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Review: Free and Open Source Software Part 2

by Jo Shields on 29 June 2004, 00:00

Quick Link: HEXUS.net/qayz

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Picking a distribution

As explained in Part 1, "Linux" on its own isn't all that useful - what is needed is a Linux Distribution, as a manageable means to install and configure a GNU/Linux system. There are hundreds to choose from; some easier than others. Systems such as Red Hat Inc's Fedora Core or Mandrakesoft's Mandrake Linux are fairly easy to install, and will allow a fair degree of freedom. However, most of the people on the HEXUS.net forums do not have "easy" computers purchased from a high street retailer - they have put together what they feel to be the best parts for the job, in order to build what they feel to be a better system than the one on the high street. So, do we have any similar "enthusiast" Linux distros we can use? A few. Currently, the most popular enthusiast distros are Gentoo, Slackware, and Debian.

Gentoo is "source based", i.e. programs are downloaded as source code, then compiled into working programs on your PC, with some level of optimisation. It's a nice idea, but my own experiences of Gentoo have been less than positive - and I'd have to successfully get it installed before I could consider writing a guide about it (which is easier said than done). It teaches you far more than any other distribution would, but this is no mere learning curve - it's a learning big thick line. Most users, even with documentation, will get frustrated and leave very quickly - and that's before they begin the multi-hour compiles of the basic programs. Gentoo can also lead to a blind belief that compiling programs yourself guarantees a faster PC - this is not always the case, unless you know EXACTLY what you're doing, which many people don't.

Slackware is one of the oldest distributions (the second one made, after Yggdrasil, if my sources are accurate), and the oldest one still in development. Again, this is one I've not had enough experience with to be able to cover in detail. I tried to install it once, and it decided during driver detection to remove my ability to type - and that was the end of that.

The remaining distribution on the list is Debian. Debian is a venerable distribution, using binary (i.e. pre-compiled) programs, making it orders of magnitude faster than Gentoo to install. The Debian software management tools, dpkg and apt-get, provide easy access to a staggering array of different applications, and can be configured to allow even more apps as needed. My own experiences with Debian have been positive, so I will be explaining in this guide how to install Debian GNU/Linux.