.

Throwing caution to the wind, I logged in as root. Lindows then launched a multimedia tour of the system. What I saw of it seemed well-produced. I didn't want to sit through the whole thing, but that was difficult; apparently the designers assumed that users would have a screen larger than the 800x600 display on my old laptop, and the button to exit from the presentation (described early on in the presentation) was off the edge of my screen. I ultimately logged into the console and killed it. The desktop is based on KDE, and presents friendly menus for performing various tasks. Windows users shouldn't have any trouble navigating the Lindows desktop.

Because of the severe security flaw of an inability to log in as anything but root, I decided to stop my evaluation of Lindows at this point. I didn't try running Windows programs (an early selling point of the distribution, but one that's been downplayed more recently) or otherwise evaluate it. Of course, I'm certain that I could have worked around the security flaws in the OS, but members of its target market probably couldn't -- and might not know that they should. If you're a member of that target market, I strongly urge you to give Lindows a miss. More mainstream distributions, such as Fedora, Mandrake, and SUSE, can be almost as user-friendly as Lindows and much more secure, thanks to their use of Linux accounts. The Xandros distribution is also aimed at this group, and does a much better job than Lindows.

Mandrake Linux 9.2 and 10.0 RC1

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Mandrake Linux is an offshoot of Red Hat Linux. As such, it works well with RPM packages designed for Red Hat. The package is available in at least four forms: A downloadable edition, a "PowerPack" version, a "Pro Suite" version, a "Corporate Server" version, and a "Discovery" version. The Powerpack edition includes extra software compared to the downloadable edition, and the Pro Suite includes still more. The Discovery version appears to be a stripped-down version intended for home use. Mandrake provides a comparison page summarizing the differences between versions. Previous versions were available with other names and in other packages, such as the version 8.1 Gaming Edition, which shipped with the SIMS and WineX.

As I write, Mandrake 9.2 for x86 is currently available in stores, but 10.0 is available to members of the Mandrake Club -- essentially a way to get early releases of Mandrake. Version 9.1 is still the latest for PowerPC CPUs, and version 9.2 is available for AMD64. Mandrake 9.2 for AMD64 installer identifies itself as a release candidate (RC)-level version, but that moniker doesn't appear elsewhere that I noticed.

Mandrake distinguishes itself from Red Hat in its Pentium optimizations on all packages -- Red Hat, like most Linux distributions, is compiled with 386 optimizations. (Of course, this comment applies only to x86 versions of Mandrake; it's irrelevant for AMD64 and PowerPC versions.) Mandrake also includes somewhat different components, such as the Postfix MTA rather than sendmail, used by Red Hat. In terms of installation and administration, these distributions are similar, although they're not as similar as they once were. Mandrake suffers from many of Red Hat's peculiarities, as described in that section. Mandrake uses its own GUI administration tools, which work reasonably well, for the most part. They do tend to be a bit "over-enthusiastic," though; they may overwrite working configurations that don't match their expectations. For instance, Mandrake provides a tool known as MenuDrake for configuring menus in KDE, GNOME, IceWM, and other environments. Unfortunately, MenuDrake tends to overwrite working configurations that you've hand-tweaked -- an annoyance I've found so bad that I've completely removed MenuDrake from my system.

Mandrake features a nice X-based installation tool. I used Mandrake 7.0 and 7.1 on a Compaq Presario 1200-XL106 notebook computer, and I've written up some comments about that configuration. I've run Mandrake 9.2 on an Athlon 64 system and 10.0 RC1 on an x86 system. Of these two, the 10.0 RC1 release for x86 was far more stable. The 9.2 version ran a GUI installer using a generic SVGA driver, but didn't correctly identify my video card chipset. Once running, the system suffered from video card problems akin to those suffered by Fedora, with the same workaround (copying a sis_drv.o file from a Gentoo installation). As with Fedora, these are more XFree86 issues than they are distribution issues, and they're not likely to occur for users of other video cards. More serious was the fact that many programs, including NEdit and gFTP, segfault when run. This tendency makes the distribution almost impossible to use if you rely on the afflicted programs. Fortunately, the 10.0 RC1 release for x86 is far more stable and is actually useable, assuming you're not bothered by the aforementioned tendency of Mandrake to overwrite your configuration files.

