Linux Mint, a distribution based on Ubuntu, was first launched in 2006 by Clement Lefebvre, a French-born IT specialist living and working in Ireland. Originally maintaining a Linux web site dedicated to providing help, tips and documentation to new Linux users, the author saw the potential of developing a Linux distribution that would address the many usability drawbacks associated with the generally more technical, mainstream products. After soliciting feedback from the visitors on his web site, he proceeded with building what many refer to today as an “improved Ubuntu”.
But Linux Mint is not just an Ubuntu with a new set of applications and an updated desktop theme. Since its beginnings, the developers have been adding a variety of graphical “mint” tools for enhanced usability; this includes mintDesktop – a utility for configuring the desktop environment, mintMenu – a new and elegant menu structure for easier navigation, mintInstall – an easy-to-use software installer, and mintUpdate – a software updater, just to mention a few more prominent ones among several other tools and hundreds of additional improvements. The project also designs its own artwork, while its reputation for ease of use has been further enhanced by the inclusion of proprietary and patent-encumbered multimedia codecs that are often absent from larger distributions due to potential legal threats. However, one of the best features of Linux Mint is the fact that the developers listen to the users and are always fast in implementing good suggestions. While Linux Mint is available as a free download, the project generates revenue from donations, advertising and professional support services. It doesn’t have a fixed release schedule or a list of planned features, but one can expect a new version of Linux Mint several weeks after each stable Ubuntu release. Besides the “main” edition which features the GNOME desktop, the project also builds a variety of semi-regular “community” editions with alternative desktops, such as KDE, Xfce and Fluxbox. However, these are often completed several months after the release of the “main” GNOME edition and may sometimes miss some of the “minty” tools and other features found in the project’s flagship product. Linux Mint does not adhere to the principles of software freedom and it does not publish security advisories. Pros: Superb collection of “minty” tools developed in-house, hundreds of user-friendly enhancements, inclusion of multimedia codecs, open to users’ suggestions Cons: The alternative “community” editions don’t always include the latest features, the project does not issue security advisories Software package management: APT with mintInstall using DEB packages (compatible with Ubuntu repositories) Available editions: A “main” edition (with GNOME) for 32-bit and 64-bit computers, a variety of “community” editions (with KDE, Xfce and Fluxbox) for 32-bit computers Possible alternatives: Ubuntu, SimplyMEPIS
PCLinuxOS was first announced in 2003 by Bill Reynolds, better known as “Texstar”. Prior to creating his own distribution, Texstar was already a well-known developer in the Mandrake Linux community of users for building up-to-date RPM packages for the popular distribution and providing them as a free download. In 2003 he decided to build a new distribution, initially based on Mandrake Linux, but with several significant usability improvements. The goals? It should be beginner-friendly, have out-of-the box support for proprietary kernel modules, browser plugins and media codecs, and should function as a live CD with a simple and intuitive graphical installer.
Several years and development releases later, PCLinuxOS is rapidly approaching its intended state. In terms of usability, the project offers out-of-the-box support for many technologies most Windows-to-Linux migrants would expect from their new operating system. On the software side of things, PCLinuxOS is a KDE-oriented distribution, with a customised and always up-to-date version of the popular desktop environment. Its growing software repository contains other desktops, however, and offers a great variety of desktop packages for many common tasks. For system configuration, PCLinuxOS has retained much of Mandriva’s excellent Control Centre, but has replaced its package management system with APT and Synaptic, a graphical package management front-end. On the negative side, PCLinuxOS lacks any form of roadmap or release goals. Despite the growing community involvement in the project, most development and decision-making remains in the hands of Texstar who tends to be on the conservative side when judging the stability of a release. As a result, the development process of PCLinuxOS tends to be long and a new version is not released until all known bugs are solved. There are currently no plans for a 64-bit edition of PCLinuxOS. Pros: Out-of-the-box support for graphics drivers, browser plugins and media codecs; fast boot times; up-to-date software Cons: No 64-bit edition offered; no out-of-the-box support for non-English languages; lacks release planning Software package management: Advanced Package Tool (APT) using RPM packages Available editions: MiniMe, Junior and BigDaddy editions for 32-bit (i586) processor architectures Suggested PCLinuxOS-based alternatives: SAM Linux Desktop, Granular Linux
Slackware Linux, created by Patrick Volkerding in 1992, is the oldest surviving Linux distribution. Forked from the now-discontinued SLS project, Slackware 1.0 came on 24 floppy disks and was built on top of Linux kernel version 0.99pl11-alpha. It quickly became the most popular Linux distribution, with some estimates putting its market share to as much as 80% of all Linux installations in 1995. Its popularity decreased dramatically with the arrival of Red Hat Linux and other, more user-friendly distributions, but Slackware Linux still remains a much-appreciated operating system among the more technically-oriented system administrators and desktop users.
