I have, on a number of occasions, stressed to new Linux users how crucial the right distribution is. Choosing the distribution that suits your needs is the single most important key to success when attempting to migrate from another operating system. But how do you know which one to choose out of the hundreds of variations? Believe it or not, there are some key questions to ask yourself when making this decision. It has been my goal for more than a decade to help prospective Linux users make the plunge with ease and success. Let’s see if I can do the same for you with these five tips.
1: Decide what you need Linux to do
This is essential to your initial success. There are Linux distributions geared for specific needs. Do you need Linux to act as a server OS? A desktop OS? A router? A firewall? Once you have answered the question of what you need Linux to do, you’re more than halfway home. But if you don’t ask this question, you might very well install a distribution (such as CentOS) geared for a server environment and wonder why it makes a lousy desktop environment. Choosing the Ubuntu Desktop distribution and using it as a server will find you in the same state — constantly frustrated.
2: Choose between stable and cutting edge
This should be a black-and-white area and all new users should pay close attention to it. New-to-Linux users who choose a distribution like Fedora will be frustrated. No matter how polished and stable Fedora might seem, it is geared toward the bleeding edge. Fedora is used as a test bed distribution for its bigger brother Red Hat Enterprise Linux, so it’s constantly updating to the latest releases. This leads to users having to fix problems. Even out of the box, you might find Fedora broken in one respect or another.
3: Consider your desktop preferences
Although this issue is about to be tipped on its head (when distributions start migrating to GNOME 3 or Unity), it is still a big factor in the success of a new Linux user. You have to remember that Linux is all about choice, and you have what might seem like an infinite number of choices when it comes to the desktop. There’s GNOME, KDE, Enlightenment, CDE, XFCE, Afterstep, Fluxbox, etc. Each desktop has its pros and cons. If you like the OS X desktop, you’ll like GNOME. If you like the Windows desktop, you might prefer KDE. If you want something different, the world of the Linux desktop is wide open to you. But you have to choose your distribution carefully in this respect. Make sure you are downloading the ISO that includes the desktop you prefer. If you are looking at Ubuntu as a distribution, know that it will soon switch to Unity (an altogether different desktop), but you can opt for Kubuntu (which has KDE as the desktop environment) or Xubuntu (XFCE).
4: Determine what type of package manager you want
This might seem like a question better left for the expert. It’s not. Each distribution deals with the management of applications differently. You have PackageKit, Zypper, Synaptic, apt-get, yum, Portage, Ubuntu Software Center, and more. If you are looking for the easiest application manager on the planet, you want the distribution that uses the Ubuntu Software Center. (I’ll give you one guess which distribution uses that manager.) If you want something more challenging, you could look at Portage, which is used by Gentoo. Synaptic is used by Debian-based distributions, is a front-end for apt, and is an easy package manager (NOTE: Synaptic will be phased out of Ubuntu in favor of Ubuntu Software Center). PackageKit is preferred by Fedora (with yum being the command-line tool), and Zypper is used on SUSE. Each package manager has its pros and cons, but one fundamental similarity is that you can search for and install thousands upon thousands of applications from that one tool.
5: Note the release cycle
This one is a touchy subject among Linux diehards. Most Linux distributions have a regular release cycle (when they release the next version). Some distributions release often, which keeps their distribution as up to date as possible. Other distributions prefer to release less frequently, which keeps their distribution more stable. The question you really need to ask here is how often do you want to update? For instance, take Ubuntu. Ubuntu has one of the most confusing update cycles in the land of Linux. It’s regular but sometimes hard to grasp for new users.
Here’s the Ubuntu update cycle. Every six months, a new release is distributed. Every other distribution (6, 8, 10, 12, etc) is considered a long-term support (LTS) release. This means that support for that release will last for up to three years. Support means new package updates and security updates. All other releases enjoy only a year of support. You can count on Ubuntu releases like clockwork: Every April and every October (hence the .04 and .10).
Fedora releases a new version every six months but doesn’t have an LTS-like version. Maintenance for Fedora releases lasts 13 months. What is crucial here is that you do not want to be using an outdated version of ANY distribution. This is especially true for a server or production desktop, as security and bug fixes are no longer available for a release after a certain point.
Bonus tip: Consider the community
If you can go through the above tips and answer the necessary questions, you should be able to pinpoint the precise Linux distribution you need. These tips don’t include one other factor — community. Each distribution is associated with a community. Which community do you feel most strongly drawn to? Some of those communities are friendlier to new users. Some offer more help than others. But regardless of which you choose, know that you are about to dive into something exciting that will bring you much stability, security, and peace of mind. Whatever your decision, congratulations and welcome to the wonderful world of Linux.