I know of only two English-language Mandrake-specific books that are even remotely current: Teach Yourself Mandrake Linux in 24 Hours and Linux Mandrake Complete 7.1, both of which are out of print and cover 7.x releases of Mandrake, so they're not exactly current. (Amazon does list a couple of Mandrake 9.0 titles in French, though, which is fitting as the distribution originates in France.) In addition, Red Hat books are partially applicable to Mandrake -- but be aware that the two distributions use different GUI configuration tools and provide some different software defaults, such as Postfix vs. sendmail.

Red Hat Linux 9

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Red Hat Linux is one of the oldest and most popular of today's Linux distributions. Red Hat originated the RPM format used by many other distributions, such as Caldera, Mandrake, SUSE, Lycoris, and Yellow Dog. In the past, it was available in two product lines, each with its own unique focus. "Red Hat Linux" was the basic offering, whereas "Red Hat Enterprise Linux" is a much pricier package that's sold on a subscription basis with strong support options. It's marketed towards businesses with lots of money to throw at their big servers. Red Hat provides a Web page summarizing the differences between these software families. Beyond version 9, though, Red Hat has discontinued the basic product; now the choice is between Fedora Core and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. If you're devoted to the Red Hat name, you can still find the Personal and Professional versions of Red Hat 9 in stores, but for the most part, if you want a low-cost Red Hat, you must now go with Fedora. Historically, there have been variants for several non-x86 CPUs, including the new IA-64 (Itanium); but some of these variants are substantially older than version 9. Fedora Core and the top-tier Red Hat Enterprise versions are now available for AMD64 CPUs. Although the options for low-cost Red Hat have now shifted to Fedora, I'm leaving this section on Red Hat for historical purposes.

I've used Red Hat versions 4.0 through 9, although I've not used 6.2 or later as much as I have previous versions. Red Hat works quite well, for the most part, but as I customized my 6.0 system more and more, I began running into more and more quirks, which is why I started investigating alternatives. For instance, when you log on using the console, Red Hat changes permissions on certain key files in the /dev directory, so that you can use the sound card, for instance. This seems fine initially, but if you switch from X to a text console and log on as root for some reason, suddenly you have no access to sound as an ordinary user. For me personally, a static and permissive setting on the audio devices is preferable, although others might prefer Red Hat's approach.

Starting with version 8.0, Red Hat has provided an integrated theme, known as "BlueCurve," for both KDE and the default GNOME. This theme provides a similar look and feel for users running in either environment. Red Hat 9 installed smoothly on my test system. I found the stripped-down nature of the GNOME user interface annoying, particularly given the bloat of the environment, but that's more a comment on GNOME than on Red Hat. Still, Red Hat's GUI system administration tools follow the same model, whose philosophy appears to be very Microsoft-ish -- to hide as much as possible from users in an effort to make the system easy to use. The trouble is that hidden features often do need adjustment, no matter how thorough the developers believe they've been. When that happens, you need to dig into the guts of the system. This is possible with any Linux system, but the GUI tools sometimes try to reassert control and bungle things as a result. I haven't seen Red Hat 9 bungle things very badly yet, but I haven't tried changing much, either.

Red Hat benefits from its popularity. Most RPM packages you find on the Internet were compiled on Red Hat systems, and so install and run fine on Red Hat. Many people use Red Hat, so support for it is quite easy to find on Usenet newsgroups. Red Hat's RPM tools now include a semi-automated update utility; the system checks with an online database and provides a notice in the GNOME Panel if the system needs an update. This system can be handy, particularly for desktop users; but the warning tends to flash even when non-critical updates are available, which occurs rather frequently.

Compared to Caldera and Xandros/Corel, Red Hat 7.3's installation routines are not quite as polished. Although the installation routines are a bit uninspired in terms of user interface, they're reasonably reliable and provide the options that are required for getting a system up and running properly.

Books on Red Hat abound. Titles include, but are by no means limited to, Red Hat Enterprise Linux & Fedora Edition: The Complete Reference, Red Hat Linux 9 Bible, Red Hat Linux 9 Unleashed, Learning Red Hat Linux, 3rd Edition, and Red Hat Linux Networking and System Administration. I've not read any of these books, so I can't offer an opinion about which may be best.

SCO Linux 4.0

Boycott SCO

This distribution is no longer available. I haven't used it, but it was based on UnitedLinux. Previous versions were known by the name Caldera, and I did use some of them, but given the UnitedLinux involvement, I don't know how similar SCO 4.0 was to Caldera 3.1 and earlier.

