Linux/UNIX distros

Which UNIX or Linux Distribution is The Best?

Do you search for an answer to this question? Or maybe you are tired of people asking this question all the time on the various discussion forums (usenet, web, mailing lists)? First I have to say that there is no easy, simple and true answer to the question. The answer depends on what you like and what you want to do.

I you're a newbie, the correct answer is: Use whatever distribution your helpful UNIX/Linux friend uses/knows best. So that when you have questions he or she might be more able to help you. I you don't have any helpful friends, get some. Join a Linux or Unix User Group and make some friends. Don't be hasty and show some humility (understanding how little you understand is the first step towards wisdom).

Try different distributions/Unices until you find something you like.

When it comes to what the differences are, I’ll just answer shortly that it focuses on three main areas:
  • Look & feel and target audience/purpose
    It can be optimized for desktops, NetBooks, server, newbies, advanced users. For desktop centric use, check out GNOME vs. KDE, which is often a choice in the main distributions for look&feel
  • Software distribution system/package managers/formats
    Many Linux distributions, and some Unix flavors, use RedHat’s package manager, RPM. Other Linux distributions are based on Debian’s DPKG. Even others have either their own formats or are based on some way automating compiling from source. Today most distributions have user friendly frontends, so it doesn’t matter too much what the underlying technology is, except that some have more software available in their repositories than other distributions.
  • Startup and maintenance
    Most distributions have their own tools for maintaining what’s being started or stopped, when and how in addition to all kinds of scripts, tools, GUI programs for helping you administer disk, users, programs/software and more. If you will read and understand more of the historic backdrop for some of these differences, read more about the differences between SYS V and BSD. Beware that many modern distributions now use newer systems than SYS V.

I could have written much more about this stuff, but I have no intention of writing a educational paper, I just intend to give some hints for those looking to choose between distributions or just looking to understand a little about what it’s all about. If you want to read more about Linux and understand why it’s so popular, you should probably read about Free and Open Source Software. I’ve been working with free software for a long time, and it’s amazing in so many ways. But now, over to the main distributions.

Here's a list of some of the main distributions:

Debian GNU/Linux and Ubuntu/Kubuntu etc
Ubuntu Logo
Ubuntu is a polished version of Debian and these are a major distribution you don't need to fear should disappear very soon. There is many different versions/flavors of both Ubuntu and Debian, optimized for different hardware, look&feel and use. Check it out. (Also, check out Linux Mint, which is a polished version of Ubuntu.)
RedHat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), CentOS and Fedora
Fedora Logo
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is another major distribution, and if you need commercial support for running Oracle or whatever, check it out. CentOS is a community supported version of RHEL, or very similar to RHEL. Fedora is a good choice for a desktop or "bleeding edge" server if you like the "RedHat Way" better than the "Debian Way" of doing things. (Look and feel, package manager etc.)
SUSE Enterprise Server/Desktop and openSUSE
openSUSE Logo
SUSE is driven by Novell, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) being the commercial versions and openSUSE being the more "bleeding edge"/"opensource playground" version. SUSE has a richly developed desktop and is more polished than both Ubuntu and RedHat in certain areas, but it also has it's own ways, which you may or may not like. Check it out.
FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, Gentoo Linux and Slackware Linux
Puffy, the OpenBSD fish :)
I mention these all together as they are more "BSD-ish" than the other mentioned Linux distributions. FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD have different priorities (FreeBSD being smooth and richly featured, OpenBSD being secure and NetBSD being very portable—to say it very short and probably unfair). The BSDs has much to offer, both in different history, licencing, commands/tools, features and look&feel. For one thing, you can play with the filesystem ZFS on BSD. Slackware and Gentoo are Linux version that are more BSD alike than the other mentioned distributions. (There are also other distributions that are based on these.)
OpenSolaris Logo
This is the open version of solaris, being a little to Solaris like Fedora is to RedHat Enterprise Linux. You get cool technology, like ZFS, combined with a robust OS, XEN virtualization (xVM), IPS package system and more. Check out There's some different versions to choose from, like plain OpenSolaris and other versions, like Nexenta.

Many distributions today offer a Live CD/DVD, so you can check out without installing. These are also often useful for rescuing systems with problems, but there is also some specialized Linux distributions you might want to check out for certain purposes, like:
PartedMagic Logo
  • Parted Magic – A nice rescue distribution (for CD/USB memory stick etc.) with tools for partitioning, rescuing partitions/filesystems and image based backup/restore
  • System Rescue CD – Gentoo based rescue distribution (also includes DOS bootdisks)
  • Ultimate Boot CD – Linux and DOS bootdisks and tools
  • FloppyFW – router/firewall distribution that fits on one single floppy

I might blog something on my recent playing around with OpenSolaris, ZFS, XEN/xVM and more, but no promises.