“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The question seemingly has no real answer, and biologists can argue either reply ad nauseam. The computer world has an equally pervasive question that cannot provide a single answer:
“What are the top three Linux distributions?”
Ask any collection of Linux experts that question and you’ll be in for a long discussion. It all depends on what the intended use is. For instance, are we talking about the top three distributions for business or home use? For commercial use or subscription free support? For bundled integration with hardware or developmental purposes? For server optimization or cost economy? For paid technical support or free distribution?
You now see the problem. The top three distributions exist only within the context of a given Linux use. People use Linux for a wide variety of purposes from commercial and industrial, to server and desktop. Linux uses vary greatly within corporate walls and small-business environments.
“Linux is emerging in enterprise and the small- to medium-business space,” Philip Pokorny, director of field engineering for Penguin Computing, told LinuxInsider. The company sells both Linux servers and workstations. “The market has consolidated the use of the many free distributions such as Debian and Fedora.”
Operating System Bliss
Unlike every other operating system — including Unix which fostered Linux — the Linux operating system has no single control and command headquarters. No other OS has so many close and distant cousins. Instead, hundreds of Linux operating systems are tailor made for specific needs and business applications.
By comparison, the Microsoft Windows OS family and Apple Mac OS both have but a few developmental versions. Linux, on the other hand, has literally hundreds of unique distributions. Within clans of near-related distributions are thousands of Linux software packages of installable programs.
Linux is gathering more consumer and small-business attention. As a result, the contenders for the top three Linux versions change frequently. Much of the credit for this is the use of live CDs and easier installation and setup routines, which require less technical hand-holding.
Distributions are all about the pure core plus a garden variety of add-ons, according to Justin Steinman, director of marketing, Linux and open-platform solutions for Novell. Novell provides software for networks and small-business market products. The firm also owns one of the leading commercial Linux distributions, Suse.
“Anybody can put together a Linux distribution, and anybody can contribute to it,” said Steinman.
Despite the fair amount of differences found among Linux distributions, a common bond ties all distributions together. The pure Linux kernel, or core code, is the same in all distributions, said Steinman.
Linux itself is not for sale, he noted. All Linux distributions are written and distributed under the GNU General Public License. This license requires that any distribution’s source code is freely distributed and available to the general public.
“While nobody can sell Linux, companies or organizations that develop specific distributions can sell subscriptions to users for support in configuring and maintaining it,” said Steinman.
The follows generated by a various distributions have made Linux a unique operating system. Some Linux versions require heavy technical support to install and configure effectively. Other Linux flavors are relatively easy to install and run.
Often the major reason for selecting one Linux distribution over another, noted Steinman, is the cost of support subscriptions versus the strength of free user communities that willingly provide technical help via Internet forums around the clock.
“Another difference in distributions is the software packages developed to go with them. There are over 100,000 packages (pre-compiled software installations) to add to the kernel,” he said.
Little doubt exists about which Linux distributions emerge on user lists generated by corporate technology officials. What is never constant, however, is the exact placement of the most prolific versions of Linux.
Steinman agrees with unofficial assessments that name Novell’s Suse Linux and Red Hat Linux as the leading contenders in the enterprise world as.
Novell’s Suse Enterprise Desktop Linux and Red Hat Linux Enterprise both enjoy worldwide recognition as industry leaders. Both companies offer a family of Linux products for both commercial and free use.
Business and personal use of the Linux OS does not stop there. A half dozen Linux distributions top the popularity charts within the U.S. and around the world. Beyond these two versions, however, popularity lists are very country-specific.
Other List Makers
What follows is a list of common Linux distributions that always appear in top rankings within business and Linux circles. Although there is no single clearinghouse for the extent of any Linux distribution’s user base, several watchdog groups poll Linux sponsors and Linux forums in an effort to keep tabs on the popularity.
Debian GNU/Linux — The Debian Project is one of the world’s largest volunteer-based distribution providers. It numbers some 15,000 software packages for eleven computer architectures, including ARM, IBM s390 mainframe, x86 and PowerPC architectures. Debian GNU/Linux is the basis for several other distributions, including Knoppix, Linspire and Ubuntu.
Fedora — The Fedora Project is sponsored by Red Hat’s community. The Fedora Core contains all the packages necessary to run a business-strength desktop or small server.
Gentoo Linux — Gentoo Linux is a source-based meta-distribution with more than 11,000 packages available with support for Alpha, AMD64, PPC, PPC64, SPARC, X86, IA64 and SPARC32.
Mandriva Linux — This is the new name for two previously popular distributions following the merger of the French company Mandrakesoft and the Brazilian company Conectiva. A subsequent acquisition of Lycoris resulted in the three-way hybrid distribution. The current versions of Mandriva Linux include Mandriva Linux Limited Edition 2005 for x86, x86-64 and PPC; Multi Network Firewall (MNF) Version 2; Mandriva Linux One, which combines live and CD-based installation on Mandriva Linux 2006; and the Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0.
Ubuntu — The Ubuntu distribution family, supported by Canonical and the Ubuntu Foundation, includes Kubuntu, Edubuntu and Xubuntu, and has freely available distributions on a live CD or an installable image. They may be configured as a server or a desktop OS.
Ubuntu is based on the Debian core and the GNOME desktop. Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop. Xubuntu features XFCE, while Edubuntu comes with educational packages.
In the enterprise space, Xen Virtualization is very hot today, explained Steinman. This new technology at least temporarily separates Novell’s SuSE Linux from Red Hat’s Linux versions.
Xen Virtualization fakes out the OS to run multiple applications on one server at the same time. Without it, each application would have to live on its own separate server machine.
Novell has already rolled out its Xen Virtualization technology. Red Hat is expected to do the same thing in March, according to media reports.
Another difference that could keep Novell at the top of the Linux distribution Big Three is the recent controversial contract Novell signed with Microsoft. According to Steinman, this agreement will let Suse users run the Novell and the Windows operating systems for joint optimization with technical support for both systems available together.