Unfortunately, SCO has decided to turn on the Linux community and file lawsuits claiming intellectual property violations. They've begun with a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM, but this has just been the start. Although they are (IMHO) baseless, the SCO lawsuits (which appear to have been funded through deals brokered by Microsoft) have the potential to do great damage to Linux as a whole. For this reason, I strongly suggest that all potential customers avoid all SCO products. At least one forum concerning an organized boycott is available.

Slackware Linux 9.1

Slackware Web site

Slackware is the oldest of the distributions that are in common use today -- it's older even than Red Hat. It's also one of the few major distribution that doesn't use either RPMs or Debian packages for its package format. (A few others, such as Gentoo and Stampede, also eschew these popular package formats.) Slackware uses tarballs as its package format, but it includes tools to help you install them in a sane way. As I write, Slackware's current version is 9.1. I've installed it, but not used it extensively. I have more experience with Slackware 9.0.

Slackware, like Debian, uses a text-based installer and doesn't provide flashy GUI system administration tools. Slackware's installer tends to be simpler than Debian's, in part because it offers fewer options. (Slackware ships with many fewer packages -- and CD-ROMs -- than most other distributions.) I installed Slackware 9.0 on a Compaq Presario notebook, and Slackware 9.1 on a desktop system based on an AMD Duron 1.2GHz CPU. Slackware installed smoothly on both systems, but 9.0 didn't correctly detect many of the notebook's devices, including its sound card and modem. I had to tweak the XF86Config file by hand, as well. Slackware didn't initially detect my PCMCIA Ethernet card, but after a reboot, the system picked it up. Slackware 9.1 did much better on the desktop system, but I don't know if that was an improvement with 9.1 or a matter of the radically different hardware on the desktop system.

Because Slackware avoids fancy GUI system administration tools, it is, like Debian and Gentoo, a poor choice for a newbie who doesn't want to learn the traditional UNIX way of editing configuration files. On the other hand, if you like this approach, Slackware's a good choice. Unlike most Linux distributions, Slackware doesn't use a conventional SysV startup script system; servers and other daemons don't place files in /etc/rc.d/ or the like to control their startup. Instead, a single script handles each runlevel. This approach can simplify hand configuration, but isn't as good for configuration tools.

Several books on Slackware are available, including Slackware Linux for Dummies, Slackware Linux Essentials, and Install, Configure, and Customize Slackware Linux. I haven't read any of these books, and so can't comment on them specifically. As far as I know, no book covering Slackware 9.1 exists (the preceding three titles were all released in 2000, according to Amazon, which lists no newer titles on Slackware). Fortunately for book readers, Slackware's core hasn't changed much over the years, although of course many specific tools (KDE, GNOME, Apache, and so on) have.

SUSE Linux 9.0

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SUSE Linux originates in Germany, unlike most of the other Linux distributions, which have homes in North America. SUSE therefore contains a few Germanic touches, such as German text in comments inside configuration files. This fact shouldn't scare off potential English-speaking buyers of the distribution, though; the important matters of installation prompts, configuration tool text, and so on are available in English as well as German (and several other languages). Novell is purchasing SUSE, but the announced plans keep development primarily in Germany, and Novell says it intends to maintain the SUSE brand.

SUSE is another RPM-based distribution. It gets along with RPMs intended for Red Hat reasonably well, but there are still occasional glitches along those lines. Fortunately, SUSE has done a very good job of providing alternative tools available in RPM format, so there's seldom any need to install a Red Hat RPM in a SUSE system and then modify its configuration files. One quirk of SUSE is that its RPMs don't include the hierarchical organization information used by other distributions, so when you look at your RPM database, you see one big morass of installed packages, rather than a hierarchical organization of packages by type (utilities, applications, etc.). To my mind, this is a drawback, since it makes it harder to locate a package -- but on the other hand, RPMs on Red Hat systems aren't always organized in a logical manner, so it can take a while to locate a package in Red Hat, too.

