Unlike Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s Mac OS X, the open source Linux operating system is available in an almost infinite range of versions, each with its own strengths, target market and weaknesses. Called “distributions” these different versions of Linux are all based on the same kernel but the applications packaged around that kernel differ. So, for example, a Fedora or Ubuntu distribution includes many useful desktop tools while CentOS is packaged with server use in mind.
It’s safe to say that Ubuntu is probably the most popular Linux distribution of them all, but there are tens of other distributions that are every bit as good as Ubuntu and with significant fan bases. Here we look at the top ten.
Deciding on a top ten of Linux distributions is fraught with problems: Ubuntu rules when it comes to online buzz, but something like Debian, on which Ubuntu and many others are based, is arguably the most important of the distributions available. Debian derivatives such as Ubuntu, Knoppix and, ultimately Linux Mint, are hugely popular among certain groups and they are all based on the work done by Debian developers.
One metric is to refer to the popular Linux-tracking website Distrowatch which logs interest in the various distributions. There are certain limitations to using Distrowatch to pinpoint the best Linux distribution because it only tracks user interest in each distribution which can be affected by ongoing news, frequency of releases and many other intangibles. But as a list of the ten most popular distributions it is a useful guide.
1 – Ubuntu
Started in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu is based on Debian and is available in various flavours including Kubuntu, Ubuntu, Xubuntu and others. Although Ubuntu does run on most major platforms from netbooks to servers, it is its desktop version that garners it the most interest. Ubuntu’s six-monthly releases are among the most anticipated software releases.
2 – OpenSuse
Originally known as Suse Linux, OpenSuse is the Linux distribution shipped by Novell. That company bought the distribution in 2003 in an effort to revive its flagging fortunes as it lost ground in the networking sector. OpenSuse is very easy to use and includes the very powerful YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) graphical configuration tool that makes it one of the easiest distributions to use. OpenSuse is one of the best desktop releases but also has a number of unique features that make it a powerful server system favoured by enterprise users.
3 – Linux Mint
Linux Mint is a derivative of Ubuntu Linux which aims to be more user friendly than its parent. Driven by a community of developers Linux Mint’s particular strength is making it as easy as possible for new users to get up and running on Linux. Unlike its parent Ubuntu, Mint includes full multimedia support by default and has a Mint-specific configuration tool to ease setup.
4 – Fedora
Fedora is a community distribution sponsored by Linux giant Red Hat and was originally derived from that version. Over the past couple of years Fedora has become one of the most interesting distributions as it experiments with new ways of doing things such as kernel based virtualisation. Red Hat’s commercial releases are based on Fedora releases so much of what is included in Fedora will eventually find its way into Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
5 – Debian
Debian is arguably the most important distribution. At the heart of Debian and all of its derivatives is the Debian package management system which is a highly configurable and powerful system of managing applications, their dependencies and how they are built. Other distributions based on Debian pioneered the idea of “Live” CD releases which could be run directly from disc without being installed. Debian is widely used by users that prefer stability over experimental features.
6 – Mandriva
Mandriva is another distribution ideal for Linux newcomers. Mandriva’s aim is to make it as easy as possible to install and manage a Linux system. The distribution also ships in a variety of versions including a totally free one, which includes no non-free software, and a version that does include proprietary drivers and plugins that make it easier for less experienced users to get up and running.
7 – PCLinuxOS
PCLinuxOS is a derivative of Mandrake which acquired Connectiva in 2005 and renamed itself Mandriva. PCLinuxOS has a very active community and is also aimed at ease-of-use, much like its parent Mandriva. PCLinuxOS doesn’t ship with proprietary drivers but those can be installed after the system is up and running. The distribution ships as both a Live CD and as an installable CD.
8 Puppy Linux
In the early days of Linux there was Damn Small Linux. Now there is Puppy Linux which is an ultra-small version of Linux that can be run from a range of media including USB drives and CDs. The core version of Puppy is just over 50MB in size and includes a working desktop. Versions with more capabilities range up to just over 90MB in size. Puppy Linux can be run as a desktop on older PCs with limited resources but its real strength is as a Live version capable of being booted on most systems.
9 – Sabayon
Sabayon Linux is a version of Linux based on the Gentoo distribution. Gentoo is famous for building all applications from source code which meant greater optimisations for specific hardware could be achieved. Sabayon is different from Gentoo in that it doesn’t build each application from source code when it is installed but relies on a core of pre-built Gentoo applications. Sabayon ships as both a Live DVD and a smaller mini-edition on CD.
10 – CentOS
CentOS is a Linux version aimed at enterprise users that need high-end capabilities. Although CentOS is based on Red Hat it is not connected to Red Hat in any way. It is very popular in shared hosting environments. CentOS developers use the source code of Red Hat to build the distribution although they remove all proprietary software from the final releases. Unlike Red Hat which is only available for a paid subscription, CentOS is free.
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