A Linux Distribution Comparison Matrix

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.

The Comparison Matrix
Use the legend below to interpret the results. Scroll down for the actual matrix.

Legend:
5. Very strong or mature support. 2. You’re pushing a boulder uphill?but you’re strong enough.
4. Reasonably strong, but still a couple of kinks. 1. Not worth the fifty cents it cost to burn the media.
3. Possible but it takes some muscle. 0. Who are you kidding?

 

Red Hat ES

Novell SLES

Fedora FC4

OpenSuSE 10

Ubuntu Breezy

Installation

 

 

 

 

 

Graphical installer

5

4

5

4

3*

Volume management

5

3

5

3

2

Resize Windows partition

0

5

0

5

3

Raid configuration

5

5

5

5

4

Exception handling

3

5

3

5

5

LDAP integration

3

5

3

3

2

Configuration

 

 

 

 

 

Server configuration tools

4

5

3

5

3

User/Workstation configuration tools

4

5

4

5

4

X configuration

4

5

4

5

3

Printer management

3

5

3

5

3

Security

 

 

 

 

 

Filesystem ACL support

5

5

5

5

5

SELinux support

5

5

5

5

3

Firewall

4

5

4

5

3

Default SSH security

2

2

2

2

5

Default configuration

3

3

3

3

5

Server Management

 

 

 

 

 

LDAP configuration

3

5

3

3

3

User management

3

5

3

5

3

Apache configuration

3

5

3

5

3

Mail configuration

4

5

4

5

4

Thin client support

3

3

3

3

5

Support

 

 

 

 

 

Central phone support

5

5

0

0

4

Easy to find 3rd party support

5

5

0

0

5

Free email support

0

0

5

5

5

Online support

3

3

4

4

5

Vendor Support contracts

5

5

0

0

5

Established support network

5

5

0

0

3

* “Curses” text-based graphical installer.

Installation summary (back)
The Novell and SuSE installers use YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool), which is a very powerful management and installation software. However it tends to be a bit overcomplicated. Ubuntu uses a curses-based (text-based) graphical installer that is very powerful but requires a little more expertise then the Red Hat installer. The Red Hat installer is by far the most mature of the installers.

Configuration summary (back)
The Novell and SuSE configuration use of YAST makes almost all Linux configuration tasks a breeze. YAST can be a little clumsy but it offers a solid console based version that allows Linux management without requiring X Windows. Red Hat has solid configuration tools but they all require X Windows, which is inane for Linux. One of the most powerful features of Unix/Linux is the ability to administrate without X Windows.

Security summary (back)
All the products are decent at security, however Ubuntu is the only distribution reviewed that doesn’t allow root login via SSH by default. Ubuntu also does not allow root login via console by default, insuring that you actually have think about such actions as accidentally formatting your hard drive before you can perform them.

Server Management (back)
Novell and SuSE have this one under control due to YAST, but Red Hat ES also has solid management tools. Note that experienced system administrators don’t really need the administration tools provided by the vendors; such tools typically don’t handle more advanced situations and can actually decrease a good administrator’s productivity.

Support (back)
This is probably the hardest of the categories to evaluate. Linux support comes in all sorts of forms. For what most consider “enterprise” support Novell and Red Hat win because they have written support policies and contracts that enterprises can purchase. This type of support gives a certain level of comfort to people who use any software. Support contracts are an excellent choice for companies who do not have expert administrators in-house. However if you do have an expert administrator or consultant available there is no reason not to explore some of the more flexible Linux distributions such as FC, OpenSuSE, or Ubuntu.

And the Winner Is…
My professional opinion is that Ubuntu is the best of these distributions. Ubuntu excels at providing support to new users, from having over 650 users in the freenode IRC #Ubuntu, to channel support at any time, to an expansive Wiki and mailing list community. Their packaging system (Debian’s .deb) is top-notch, and the tools you use for updating such as apt and synaptic are friendly and versatile. Ubuntu is also the only distribution that I have been able to upgrade confidently to a new release without scheduling a server outage.

Lastly, all the reviewed distributions except Ubuntu contain a lot of “pork.” They typically require the equivalent of three or more CD’s to download and install, while Ubuntu fits on a single CD. That’s not a problem, because you can download any extra software you need directly from the Internet. In short, Ubuntu is the only reviewed distribution that tries to get it right the first time, by making intelligent decisions about what software to include on the CD and by providing an excellent user experience from the initial install to using the system six months later.

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