I've installed SUSE 7.1 on an iMac and upgraded it to 7.3. The latest version I've used on x86 hardware was SUSE 8.1. I've run SUSE 9.0 on an AMD64 system. Judging by the SUSE Web and FTP sites, x86 and AMD64 are supported with the latest version (9.0 as I write), but other platforms are languishing at 7.x or earlier releases, although the FTP site has a beta directory for a 64-bit PowerPC port. The SUSE installer is GUI-based, though not quite as flashy as those offered by some other providers. On my 8.1 x86 install, it produced annoying delays between operations. My 9.0 AMD64 install was better in that respect. The x86 installer insisted on creating a /boot and swap partition instead of using those I already had on my system, which I found extremely annoying. To get the configuration I wanted, I had to delete partitions with Partition Magic and muck about with /etc/fstab and other configuration files to get things working correctly. The 9.0 installer on my AMD64 system accepted an empty and pre-formatted ext3fs partition, so this problem appears to have been corrected. SUSE was the only one of the AMD64 distributions I tried that did not recognize my serial ATA (SATA) hard disk. (I got it working after installation by using a newer 2.6.3 kernel.)

The GUI configuration tool, YaST2, works reasonably well, although it's a bit klunkier than some others I've seen. One problem was in automatic package updates, which are handled in a confusing manner. At least one update on my 8.1 x86 system (for Postfix) also wiped out a working configuration file without warning, forcing restoration of the file from a backup. On the plus side, if you install from the network or add information on a SUSE FTP site to YaST2, it can install files from the Internet, obviating the need to manually locate them or juggle CD-ROMs. (I can't seem to add additional FTP mirror sites to my 9.0 installation, though.)

Once running, SUSE is fairly useable and friendly to newbies, although no more so than most other mainstream Linux distributions. I'm currently using a heavily updated x86 SUSE 8.1 system as my LAN's main server. My test of SUSE 9.0 on an AMD64 system has gone fairly well, but not perfectly; a few packages still have quirks on that distribution. For instance, the provided WINE package segfaults when run. (I did get WINE working through other means, though.)

SUSE 9.0 for x86 comes in three versions: A Personal Edition that ships with several CD-ROMs, a Professional Edition that includes both CD-ROMs and a DVD-ROM, and a Professional Update Edition that's similar to the Professional Edition but contains less in the way of printed documentation. A Professional Edition for AMD64 is available, but there doesn't seem to be a Personal Edition for AMD64. (As of 3/17/04, the PPC and Sparc editions remain at the 7.3 version, and the Alpha edition languishes at the 7.1 version.) SUSE is more stingy than most when it comes to making CD-R image files available for download, although all the requisite files are on FTP sites; check the README.FTP files for the x86 or the AMD64 versions -- but try to install from a mirror site near you.

Book selections for SUSE are not as plentiful as for Red Hat, but they do exist. Titles include SUSE Linux Installation & Configuration Handbook, Sams Teach Yourself SUSE Linux in 24 Hours, and The SUSE Linux Network. I've not read any of these, and so can't comment on their quality. All cover SUSE versions prior to 8.x, so some of the information will be out of date.


UnitedLinux Logo

This distribution isn't technically a distribution; rather, it's a set of common tools and standards that serve as the core of distributions from several others, including Conectiva, SCO, SUSE, and TurboLinux. I've used a UnitedLinux beta, the only regular distribution I've used that's related to it is SUSE 9.0. The beta was very similar to a SUSE 8.1 installation I had running on another system at the time, except that the UnitedLinux system was missing some SUSE-specific themes. The installer was basically SUSE's installer, and the UnitedLinux beta shipped with the YaST and YaST2 configuration tools. I don't know for a fact that non-SUSE distributions based on UnitedLinux use these tools, though. UnitedLinux appears to be doomed; with SCO turning rabid, the project has apparently languished. I don't know what Conectiva and TurboLinux will do in the future -- whether they'll use the first UnitedLinux as a base or go back to the systems they'd been using before.

Xandros 2.0

Xandros' ordering page

Xandros is the second incarnation of a distribution created by Corel, the distributor of WordPerfect and Corel Draw. Although WordPerfect and Corel Draw for Linux are no longer available except on eBay or in closeout bins, Corel Linux lives on as Xandros. This distribution is built atop a Debian core. Ironically, then, Xandros is one of the more commercial Linux distributions; freely-downloadable CD-R images and network installations aren't available, although you can download a CD-R image file if you pay for the distribution on the Xandros Web site.

Xandros is available in several distinct versions, ranging from the $39 Standard Edition to the $129 Business Edition. As you move up the price scale, Xandros throws in extra components, such as CrossOver Office, a printed user's guide, and StarOffice (the commercial variant of All versions are available as downloads or on physical media, nominally for the same price. (You'll pay a substantial shipping fee for the physical media, though.)

