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A Linux Distribution Comparison Matrix

Linux is Linux—you can use any distribution; the real difference between distributions lies primarily in how much effort it takes to accomplish your specific goals. The five distributions compared here represent the "Who's Who" of the major English-language distributions.

any people have written about the disjunctive nature of Linux distributions—and the problems involved in differentiating among all the various distributions that exist. Questions experts routinely hear are "Which Linux is best for me?" and "How do I know my distribution will work with my hardware?" The modern reality—and the good news— is that most of the popular Linux distributions will service any need. With that said, a handful truly stand out from the crowd.

I've been using Linux professionally for over 10 years. My first distribution was called SLS, which predated both Slackware and Red Hat. I installed it via floppy on a 486SX25 with 6 MB of RAM! At one point in my life I made money selling Linux Web servers for about $5,000 a pop. These were 486DX2/66 with 128 MB of RAM and a single SCSI drive. Times have definitely changed.

When you look at Linux today from a 10,000-foot view, the overall picture is fairly splintered, but the truth is: Linux is Linux. It doesn't really matter which distribution you install; the only differences lie in how hard it is to get a given version to accomplish the tasks that you need to complete. The second page of this article contains a simple matrix where a handful of the more popular Linux distributions are listed along with a numerical legend to assess the level of support each distribution has for a number of features.

Because we could only include a finite number of distributions, I developed a set of criteria for inclusion. The criteria necessarily limits the number of distributions included in the comparison, so if your distribution isn't listed, don't take it personally—we can only cover so much ground. Many great distributions didn't meet the criteria. For example, Debian is an excellent and stable distribution, but doesn't have a stable release for X86_64. Here's the criteria I used:

  1. Stable releases only. Yes we are fully aware that you can "download that from unstable."
  2. X86_64 required. The future of chips is in X86_64. This is also known as X64 and EMT64.
  3. Recognizable community, business or otherwise. Linux is about community.
  4. Usable by a non-geek.
  5. Default features only. This comparison does not cover third-party products or modules.
By far the most recognizable names in the field are going to be Red Hat and SuSE. Red Hat has Red Hat Desktop/WS and SuSE (now Novell) has Novell Linux Desktop. On the more open-source-driven front there is Fedora, which is sponsored by Red Hat, and OpenSuSE, sponsored by Novell. Red Hat Desktop/WS is a fully supported Linux distribution.

A relative newcomer to the Linux distro game is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is based on Debian and has the same level of quality put into each release. Ubuntu has garnered a very large community over the last two years, and has proven (an attribute of its Debian heritage) to be very stable and flexible.

Although they're not reviewed here, I wanted to mention three notable distributions: Gentoo, Debian, and Mandriva. While Gentoo and Debian both have large communities and solid respect from users, Gentoo is not a businessman's Linux and is not usable by a non-geek, and Debian does not have a stable X86_64 release. Mandriva is a consolidation of the old Mandrake and Connectiva releases, but does not appear to have much U.S. market penetration.

Although there are many other Linux distributions, the five listed in the comparison matrix make up the bulk of distributions used by English-speaking Linux users. Some other important Linux distributions are region-specific, such as RedFlag, which is popular in China, and Pardus, which is popular in Turkey. One additional distribution not covered here that may be of interest is Linspire, which is specifically designed for Microsoft Windows converts and new Linux users.

Editor's Note: To obtain the values in the matrix in this article, the author made qualitative comparisons between the included distributions based on his extensive experience as a Linux user and developer. Individual measures shown here may not reflect other users' experiences. The measures shown are intended to be used as overall guidelines.

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