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Before Linux Installation

Part 1 of The Linux Newbie Administrator Guide

1.1 Which Linux distribution should I use?
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Related Resources
Linux Newbie Administrator Guide
0. Linux Benefit
1. Before Installation
2. Linux Resources/Help
3. Basic Operations FAQ
4. Newbie Admin FAQ
~ 4.1 Lilo
~ 4.2 Drives
~ 4.3 X-Windows
~ 4.4 Configurations
~ 4.5 Networking
5. Shortcuts / Commands
6. Linux Applications
7. Learn Linux Commands
A. How to Upgrade Kernel?

Linux distribution is a coherent collection of free software with the Linux kernel (operating system) at its center.

The differences between the various Linux distributions ("distros") are minor: the installation program, choice of the bundled tools/applications, arrangement of a few things on the hard drive (most of Linux is still at the same, standard hard drive location in all distributions). Whichever distribution you decide to install, you will end up with essentially the same Linux.

We mostly use "Red Hat Linux" (also called RedHat or RH) and Mandrake (sometimes called MDK) for the following reasons:
  1. They are both very popular (both an advantage for a newbie and a testimony to their quality).
  2. They are both general-purpose distributions.
  3. They both come with relatively easy setup programs.
  4. Both Mandrake and RedHat contributions to Linux are "open software" (this means that all the software written by the packaging corporations and included on the distribution CDs is licensed under the General Public License, GPL, so that it can be legally copied, given away, reused, etc.).
  5. Both Mandrake and RedHat can be obtained very cheaply or free if you don't care for commercial support. This is a consequence of (4).
  6. Mandrake is based on RedHat, so both are very similar. Software packages for RedHat typically work on Mandrake (and vice versa) without problems. However, Mandrake is a bit more automatized and makes a somewhat nicer desktop than RedHat, and requires Pentium processor on default (RH will run on a i386).
In short, as a newbie, you can safely bet on "RedHat" or "Mandrake" unless you like something else or have specialized needs, or your environment suggests using something else (e.g., if you have an experienced guru nearby, or a bunch of friends who are using Linux, you may want to use the same distribution - makes getting help a whole lot easier).

The most recent distributions we recommend (Nov. 2002) is RedHat 8.0 or Mandrake 9.0. These are excellent distributions. Be sure to specify the most recent version if ordering your software from a dealer--many dealers like to clear their inventory by sending you an older version (this applies not only to Linux). Generally, development under Linux is fast, and you don't want to waste your time with older distributions. The authors of this guide have no connection to RedHat, Mandrake (or any other Linux distributor) whatsoever.

Our recommendation of Mandrake and RedHat for newbies does not mean that other distributions don't offer benefits or unique features which may surpass Mandrake or RedHat in specific areas. We do believe that we benefited from exposure to a different distribution because it helped us understand Linux better.

We tried Debian and we liked it very much. It was probably as easy as RedHat, but Debian seems less common (hence, being newbies, we picked up RedHat). The great benefit of Debian is that it is 100% non-commercial (put together by volunteer hackers, the true Linux way) and it probably most strictly adheres to Linux standards (it probably sets the standards too). Another great benefit is that Debian crams on their numerous distribution CDs thousands of tools and applications--easily much more than any other distribution. All these tools/apps are nicely "packaged" (for ease of installation) and tested for compatibility. This makes Debian distro look monumental, safe, conservative, and always slightly outdated. So yes, we would not have a problem recommending Debian as a great general-purpose Linux distribution. Debian calls itself "The Universal Operating System" for a good reason. At any time, Debian carries 3 versions. (1) The "stable" version (sometimes called "potato"), and we would not recommend it, unless you are really paranoid on stability and don't mind quite outdated packages. (2) The Debian "testing" version (sometimes called "woody") is probably as stable as the latest RedHat, and more stable than your current Mandrake. It is much more up do date than Debian "stable". Debian Woody is the version we like. (3) If you don't mind occasional trouble, you can also the the third branch called "unstable", which is likely quite up-to-date.

Corel was once working on their own Linux distribution apparently geared towards a nice and easy platform to run the Corel suite of office applications: WordPerfect wordprocessor, QuattroPro spreadsheet, Corel Presentations, Paradox database, CorelDraw artist package.... The Corel Linux was based on the Debian distribution. It looked initially quite promissing, but it is unclear to me what Corel has done with it (was paid by Microsoft to drop it?). In brief, Corel Linux is dead now, and I would never recommend it to anybody because it it a dead-end. The only reason to mention it here is that Corel Linux once received lots of publicity, so you may still hear about it.

