December 29, 2008, 11:43 AM — When you're talking Linux, three big names always pop up: Canonical's Ubuntu, Novell's openSUSE and Red Hat's Fedora. Ubuntu has ridden a groundswell of both consumer and commercial support to its current ranking as the most popular Linux distribution. OpenSUSE, with its business underpinnings, has always been popular in Europe and has been making inroads in the U.S. And it is largely thanks to Fedora that Red Hat has become the biggest Linux company with a major role in community Linux.
Each of these "big three" has recently released a new version of its distribution, which means it's time to check them out and decide which is No 1. Or, more properly, which is No. 1 for what user.
To test them, I installed each distro on a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. The test machine had 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. This is a standard 2008 computer, which retails for approximately $450.
I also ran each distribution on other PCs to get an idea as to how they worked on a day-to-day basis. For example, I ran openSUSE on a Lenovo ThinkPad R61, Fedora on a Gateway GT5622 desktop and Ubuntu on an older Gateway 503GR desktop.
The Linux distros all had several things in common. First, installing each of them was a no-brainer. I popped in the CD, DVD or (in Fedora's case) a USB memory stick; got the computer to boot from the installation media; agreed on the time zone, the keyboard type and the new username; and then had a cup or two of coffee. At the end, each distribution was installed and ready to go.
In every case, there wasn't even a hint of a hardware problem. It's less trouble these days, frankly, to install Linux on a PC than it is Windows Vista.
The same was also true with getting each distribution to work with my hybrid Active Directory/Samba domain-based network with its server and NAS devices, and with a variety of Canon and HP printers. Within half an hour, I had each distribution working with my CIFS (Common Internet File System) and NFS (Network File System) servers.
In addition, installing new software with each new PC was a snap. On each system, I added the Banshee music player; Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Flash Player; and Crossover Linux, which allows users to run Windows programs on top of Linux. Once installed, all these programs, and more besides, ran as smooth as silk.
To date, none of these Linux distros have given me a lick of trouble, and they've worked extremely well. Now, more than ever, I can't see any general reason why someone wouldn't use one of these Linux desktops in place of Windows.
None of this should be surprising, since these distributions are identical at the core -- all three are built on top of the Linux kernel 2.6.27 and use the GNOME 2.24 desktop. While their ingredients may be the same, though, the dishes made from them are quite different. What sets these three and other great Linux distributions apart is how they mix their ingredients together.
Canonical Ubuntu 8.10
Anyone who knows anything about Linux has heard about Ubuntu. It's easily the most popular desktop Linux around. There's a very good reason for that: Ubuntu 8.10, a.k.a. Intrepid Ibex, is easy with a capital "E."
The GNOME-based interface is easy enough to use, but Canonical backs it up with a strong community. If there's something you want to do on Ubuntu -- anything at all -- chances are you can find the answer on one of the Ubuntu forums such as the Ubuntu Forums and the Ubuntu Community Team Wiki. This support isn't a feature per se, but it shouldn't be underestimated. An open-source truism is you can always find help online -- well, sometimes you can. When it comes to Ubuntu, though, you can almost always find help.
Of course, you may not need that much help. For example, with the new Network Manager 0.7 you can not only easily hook up to wired and Wi-Fi networks, but you can also now easily connect with 3G access points. I used an AT&T USBConnect Quicksilver USB device on my ThinkPad to get a 3G connection, and it worked like a charm. Since Network Manager treats all 3G devices as vanilla serial devices that use PPP (Point to Point Protocol) for network connections, it should actually work with more 3G devices than Windows does.
Another real plus is that Ubuntu 8.10 now includes Dell's DKMS (Dynamic Kernel Module Support). This feature will be invisible to most users, but the effect it can have on stability is profound.
DKMS automatically updates and downloads drivers that match your system hardware whenever you update your Linux kernel -- even if your kernel doesn't include built-in support for a graphics card or other device. Get it? With this, you don't need to worry about your system working even if you add in new hardware or your distro updates its Linux kernel.
There are a few things I don't care for with the new Ubuntu, though. The first is that, while you can set Ubuntu and its KDE-based cousin, Kubuntu, to use the older KDE 3.5.x interface, the distro now defaults to using the KDE 4.x desktop. Personally, I find KDE 4.x to simply be not as good as KDE 3.5x, and I know I'm not the only user who feels this way.
I also wish that Ubuntu had included OpenOffice 3.0 by default. As it is, the distribution comes with the older 2.4 version. Getting the new OpenOffice isn't a big deal, but still, I'd just soon not have to worry with this 100MB+ download and update.
So who is Ubuntu for? To my mind, there's no question about it -- Ubuntu is the best beginner's Linux in the land. It's also more than good enough for experienced Linux power users, but if you're just getting your feet wet with desktop Linux, Ubuntu is the Linux for you.
Novell openSUSE 11.1
If I could use one word to describe openSUSE 11.1, it would be "solid." There may be a way to knock this version of openSUSE off-stride, but I haven't found it yet. In the past, updating openSUSE could be a pain, thanks to what seemed like endless development problems with its update routines. Those finally appear to be history.
Where I see openSUSE operating best, based on my look at the release candidate, is in the office. Whether you use it as a desktop system or as a server, openSUSE is the most business-ready of the community distros.
It starts with Novell's customized version of OpenOffice 3.0. With this version, you can read and write to all Microsoft Office files, including Office 2007's Open XML formats.
On the server, however, is where openSUSE really shines. The installation routine lets you automatically set up Web servers, file servers, Internet services servers, database servers -- you get the idea. Any Linux distribution makes a great foundation for servers, but only openSUSE makes it so easy to set them up.
OpenSUSE, like the other Linuxes, also comes with virtualization apps KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) and Xen. In addition, openSUSE includes my favorite virtualization software: Sun's VirtualBox. In my experience, VirtualBox is the easiest virtualization program to set up and works extremely well on openSUSE.
Finally, while some people dislike Mono, the open-source Linux version of.Net, because of its Microsoft connections, openSUSE has the best integration of Mono and Linux. This functionality, combined with Novell's other Windows-network friendly features, makes openSUSE not just the best of these distros for business use, but for integration with a business' existing Windows infrastructure.
Since I'm frequently working in hybrid Linux/Unix/Windows business network environments, openSUSE is my own Linux of choice. If that's you too, then you should look into openSUSE as well.