When Space Invaders Were Big

Posted on 10th April 2008

A friend pointed this post out to the WolvesLUG a little awhile ago, and it got me thinking. Firstly it annoyed me that this guy managed to be taken to task for asking something that is often a very basic question from new recruits to the Linux way of things. When told that there are a selection of varieties, potential new users are often overwhelmed to understand what they should choose, so asking what the differences are is not an unreasonable question. The answer isn't easy and in this case the guy was asking for pros and cons of each system to best analyse what would work for him. That's something most rational Linux users understand. However, the extremists do no-one any favours. Mark-Jason Dominus once posted an article at perl.com, entitled Why I Hate Advocacy, which extremists would do well to read.

After that first reaction, I started to think about why I chose the distributions I did. I tend to use Debian for my servers and Ubuntu when I need a desktop. I also use Windows XP, as that is the default install on my work laptop (I haven't been able to get Ubuntu running on it, but that's another story). But how did I come to settle on those two, Debian and Ubuntu, as my prefered platforms?

Over the last 10 years or so I've tried a variety of flavours of Linux distributions, and they all seem to have something going for them, but there is not really one that manages to be the panacea. Personally I consider that a good thing. My knowledge of Linux came from my long standing experience of Unix System V. I began working with Unix in 1985 when I started at Coventry University (Lanchester Polytechnic as it was then), and carried on with it when I went to work for GEC Telecommunications. At the time it did the job of teaching me the command line, C, network programming among other things. But it was all command line based. In one of the modules I studied at Lanchester Polytechnic, we specifically covered Operating Systems and looked at several different ones that were available back then. We were then tasked with writing our own OS. Being a big fan of curses at the time (as I was writing games such as battleships and othello with it), I persuaded my team to look at an interactive OS, rather than a command line based version. We got marked down because we couldn't print out our results on a line-printer, unlike everyone else's command line based systems. At the time it really pissed me off that the lecturer could be so ignorant of different ways of thinking. I didn't have enough knowledge to design or write a proper desktop OS, but I could see a benefit to having one. A year or so later, I got to see a copy of Windows 1.0. It planted a seed for a number of people that the interactive desktop did have a future.

Until Windows 3.11 was released, I was still working on command line based OSs, including Unix, VMS and the OS (whose name I've long forgotten) that ran on Pyramid workstations. I started to use Windows, but found it annoying. It hid away far too much from me at the command line, when I just wanted to get the job done. That has pretty much carried on throughout every Windows release. It has got better in many respects, but sometimes the command line can get right to the heart of the problem. I still use the Windows command line virtually every day.

The benefit of the Linux desktop is that I can have the desktop, but easily drop to the command line when I want to and have the full power of the OS at my disposal. My first experience of Linux was in 1998 using Debian, however not as a desktop, just as a server. I can't remember which desktop I actually tried first but around 1999, I went through Red Hat, Slackware and Mandrake, coming back to Debian. Possibly due to familiarity. Later I was given a works laptop with Red Hat on it, and stuck with that for quite some time. The actual desktop was originally KDE, but having tried Gnome ended up sticking with that instead. I do remember trying Enlightenment at some point, but it didn't last very long. In September 2000 I installed the newly released Potato from Debian as a desktop. I have to say it was rather nice. It worked without too much hassle and looked nice. I ended up sticking with it for quite sometime.

The brick, an Toshiba Satellite, stuck with me until 2006 when work finally gave me a company laptop. Understandably they weren't too comfortable with me using a personal laptop on the company network. It did get a few comments in later years, but it travelled with me to all my early conferences. At home my 3 servers were all running Debian, 2 of which running with Gnome desktops. At the end of last year Akira finally gave up after many years of service and has now been decommisioned. I now only run one headless Debian server, with another powered off to use in emergencies.

When Ubuntu surfaced I was toying with the idea of using Red Hat, or more accurately Fedora Core. I did try Fedora Core for a few weeks, but I think the Debian way had just got too comfortable, so gave Ubuntu a try. For ease of install and use, I found it much better than Fedora Core at the time. A couple of years ago I installed SUSE 10 on my works desktop, and despite a few learning curves, it didn't seem too bad. However, as time progressed and security updates, as well as general software, were needed, the system seemed to become more and more unstable with each patch. It would occasionally lock or crash, so after a particularly annoying crash, I started with a new install of Ubuntu.

The biggest win for me with Debian/Ubuntu is the deb packaging system. It occasionally had problems with dependencies, but for the past year or so, I haven't had any issues either upgrading the basic version, or with a complete dist-upgrade. Ubuntu now has more and more restricted drivers to enable laptops to just work, and Synaptic is just one of the best repository search engines I've ever had the pleasure of using. Gnome has a nice desktop feel and the layout works for me. However, this is still all just personal preference. I can't remember anything, development wise, that didn't work on one and not the other. Paths sometimes can sometimes be a bit confusing, as all the distros have their own conventions, but on the whole you get used to them.

Maybe if I'd have started with Red Hat, SUSE or Mandrake, and really got into the mindset I would still be using that distro today. I also think the fact that there are differences is a positive part of the Open Source movement, as each distro has a unique style and identity that fits some and not others. However, that does make it difficult to provide a new user with the right information to make the right choice for them, as in the end we all have a personal slant on our view. Anyone trying to make an informed choice is probably best to try all the major distros, and see how they fair installing, configuring and using. LUGRadio recently tried this, and although it wasn't the perfect test, it did go a long way to try and understand what worked for each member of the team. If you have the time to invest I would recommend trying at least Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Fedora and Mandriva as desktops, and include Debian if you want a server based OS. If you really want to go hardcore then Gentoo might be of interest, but it really isn't recommended for a new user.

One thing the LUGRadio boys spotted during the installation, was how often the distros can ask some very confusing questions, that even experienced users could even have problems with. This is perhaps part of the nature of Linux, that it isn't (at the moment) ready for a complete handover to the uninitiated. However, with more feedback and better refinement of the options and questions, I do think we will get there. Interest in Linux as a desktop is continuing to grow and we're going to see more and more posts (like the one that started this post) by people wanting to discover what will work for them. I'm hoping the extremists will burn themselves out, more of the LUG members will get to provide a more reasoned view, and maybe even more articles will appear in more mainstream computing press that will help to give a balanced view of the differences.

So if anyone does ask you to give them a idea of the differences between the Linux distributions, please try and give them a flavour of why you choose what you did, but not to the expense of them experiencing the right distribution for them. This thread on PerlMonks is more in keeping with that idea, and gives several general hints and tips why you might choose one platform over another.

Comments

What Debian has ...

... is more consistency than anyone else has ever managed. The Debian Policy Manual, adherence to the FHS, standards for scripts, etc. If there's a piece of software I want, I can already guess what the package will be called (of course, apt-cache search will let me be sure). If I know what the package is named, I know where the license will be, where the docs will be, where the init scripts will be, where the config files will be, and where the data will be. I know that there will be a manpage even if the source is a man-hating GNU util. I know that if there were any example configs shipped with the app, they will be in /usr/share/doc/*/examples. I know what licenses a package may have before I install it simply on the basis of what repositories I've enabled. I know that apps will respect "alternatives" and register themselves in the menu. I know that there won't be completely inexplicable stuff in /opt unless I put it there. All of this is useful, and it only gets more useful the more systems you run. Most of these things apply to Ubuntu as well although they're a little less concerned with doing everything to the letter and a little more concerned with making things shiny and up-to-date and getting that release out :)

Posted by Andrew Rodland on Monday, 28th April 2008


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