Slackware seems to be favorite among "cutting-edge hackers" who like being close to the operating system and hardware--we did not use it so this is hearsay. We would have trouble recommending Slackware for Linux newbies. Our reviewer Bill Staehle says: "The real 'reason' for a newbie to avoid Slackware is that it is much more command line oriented, and lacks some of the 'cutsie slick and drool' tools that the other distributions have." However, we received feedback from Linux newbies who use Slackware and it works very well for them. It seems that Slackware is relatively simple and cool because of the lack of automation. Therefore, with a bit of effort, a computer-literate administrator can actually understand what is going in her operating system (this is not something I can always say about Mandrake, or MS Windows for that matter). Perhaps Slackware is to Linux what DOS is for MS Windows :) .

S.u.S.E distribution (http://www.suse.com) is very popular in Europe. It surely looks German--a solid, general-purpose distro with an easy setup and an excellent reputation. Many users swear by SuSe. We couldn't find cheap Suse CDs though but it appears you can download it.

Caldera was another, well-known and distribution. It was said to be aiming at corporate users, have the most fancy installation program, a set of advanced (and pricey) remote configuration tools, and other corporate goodies. In Aug.2000, Caldera purchased SCO Unix (the original UNIX, including the UNIX trademark) which gives them an even more "corporate" look in my eyes. Caldera does not seem to be putting too much of their work into the Linux community, nor to care too much about the home Linux users, so I would not consider it for my home use.

There are "localized" versions of Linux for specific countries or languages (Korean, Chinese, Japanese... )--they likely contain (on default) all the hacks and docs (documentation) that the users in these countries want to see. Says Bill Staehle: "You may want to mention the Conectiva Linux distribution, loosely based on RH from Brazil. As such, it is in Portugese, and is also available in Spanish. Try: http://www.conectiva.com.br/". I heard several good things about Conectiva, so if Portugese or Spanish was my language, I would probably give it a try.

There are also "special purpose" distributions, e.g. the "real-time" editions of Linux (might be useful if you are in for automation, robotics, fast speed data acquisition, etc.), very small distros (if you like the idea of running Linux from a single floppy which can be useful for system security or recovery), Linux for embedded systems (if you wanted to customize Linux as a small "special purpose" device, which could be good for the next-generation stereo, MP3 player, palm computer, or a fancy cellular phone), parallel computing and clustering systems (might be great if you plan to do your own weather forecasting :-) or at least nuclear explosion simulations :p ), etc. Here the differences will be larger, but these distributions are not meant to be "general purpose". As a newbie, you likely don't want to start with any of these, although you might be tempted to. (They surely show Linux strength and viability--Linux runs on toys, even a wrist watch, as well as computer clusters that make the currently fastest systems in the world.)

The distribution you need is of course specific to the hardware platform you have. This means that for your PC hardware containing an Intel 386 processor, or Intel 486, or Intel Pentium, or Intel 586, or Intel 686, or Cyrix, or K6, AMD, or similar, you need the binary distribution called "Intel" or "386" or x86. [Unless you are prepared to start with your own compilation of the Linux source code, which is not typical for a newbie :-)] . This happens because there are binary distributions for other hardware platforms too: PowerPC, Alpha, Apple, IBM mainframe, "Intel StrongARM", Transmeta, and perhaps a dozen more--you don't want to get those binaries for your PC clone; they surely will not work on a PC machine with an "Intel" or "AMD" processor inside. If you have no-Intel hardware, you may want to search the Internet to find who supports it (chances are Debian does, they seem to support even the most exotic ones. Then, you need to obtain "Debian ARM" or "Debian Motorola 680x0"or "Debian PowerPC" or "Debian SPARC ", ...).

In short, although newbies get confused with the multiple Linux distributions, there are reasons to have different distros. They should be viewed as a Linux strength rather than weakness. Linux is simply filling all application and hardware platform niches.

This guide concentrates on RedHat and Mandrake for the PC (Intel) platform. Many of the answers will work fine on other distributions or platforms, but we did not try them.
Which Linux Distribution should I select for my old computer(s)? Quick answer: Debian, Slackware, or perhaps BasicLinux (current version), or an older version of RedHat, Mandrake, or SuSE. Justification: RedHat, Mandrake, SuSE, Caldera, and TurboLinux are optimized/suitable for hardware current at the date of their release. They may be difficult or impossible to install on older machines mostly due to the memory contraints and speed. Debian and Slackware are suitable for most older hardware as well.

Next > 1.2 What are the Linux hardware requirements?

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