With dozens of Linux distributions to choose from, it can be difficult to select the distribution that’s right for a particular environment. Each distribution has its own focus, its own specific set of files, its own installer, and its own distributed version of the Linux kernel. In this article, I will compare and contrast four of the major distributions—Debian, Mandrake, Red Hat, and SuSE—and look at how they measure up for use on servers in a business environment.

The Debian Project was born on Aug. 16, 1993, with the goal of providing a stable, error-free Linux distribution. Debian is not backed by a corporation but rather by hundreds of developers who devote their time to making the distribution better—an arrangement that harkens back to the early days of Linux.

Debian’s claim to fame is its stability, and while an earlier release, Slink, had a few problems, the current release, Potato, is quite solid. This release also makes more use of pluggable authentication modules (PAM), making integration of software that requires authentication (such as winbind for Samba) much easier to deal with.

The installation of Debian is completely text-based, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, for a beginning user, the disk partitioning process for the Debian install can be a bit cumbersome, as it only makes use of an fdisk-like utility and does no automatic partitioning.

Once the disks are configured, the package selection is done through a utility called dselect, but it does offer an easy setup that allows users to install basic items grouped into categories, such as development tools.

Finally, there is the X Windows configuration that uses the anXious utility, which is similar to other distributions’ X configuration utilities. After setting up that configuration, Debian is ready to use.

Debian is supported mainly via Web-based forums and mailing lists. As a server platform, Debian provides a stable environment. The developers do not put every brand-new technology into Debian, opting instead for more thorough testing to ensure the stability of the platform. One case in point: They included the 2.2 kernel rather than the 2.4 kernel in the current release. Most system administrators want stability in their server environments, and Debian will provide that. However, the 2.4 kernel has a lot of new stuff, so I consider the inclusion of the 2.2 kernel one of Debian’s drawbacks, along with its use of a “nonfriendly” disk configuration utility.

Overall, I rate Debian a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

MandrakeSoft, the distributor of Linux Mandrake, was formed in 1998 by a group of Linux enthusiasts and is working toward being as easy to use as possible. To that end, Mandrake provides an excellent graphical installer and the latest version (as of the distribution ship date) of many Linux software packages.

An offshoot of Red Hat Linux, Mandrake has set its sights on being the best Linux distribution in the desktop market—which may be the case. However, the company also supports a server installation of the software, and it’s not bad either.

The installation is straightforward and includes a simple installation option for beginning users. It uses a GUI throughout and also has a simple GUI for the disk partitioning that’s fit for almost any user. Software package selection is pretty standard, with options for groups of software and an option to choose individual packages. After that, you just need to reboot and log on to use the system.

Mandrake is supported by mailing lists and by Mandrake itself via Web forums. Mandrake is an excellent choice for the desktop and would likely make a pretty good server, especially for Linux newbies. It runs a current release of the kernel and includes the software that many people want to use in a Linux server environment—databases and Web servers.

There are no major software drawbacks to report, except that Mandrake focuses more on the desktop market than the server market. And since this is an article on the worthiness of a distribution on a server, that could be a shortcoming.

Overall, this distribution also gets a 7.

Red Hat Linux
Perhaps the best-known of the Linux distributions, Red Hat Linux has certainly made a name for itself—and more and more people are hearing it. Starting business in 1994, Red Hat now employs more than 500 people worldwide and is dedicated to the open source philosophy.

Red Hat Linux works extremely well as a server in a corporate environment. It’s an established company, and it offers a full range of services to its clients, making it well suited to a corporate network. This distribution also includes a recent version of the Linux kernel and all of the major software packages that most people need.

The Red Hat Linux installation is quite painless and quite thorough. The graphical installation includes all the information needed to easily set up the server. Disk partitioning is either handled automatically or done with a GUI utility and is very easy, even for a new Linux user. Package selection is much like the other distributions; you can select either categories or specific packages. Once the system is up and running, there is plenty of support to be found on the Web and from Red Hat itself.

I have found Red Hat to be the best general-purpose distribution. It works well on servers and on the desktop. Its only drawback is the inclusion of nonstandard kernel patches, which make customization difficult.

Red Hat offers wide support through forums, lists, and via telephone with the company itself, which makes it attractive to a corporate client that usually requires a higher level of support.

I rate this distribution a 9.

In business for over eight years, SuSE AG, based in Germany, is working hard to be the number one distribution used in conjunction with databases. To make this happen, SuSE has partnered with the likes of Oracle and IBM to make their products work smoothly on this distribution. SuSE has also developed the SuSE Linux eMail Server III, a solid e-mail/groupware application.

SuSE 7.3, based on kernel version 2.4.10, has improved the ease-of-use over their previous distributions. Installation is done via a GUI, and disk partitioning is done very simply but is customizable for people who want more control.

SuSE can also easily access Windows drives from within its OS, which makes migration between platforms or even dual booting between both platforms much easier. Hardware detection is excellent in SuSE, and the distribution works well as both a server and a workstation.

With its friendly installation, graphical management tools, and ability to access Windows drives, SuSE is easy for end users and administrators alike, and it makes for a strong server platform.

SuSE is also supported with Web-based forums, which I have found to be well laid out, and offers support via telephone.

I give this distribution a 9 as well.

Final word
Linux servers are making inroads into the corporate environment and will likely continue to do so due to their low cost and ability to support a wide range of services. In my environment, I generally run Red Hat servers because of their excellent support and widespread distribution. However, those who need rock-solid stability should give Debian a look; those who are new to Linux should give Mandrake a shot; and those who desire advanced database and e-mail network applications should certainly consider SuSE.

Choosing a distribution to work with and build out is an important step in this process, and I hope this comparison will help you sort out your options and make the best choice.