Overall view of the field
While the Linux culture haas traditionally advocated that all things Linux be free for the downloading, the price of the retail packaged Linux distros includes support and extra software tools and applications. Linux distros are comprised of several components -- Linux usually represents the kernel, and most of the applications and system utility commands, shells and nonkernel usefulness are open source applications and utilities developed under the GNU Public License. The utilities comprise installation, administration, management and database products. The value-added applications can range from user-oriented tools, such as the inclusion of Sun's StarOffice to IBM's suite of e-business products. In only one case did we find these extras cumbersome -- wading through the daunting list of applications shipped with Red Hat's product was by no means an easy task.
Each distribution provides basic configuration choices such as how to partition disks, choices for bootstrap, Internet addressing configuration, X-windows configuration options and the ever-important root password setup.
The best installation process was offered by Caldera eServer, which appeared to have total command of each platform we installed it on, followed very closely by Red Hat 6.2 and TurboLinux Server 6.0. The other distributions seemed to be less capable of sensing the platform environment in one way or another.
Installation-time choices often represent the state a Linux system will remain in, post installation. This is dangerous, as the myriad configuration choices need to be thought out in the context of the environment in which a working distribution will operate.
A weakness that cropped up across the board was a lack of emphasis on protecting initial installations from administrative security problems. For example, only Storm Linux 2000 Deluxe, which is based on Debian/GNU, explicitly changed the user passwords from its initial values to shadow passwords, which makes the system more secure. Doing so, however, can also conflict with Network Information Service -- the "Unix" method of sharing information among groups of NIS-compatible servers.
All distros installed Samba, an application used to connect Windows and other NetBIOS users to Linux for file, print and authentication services. Several distros offered the netconf utility that can also configure Samba, but none of the distros had an application that could query a network in a method that allowed useful NetBIOS default choices to be discovered from existing network information and then be offered.