We also tested two other distros, which are very popular in the Linux community but still lack innate specialized services for enterprise file and print and application servers. The Debian/GNU and Slackware distros have ardent fans that use them in network operations centers and Web operations throughout the world. What they lacked for this review was a packaging specifically targeted toward enterprise server use. This doesn't mean that either package can't be modified and enriched (through application downloads) to service levels associated with the other distros that we tested.
Debian doesn't come from a "commercial" distribution vendor (it's made by the Debian.Org), but the version we tested had commercial Linux hardware sponsors. We tested a version of Debian sponsored by VA Linux Systems and SGI, called Debian/GNU that was a freebie release garnered at LinuxWorld Expo.
Debian doesn't use a graphical user interface for installation, and the color text-based installation requires the installer to have intimate knowledge of the exact hardware configuration of the platform where it will be installed. Debian performs only the most basic of hardware assumptions to get installation under way, there is no plug-and-play detection as performed by the other distros tested. As we knew the configurations intimately, we got Debian installed the first time on all of the platforms we tested, although we had to go through the drudgery of manually configuring X Window, and a kernel that would find the Compaq's Smart Disk Arrays. Debian network card driver support was also a bit skimpy.
Debian/GNU is less oriented toward desktop users and more toward developers, ISPs and applications server usage. Unlike several of the other distros tested, Debian/GNU comes on a single CD-ROM and was burned onto the CD provided as a "repair" disk. We found this to be refreshing when compared to the staggering number of application options presented on the multiple CDs packaged with other editions.
Secure settings are a strength of Debian, and we watched at installation while Debian made several steps toward securing itself, by including shadowed passwords and other selections that prevent post-installation configuration changes needed to secure Linux in an enterprise context.
Debian is generally known to be a growing medium for applications, and the Spartan implementation offered in this version could be an excellent choice for experienced Unix/Linux/Solaris personnel.
We used Slackware purchased for $3 on a CD-ROM from the Linux Mall, (www.linuxmall.com or www.slackware.org). Like Debian/GNU, Slackware performed a minimal amount of hardware probing and required us to configure most characteristics manually. Slackware -- the work of Patrick Volkerding -- is perhaps the oldest distribution of Linux.
Slackware required that we recompile kernels for the Compaq platformss we used, although the rest of the platforms installed easily. Slackware is a Spartan platform, and users of Slackware often use it to build and customize their platform for specific purposes, such as a remote-access platform and database server.
Slackware made good choices in initial system security, and otherwise was "manually" configured throughout its use, using GNU Public License applications. As it isn't specifically pointed toward enterprise server use in our context -- as it lacks a retail distribution packaging -- it's nonetheless worthy of consideration for developers and do-it-yourself server builders.