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1. Introduction

1.1. Background

There is no one single authoritative master distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system software suites. Instead, there are many such distributions (over one hundred and sixty at the last count) — available over the net via anonymous FTP; by mail order from various emporia; directly from the shelves of your local bookshop or computer store; as a boxed set or as loose CD-ROMs; as an insert in the back of a book; or as a cover disk on specialist magazines.

The purpose of this document is to provide short summaries of those English-language GNU/Linux CD-ROM distributions available as loose or as boxed CD-ROM sets (with or without manuals); and to provide pointers for the reader to find more information. Distributions in languages other than English also exist, but are outwith the scope of this document.

The information presented here is in no way complete; i.e. there are certainly more English-language distributions than all those listed in this document. By the nature of open source software, anyone who changes anything in their GNU/Linux installation and then makes that particular version available to others can be said to be in some way creating a `distribution'. A document such as this has to choose somewhere to draw the line between what is, and what is not, suitable for consideration as a distinct distribution in its own right. The editors have chosen `available on CD' as their simple criterion.

Note that this is by no means the authoritative definition of a distribution. There are numerous small distributions available on floppy disk that offer things the big distributions don't — not the least of which is smallness itself. A good list of such distributions is to be found at: Tom's rescue and boot disk site; or the small distributions site.

The rationale behind producing this document in the first place — given that there are very many similar texts to be found on the WWW at any one moment — is to provide a distributable version of the same information, accessible by other than online means. (Not everyone who could use this information has access to a telephone line or to the web.)

If you are associated with a CD-ROM distribution we don't list, please see Section 5 near the end of this document for information on making a submission. It's easy to do and should take less than five minutes.

For a more complete list of distributions (albeit with perhaps slightly less information on each), see the Linux HQ distributions list; or the full distributions site.

Disclaimer: We make absolutely no guarantee as to the correctness of the information, prices, and ordering details given in this document. Check the date-last-modified field of each distribution to get an idea of its currency, then go to the vendor's web page for up-to-date information. Furthermore, unless otherwise stated, all GNU/Linux software comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.

The editor tries to stick to facts in most of this document, but — inevitably — has personal opinions on the state of the Linux market. You can read these under Section 1.5.

Personal disclaimer: I [msw] have no financial connection with any Linux vendor, nor have I accepted any remuneration or perquisites from any vendor. No free disks for review*; not even as much as a T-shirt. (But hey — I'm always open to offers. XXL.)

(* Since I first wrote this, S.u.S.E. has very kindly let me have a copy of 7.2 Professional for review. Thanks, guys. I'd already bought my own copy of 7.1, as it happens; but up-to-date versions are always appreciated.)

1.2. New versions of this document

This document will be regularly posted to the newsgroup comp.os.linux.answers The document is also archived on a number of Linux FTP sites, including metalab.unc.edu in pub/Linux/docs/HOWTO.

You can also view the latest version of this document on the World Wide Web via the url http://www.startext.co.uk/msw/CD_Distributions_EN/index.html. (And of course, the wiki version is always available at: http://startext.demon.co.uk/admin/distwiki/)

Feel free to mail any questions or comments about this document to the current editor, Martin Wheeler (msw@startext.co.uk). Please do not send general Linux questions or requests for help in choosing a distribution (unless you're willing to hire me at my commercial consultancy rates); I don't have time to deal with them; and I try to put everything I know about choosing a suitable distribution into this document.

1.3. Recent changes

Wikiwikiweb and wikitext versions both brought online. (The wiki versions were started in September 2001 and March 2002 as an ongoing experiment in collaborative writing.)

- details of (some!!!) individual distributions brought up to date

- text markup upgraded from DocBook 3.0 to DocBook 4.1

- division of distributions into two lists

- increased number of distributions covered

- inclusion of inline images for company logos

- added scope for inclusion of reviewers' remarks

The editorship and maintenance of this document was taken over from Eric S. Raymond (esr@thyrsus.com) by Martin Wheeler in January 2001; and although much of the original text has been retained, all controversial statements and opinions should be considered solely those of the current editor(s).

1.4. Overview of the Linux market

In the beginning (say 1993), a GNU/Linux distribution was something you downloaded off the Internet onto floppies. Installation was a lengthy, laborious and error-prone process; repeated frustrations due to bad (magnetic-disk) media were common.

Then came cheap CD-ROM drives, and the cheap-to-produce CD-ROM — a medium ideally suited for shipping large volumes of operating-system software at low cost. A whole mini-industry has now built up around commercial CD-ROM GNU/Linuxes; and because the vendors have the actual cash flow to fund support and marketing these days, they have come to dominate the Linux world. Debian is now the only significant non-commercial release; and despite the ease with which software may be downloaded from the internet these days, even it seems to be propagated to new users largely by the ubiquitous CD-ROM.

(In all fairness, it should be noted here that the rise in popularity of GNU/Linux systems over the past five years has been due in no small measure to the increased number of applications packages bundled with each distribution — from circa 400 in 1995 to just under 4,000 in 2000. What used to be distributable on a single CD is now usually spread over four or six disks. Downloading a `full' distribution is no longer a real option for most users, whether experienced or novice.)

Most of the CD-ROM distributions (including Slackware, S.u.S.E. Debian and Red Hat) are still available for FTP from the home sites of their developers. But if you have a CD-ROM drive and a few euros to spare, you will have many more distributions and more support options to choose from (and you'll usually get some well-produced and useful paper documentation with it). For more on the details of installation, see the Linux Installation HOWTO, (http://www.linuxdoc.org/HOWTO/Installation-HOWTO/index.html).

