Ubuntu Linux isn't just an operating system -- it's an ecosystem. Here is a quick guide to help you wind your way through this desktop jungle.
Ubuntu Linux isn't just an operating system -- it's an ecosystem. Here is a quick guide to help you wind your way through this desktop jungle.Canonical, Ubuntu's corporate shepherd, maintains several different versions of its popular Linux operating system. The most obvious and best-known varieties are the Ubuntu Linux Desktop Edition and Server Edition.
There are important but often subtle differences between Ubuntu's two most prominent siblings; if you'd like to know whether the desktop or server version is the best fit for your business needs, check out this blog post I wrote on the subject last year.
Yet Ubuntu is also available in a number of other interesting variants. Canonical itself supports some of these, while others are the product of independent developer communities. If you're already a Linux user, you can guess what makes many of these variants unique just by looking at their names. If you're a newcomer, however, or if you're still looking for the right Linux distro, it is helpful to get a little additional background.
Unlike Windows, Linux makes it easy for users to pick and choose from a variety of graphical desktop environments. Most desktop Linux distros, however, offer one of two popular desktop environments as a default installation option: GNOME and KDE.
I won't get into the differences between these two desktop GUIs; there are quite a few, and Linux users often have strong opinions about which they prefer. By default, however, the desktop edition of Ubuntu Linux uses GNOME, and most Ubuntu users are perfectly happy with Canonical's choice.
For quite a while, however, Canonical has officially supported an Ubuntu Linux variant that installs the KDE desktop by default. This version, known as Kubuntu (now you know!), is also available free of charge. Canonical releases Kubuntu on the same regular schedule as Ubuntu, and it provides the same paid support options to users who require them.
Like I said, GNOME and KDE aren't the only two Linux desktop GUI players, even if they are the most prominent. A third Ubuntu variant, known as Xubuntu, gives users yet another option: the Xfce desktop environment.
In fact, some Linux users who have never heard of Xfce might be surprised to know that they're using it right now. Since Xfce is optimized to run as a fast, lean, lightweight Linux desktop, it is an excellent option for netbook PCs. As a result, some prominent Linux netbook models, such as the Acer Aspire One, use a customized version of Xfce.
(Strangely enough, however, Ubuntu's own "netbook remix" edition, which Canonical developed for use by netbook OEMs, is based on a GNOME desktop rather than Xfce.)
Keep in mind that while all of these Ubuntu variants present users with different graphical faces, each one uses pretty much the same guts -- including the same Linux kernel version -- and the same software package-management systems.
Ubuntu variants don't just offer different desktop GUI options. Some also provide default software packages and other tweaks that appeal to particular markets or user communities.
As the name suggests, Edbuntu is designed to meet the needs of educators and students. It consists of a standard (and fully supported) Ubuntu Linux Desktop Edition along with a set of customized add-on software packages. These packages currently bundle software appropriate for four educational user groups: preschool, primary, secondary, and tertiary (university) level.
Edbuntu also integrates iTalc, a classroom management tool that enables "teacher sharing, monitoring and control of networked workstations and thin clients." Like Ubuntu itself, iTalc and all of the other add-on software Edbuntu provides is completely free to use.
Also keep in mind that Ubuntu, like most desktop Linux distros, doesn't require cutting-edge PC hardware to run well. That's a huge factor for schools that simply can't afford to buy new hardware simply to run the latest version of Windows.
I must confess that I don't know that much about yet another up-and-coming Ubuntu variant: Ubuntu Studio. This project targets "GNU/Linux audio, video and graphic enthusiasts as well as professionals" working with multimedia content.
The software packages included with Ubuntu Studio certainly sound interesting. They include multitrack audio recording and mixing software (Ardour); graphic design and modeling tools (The GIMP, Inkscape, Blender); and video creation software (PiTiVi, Kino, Cinepaint).
It's a combo that might not have Adobe or Apple trembling in terror, but then again, it's all completely free, and I can attest that some of these tools are quite good. (Inkscape, for example, is an outstanding alternative to Adobe Illustrator.) That's a huge factor for smaller businesses that need this kind of software occasionally but simply can't afford to shell out hundreds of dollars just to have a copy of Illustrator or Photoshop handy every few months.
But wait, there's more! MythBuntu, for example, is an officially supported variant designed for use on media server PCs; as the name suggests, it integrates the open-source MythTV PVR system. Another official variant, Gobuntu, includes only software that uses completely open-source software. (Some software packaged with Ubuntu, including some video and other hardware drivers, is actually shipped under a proprietary license. That makes some open-source devotees uncomfortable, although disposing with this software can make Ubuntu unstable or even unusable on some types of hardware.)
Still other projects have developed less well-known Ubuntu variants that don't receive the same level of support from Canonical and the wider Ubuntu user community. These include versions that tweak the Ubuntu desktop GUI (OpenGEU) or customize it for use on an Asus EeePC (Eeebuntu).
I don't recommend venturing too for into the Ubuntu desktop jungle if you're choosing a Linux desktop for your small business. Still, if you're looking for examples of just what Linux in general, and Ubuntu in particular, is capable of doing, feel free to take a closer look at all of these projects.
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of December 14, 2014. Be here for the show and for the incredible Friday Afternoon Conversation that runs beside the program.