Many more people are becoming interested in GNU/Linux, as even seasoned Microsoft users and advocates are beginning to question the issues surrounding the latest operating system from Redmond. The variety of GNU/Linux distributions, while a good thing, can make a difficult time for a user, especially a new user. There are many desktop and server distributions, such as Red Hat, SUSE, Debian and Fedora. There are also many derivatives, like CentOS, Ubuntu and Mepis, as well as specialized distributions like Knoppix, DSL and Knoppmyth.
Such varying distributions reminds me of the days there were application choices, specifically word processors, for example, WordStar, AMI Pro, Word Perfect and Office. A user’s favorite was usually the one that they first were exposed to, whether at work or from a friend’s recommendation. There is a similar situation, where a new user tries a GNU/Linux distribution, either from a DVD shipped with a magazine, a recommendation from a friend or from a free CD at a LUG or trade show. Making your distribution choice in this manner may not be the best method.
My first experience with GNU/Linux, in 1995, was a single floppy disk from a customer, that I could boot on my laptop. From there I found that the company I worked for had on-line floppy images of Slackware that I could create disk sets. This gave me a good exposure to GNU/Linux. Later, I could buy a set of CD's by Walnut Creek CDROM from the local computer show. Several distributions of GNU/Linux and BSD were on the Walnut Creek CD-ROMS. I could test different distributions from a single source. With the advent of the internet and the ability for developers to scratch an itch, there are now possibly hundreds of GNU/Linux distributions.
Some distributions have come and gone, others varied in their popularity, as an example Mandrake, now Mandriva. Five years ago, choosing well supported and popular Mandrake would have been a good desktop choice. Financial and management issues plagued the distribution, though now well recovered, and we find Ubuntu at the top of the popularity scale. With that popularity comes a wealth of on-line support, published books and several on-line and print magazine articles. Still other distributions remain popular, possibly due to loyalty or the philosophical approach of the developers, not willing to compromise their standards.
Using the historical time-line and lineage of distributions can help one to gauge where to begin. Knowing that Mepis is derived from Ubuntu and Ubuntu from Debian, reveals a good base of support. Similarly, CentOS, Fedora and Red Hat have a strong support base of on-line and printed material. These two groups of distributions each share a common lineage that translates into more support options.
A difficult bit of information to obtain is the future road map of GNU/Linux distributions. Debian has a simple but difficult to plan-on approach, the next version is out when it is done. Ubuntu has a more dependable release cycle, releases in April and October. Fedora also has an aggressive (comparatively) release cycle; however, with the death of the Fedora Legacy Project, long term support is an issue. Ubuntu has solved this issue with the release of Ubuntu version 6.06 LTS, where LTS stands for Long Term Support. Ubuntu 6.06 LTS server is supported with updates and patches through 2011, the desktop edition through 2009.
A good indicator of support is the available support on-line for each particular distribution. Whether the support is mail lists, on-line forums, Wiki's or IRC. Perusing the mail list archives or forums gives a good indication of the amount and quality of support you can expect, including how newbies are treated. One can get a good feel of how newbies are either nourished, tolerated or belittled, staying away from the latter. These archives are also the way to find out how much trouble or success others are having, and finding out the common problems with the distribution. If you need a particular feature or task and others are having a problem with the distribution, time to look for a more successful distribution candidate.
The best way to pick a distribution is to do a little research up front. Attend a local users group to see where the expertise lies, my local group prefers Ubuntu, while there is quite a mix of distributions represented, insuring some expertise. Find a guru friend who actually uses GNU/Linux regularly and is willing to help a newcomer. Failing that, scope out the distributions forums and e-mail lists for a newbie friendly environment. There are some excellent distribution agnostic lists that are particularly newbie friendly. Doing a little footwork up front will ensure an enjoyable venture into GNU/Linux, plus making a few new on-line friends along the way.