Some things to look for when searching for the right Linux distribution.

Lori MacVittie, Principal Technical Evangelist, f5

November 26, 2003

5 Min Read

You've decided it's time to introduce Linux into your organization. Now that you've chosen to step into the open-source arena, you could easily get stalled before you take another step. The Penguin comes in a multitude of shapes, sizes and flavors. Should you choose Red Hat? SuSE? Mandrake or the SCO Group? Slackware? Debian? Gentoo or ByzantineOS?

The choices are so great that a quick search of only Intel-compatible distributions at www.linux.org/dist lists 159 different distributions of GNU/Linux available for download and/or purchase. Narrowing the search to "Mainstream/General Public" distributions still comes up with 66 options--far too many to evaluate in an acceptable time frame.

To help you assess which distribution to choose for a server-based deployment, consider some of these key factors.

Hardware

One of the reasons GNU/Linux has finally come of age is its wide support of hardware, both peripherals and base architecture. Although most installations are on commodity x86 architectures, some distributions support other architectures, notably SPARC and PPC.

The task then becomes one of ensuring that your distribution of choice is supported by at least a Tier 2, if not a Tier 1, hardware vendor. This would guarantee support for vendor-specific system hardware, such as RAID arrays, and can be a boon when troubleshooting problems. This criteria will knock your list down to a manageable three or four distributions. Red Hat is by far the most widely supported distribution in terms of Tier 1 hardware vendors, but many others, including SuSE, Debian and even Slackware, are supported by companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co.

If you're planning to use your GNU/Linux server as a file/print server, you'll want to check each candidate distribution on its level of support for your printer(s). While most distributions support a large array of printers, some older models that were targeted to Windows OSs are GDI (Graphics Device Interface)-based, and support for such printers on GNU/Linux is difficult to find. This is true of other peripherals including scanners and plotters. A corporate-class distribution should have a list of devices supported or be able to point to the specific applications supporting these devices, and you should check them before making a final decision.

Software

Once you've found a distribution that's suitable for your hardware platform, you'll want to start digging into software support. Depending on what functions your GNU/Linux server will be performing, you'll need to compile a list of necessary software and determine whether applications included in the distribution will suffice or if you'll need to find a third-party solution.

If you're using your GNU/Linux server for file serving/sharing, you'll want to back it up, right? Unfortunately, the utilities included in most distributions aren't corporate-class and would be difficult to fit into existing enterprise-management systems. Luckily, companies like Veritas Software have been supporting GNU/Linux for several years and offer the same support as provided to other OS-based servers.

Perhaps you'll be using your GNU/Linux server for mail or Web serving duties. You'll still want to verify that your application of choice is available on a particular distribution. Although offerings from companies like IBM (Domino and WebSphere) and Stalker Software (CommuniGate Pro) are available for GNU/Linux, the supported distribution list is limited.

And though it may be a no-brainer to go with industry favorite Apache as a Web server on GNU/Linux, you need to consider content-management systems and their support before making such a move. Most companies with a large or complex Web presence take advantage of content-management systems to distribute content. If your chosen distribution isn't supported by that system, it could spell disaster.

Management

Next take a look at how your GNU/Linux machine(s) will fit into your network and systems' management infrastructure. SNMP support is included in most distributions, but your architecture may require that specific agents be installed to properly monitor and manage the system. You may also need to consider an asset-management system. Make sure that an agent is available for the distribution if one is necessary.

Machine access should also be evaluated. If your architecture uses Active Directory for centralized authentication and authorization, you'll want to find out how each GNU/Linux distribution candidate handles this situation. Most systems can be configured for a variety of authentication schemes, including LDAP or NIS (Network Information Services), via PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules). If you're using an automated provisioning system such as those from Business Layers or Access360, check its support of GNU/Linux to ensure a fit with your existing architecture.

Updates and patches are a fact of life, regardless of the OS you're running on your servers. Each GNU/Linux distribution has its own way of automating this process. Investigate whether each is available via CLI (Command Line Interface); if you aren't running X Windows, you could be lost if the tools can't be run from a console. While most automated update systems on GNU/Linux distributions can be run with the CLI only, others require the GUI. This caveat makes it more difficult to schedule updates and may require manual processing.

Training and Support

How prolific is the availability of training and education for the distributions you're considering? Despite commonalities, GNU/Linux distributions vary by vendor, especially in regard to management and configuration utilities. You can't always count on dropping to a console and doing some manual configuration. Training can make the difference between an easy install and a nightmare.

In addition, the location of system-configuration files are not necessarily consistent across distributions, though a product's compliance with the LSB (Linux Standard Base) project is a good indication that the distribution will be easy to administer. LSB compliance, however, does not guarantee that management and configuration utilities will be uniform.

Be sure to look into the level and amount of support provided by the distribution vendor. If the support does not suit your organization's needs, there are a variety of third-party services offering a wide array of Linux support for a large number of distributions, but some of these depend on open-source community contributions. Will that be enough?

Choosing a distribution for your GNU/Linux server will require to you to wade through the myriad hardware, software, management and support options, but your diligence will pay off.

Lori MacVittie is a Network Computing technology editor working in our Green Bay, Wis., labs. Write to her at [email protected]. Post a comment or question on this story.

About the Author(s)

Lori MacVittie

Principal Technical Evangelist, f5

Lori MacVittie is the principal technical evangelist for cloud computing, cloud and application security, and application delivery and is responsible for education and evangelism across F5's entire product suite. MacVittie has extensive development and technical architecture experience in both high-tech and enterprise organizations. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University. She also serves on the Board of Regents for the DevOps Institute and CloudNOW, and has been named one of the top influential women in DevOps. 

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