About five minutes after Linus Torvalds first let the world know about Linux 0.01 back in the dawn of time, aka Aug. 25, 1991, the first fight over which was the best Linux distribution began.
I kid. The never-ending fight over which is the best Linux distribution didnt begin in earnest, as I recall it, until 1994, with the arrival of Red Hat Linux. Then, as now, theres just something about Red Hat Linux thats like waving a red flag at a bull. Folks just seem to love it or hate it.
Ever since then, its been a knock-down, drag-out fight between the various Linux distribution fans. Im not going to join that fuss. Id rather get work done than fight over which handles file systems marginally better than the other.
So, before walking into the “Whats the best Linux distribution?” firefight, let me open by saying that the right way, the real way, to ask the question is, “Whats the best Linux distribution for me to do what?”
For example, I like Red Hat Fedora Core 4, but lets get real; Ive been running Unix systems since the big interface debate was C shell vs. Korn shell (Korn is the right answer by the way).
No, a somewhat better question is: “Whats the best Linux distribution for the desktop?” And, as Ive indicated, the answer depends on what youre looking for. Below, I give my three answers depending on whos asking: a Windows user wanting to use Linux; a computer enthusiast wanting to learn Linux but ready to dive into the deep end of Fedora; and a CIO looking for the biggest bang for the desktop buck.
Top Three Linux Desktops
Personally, my favorite Linux desktop is Xandros Desktop 3. This, in turn, is based on the popular Debian distribution. Besides being my own desktop of choice, I also think its the easiest for a Windows user to sit down and start using without a lot of fuss or muss. The default look and feel is a lot like XP.
I dont really care that much about the interface per se. What I like about Xandros is that it comes with all my favorite Linux desktop applications such as OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird, and with the CrossOver Office bundle I can run Microsoft Office applications when I must.
In addition, it comes with the best Wi-Fi support Ive seen to date on a Linux desktop. It can also boast of easy-to-set-up firewall and VPN wizards.
Like Linspire (the former Lindows), Xandros also makes updating your system a snap with a combination online store and patch center. My only disappointment with this desktop is that its copy of Ximian Evolution, a popular e-mail that I like because of its scheduling functionality, is the long-in-the-tooth 1.4.6 version.
Lets say, though, that you want more of a hands-on Linux experience but youre new to Linux. If thats you, the best beginners Linux I know comes from my old university town, Morgantown, W.Va.: Mepis LLCs SimplyMEPIS 3.3.
Its a Debian-based release, which, while its not as Windows-user-friendly as Xandros, makes it very easy for a Linux newbie to get his or her feet wet.
It also has advantage of being supported by the best, bar none, “introduction to Linux” book I know: Robin Millers Point & Click Linux!
I recently reviewed the book, so I wont go into any more detail on it. Suffice it to say that if you want to give Linux a try, theres no better introduction.
Finally, for businesses that want a thin-client-style Linux desktop, I currently favor NLD (Novell Linux Desktop.) Now, this is not a full desktop the way Xandros is. Its got all the office basics—the Novell Edition of OpenOffice.org, Firefox for its default browser, Novell Evolution 2.0 (the latest and greatest version of Ximian Evolution) for its e-mail and groupware client, and your pick of the multiprotocol Gaim and Kopete for instant messaging.
It doesnt come with much in the way of bells and whistles. For those, you can get Novells SuSE Linux Professional 9.3, a fine Linux desktop in its own right.
But if what you want is an inexpensive desktop that covers the office basics, uses ZENworks for easy management, and has wide support from integrators and resellers, NLD is your desktop.
In short, NLD and Red Hat Desktop are easily the best available options for businesses that want to roll out hundreds to tens of thousands of desktops.
I give Novell a slight edge myself because I really think that Evolution is a great groupware client. Besides, when youre talking big deployments, network and client management costs become close to all-important for bean counters, and Novell does well in this area with its ZENworks management software. The forthcoming ZENworks 7 Suite and ZENworks 7 Linux Management will let administrators run and control not only Novells Linux boxes but Red Hat and Microsoft Windows systems as well. Sweet!
OK, so NLD may still not be as much fun as the others, but for an enterprise watching its IT dollars like a hawk, its an excellent choice.