Choosing a Linux Distribution for Your Business

Wednesday Mar 7th 2007 by Bruce Byfield

Eight essential questions to ask when you’re selecting among the plethora of business-capable Linux distros.

If you're confused about the different flavors of Vista in the store, then the varieties of Linux available will leave you gasping like a fish on a dock. Distrowatch, a site which tracks Linux's different versions (or distributions, as they are called in the community), has well over four hundred listings. Faced with so many choices, how do you know what distribution is right for your business?

Fortunately, at second glance, the choices are not so overwhelming. Many of the available distributions are obviously a one or two person hobby. Others may be available only in a language that neither you nor most of your customers speak. Still others are so heavily specialized in such areas as music or children's education that you will immediately know from their descriptions whether they are right for you.

All the same, after the initial cull, most businesses will still be faced with dozens of choices. The question remains: how do you reduce the number of possibilities so that you can realistically test them?

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One quick solution is to go with the big names. Just as in the past, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, you should have few complaints if you go with one of the major distributions such as Debian, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, or Ubuntu. Second tier distributions such as CentOS, and Linspire are also good bets. However, with a little research, you can do much better than just guard against failure.

To choose a distribution that really suits your needs, consider the following questions as you research:

1) Are all your hardware architectures supported?

Like Windows, most Linux distributions are built for the Intel platform. Most also support 32- and 64-bit versions. However, the fact that you are using less mainstream architectures may automatically simplify your choice. If you have mainframes in the shop, you might want to start with SUSE, which includes versions for the IBM iSeries, pSeries, zSeries, and S/390. On Macs, both Debian and Fedora/Red Hat are candidates for investigation. Should you want to use ARM processors in an embedded system, then Debian is a strong contender.

2) What hardware do you need?

With few exceptions, Linux distributions have lighter system requirements than those of any flavor of Windows released in the last five years. You can up the memory requirements by running things like experimental 3D desktops, but for typical business use you won't need the latest hardware.

As a general rule, if you're satisfied with running Windows on a system, you'll find Linux performs even better. More than one business or school has extended the life of its hardware by making the switch, often without the need to go to a thin client delivery of software.

If your hardware is more than a few years old, you can even find modern distributions designed to run on it. Sometimes, the design is simply a matter of a lighter desktop, as with Xbuntu, which uses the Xfce desktop rather than the more common GNOME or KDE desktops found in its parent distribution Ubuntu. At other times, you can find distributions designed for limited resources, such as Coyote Linux, Damned Small Linux, or Puppy Linux.

3) Do you want a community-based or a commercial distribution?

When switching to Windows, many companies prefer to stick with what they know and deal with a commercial distribution like Xandros. With this approach, you don't need to relearn your business.

In comparison, a community-based distribution made up entirely of volunteers may seem haphazard, argumentative, and inefficient – especially if you don't have techs who know how to interact with community members.

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However, don't be so quick to dismiss community-based distributions. Organizations like Debian may seem chaotic at first glance, but as you get to know them, you will find they can offer products and services as reliable as any you can find in a commercial company. Learn to appreciate them, and you can realize more of the promised savings in switching to Linux.

4) How long will the distribution last?

Many executives are nervous about open source projects because they seem less stable those of an incorporated company. What happens, they wonder, if the distribution disappears?

You can ease these fears by seeing how long the distribution has been in business and how many developers are working on it. Get your system administrator to monitor the number of software patches submitted to the distribution over a period of several weeks. On the one hand, you probably want to avoid a distribution run by three people that only began development a few months ago. On the other hand, a project like Debian, which has a couple of thousand developers and has existed for thirteen years is probably more stable than most companies.

If a distribution's duration and activity isn't enough to ease concerns, check the licenses. Most software in a distribution is released under the GNU General Public License, which gives you the right to a copy of the source code. In fact, distributions publishing under this license are required to either give you the software or offer to do so at nominal cost for copying. Assuming you have a Linux expert or two on staff, if your chosen distribution does go under, you can legally continue developing it for your own needs.

