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A Very Basic Guide to Linux Distributions for Newcomers

There’s an old joke about standards: How many of them do you want?

Linux comes in a large number of packagings (called distributions), differing widely in how you build, administer, and use their systems. Which will be “best” or “friendliest” for you is difficult to tell you before you’ve tried them, and easy answers should be questioned.

I’m going to give you an easy answer. You should question it. ­čśë

Newcomers using┬ámodern-ish workstation or laptop machines should seriously consider starting with ┬áBodhi Linux, Linux Mint, Ultimate Edition, MEPIS Linux, or PCLinuxOS. ┬áHere’s why:

1. Good installers that work on all likely hardware.

2. Polished, beautiful desktop environments with all the fixings including commonly wanted A/V software. Want Adobe Flash support? mp3 support? Oracle Java? Nvidia drivers included? No problem.

3. Solid and healthy surrounding community that produces it (from all signs so far).

Nothing’s perfect, and all OSes suck, but all of these are highly respected by the overwhelming majority of informed independent reviewers, and garner no serious complaints.

There are a number of respected sources of general information on distro (distribution) choice. Here are three: Linux Distribution Chooser, DistroWatch Major Distributions, and Karsten’s Distribution Guide. (As always on the Web, watch for signs of obsolescence.)

Why did I mention five distros? Why not one? Because the reality of Linux is that you get choice, whether you like it or not, so you might as well come to terms with it. The good news is: You can flip a coin and you can’t really lose. They’re all good, and freedom is a good thing. Try one distro today. Next time you’re curious, you can try another, live with it for a while too, and compare. Or not, because choice is what this is about.

There’s a lot of questionable distro advice around. Even though all should be questioned, I think the bias in most of it will be obvious, and the flaws and errors easy to find. E.g., shouldn’t people pushing Ubuntu (w/Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu) disclose the lack of integrated A/V support and Nvidia hardware drivers. Shouldn’t they disclose *buntu’s inability to install on many PC systems the five I cite have no problem with? Shouldn’t many of them disclose being members of a Canonical, Ltd. (the commercial company publishing Ubuntu)-funded advocacy organisation? Shouldn’t people pushing Fedora disclose that it’s a short-term development platform for Red Hat with occasional stability problems because it’s cutting edge?

My [non-]biases:

1. I have no connection to any of the above-cited distributions, neither the ones I recommend nor the ones I critique. I run Debian Testing on my own servers, Aptosid on my workstation, and CentOS on the ~3500 Internet servers I administer and architect for $DAYJOB.
2. Far from liking proprietary A/V software, Nvidia drivers, Oracle Java, the MP3 format, and Adobe Flash, I specifically don’t like any of them – but I know newcomers to Linux perceive a need for them, therefore I take that perception into account in recommendations.
3. I am not employed by, nor do I have an financial interest in or backing from, any Linux company. I used to work at several Linux-industry companies that were famous in the 2000s and no longer exist, and am now a senior system administrator at a large content company with no horse in these races.

Computers as Docker Platforms

Docker (using LXC, Linux cgroups, Linux namespaces and union mounted file systems) is a powerful and efficient alternative to virtual machines. docker.io released their 1.0 version last month.

This is an ingenious implementation of boundary separation as seen implemented in the past on computers as inter-process communication (IPC), OS virtualization (as KVM and Solaris Containers) and
Java servlets on tomcat. As a side note, in the software world Java was heavily promoted with a promise of allowing the writing once and running anywhere of software. Reality has not fulfilled these promises. Recently Java was surpassed by python as the most popular programming language for teaching programming in higher education.

An operating system simply allows software applications to run. Keeping application boundaries clear has been tied to operating systems for a long time. UNIX software and the hardware used to run these computers has changed a lot. Docker may be the answer. The power of boundary separation and abstractions is that you don’t need to understand the other parts. It’s gotten so “easy” for end users that even without a full understanding of how things work many people today in the developed world can use embedded computers in their TVs, thermostats, raspberry pi, phones/tablets/mobile (often using iOS or Android), laptops or desktop computers. Yet when something goes wrong, down the rabbit hole we must go to figure out what’s really going on across the layers of abstractions and boundaries. What do you think?

Due to the 2014 FIFA World Cup final game viewing we may not be able to get as much space at Bobby Gs as we need. We may seek more space at Cafe Au Coquelet down University on the same block, 2000 University Ave.

We meet on the second and fourth Sundays of each month from noon to three in Berkeley near the Downtown Berkeley BART station near the corner of University & Shattuck. We hope you join us at Bobby GÔÇÖs Pizzeria and/or join the discussion on our email list.