Open SourceLinux Distribution Roundup

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Linux has come a long way in a short time. When I first got started, there was just Slackware, and I downloaded about 30 floppy images from the net, copied them to floppies and installed. Now you can buy Linux shrink-wrapped at your local software retailer, buy online, or download CD ISO’s from the net. A good source for ISO’s if you choose to go that route is

There are many Linux distributions to choose from these days. In this roundup, I’m going to cover nine of them, but new ones seem to crop up monthly. Due to time constraints, all of the distributions covered here were installed from ISO images I bought from CheapBytes, with the exception of TurboLinux 6.1, which I downloaded and burned my own CD, and SuSE Linux, which I had the full package here, courtesy of SuSE. Most of the distributions offer various configurations of either desktop, developer, or server versions, with prices varying depending on the package you choose. Prices listed here are for the entry level product for each distribution.

The test platform is a whitebox Pentium P166, with 80MB of RAM. I allocated just under 1.5GB for each install. Hardware includes an NCR chipset SCSI card, a 3Com NIC (network interface card), a 3-button serial mouse, and an ATI Mach 64 based video card. In all cases, I chose to use dhcp to setup networking from my server, which worked out quite well. Most of the installers had trouble automatically probing my mouse, but were OK once I defined it manually. All but one of the packages installed by booting from the CD, after changing my BIOS setup to look at the CD first.

I’ve included a comparison matrix of features at the end of the article. Mentions of installed software refer only to what is installed by default. In some cases I could not tell from the data sheets, exactly how many CD’s are in the package, hence the “?” after the number. Chances are pretty good that there is much additional software that can be added, on the included CD’s. I’ve given some number rankings, 1-5, 5 being the best, of three features:

  • Ease Of Installation
  • Wealth Of Applications
  • Overall Ranking

These number rankings are my personal evaluation of the products, trying to look at them through the eyes of a new Linux user, and what they might expect coming from another OS.

Caldera OpenLinux 2.4 –

Caldera call themselves the “Linux for Business”, and they offer both desktop and server versions of their distribution. The installer boots into a number of options, Standard install being the default. A graphical installer, Lizard, goes through, scans your hardware and then launches X. Next the installer moves to language, mouse, monitor and video mode settings. Then I moved on to selecting from my pre-prepared partitions, which I chose to format.

Installation types and sizes range from 220MB to 930MB for the “Development Workstation”. A nice feature with Caldera’s installer is that packages are already installing as you setup configuration options. My sound card was recognized and automatically setup. My network print server was also discovered and much of the setup pre-done. Finally, a game of PacMan is provided to entertain you during the rest of the software install.

The system defaults to a graphical login, with KDE, and a setup “Wizard” to customize the KDE environment. You are asked to choose a theme, icons for removable media, and your printer, and some links to the KDE developer page and Caldera’s page. Caldera offers COAS as their system administration tool. Like other tools of this type, you can manipulate users, date/time, peripherals, X setup, daemons, networking. There is a CD automount like Windows has, that automatically mounts CDROMs, or plays audio CD’s. KDevelop is included as part of the development package. Webmin is also included for administration – a web browser based admin tool. StarOffice is included in the commercial package for word processing and spreadsheet work.

Corel Linux 2nd Edition –

Corel boots into an attractive graphical install, although it did not recognize my mouse. I opted to hand select my install partition, as I had already carefully crafted 9 partitions for this roundup. I opted for the “Desktop Plus” option. The messages were a little unsettling, as it said partitioning/formatting /dev/hda, where I had 2 other OS’s on, rather than the hda1 I had selected. The install proceeded with the usual status graph.

The CD was ejected and I was prompted to reboot, arriving at a graphical boot loader screen, with Corel Linux, and some of my other OS’s. Booting into Corel ran the hard drive for a while, and then got me to and xdm login. It ends up root, with no password is the default login. My mouse was still not functional, and the X server looked to be running at 1024×768, with fvwm95 as the default window manager. I hand edited /etc/X11/XF86Config and setup my mouse myself. The X environment is sort of retro looking, compared with today’s window managers – looked like my old Slackware3.3 setup on the server at work. Networking was setup, via dhcp. Sound was not functional, but USB modules were installed, even though I don’t’ have USB on this machine.

There were very few contemporary applications installed by default, or if they were, they were not accessible form the fvwm2 menus. Overall, I was less than impressed by Corel’s Linux offering.

Debian Linux 2.2r2 –

Debian Linux is not a commercial Linux distributor. It is an all volunteer organization, committed to creating and support a comprehensive free software package. Buying a Debian distribution, you are only paying for the media and the cost of distributing it. Instead of RPM (RedHat Package Manager), that many distributions use, Debian uses apt-get to install applications and insure dependencies between applications are resolved for proper functionality. Apt-get can query from local CD sources or from the internet to do updates.

