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Genealogy

My first Linux was Redhat 2.0, installed on a Pentium 90 from a CD attached to a magazine entitled “Linux: ein Profi-OS für den PC”, which I had purchased for 9,99 DM at Karstadt in December 1995. I was mesmerized: to run a Unix system on my PC not unlike the Solaris I've had before on a Sun workstation (which was entirely out of reach financially) was a revelation. Soon after, I acquired the “Kofler” (2nd edition) that included a CD with Redhat 3.0.3.

Why was I so interested in Linux? Of all operating systems I knew, Solaris was the only one I found to be a pleasure to work with. DOS was stable and reliable, but much too limited, and MacOS and Windows appeared to me as demonstrations of the various ways a computer can crash rather than operating systems.

I used MacOS 6 on a Macintosh II from 1992 to 1994 in Japan and learned to thoroughly despise this caricature of an operating system. I sometimes felt that I spent more time in looking at the bomb than doing anything useful. When Apple launched the switch campaign a decade later, the frequent crashes of MacOS and the bizarre error messages were already a legend.

I returned to Germany in 1994 and and had great hopes in Windows, from which I'd heard from a guy working for FutureWave Software, a company which developed the precursor of Shockwave Flash. Well ... the much touted Windows turned out to be DOS with an amateurishly designed GUI, which was prone to surreal crashes that occurred spontaneously, without any apparent reason.

Before one could enjoy these magic moments, one had to install the whole caboodle. And that meant, of course, to install first DOS 6.22 (which came in four 3³½ inch floppy disks) and then Windows 3.11 (eight 3³½ inch floppy disks). If you're too young to know what that means, listen to the sound of computing in the 1990s.

Redhat, in contrast, came on a CD, which in itself seemed to reflect the technological supremacy of this OS over its commercial cousin. This impression, however, turned out to be nothing but a delusion: the installation procedure could only be started from DOS! The installation itself required intimate knowledge of the hardware components of the computer and their IRQ numbers and IO addresses. Ironically, the easiest way to get this information was an installation of Windows on the same computer.

What made the installation even more difficult was my plan to realize a dual boot configuration—Windows for the games, Linux for LaTeX. In fact, the typesetting suite was one of the main reasons for my interest in Linux, because it was an integral part of the distribution at that time. I had just installed LaTeX on Windows on my computer at the office, and after an entire day and a seemingly endless sequence of floppy disks, I realized that I didn't want to do that again.

After struggling with a number of difficulties, I managed to set up my dual boot system. Encouraged by this success and the pleasant user experience, I installed a variety of distributions in the years to come, and found the installation to become easier and easier with every year. Installing Mandrake Leeloo in 1998 on a brand-new Pentium II 266 was way easier than installing Windows 98. In 2001, HAL was still science fiction, but we had computers every dumbo could handle.

At least that was my impression. Ubuntu, a Debian derivative, materialized in 2004 and was touted to be the first Linux distribution a normal user would be able to install and use. The Ubuntu hype is unbroken since, and in many mainstream media, Ubuntu has become synonymous to Linux. In recent years, Ubuntu has been superseded by Mint in terms of popularity. It seems that the masses always chose unwisely.

But what is a good choice? And how should a beginner chose from the 305 distributions listed on Distrowatch?

Well, let's start with the second question. The situation is actually much less confusing than it seems at first glance. As a matter of fact, we do not face 305, but just about a dozen of independent Linux distributions, and the rest are offsprings. Wikipedia has a comprehensive article about this subject, and the fantastically detailed timelines visualize the historical development most beautifully. The comparison of Linux distributions is another illuminating article.

For simplicity, let's project this development onto a one-dimensional time axis. These are the originals (together with popular derivatives):

Slackware (July 1993)
Porteus, SalixOS, Slax, Vector, Puppy, (SUSE)
Debian (September 1993)
Ubuntu, Mint, ElementaryOS, Grml, Knoppix, SteamOS, Damn Small, Puppy, ...
Redhat (October 1994)
CentOS, Mandrake/Mandriva/Mageia, Scientific, Fedora, Qubes
SUSE (May 1996)
OpenSUSE
Gentoo (July 2000)
Sabayon
Archlinux (March 2002)
ArchBang, Antergos, Chakra, Manjaro

Is that really all there is? Well, these are the big six. There are some notable newcomers:

CRUX (December 2002), Alpine (April 2006), Void (2008), and Solus (December 2015)

The first three are technically markedly different from the mainstream distributions, and are definitely not aimed at beginners. All right, all right...which one of the big six is aimed at beginners?

None, of course. What do you think? That back then anybody in his right mind developed primarily for noobs? Hell, the word was not even created yet, since the whole category of people who could be labeled as noobs did not exist. The world wide web, which would give birth to a generation that watches videos to learn how to boil eggs, had only been invented. Incredible as it sounds, there was no Google, no Youtube, no Twitter or Facebook. Watching a video with the bitrate of modems in 1993 (14.4 kb/s) would only have worked in ultraslow motion anyway (1 s stretched to 5 min). In any case, personal computers and their operating systems were perceived as a revolution in user friendliness compared to what had existed before, and people were willing to acquire the skills it took to operate them.

To develop Linux for noobs is a decidedly modern phenomenon, invented by a visionary southafrican billionaire in the hope to become the 21st century's Bill Gates. Indeed, Mark Shuttleworth was the first person who tried to market Linux. He did that in a remarkably effective way by appealing to first world people's natural sentimentality: “Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’.” Hardened Linux veterans like me reacted to this campaign in a rather unfavorable way, I'm afraid:

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning 'I can't configure Debian'.

And now to the first question: what is a good choice? As I've stated in a previous post, I generally do not like to make recommendations – people's qualifications, needs, and preferences are just too diverse. However, I can tell you what criteria are important for me and what I have consequently chosen to work with.

  1. I'm not willing to make any compromise regarding security. The distribution I use must have a dedicated security team and a dedicated security advisory system. That excludes the majority of pet project and show-case distributions derived from one of the big six.
  2. Many thousands of useful programs exist in the open-source world. I want as many of them as possible to be easily accessible in central repositories managed by the distribution. A clearly defined core subset should be officially supported. Situations as in Ubuntu (and derivatives), where no one knows a priori what's supported and what not, are unacceptable.
  3. New software versions should be available days after they are provided upstream, not months or years. I do not have the patience for waiting for bugfixes for several months because of six-month release cycles or similar nonsense. That leaves only rolling-release distributions such as, most prominently, Arch, Gentoo, Debian Testing and Debian Sid, Fedora Rawhide, and openSUSE Tumbleweed.
  4. Last but not least: I want to invest as little time and effort with my computer installations as possible. They should run smoothly and function as expected.

I've thus almost inevitably arrived at the following constellation:

Desktop Home: Arch
Desktop Office: Arch
Notebook: Arch
Netbook: Debian Sid
Server: Debian Testing
Compute Servers: Debian Testing, CentOS [1]

In addition to all these physical systems, I also have various installations of Debian Testing, Debian Sid, Arch, and CentOS as virtual machines. Oh, and, before I forget: there's also a lonely Windows 7, that is about as troublesome as all of the above together. No, I'm not kidding. Just the regular monthly update takes an hour.

In any case, those are the distributions I'm using. What can you learn from that, if you are a noob? Just a few basic things, perhaps. First of all, it's good to know what you really want. And then, it's good to act correspondingly, no matter of your level of noobishness. ;)

[1] The CentOS compute server is administered now by Jonas (thx a bunch!), which is not to be understood as a statement against CentOS. On the contrary, I think that CentOS is an extremely capable and convenient server (!) OS.
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