Pick a tool, any tool

A couple of years ago, the open-source community took a lot of flack from some Windows buffs about the number of distributions available. Red Hat Inc., Caldera Systems Inc., Mandrake, SuSE Linux AG – it all seemed so confusing. Of course, because many IT shops now support mixtures of Windows 95/98/Me/NT/2000/XP/CE, the issue of many choices doesn’t seem so strange.

Nevertheless, some organizations examining open-source solutions are finding that the number of alternatives can be daunting. Do you want Linux or BSD? And which flavour?

Keep in mind that choosing a distribution is normally much closer to choosing a favourite flavour than making a life-or-death decision. Most distributions can get the job done, but some do make certain tasks easier than others.

Red Hat is probably the best-known Linux distributor in North America. Red Hat Linux is a robust server and a decent desktop. It features such a strong array of products and services that casual observers sometimes believe Red Hat is “The” Linux company. I think every Linux techie I’ve met has used Red Hat Linux at one time or another.

As does Red Hat, SuSE makes a distribution with a strong server and a good desktop. The distributor also makes several specialized business server products. Based in Germany, SuSE is very popular in Europe and has been steadily growing in popularity in North America.

Mandrake Linux is my personal favourite for desktop usage. Once simply a version of Red Hat with an improved GUI, Mandrake Linux has grown into solid distribution with excellent usability features. My non-technical family members have been using it for years. My wife even finds Windows Me difficult to use by comparison. Distributor MandrakeSoft is based in France.

Caldera has a long history of business-focused solutions. Its key differentiators include the proprietary Volution Manager for Web-based remote system management and Volution Messaging Server, which provides capabilities similar to Microsoft Exchange. It owns the former SCO Unix and Unixware products as well.

Appliance developers sometimes pick one of the BSD variants because the BSD licence does not require that all software modifications be made public. FreeBSD is known for solid performance; OpenBSD is renowned for its extremely tight security; and NetBSD is the essence of portability with its support for 32 hardware architectures.

Some worthy Linux distributions – such as Debian, Slackware and TurboLinux – cannot be covered here. Others are popular in particular countries, such as Red Flag in China and Hancom in South Korea.

Still confused? Let your technical people test and decide. For the price of a good dinner, they can get enough distributions on CD or via the Internet to test everything in sight.

Discuss your favourite versions of Linux or BSD on The Open Source forum at www.infoworld.com/os.

Contact Pavlicek, who writes for InfoWorld U.S. at pavlicek@linuxprofessionalsolutions.com.