The Debian installation is text-based and very interactive. There are a lot of options and you will have a number of questions to answer. The installer offers to scan for your video card and set it up. Most every window manager I know of was available for selection, and you can select text or graphical logins. From there apt-get kicks in and begins installing packages, prompting you for CD’s as needed. Occasionally, you flip back to the curses based installer, to answer various package questions. Finally you are back at command prompt and ready to use the system. I ran “startx” to launch X, and the default window manager is Afterstep. The X menus did not have a lot of applications available. One item I noticed to be lacking in particular were the normal Linux graphics apps, such as Gimp, Electric Eyes, and XV. I’m sure they are probably on the CD’s somewhere, and if you are connected to the internet, apt-get will pull software down and install it for you. Debian does not offer a lot of hand holding for the new Linux user.

Linux Mandrake 7.2 –

Mandrake used to call themselves “A Better RedHat Than RedHat”, but have now matured into their own distinct distribution, which some nice install and administration tools. DrakX, DiskDrak, and HardDrak handle installation, disk configuration and hardware detection/setup. MandrakeSoft offers Download, Complete, and Deluxe editions of their product, as well as a Corporate Server edition.

The installation is graphical and had options to do a minimal, recommend or complete install at 300, 700, or 1100MB. I chose complete. The installer continued and began installing packages. This took about 30 mins, with 1 prompt for the 2nd CD. I was then asked if I wanted to configure an internet connection and/or a network connection. Finally, I was asked for a root password, and a username/password. You have the option to continue adding more users. X configuration was largely automatic.

The Mandrake startup goes through a graphical boot process, showing the normal Linux boot activities, but in a graphical display. The system booted directly into X, with a KDM login screen, and KDE2 as the default desktop environment. Most common apps were on the menus, and if you need office applications, StarOffice is included in all but the download version. Sound was not configured automatically, but setup was quick with sndconfig.

Red Hat Linux 7.0 –

Booting from the Red Hat CD, I was greeted by the Red Hat installer than many other distributions have “borrowed”. You have a choice of graphical or text install, expert mode, or rescue. I chose a “Workstation” install, and was then given the option to let the installer setup my hard-drive or use fdisk or disk druid and do it myself.

Gnome is the default desktop environment, but KDE is available as an option. I selected both. There is also a games option. The usual X setup selection of monitor and card probe takes place, and you are given the option to pick your default desktop, which I left as Gnome. The install is straightforward. Nothing exceptional graphically, but solid and gets the job done.

Things ran fine after the reboot, aside from the hostname not getting picked up by the dhcp configuration. The Gnome desktop offers a nice variety of applications. Sound was not automatically setup, but sndconfig made short work of getting that task done. AbiWord and Gnumeric are provided for office applications. RedHat does not include StarOffice in their base package. Linuxconf and associated tools are included for graphical and text based system administration.

Slackware Linux 7.1 –

I started out with Slackware and used it many years. The CD boots into a text screen, and you press enter to continue. You then get a login prompt and are asked to login as root. From there you proceed to the old familiar curses based Slackware “setup”. You select your swap partition, your install partition, the source media, and your packages. KDE is listed as a desktop environment, no sign of Gnome. After that I selected full install, 996MB. The installer then goes into the usual Slackware routine of installing packages and giving you a little explanation of each one as it installs. There are also expert and newbie modes that let you pick and choose each package during the install.

Although you are asked for your default window manager during the install, there is no X setup. Upon reboot, I had to manually setup X with xf98config, a pure text-based question & answer script, as the graphical XF86Config did not work either. Gnome is pretty normal, a little sparse on the panel compared to some distributions, but you can easily customize. Applications look pretty typical, nothing special. No mention is made of setting up sound, but the OSS modules are there in /lib/modules, as well as isapnp, so they could be setup manually.

Slackware has not kept up with the times, but if you want to learn Linux from the ground up, learning to configure things by hand, then Slackware could be a viable option.

Storm Linux 2000 –

The Storm Linux CD from CheapBytes was not bootable. Mounting it from another Linux, there is a readme describing how to create a boot floppy from Windows. One would think a bootable CD would have been more elegant, but this may be CheapBytes’ fault, not Stormix. What Stormix has done is taken the Debian apt-get system, and wrapped a more friendly graphical installer and configuration toolset around it.

Stormix offers a text based or graphical installer, which covers most of the hardware and system setup, except for sound. X environments include KDE and Gnome by default, with other common environments such as Windowmaker and Enlightenment, on the list too. KDE is the default desktop. The KDE menus have a wealth of applications, more than any of the other distributions. Abiword and Gnumeric are include for office applications.

