Open Source

What makes a good Linux distribution?

Have you ever asked yourself, "What makes a good Linux distribution?" Jack Wallen has (a number of times) and offers his list of the characteristics that add up to a good distribution. What's on your list of must-haves?

Lately, I have written various articles that have stirred the pot regarding the various Linux distributions available. I have heard quite a bit of dislike for Ubuntu, GNOME, and KDE 4. In fact I have heard opinions from people that make me wonder why they even use Linux.

I have come across plenty of distributions that I will never use again. I have played with desktops that will only have ever graced my screen once or twice. But to say I hate them? No matter how much I dislike these tools, they are still a part of the Linux community and that at least gives them some credibility.

But this train of thought started my brain whirring around the idea of "what makes a good Linux distribution?" I thought, what better place to ask this question than here at Techrepublic! Naturally I can't just ask the question without offering up my own opinion on the subject as well.


I would have liked to think by now all Linux distributions would be following some semblance of standards. I don't find this to be the truth. And why? There's an organization built around creating standards for Linux. The Linux Standards Base was created to try to set standards for which all distributions could follow. So far this has not paid off. I can understand the struggle, but how hard could it be to set smart guidelines and, if a distribution follows those guidelines, give them some seal of approval.

The Linux community has to understand if standards are set and followed, developement (and acceptance) for the operating system will be that much easier.


In order for a distribution to be successful it has to include drivers for hardware to work. Yes this might mean that non-free drivers must be included. But that is a small price to pay for a Linux installation to work. The less distributions work out of the box, the less acceptance and use they will see. This is where the Ubuntu distribution shines. Adding proprietary drivers so that NVidia card will use the correct resolution, or that wireless card will work is simple. More distributions should follow this example.


It is clear there are camps for every desktop available to the Linux operating system. And these camps are very vocal in their dislike of the other. GNOME hates KDE hates GNOME hates Enlightenment hates Fluxbox, etc. And it only makes sense that a distribution make a choice for a default. But that doesn't mean the distribution can not offer the other desktops to the user. This should be the case during installation - even with Live CDs. The installation should ask the user if they want extra desktops installed, or a different desktop installed. Or if that's not the answer - then the installation of said desktops should be made simple with the help of tools like Synaptic. There should be a single check box to install the whole of KDE or GNOME or Enlightenment. Make it easy people! Give the users choice. Remember the old days of Linux installation where you were asked which desktop you wanted to install? Bring that back. And standards should be followed. A KDE desktop should fundamentally look and feel like any other KDE desktop so users have a better chance of getting used to the Linux desktop.

Help system

For many users that are familiar with Linux, this really isn't an issue. But for new users a good help system is critical. Most help systems included with a distribution generally focus only on the desktop. Add to this some fundamental Linux help and you have a winner.

Make it all work

One of the reasons why the average user doesn't really think twice about their operating system is because when they fire up that PC for the first time everything just works. They don't have to install a flash plugin or Java or a library so their iPod will connect or they can listen to MP3s. These should all be automatic on every distribution. Period. And the MP3 licensing issue - that needs to seriously go away. People use MP3s. How many times have you had to help someone roll MP3 support into Rhythmbox, Banshee, or XMMS?


Most distributions have this inherent in their systems and subsystems. This could easily fall in line with standards. You have some distributions using SELinux and some not. You have some distributions adding a GUI firewall tool by default and some not. I am not the biggest fan of SELinux only because when it works its best, it can get in the way of applications running (have you had SELinux stop acroread from starting up?). I think the desktop standard should simply be iptables with policies set so that nothing can get in and normal services can get out.

Eye Candy

Let's face it - if you've got it, flaunt it. With the help of Compiz, Linux can have the most amazing desktop among all of the operating systems. But in most Compiz-enabled distribution installations I have seen, they have visual effects set to Normal. This leaves out the Compiz Cube, wobbly windows, and a number of other mind-blowing features. If a machine's hardware can handle it, the default needs to be Extra or Custom. Out of the box (again, if the hardware supports it), all of the Compiz goodness should work. And the key combinations need to be standardized (there it is again!).

Final thoughts

Where do you stand? In your opinion, what makes a good Linux distribution? If you could roll in various aspects of any distro together what would your final results look like? Here's what I would do:

Take the proprietary driver system and installation tools of Ubuntu, add the desktop of Elive+Compiz, add the foundation of Debian, and the security of Bastille Linux and you would have one killer distribution! Your turn.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

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