Prices for CD-ROM distributions of Intel GNU/Linux software start at around 4 or 5 euros for a single disk, and can go all the way up to EUR 100 for a boxed set, with manuals. (And those extra euros can buy real value.) Many vendors also sell subscription deals that will lower your cost-per-CD for regular updates over the subscription period. Prices may be even higher when commercial packages (e.g. graphics or word-processing applications) are bundled in with the basic distribution.

Price correlates with features and quality pretty well (as one would expect in a very competitive market). I would personally recommend paying the few extra euros for a top-drawer original CD-ROM distribution; this will pay off in fewer installation and administration hassles down the road. (For example, installation of S.u.S.E. 7.0 from DVD now takes little over 20 mins on a fairly run-of-the-mill machine, with automatic detection of most network and video cards. Compare that with the one-and-a-half hours it took me to install my first copy of Linux-FT, which — at the time — I thought was a dream installation.)

Making good choices is also much simpler than it used to be. In 1995-96 the Linux market underwent a serious shakeout, with only a very few commercial distributions emerging as leaders, while the weaker ones disappeared or stagnated. (My own personal favourite at the time — Linux-FT — went down without trace. RIP Unifix — welcome S.u.S.E.) The toll among general-purpose non-commercial distributions has been even fiercer. Essentially, only Debian (and derivatives) survive in this role.

As a result, the three-tier structure of primary distribution builders, value-added repackagers, and bottom-feeding CD shovellers that used to define the market has nearly collapsed. To be competitive in the third millennium, a Linux vendor (whether commercial or non-commercial) has to offer reasonable support and behave like a primary distribution builder, whether it really is one or not.

As long as you look for a recent freeze date though, it is pretty hard to get stuck with a duff distribution these days.

1.5. Personal opinions

Martin Wheeler

In this section, I present my own opinions, for what they're worth. However, there is no substitute for making your own evaluation, based on experience — plus the data in this guide, of course. These opinions are intended more to show up any possible personal bias than as a guide to what anyone else should do.

In the beginning was Slackware — usually to be found along with a few other goodies on the cover disks of the more enlightened magazines. But from the beginnings of the Linux (CD-ROM) industry circa 1993 until the autumn of 1995, Yggdrasil was top distribution — it essentially founded the CD-ROM market in North America, then set the standard for everybody else. (In Europe of course, Slackware reigned.) The previous editor of this document, Eric Raymond, described how he used Yggdrasil, and recommended it over commercial System V versions for its "superior documentation, large collection of applications, and enlightened policy of sending free releases to open-source authors, then dedicating part of the price of each CD-ROM to financially supporting free software". Unfortunately, Yggdrasil hasn't issued a new release since 1995, and they've now been left well behind by the market.

Personally, after playing with Slackware for a while, I toyed with the idea of Yggdrasil, but instead moved on to a distribution which gave me what I wanted at the time — my own personal webserver; an X interface; and enough development and SGML editing tools to keep me happy for years. (Plus a rather nice system which loaded and unloaded applications for me automatically, according to how much I used them.) Unfortunately, Linux-FT was not to endure; and in 1996 I finally settled on Debian as my ideal distribution, as I had come to want more, and was also a far more experienced user by then. There is an important point to be noted by first-time buyers here — go for whatever distribution gives you what you most want at the time; then change with your needs. The financial costs incurred in doing this are negligible.

In previous versions of this document, Eric Raymond wrote: "I now run Red Hat Linux and am quite satisfied with it. They have successfully created a de-facto standard in distribution packaging with RPM (now also used by SuSE and Mandrake, among others). They've made most of the right moves at the right times and I consider them the current market leader."

This may still be true for North America; but in Europe Red Hat is rapidly falling into third place behind the very much more popular S.u.S.E. and Mandrake distributions; and the "standard" RPM application packaging is turning out to be not quite as standard as one might wish for — as RPMs from one distribution do not necessarily always transfer to another.

Eric himself has now given up vanilla Red Hat and has written to tell me he's been running the KRUD version for the last year and is very happy with it. It just goes to show...

However, one of the major influences in decision-making for most newcomers to GNU/Linux is not so much the number of useful packages included with any distribution, but the perceived sexiness of the user interface it uses as its default. (All distributions will run all X desktop environments and window managers, given the right hardware resources — but not all distributions are set to default on startup to the most attractive screen presentation for the novice user.) Be aware of this when evaluating different distributions — it is surprising how many potential new users interpret the sizzle as the steak.

But if you're ideologically wedded to using a non-commercial distribution, Debian seems to be the clear choice: the only one left with a serious support team behind it, and a rock-solid package management system, allowing trouble-free translation to and from other package management systems.

Certainly, in my own experience, Debian suits my personal needs best. Nevertheless, despite any efforts I might make to persuade them otherwise, my commercial clients invariably plump for S.u.S.E. or Mandrake as their choice of first distribution. (As ever, it's a case of horses for courses.)

These opinions should certainly not be interpreted as an unconditional endorsement; different Linux distributions are optimized for different needs, and yours may well be best served by some other distribution (especially if, unlike us, you're mainly a DOS user and are looking for a distribution tuned for dual-boot systems and being launched from DOS).

Furthermore, industry standing is volatile. By the time you read this, Debian, S.u.S.E. or Red Hat may well have fallen out of favour or fashion, and been displaced by hungrier newcomers offering more and better features. (And the obligatory sexier graphical interface of course.)




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