Slackware Linux is a highly technical, clean distribution, with only a very limited number of custom utilities. It uses a simple, text-based system installer and a comparatively primitive package management system that does not resolve software dependencies. As a result, Slackware is considered one of the cleanest and least buggy distributions available today – the lack of Slackware-specific enhancements reduces the likelihood of new bugs being introduced into the system. All configuration is done by editing text files. There is a saying in the Linux community that if you learn Red Hat, you’ll know Red Hat, but if you learn Slackware, you’ll know Linux. This is particularly true today when many other Linux distributions keep developing heavily customised products to meet the needs of less technical Linux users. While this philosophy of simplicity has its fans, the fact is that in today’s world, Slackware Linux is increasingly becoming a “core system” upon which new, custom solutions are built, rather than a complete distribution with a wide variety of supported software. The only exception is the server market, where Slackware remains popular, though even here, the distribution’s complex upgrade procedure and lack of officially supported automated tools for security updates makes it increasingly uncompetitive. Slackware’s conservative attitude towards the system’s base components means that it requires much manual post-installation work before it can be tuned into a modern desktop system. Pros: Considered highly stable, clean and largely bug-free, strong adherence to UNIX principles Cons: Limited number of officially supported applications; conservative in terms of base package selection; complex upgrade procedure Software package management: “pkgtool” using TXZ packages Available editions: Installation CDs and DVD for 32-bit (i486) and 64-bit (x86_64) processors Suggested Slackware-based alternatives: Zenwalk Linux (desktop), VectorLinux (desktop), SLAX (live CD), Slamd64 Linux (64-bit), Bluewhite64 Linux (64-bit), Wolvix (desktop, live CD), GoblinX (desktop, live CD) Other distributions with similar philosophies: Arch Linux, Frugalware Linux
The concept of Gentoo Linux was devised in around the year 2000 by Daniel Robbins, a former Stampede Linux and FreeBSD developer. It was the author’s exposure to FreeBSD and its “autobuild” feature called “ports”, which inspired him to incorporate some of the FreeBSD software management principles into Gentoo under the name of “portage”. The idea was to develop a Linux distribution that would allow users to compile the Linux kernel and applications from source code directly on their own computers, thus maintaining a highly-optimised and always up-to-date system. By the time the project released its 1.0 version in March 2002, Gentoo’s package management was considered a superior alternative to some binary package management systems, especially the then widely-used RPM.
Gentoo Linux was designed for power users. Originally, the installation was cumbersome and tedious, requiring hours or even days of compiling on the command line to build a complete Linux distribution; however, in 2006 the project simplified the installation procedure by developing an installable Gentoo live CD with a point-and-click installer. Besides providing an always up-to-date set of packages for installation with a single command, the other important features of the distribution are excellent security, extensive configuration options, support for many architectures, and the ability to keep the system up-to-date without re-installing. The Gentoo documentation was repeatedly labelled as the best online documentation of any distribution. Gentoo Linux has lost much of its original glory in recent years. Some Gentoo users have come to a realisation that the time-consuming compiling of software packages brings only marginal speed and optimisation benefits. Ever since the resignation of Gentoo’s founder and benevolent dictator from the project in 2004, the newly established Gentoo Council has been battling with lack of clear directions and frequent developer conflicts, which resulted in several high-profile departures of well-known Gentoo personalities. It remains to be seen whether Gentoo can regain its innovative qualities of the past or whether it will slowly disintegrate into a loose collection of personal sub-projects lacking clearly-defined goals. Pros: Excellent software management infrastructure, unparalleled customisation and tweaking options, superb online documentation Cons: Occasional instability and risk of breakdown, the project suffers from lack of directions and frequent infighting between its developers Software package management: “Portage” using source (SRC) packages Available editions: Minimal installation CD and live CD (with GNOME) for Alpha, AMD64, HPPA, IA64, MIPS, PPC, SPARC and x86 processors; also “stages” for manual installation from command line Suggested Gentoo-based alternatives: SabayonLinux (desktop, live CD/DVD), Ututo (desktop, free software only) Other source-based distributions: Lunar Linux, Source Mage GNU/Linux, Sorcerer, Linux From Scratch
