Posted by ajt on Fri 10 Jun 2005 at 08:28
According to the Linux watching web site, DistroWatch, there are more than 400 Linux and BSD distributions currently available and active. Many of these exist with many versions, giving thousands of possible options to choose from.
The question often arises "Which one is the best?". As with many simple questions, it does not have a simple answer. Typically, if you ask five random Linux users, you will get five different and conflicting answers. This short opinion piece is my contribution to the debate.
Avoid The Dead and Unsupported
It is wise to avoid a distribution that has died: if no one is developing and maintaining the distribution it may be missing many desirable features and will almost certainly have defects. Modern security software is absent from older distributions, and these distributions have well known defects that are easily exploitable. The Internet is no longer a safe place and there is no excuse for running an old and insecure distribution, when there are safer ones to choose from.
Some people advocate some of the older distributions/versions because they will run on older or lower specification hardware. However there are plenty of modern, secure and supported distributions that are specifically designed to run on lower specification hardware. For example Debian based DSL will run on a system with only a 486DX CPU with only 16Mb of RAM.
The Right Tool For The Right Job
Some distributions are general purpose, others are customised, a few are highly specialised. While specialised distributions, for example firewalls, or forensic system; are excellent at their allocated tasks, they make poor general purpose operating systems. Do not choose a specialised distribution unless you actually want to use it the way it was intended. Conversely a general purpose distribution can be used in a specialised role, but it will not be as efficient as a dedicated distribution.
Your Favourite Is Probably Best
I strongly feel, that the best Linux distribution is the one that you like the most. I personally like Debian best: I know it the best and I find it easiest to use. My first distro was Red Hat and I found it hard going on my own. Later a friend suggested Debian, and with his help I made very quick progress. Now my familiarity with Debian means that Debian always comes out top in any comparison I do: to be better, an alternative distribution needs to be outstanding. I have used Red Hat again since using Debian I have even had formal Red Hat training and while Red Hat is a fine distribution, I still prefer Debian.
Naturally you will find that different versions of the same distribution and a distribution based on another one, feel quite similar - common parentage does show through. For example ubuntu is a desktop distribution based on Debian. At a technical level they are very similar, but ubuntu has a simplified installer and a strong desktop focus.
Remember You Can Change Your Mind
Remember that unlike proprietary operating systems, it is usually very easy to switch from one distribution to another one, if you feel like a change. If you have the space then, it is worth having more than one computer, so you can try out several different systems without disrupting you current system.