Are GNU/Linux distribution choices a fad, or favouritism?

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Over the years I’ve tried numerous distributions, and there’s been a gradual progression from what were probably the early leaders in the Linux market—RedHat for example—through to the some recent and popular examples, particularly Gentoo and Kubuntu.

The question that has been running through my head recently though is whether this is an issue of favouritism on my part, or whether it is because the distributions I use today really are comparatively better than the distributions I used 4 or 5 years ago.

I was a big Redhat user—I paid for Redhat and support for a number of years, and used it religiously until the Redhat/Fedora split a few years back.

It wasn’t the split that caused me to stop using Redhat per se, I just used it as an opportunity to start looking at other alternatives. I tried a number of solutions, including SuSE, CentOS (which is based on the Redhat base), and many others.

Fedora’s early versions were, I think some will agree, less polished and reliable than either the Redhat distributions they replaced, or the more recent Fedora solutions. I had numerous problems with Fedora Core 1, 2 and early revisions of 3. That said, I hear bad things about Fedora, particularly in terms of support packages and tools, from some of my associates.

I ultimately settled on Gentoo as my primary solution. My basis for that decision was the source based distribution nature of Gentoo. As someone who uses many different platforms and environments and wants to get the best performance out of each of them, the host-compiled nature of Gentoo provides ideal performance, albeit with a large overhead for the compilation of each package.

Gentoo is great from a server and software development/test environment point of view. I haven’t found it such a good solution for the desktop, not because it doesn’t handle it well, but because if you want to keep your system up to date, completely recompiling KDE, X and QT can take a couple of days.

That’s why I’ve now settled on Kubuntu as my desktop Linux solution (see this post at ComputerWorld for some of the reasons).

Back to the original point—my dumping and migration away from Redhat and Fedora was driven by problems. But am I doing them a disservice? Do I now only use Gentoo and Kubuntu because they are the latest ‘fad’ distributions, or because they really are the best for my needs?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to that, not without spending a lot more time than I have now. I’d appreciate others opinions though on whether the popularity of certain distributions is due to them really being the best solution available, or whether we are responding to some net-generated hype.



Matt Barton's picture

I can certainly appreciate your question, Martin. I feel the same way about other potentially useful "fads" that everyone is on about. As someone new to GNU/Linux, I tried to go with what people with more experience recommended, but they only confused me. When I first started, the big thing was Knoppix, and next it was Simply MEPIS. Now, I don't hear anyone talking about Knoppix, or Simply MEPIS--now Ubuntu is touted as the easiest distro. Of all of these, I favor Ubuntu, even if the desktop is a little plain.

I think of at least one example of my pursuing a "fad," or rather going for the glory rather than ease-of-use. When I first got interested in GNU/Linux, I wanted to use Debian, and actually got it installed on my system. I quickly discovered, though, that my interests in using Debian stemmed more from ideological reasons rather than practical. I couldn't get much done at all, and my friends' insistence that I use a simpler distro felt like asking me to put training wheels on my bike.

In a way, I can almost appreciate my Mac friends. At least they know that all (well, most, perhaps) of their fellow Mac-heads are running the same OS. It's a lot different in the GNU/Linux world, which can seem more like the Tower of Babel than the Cathedral.

David Sugar's picture

I suppose from the desktop user perspective, the idea of (K/)Ubuntu is convenient because of it's popularity; the result being that any problem you are likely to find has already been found by someone else with a solution :). This also speaks to the advantage of good communication with the community when that works well.

Does popularity make it a "fad", though, like the theoretical lemmings that supposodly follow each other off the cliff?! I am not sure if that is true, but I have used Ubuntu, as well as other distributions. I generally use the ones that happen to relate to some specific work I have chosen to do, as I have found most modern distributions to be of extraordinarly high quality these days.

Terry Hancock's picture

The easiest software to learn is always the one you already know.

That's 9/10ths of the problem for anyone switching from any O/S to any other O/S, and from any distribution to any other distribution. And of course, that's why people get so relgious about them. I think the best way to cope with this is to start by acknowledging that it's true: what works for you will be different than what works for someone else, because their background is different.

So, for example, I'm of the Debian "denomination" (or I "speak" Debian, if you prefer). I seriously doubt that my extreme preference for deb-based distros over rpm distros has any real objective basis. I'm just comfortable with "apt-get" and with the Debian mailing lists, and so on. I know where I'm at with Debian, that's all.

So, when I'm considering newer distributions, someone like Ubuntu has an immediate advantage, just because it's deb-based.

Nevertheless, in a pinch, I've used alien to install RPMs (and of course installed stuff from source, though I usually consider it a pain).