5) What training and support are available?

If you want traditional support, you can find it with most commercial distributions – although you should make some comparisons to see what the current market rate happens to be. Training is less widespread, and, although Red Hat does maintain one of the leading certification programs, in many cases you may want to fall back on generic training from Sair Linux or the Linux Professional Institute.

However, even with commercial distributions, paid support and training are often last resorts. Even the smallest distributions offer free mailing lists and IRC channels for front-line help.

And if you're tempted to dismiss this free help as haphazard, think again. In more cases than not, these informal resources provide quicker and more reliable help than the traditional phone lines. Often, they give you direct access to people who designed and wrote the software you're struggling with.

Best of all, unlike with paid support, you can monitor the informal support available for a distribution before making your choice. After you do, you may decide that you don't need to choose a commercial distribution at all, or that, if you do, purchasing help is unnecessary.

6) What are the options for software, security and updates?

On Linux, software is usually installed via packages, or collections of files and scripts for automatic configuration. A few use archived files, and some individual pieces of software use third party installers, but most use a packaging system. The most popular packaging systems are .rpm and .deb, both of which check for other software you’ll need to run a package and offer to install it for you.

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This installation is generally done from package repositories on the Internet. Many distributions maintain separate repositories for security updates. As a result of this system, after installation you may never do a complete system upgrade at any one time. Instead, you may do a series of small, regular ones.

Before committing to a distribution, check the software in the repositories. Some smaller distributions may have a limited selection, especially if they use a non-mainstream packaging system. They may still have all the software that you need, but you need to know upfront.

Check, too, how the distribution handles security updates. Is there a mailing list that announces bugs and updates? If the distribution is commercial, do you have to pay for updates? Is the distribution in touch with other projects like the Apache web server, so that users receive the earliest possible notice of security problems?

You might also want to search the Internet to try to get some sense of how quickly the distribution responds to known problems.

7) How easy is the distribution for desktop users?

The majority of distributions provide some sort of desktop for non-expert users. Many even include themes and desktop wallpaper that will make casual users believe that they are using Windows. However, a few like Mandriva and Ubuntu make special efforts to provide user-friendly tools.

You should also be aware that some distributions make a philosophical point of shipping only non-proprietary software. In such a case, if extras like Java, Flash, or Acrobat Reader are important to your business, you'll need to install them separately, no matter how easy the distribution is to use otherwise. Search a distribution's web site or CD image, and you can often find a list of software that is installed.

8) What other specializations do you need?

With all the available distributions, Linux offers something for everybody.

Need a version to run on a USB flashdrive? Try Pen Drive Linux, or search the websites of larger distributions for do-it-yourself instructions. Want to coax every ounce of speed from your hardware? Try Gentoo, in which every program is compiled for the hardware it's one. Need to maintain different versions of the same software? Then try rPath Linux or any of the other distributions based on the Conary packaging system.

Chances are, a web search on your requirements plus "linux" will reveal at least one distribution with a ready-made or easily customizable solution.

Conclusion: Auxiliary Apps

After you've considered these questions, you should be able to narrow down the distributions you actually want to test. When you're ready, you may be able to download a Live CD for your preliminary tests. A Live CD is a version of a distribution that boots from a CD, allowing you to test the software without making any permanent changes to your system. Just remember that even the latest DVD drive is slow compared to a hard drive, so you can't judge performance from a Live CD.

These days, the differences between distributions are narrowing. Most distributions that you test will have much the same choice of software: KDE and GNOME for desktops, Mozilla Firefox for web browsing, and for office productivity. By definition, a distribution is a collection of software made by other projects and, no matter how specialized, its unique or selective features are only a small percentage of the total package.

However, that small percentage can often greatly affect the user experience. A distribution designed for older hardware, for example, might use the less familiar Ice Window Manager for a desktop, or AbiWord for word processing.

More importantly, just as with any software, the policies and procedures and structures behind a distribution can be as important to your adoption as the contents. Do your due diligence, and you'll have a better chance of finding a distribution that fits your needs.

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