Currently there are approximately 220 worldwide distributions of linux that are maintained. There are obviously others that have not been kept up to date. When you look at Intel compatible platforms which is basically the PC market, there are 208 varieties – too many to go through and too many to choose from.
However, let’s consider what you are going to use it for. If it’s a Home Desktop of Office type workstation, then it is best to look at Mandriva, SUSE, Linspire, Xandros, MEPIS, Fedora Core, and Ubuntu.
If it’s a small to medium business server that you need, well, then take a look at Debian, CentOS, Fedora Core, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, or RedHat Enterprise Linux. These distributions can server up web pages, handle email, run a network and printers all from one server.
If you have a couple of old PCs lying around, you can convert them into thin clients which would be the Linux Terminal Server Project or PXES. Another way to use these old PCs is to use them as a firewall or router – for that you would only need FREESCO or Smoothwall.
Okay, so how to choose between all of these different types of linux. Well, it’s primarily a matter of personal choice in the end. The operating system and the commands are the same, the difference between all of these different flavors is ease of use and additional tools and scripts that make the setup of your system easier. The basic deployments of linux are based on RedHat, Debian, Slackware, Mandriva, and Fedora. Most of the differences between the system is where all of the files are located on the machine. For this reason, if you want to have a full deployment across a large network of computers, it’s best to use only one of these distributions for the entire network as there can be differences between machines running different versions in terms of utilizing hardware and network security as well.
My personal linux flavor of choice is CentOS. It’s easy to use, the server can be set up by booting from a CD and following the easy instructions, and it handles all of the hardware drivers I need to run the business applications. I started with RedHat years ago and converted to a free open source distribution when RedHat went commercial. CentOS is RedHat based so everything was basically in the same place on the machine. I tried Fedora when they first got going, but I never was able to get a clean install from an installation disk so I gave up on that one. That was quite a few years ago so I would presume that would not be the case today.
For this Open Source PC project that I am undertaking, however, I am going to use the Ubuntu distribution which is a Debian based linux. The reason for this is that some of the open source applications I am going to use have been built using Ubuntu so I would expect all of the idiosyncrasies of this distribution will have been solved for those applications.
Whichever distribution you choose, it should run smoothly and effortlessly on the machine get is installed. With linux, memory leaks are hard to come by and you do not have to reboot the computer every time you turn around.
Here’s an interesting article comparing 8 Linux distributions. The distros reviewed were Fedora, Mandriva, OpenSuse, Knoppix, Ubuntu, PuppyLinux, Backtrack and ArchLinux.
Portable Ubuntu for Windows is a nice tool because it allows to use a Linux distribution on several machines just moving a small, light, and portable USB mass storage device.