Decoder ring for Linux Distributions

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Having spent 24 hours trying to figure out how to share a file, it sure doesn’t feel good have so many different versions and release of Linux out there. Over the last two years, we’ve had the (mis)fortune to use a bunch of different Linux distributions so here are the tips, tricks and traps:

Decoder Ring

The net is that when you are picking a distribution, you are committing to a linux kernel, a distribution and a desktop interface. So pick wisely!
Distros are confusing because there is actually a layering and you are making lots of decisions when you pick a particular distribution. Here are the parts of the stack:

Linux kernel

There is a central group that does this and the main question is how aggressive (you get features but lose stability) or conservative (you get stability but lose features) a distribution is. Complicating this is that the big versions differentiate between desktop (more aggressive) and server (more conservative).  So knowing your kernel versions is a big help.

Family

There are two big families of releases Debian and Fedora. These are the roots of the tree and have literally tens of thousands of packages of supporting tools. It is a big deal which you use because the repository commands between the two are different, so scripts break (Fedora has yum and Debian has apt). You can run on the other, but you are out of the mainline. These things are completely free and are general devoid of any graphical interface at all.
Fedora Distributions. Above this are the actual release that humans can use. They bind together the user interface and all the support pieces. In the Fedora world, that is principally support by Red Hat. They use Fedora commercially as Red Hat. Most of these groups differentiate server vs workstation releases. So for instance CentOS is the server version of Fedora and has the firewall turned on high whereas Fedora has the firewall turned completely off. You can normally then get commercial releases on top so Red Hat and Red Hat Enterprise Linus (RHEL) are built on top of that. Confused yet?
Debian Distributions. The biggest user of Debian is the commercial company Canonical. They ship Ubuntu (the #2 distro) and include many proprietary pieces. There are also other specialized distributions like Raspbian which is based on Debian but recompiles its packages to work on the Raspberry Pi chip.
Other Distributions. openSUSE. I have not used this one, but it is down by Novell and then there is Arch and Slackware, which both have been around a long time and seem lesser used.
Ubuntu-based Distributions release every six months these wonderful names like Precise Pangolin (they are normally in alphabetical order). The 4th quarter release (.04) is normally the LTS or Long Term Stability release. The version refers to, he years since 2000. So we are right now in 14.10 Untopic Unicorn or Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is Trusty Tahr .

Desktop Interfaces

Most distributions let you switch between interfaces but they have a preferred one.
– Gnome 3. This is the rebirth of Gnome and is different from the older Gnome 2. The file manager is called Nautilus. It is also the basis of other interfaces like Cinnamon
– Unity. Ubuntu is the biggest one here and has a zillion distributions which take Ubuntu and change the desktop to their own Unify and are doing a big update to Unify/Mir and lots of controversy about it.
– MATE. This continues Gnome 2 although that looks like a bit of a dead end.
– XCFE which is know for being fast and very minimal and popular for smaller machines
– KDE. I haven’t used it but apparently very configurable (e.g. harder to use out of the box).

It is raining Ubuntu-base distributions

Because Ubuntu has its own unique desktop called Unity (see below), there are a host of ubuntu distributions which switch the desktop. There has been a real fragmentation of desktops. Ubuntu used Gnome 2 until last year and now has Unity (there is a separate Gnome 3 Ubuntu release as well).
The nice thing here is that you typically don’t have to reload the entire distribution. You can switch desktops with one command?

  • XCFE. So to get Xubuntu which runs XCFE, it is sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop as an example and to return to unity, you do a sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop although <a href=”https://sites.google.com/site/easylinuxtipsproject/alternative#TOC-How-to”>easy linux points out is quite a bit more difficult than that, so you need to add some additional packages and also remove some unity ones as well.
  • KDE (apt-get install kubuntu-desktop)

  • Lubuntu is a laptop focused (e.g. small system) flavor of Ubuntu
  • Gnome 3 (apt-get install-ubuntu-gnome-desktop)
  • Apparently getting back to Unity is apt-get install ubuntu-desktop

There are some more standalone ones, like:

  • Mint. This is the top distribution. This also has different flavors with Cinnamon (Gnome 3 derived cool effects), MATE (a continuation of Gnome 2) It is popular because it bundles lots of codecs unlike Ubuntu.
  • Bohdi is beautiful and designed for people who want to share their desings.

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    Tips

    1. Staying on the mainstream is good, so if you are using Bob’s Fine Linux is fine, but it you are no in the top ten on distrowatch.com, you need to have a really specific reason.

    2. Desktop. FWIW, right now Mint has been at the top, then Ubuntu and finally Debian for the last year or so. Right now, we’ve for instance have settled on Debian-based and the *buntu family seems pretty safe, although Mint is attractive as well. The main problem with *ubuntu family is that there is little distro specific information Google.

    3. Server. Most folks seem to be on CentOS. It is reliable and well maintained.

    Tricks

    1. Cool kids distros. Some of the cool ones are TAILS which is USB only and has all the security features builtin. So get yourself an uber fast USB 3.0 key and you can plug into any machine you want and be secure.

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