Choosing a Linux Distribution for Your Business

If you’re confused about the different flavors of Vista in the store, then the varieties of Linux available will leave you gasping like a fish on a dock. Distrowatch, a site which tracks Linux’s different versions (or distributions, as they are called in the community), has well over four hundred listings. Faced with so many choices, how do you know what distribution is right for your business?

Fortunately, at second glance, the choices are not so overwhelming. Many of the available distributions are obviously a one or two person hobby. Others may be available only in a language that neither you nor most of your customers speak. Still others are so heavily specialized in such areas as music or children’s education that you will immediately know from their descriptions whether they are right for you.

All the same, after the initial cull, most businesses will still be faced with dozens of choices. The question remains: how do you reduce the number of possibilities so that you can realistically test them?

One quick solution is to go with the big names. Just as in the past, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, you should have few complaints if you go with one of the major distributions such as Debian, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, or Ubuntu. Second tier distributions such as CentOS, and Linspire are also good bets. However, with a little research, you can do much better than just guard against failure.

To choose a distribution that really suits your needs, consider the following questions as you research:

1) Are all your hardware architectures supported?

Like Windows, most Linux distributions are built for the Intel platform. Most also support 32- and 64-bit versions. However, the fact that you are using less mainstream architectures may automatically simplify your choice. If you have mainframes in the shop, you might want to start with SUSE, which includes versions for the IBM iSeries, pSeries, zSeries, and S/390. On Macs, both Debian and Fedora/Red Hat are candidates for investigation. Should you want to use ARM processors in an embedded system, then Debian is a strong contender.

2) What hardware do you need?

With few exceptions, Linux distributions have lighter system requirements than those of any flavor of Windows released in the last five years. You can up the memory requirements by running things like experimental 3D desktops, but for typical business use you won’t need the latest hardware.

As a general rule, if you’re satisfied with running Windows on a system, you’ll find Linux performs even better. More than one business or school has extended the life of its hardware by making the switch, often without the need to go to a thin client delivery of software.

If your hardware is more than a few years old, you can even find modern distributions designed to run on it. Sometimes, the design is simply a matter of a lighter desktop, as with Xbuntu, which uses the Xfce desktop rather than the more common GNOME or KDE desktops found in its parent distribution Ubuntu. At other times, you can find distributions designed for limited resources, such as Coyote Linux, Damned Small Linux, or Puppy Linux.

3) Do you want a community-based or a commercial distribution?

When switching to Windows, many companies prefer to stick with what they know and deal with a commercial distribution like Xandros. With this approach, you don’t need to relearn your business.

In comparison, a community-based distribution made up entirely of volunteers may seem haphazard, argumentative, and inefficient – especially if you don’t have techs who know how to interact with community members.

However, don’t be so quick to dismiss community-based distributions. Organizations like Debian may seem chaotic at first glance, but as you get to know them, you will find they can offer products and services as reliable as any you can find in a commercial company. Learn to appreciate them, and you can realize more of the promised savings in switching to Linux.

4) How long will the distribution last?

Many executives are nervous about open source projects because they seem less stable those of an incorporated company. What happens, they wonder, if the distribution disappears?

You can ease these fears by seeing how long the distribution has been in business and how many developers are working on it. Get your system administrator to monitor the number of software patches submitted to the distribution over a period of several weeks. On the one hand, you probably want to avoid a distribution run by three people that only began development a few months ago. On the other hand, a project like Debian, which has a couple of thousand developers and has existed for thirteen years is probably more stable than most companies.