Launched in late 2003, CentOS is a community project with the goals of rebuilding the source code for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) into an installable Linux distribution and to provide timely security updates for all included software packages. To put in more bluntly, CentOS is nothing more than a clone of RHEL. The only technical difference between the two is branding – CentOS replaces all Red Hat trademarks and logos with its own. But the connection between RHEL and CentOS is not immediately visible on the CentOS web site; due to trademark laws, Red Hat is referred to as a “Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor”, instead of its proper name. Nevertheless, the relations between Red Hat and CentOS remain amicable and many CentOS developers are in active contact with Red Hat engineers. CentOS is often seen as a reliable server distribution. It comes with the same set of well-tested and stable Linux kernel and software packages that form the basis of its parent, Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Despite being a community project run by volunteers, it has gained a reputation of being a solid, free alternative to the more costly server products on the market, especially among the experienced Linux system administrators. CentOS is also suitable as an enterprise desktop solution, specifically where stability, reliability and long-term support are preferred over latest software and features. Like RHEL, CentOS is supported with a minimum of 5 years of security updates. Despite its advantages, CentOS might not be the best solution in all deployment scenarios. Those users who prefer a distribution with the latest Linux technologies and newest software packages should look elsewhere. Major CentOS versions, which follow RHEL versioning, are only released every 2 – 3 years, while “point” releases (e.g. 5.1) tend to arrive in 6 – 9 month intervals. The point releases do not usually contain any major features (although they do sometimes include support for more recent hardware) and only a handful of software packages may get updated to newer versions. The Linux kernel, the base system and most application versions remain unchanged, but occasionally a newer version of an important software package (e.g. OpenOffice.org or Firefox) may be provided on an experimental basis. As a side project, CentOS also builds updated packages for the users of its distributions, but the repositories containing them are not enabled by default as they may break upstream compatibility. Pros: Extremely well-tested, stable and reliable; free to download and use; comes with 5-years of free security updates; prompt releases and security updates Cons: Lacks latest Linux technologies; by the time of release, most software packages are outdated Software package management: YUM graphical and command line utility using RPM packages Available editions: Installation DVDs and installable live CDs (with GNOME) for i386 and x86_64 processors; older versions (3.x and 4.x) also available for Alpha, IA64 and IBM z-series (s390, s390x) processors. Other RHEL clones and CentOS-based distributions: Scientific Linux, SME Server, StartCom Enterprise Linux, Fermi Linux, Rocks Cluster Distribution, Oracle Enterprise Linux
FreeBSD, an indirect descendant of AT&T UNIX via the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), has a long and turbulent history dating back to 1993. Unlike Linux distributions, which are defined as integrated software solutions consisting of the Linux kernel and thousands of software applications, FreeBSD is a tightly integrated operating system built from a BSD kernel and the so-called “userland” (therefore usable even without extra applications). This distinction is largely lost once installed on an average computer system – like many Linux distributions, a large collection of easily installed, (mostly) open source applications are available for extending the FreeBSD core, but these are usually provided by third-party contributors and aren’t strictly part of FreeBSD.
FreeBSD has developed a reputation for being a fast, high-performance and extremely stable operating system, especially suitable for web serving and similar tasks. Many large web search engines and organisations with mission-critical computing infrastructures have deployed and used FreeBSD on their computer systems for years. Compared to Linux, FreeBSD is distributed under a much less restrictive license, which allows virtually unrestricted re-use and modification of the source code for any purpose. Even Apple’s Mac OS X is known to have been derived from BSD. Besides the core operating system, the project also provides over 15,000 software applications in binary and source code forms for easy installation on top of the core FreeBSD. While FreeBSD can certainly be used as a desktop operating system, it doesn’t compare well with popular Linux distributions in this department. The text-mode system installer offers little in terms of hardware detection or system configuration, leaving much of the dirty work to the user in a post-installation setup. In terms of support for modern hardware, FreeBSD generally lags behind Linux, especially in supporting popular desktop and laptop gadgets, such as wireless network cards or digital cameras. Those users seeking to exploit the speed and stability of FreeBSD on a desktop or workstation should consider one of the available desktop FreeBSD projects, rather than FreeBSD itself. Pros: Fast and stable; availability of over 15,000 software applications (or “ports”) for installation; very good documentation Cons: Tends to lag behind Linux in terms of support for exotic hardware, limited availability of commercial applications; lacks graphical configuration tools Software package management: A complete command-line package management infrastructure using either binary packages or source-based “ports” (TBZ) Available editions: Installation CDs for Alpha, AMD64, i386, IA64, PC98 and SPARC64 processors Suggested FreeBSD-based alternatives: PC-BSD (desktop), DesktopBSD (desktop), FreeSBIE (live CD) Other BSD alternatives: OpenBSD, NetBSD, DragonFly BSD, MidnightBSD