For administration, Storm Linux uses SAS, Storm Administration System, to configure users, networking, printers, Samba, and sound. The sound setup correctly detected and configured my card. The package manager is Storm Package Manager, which gives a graphical display of the installed, and available packages on the CD.

SuSE Linux 7.0 –

SuSE Linux is based in Germany, but has been becoming more and more popular here in the U.S. too. They offer a solid package with many extras included. Like many of the other distributions, SuSE offers a couple of different packages. Their Professional package include 6 CD’s, a DVD and several manuals. The Personal package has 3 CD’s and fewer manuals and extras. Both versions include StarOffice. SuSE is also the only distribution reviewed that includes the option to configure your disk partitions to use ReiserFS, a relatively new, journalled file system for Linux, which has some advantages over the standard ext2fs. SuSE does not seem to offer downloadable ISO’s, but you can get download a basic package from their ftp site.

The SuSE graphical installer, YaST2, does a fine job of detecting hardware and setting up the system. Sound and X were setup automatically. SuSE has KDE as the default desktop environment, but you have the option of selecting many other’s using DyDe, a dynamic desktop environment switching tool. System configuration and administration can be done in both text and graphical modes with YaST and YaST2.

TurboLinux 6.1 Professional –

TurboLinux call themselves the “Enterprise Ready” Linux. They offer both a Workstation and Server configuration. If you purchase the commercial package, it includes Star Office and a number of development tools.

Turbo Linux includes a graphical installer, which takes care of partitioning, package selection and system configuration. Unique options include software RAID, and kernel support for SMP (symmetric multiprocessing). Multiple installation profiles include “Development Workstation” at 1339 MB. The default X environment is Gnome with Sawfish as a window manager, but options were available for KDE, TWM, and Enlightenment. You are asked whether you want a graphical or text based login, and what services to run at your preferred start level.

TurboLinux provides “TurboLinux Control Center” as a configuration tool for setting up things like your network, time, printing, and system daemons. It is pretty basic, not quite as sophisticated as some of the other admin tools I’ve seen. No attempt was made to setup my sound card, but alsaconf is included to manually set it up. This took a little work to get going (Creative Sound Blaster Vibra16 PNP), and was definitely not Plug-N-Play.

The table below shows how each of the distributions stack up against each other. The table also shows some of the options and differences you would find in these versions of Linux. Compare for your self how these stackup.

Caldera OpenLinux Corel Linux  Debian Linux  Linux Mandrake Redhat Linux  Slackware  Linux Storm Linux SuSE Linux Turbo Linux
Version 2.4 2nd Ed 2.2r2 7.2 7.0 7.1 2000 7.0 6.1
Number of CD’s 2? 1 3 2 2 4 5 3 2?
Boot CD To Install? X X X X X X X X
Retail Price $34.95 $14.99 $14.95 $29.95 $29.95 $39.95 $69.95 $39.95 $79.95
Kernel Version 2.2.14 2.2.16 2.2.18 2.2.17 2.2.16 2.2.16 2.2.16 2.2.16 2.2.16
SMP Support?                 X
USB Support?   X              
Kernel Sources? X X   X     X X X
Graphical Installer? X X   X X X   X X
Ease Of Installation 5 4 2 5 5 1 3 5 4
Auto X Setup? X X X X X    X X X
X Login by Default? X X X X          
Sound Detected/Setup? X       X     X  
Automatic          X     X  
Manual       X   X     X
NIC Detected Setup? X X X X X X X X X
DHCP Network Setup X X X X X X X X X
SCSI Detected Setup? X X X X X X X X X
Partitioning Tool X X X X X X X X X
RAID       X X X X X X
ReiserFS               X  
Default Desktop                  
Fvwm2   X              
KDE X           X X  
KDE2       X           
Gnome         X X     X
Afterstep     X            
Boot Loader                  
Grub X                
Sets Up Other OS’s? X X X X X X X X X
Graphical Admin Tool? X     X X   X X X
Webmin? X                
Text Based Admin? X     X X X X X X
Network Services Tool? X     X X     X X
Package Manager                  
RPM X     X X     X X
Deb   X X       X    
Other           X      
Internet Dialup Tool? X X X X X X X X X
Office Applications? X   X X X X X X X
Graphics Applications X X   X X X X X X
Development Tools? X X X X X X X X X
Overall Score 5 1 2 5 4 1 4 5 3

About Author

Stew Benedict is a systems administrator for an automotive manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio. He also is a freelance consultant, and runs AYS Enterprises, which specializes in printed circuit design, Microsoft Access solutions for the Windows platforms, and utilizing Linux as a low-cost alternative to commercial operating systems and software. He has been using and promoting Linux since about 1994. When not basking in the glow of a CRT, Stew enjoys time with his wife, daughter, and two dogs at his future (not too much longer!) retirement home overlooking Norris Lake in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

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