Installfest: Choosing a Linux Distro

Linux is packaged in a myriad of ways. The LinuxIso.Org web site lists 43 different distributions for PC (i386) architectures. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses; none is best at everything. For instance, although I run Ubuntu Linux on my workstation and laptop, I use Debian Linux on my mail and web server. Our first task was to determine among all these choices, which should we offer.

At a typical Linux installfest, users can choose from among many distributions. It's common to see a half dozen or more Linux distributions offered. It's a great opportunity for computer hobbyists who are interested in learning more about Linux to pick one out and give it a try.

Our installfest would be different. Our primary audience would not be computer hobbyists, but regular users. The garage sale computers are being sold "wiped bare"—no operating system installed. The computer isn't useful until it's loaded with an operating system and applications. That's where we come in. At the installfest table, we can give the user a useful computer—and a sip of the "open source software" kool-aid.

Since we plan to focus on home users and not hobbyists, we don't need nor want to offer the range of choice found at a typical installfest. Some distributions are just a bad match for the situation. Gentoo Linux, for instance, is designed to be built from scratch. That's great for the power user, terrible for the home user.

Even if we limited ourself to the most popular, user-friendly desktop systems, I don't think we'd be doing the users any favors. Most home users wouldn't be able to make an informed choice between, say, Fedora Core and SuSE.

I thought we should identify the platforms we want to support, and then identify a Linux distribution well suited for each platform. Then we could make a recommendation based on the needs of the user and their hardware capabilities.

I narrowed the list of possible platforms down to two:

  • Office Workstation Platform—A graphical desktop environment, with a full set of applications to support Internet and office automation tasks. This would be equivalent to the platform found in a typical office. The minimum hardware for this system would be something like 1GHz CPU, 512MB memory.
  • Internet Workstation Platform—A graphical environment, with a full set of Internet applications, plus lighter-weight office automation applications. This system would be suited for home use. The minimum hardware requirements for this system would be less, something like 400MHz CPU, 256MB memory.

Note that I described the Office Workstation as a "graphical desktop environment" but the Internet Workstation as just a "graphical environment." What I mean by "desktop" is an environment such as Gnome or KDE. I thought the Internet Workstation, due to its more modest hardware, may work better running just a window manger, without the added overhead of a desktop.

I was pretty sure that I wanted to select Ubuntu Linux for the Office Workstation. It probably is the (non-commercial) Linux distribution most widely used on the desktop today. It certainly has the most community support behind it. Plus, the default installation is nearly exactly what we would want to provide.

I was less optimistic that Ubuntu would work well for the Internet Workstation. The overhead of the desktop and all the graphical applications seemed a bit much for older hardware. I had experience running Mandrake Linux on an old Pentium II laptop, so I thought Mandriva Linux, it's successor, might be a good candidate.

I was pleased to see that the Mandriva installation offered a choice of the lightweight IceWm window manager with no added desktop. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that, unlike Ubuntu, the default Mandriva installation was not well suited to the non-technical end user. Additional configuration would be required. For instance, the default desktop provided an application launcher button for emacs (a text editor and virtual reality simulator that programmers like), but not one for email. Can you imagine your mom running emacs?

I had already worked several hours tailoring the Mandriva environment when an outlandish thought struck: just for shits and giggles, why not try Ubuntu for the Internet Workstation platform?

I did a Ubuntu load on a 400MHz Pentium II system and I was surprised to find it was quite usable. The Gnome desktop that I had feared was not a problem. Sure, things were a bit sluggish to start, but once running it wasn't bad. The only thing that couldn't be supported on this platform was the (rather piggish) OpenOffice office automation suite.

This experiment showed that we could use Ubuntu Linux as our platform for everything: both the high-end and low-end systems. All we had to do was load some lighter-weight office applications, such as the Abiword word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet, for systems that don't have the power to support OpenOffice.

A single operating system made our job a lot easier.

Tune in tomorrow, as I dig into the Ubuntu load process...