I'm not sure they're all 'fads' though. I've been using Debian proper for about 6 years now. I kept asking people "Should I consider switching to a different distro?". But mostly the attitude I got back was, "If you've already figured out Debian, why bother with anything else?" (The hidden assumption being that Debian is 'hard' for newbies, so I've overcome an expensive 'buy-in', so why throw it away. Also, that Debian is a very 'good' distribution in other senses: security, stability, etc.).

OTOH, I get rather irritated by having to either track 'stable', which tends to be way old, or track unstable -- which, despite assurances to the contrary, often gets you into 'deb hell' (if some big packages are broken). There is 'testing', but even that is sometimes a bit out of date. So, the Ubuntu timed release cycle is interesting (OTOH, Debian proper is trying for timed releases, I think).

No matter which you pick, though, there's always going to be pros and cons, so it might just be safer to stick to ones you know (unless and until things get really bad). I think my main motivation with sticking with Debian is that I just don't want to waste time on switching -- because it always takes a lot of time to do that.

Jarek Zgoda's picture

I hate "configuring", so I use Ubuntu. It does not force me into "configuring" anything before use. If I want to tweak something, it's OK to me to dig into some cryptic configuration files with Vim, but "configuring" instantly bores me.
Imagine, I was a Slackware user for many years. Now, when I am older and I have less spare time (family duties, you know), I consider time spent on "configuring" as time lost. Ubuntu fits my needs perfectly and I don't plan to pursue microseconds with Gentoo. ;)

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

by sticking with Debian -- it is old, it is stable, and seems to be the starting point for a number of the more popular distros (Like Ubuntu and KNOPPIX, according to

My priorities balance between stability with popularity, in the belief that ultimately they coincide in the realm of something that is essentially a "sociologically propelled" technology. It just seems like Debian has a depth and breadth and proven track record that none of the others have. But it also continues to have it's historical "old school techie" intimidation factor, which scares lots of people away. I think this is one of the reason Ubuntu is "winning" right now -- because having used both ditros a lot, I feel Ubuntu is for all practical purposes just a Debian installation with a more proverbial "happy faces" at every turn tell me everything is OK. But is it honestly "easier" than Debian? Actually, the modern Debian network installer is mind-blowingly easy if you have a "normal" machine; I plop the CD in old computers that come my way, answer a few dopey questions, and 45 minutes later I've got a flashy Blue Gnome desktop instead of the old Coffee colored Ubuntu one. And configuring/maintaining Debian harder? Well, I don't think so at all. Once someone tells you Debian can be all about Synaptic, Debian for a new user simply becomes a way to pick and install software faster than anyone in their wildest Microsoft of Apple dreams could have ever dreamed.

So why isn't Debian on top?

I think Debian's problem is that nobody took the time to REALLY spell-out the mere 20 or so things you need to know to have a starting point with Debian -- "bearings in the big picture." In that sense, Ubuntu is better because of all the hand-holding in their forums -- which I often consult when I have Debian problems! Which make me wish Ubuntu had been more about "Debian with handholding" instead of pursuing a whole other parallel repackaging with it's Universes, etc. I mean, what was so wrong with the Debian repository packages? Wouldn't it be better to focus on making them stronger and more useable by arguing in their bug/feature pages?

That said, I get the feeling Debian has benefitted from Ubuntu too -- maybe that is why in the last year it seems to be so uncharacteristically (at least in regard to its historical reputation) "undifficult" to manage. Given that in many case the deb packages are interchangeable between distros, it would be extremely easy for a Debian maintainer to look at what is "going right" in an Ubuntu package and implement it in to the corresponding Debian one. Which is a beautiful thing!

But it is interesting -- just interesting -- that Ubuntu seems to now avoid mention of Debian on its pages. When I first started using it, it was pretty up front about being basically a repackaged Debian distro. And I like that because it seemed to choose debian for the reasons I did, and there was a sense (fad?) that this was old dusty Debian's needed spruce-up/wake-up.

But now that most of its newer users have never even heard of Debian, I think Ubuntu is starting to pose as "it's own Daddy." Such is the nature of competition, it doesn't need Debian to get it's own momentum anymore, most of it's new users probably haven't even heard of Debian -- so why advertise for Debian?

But the irony is that unlike most areas of competition, this is perhaps one where nobody would really want Debian to fall off the map; it really does have a combination of depth, breadth, and (if you believe it) "attention to GNU purity" that no other distro can dream about. I think the package maintainers at Ubuntu are always paying close attention to their corresponding package in Debian's Unstable. And to some extent I think debian maintainers are watching the Ubuntu developments too. I just sort of wish they really were working with the same repositories; I guess there are arguments that developments push each other more this way, though.

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Martin Brown's picture


Martin “MC" Brown is a member of the documentation team at MySQL and freelance writer. He has worked with Microsoft as an Subject Matter Expert (SME), is a featured blogger for ComputerWorld, a founding member of, Technical Director of and, and has written books on topics as diverse as Microsoft Certification, iMacs, and free software programming.