I tested the low-end Standard Edition of Xandros on a fairly old Compaq Presario 1200XL-106 notebook computer. The Standard Edition comes on a single CD-ROM, which obviously can't hold all of the software that ships with most other Linux distributions. Xandros provides a GUI front-end (called Xandros Network) to the standard Debian APT utilities which enables you to install a modest range of additional packages. By adding the "Debian unsupported" packages in this system, you can install most (perhaps all) of the standard Debian packages, as maintained by Xandros, but they won't show up in the nice menu system of the Xandros Network tool; you'll need to use the text-mode apt-get and related tools. If you're adventurous, you might try adding Debian's own APT archive sites to this list, but I didn't try it.

The Xandros installer is a typical GUI Linux installer. It presents fewer options than most, but not so few as to be a hindrance (as is true, for instance, of the Lindows installer). As Xandros seems to be marketed at first-time Linux users migrating from Windows, the installer's limited options shouldn't be a problem. The installer worked smoothly and was visually appealing, which are more important considerations for the first-time Linux user. The most disconcerting part of the install was when Xandros created an emergency floppy disk. This process took an unusually long time and was extraordinarily noisy; it sounded as if the floppy head was seeking across the entire disk each time it wrote a track. This may have been a quirky interaction with the floppy drive in my test machine, though. (It works fine in Xandros normally.)

Unfortunately, booting Xandros is a bit hit-or-miss; sometimes it boots just fine, but other times the process hangs after it reports "OK" to the "Checking root filesystem" message. The normal boot process hides the kernel boot messages, so I'm not sure what's going wrong. Xandros does provide an option called "Configure (Expert)" that presents the kernel messages, but it has yet to hang on me when I select that option, so it's been no help (yet) in debugging the problem. This option does reveal an unsettling number of minor error messages, though. These options suggest sloppy configuration of the kernel drivers and SysV startup scripts.

Xandros didn't bring up my notebook's Ethernet interface (on a PCMCIA card) at boot time. It did, however, launch a wizard to handle the task once I logged in. This resulted in a configuration that could be brought up or down with a user login or logout. This is unusual for a Linux distribution, but has some modest security benefits for a workstation that doesn't run servers, because it limits the system's exposure to the network to those times that the user is logged in. A more traditional always-up network configuration can be enabled via the KDE Control Center.

Xandros presents a fairly stock KDE environment, albeit with heavily customized icons and even renamed components. For instance, Konqueror appears as the Xandros File Manager. This environment is slimmed-down compared to some Linux distributions' desktops but should be useable to a typical Windows or Mac OS user. The version of KDM that Xandros uses as a login tool doesn't present any options for desktop environments other than KDE; if you want to use something else, you'll need to edit or replace the .xinitrc file in your home directory to launch it, or find some way to reconfigure or replace KDM to provide you with login-time options.

Overall, Xandros does a good job of introducing new users to Linux. It presents a friendly face without too many confusing choices. Of course, that very feature is a liability for more advanced users. I also have some qualms about the technical quality of the distribution -- the sporadic problems I have booting it and the errors that appear in a "Configure (Expert)" startup are unsettling. (I'm assuming that my sporadic boot failures are a quirk with my hardware or configuration. If I thought everybody would have this problem, they'd count much more heavily in my evaluation.)

I don't know of any books on Xandros, aside from the user manual that ships with some packages and is available as a separate item from the Xandros Web site. I haven't read this manual. Books on Debian might be helpful, but probably only if you intend to dig into Xandros' inner workings.


All Linux distributions do more-or-less the same things, and given enough work, can be made to behave in identical ways. Each package comes configured uniquely, though, and one may be better suited than another to certain tasks or users "out of the box." You might also prefer the extras provided by some distributions over those that come with others. Overall, then, my recommendations are as follows:

In the end, you'll probably be almost equally satisfied with any Linux distribution, with the exception of newbies, who should go with one of the more user-friendly distributions. Each distrubiton does have its own unique set of quirks, though, so you should be aware of these when you install the OS, or be prepared to learn about them.

If you'd like suggestions for books to go along with a Linux installation, check my books web page. This page lists books I've written, and my recommendations for additional books. (Most of the books I've listed on this page are distribution-specific; the ones on my main book page cover Linux in general or specific topics, such as network security or particular applications.)

If you have problems with or comments about this web page, please e-mail me at Thanks.

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