Sooner or later, you’re going to get the urge to switch distributions — maybe for a change of pace or maybe out of more practical considerations. Here’s a look at some of the most common reasons users feel compelled to make that jump.
You’ve been using the same Linux distribution for years now, but something has been eating at the back of your brain… some zombie process trying to tell you to switch to a different flavor of your favorite open source operating system. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there. Some users settle on the first distribution they find and never leave it. Others seem to switch distributions as often as they switch desktop wallpaper. But most Linux users go through one (or two or three) distributions before they finally settle on that one that perfectly fits the bill. That’s where this article comes in: How do you know when you’re ready to switch to a different distribution?
There are distributions, like Fedora, that really serve more as testing ground for another (Fedora for Red Hat, OpenSuSE for SuSE). These distributions do a great job of pushing the operating system ahead of the curve. The problem is that they push so far ahead, you spend more time tweaking and fixing than you do actually working. That is not to say these distributions are of little value. In fact, they serve a great purpose in the Linux space. And the users of these distributions serve an fine cause as well — as debuggers and testers. Without these users, distributions like Red Hat and SuSE would lag behind on enterprise-level innovation. But if you’re looking for a distribution that really does “just work,” you’ll want to migrate away from the Fedoras and the OpenSuSEs.
For the most part, modern Linux package management systems are outstanding. But just because the distribution has a user-friendly GUI that helps you find what you need, that doesn’t mean the underlying system is right for you. This topic can easily fall into the same realm as the age-old “vi vs. emacs” war. There are those who will use only an rpm-based distribution and those who will use only a deb-based distribution. (Of course, there are also those hard core members who will use only source-based distributions.)
I have used both a yum and an apt-get system, and I have to confess I find the apt-get system to be much more elegant and less prone to breaking. I was a yum-baby for a long, long time, and the conversion to apt was simple. Why? Because the fundamental ideas are relatively the same (apt-get install package-name versus yum install package-name). But I switched because I encountered too many occasions where the yum package manager rendered a system nearly useless. User error? Could have been.
Recently, I discovered an outstanding batch photo editor and needed to install it on both a Ubuntu and a Mandriva system. The Ubuntu installation was simple. The Mandriva installation? Never happened. Why? Simple: The application never made it into the Mandriva repositories, whereas it was in the Ubuntu repositories. Does that mean it will always be difficult (or impossible) to install the application on Mandriva? Probably not. But at the time, I needed the package right away (and running a test now, I find the application is still not in the Mandriva repositories). This is the same with the Enlightenment desktop.
There are distributions that make installing this wonderful desktop a breeze. But there are just as many (if not more) that make installing alternative desktops not so easy. So there will be instances where you must have a particular application but you can’t get it on your current distribution. For those moments, change is a good thing.
I have plenty of Linux friends who always have and always will refuse to use a distribution that installs anything that is closed or proprietary. Fortunately, for those users, there are Linux distributions that are 100% free — such as Mandriva Free. Mandriva Free is advertised as the “purely” free software edition of Mandriva. Using the “free” edition has its pros and cons. Of course, you would be using all free software and could compute with a clean conscience. But with the “free” edition comes the possibility of having to do a little work to get things working completely. Still, if you are a Linux and open source purist, using a distribution that is free from closed source applications will certainly appeal to you.
This leans more toward enterprise-level than personal-level use. But some Linux distributions offer commercial support and some don’t. From Fedora, SuSE, Mandriva, and Ubuntu, your company can purchase enterprise-ready support. Couple this with the regular channels of support (forums, mailing lists, Google, etc.) and you have a complete support package that rivals anything Microsoft has to offer. With those distributions that do not offer commercial support, you are at the whim of Google and other Linux users. For many Linux users this is fine. But for those situations where support is key, you know which distributions you are limited to.
I don’t know how many times I have switched back and forth from one distribution to another because of new hardware. The last few years of using Fedora had me frustrated beyond belief because I couldn’t get the distribution to communicate with my Palm Treo 680. It wasn’t until I had switched to Ubuntu that I was able to, simply and quickly, get that device syncing away.
I’ve had similar issues with iPods, printers, wireless network devices, and video adapters. And this doesn’t account for laptops, where the combination of hardware can send you searching for the golden egg of distributions. Fortunately, Linux now enjoys the LiveCD phenomenon, where you can plop in a LiveCD, boot your machine, and know pretty instantly if that distribution will work with your combination of hardware. Those distributions I have found to be the most accepting of hardware are Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and Ubuntu.
We all know that Linux is more secure than Windows. The Microsoft fanboys can cry foul all they want, but the truth is the truth. But another truth lies underneath: All Linux distributions are not created equal. There are Linux distributions that are created with the single purpose of being secure. Engarde Linux and Trustix are distributions whose purpose is to distribute hardened Linux operating systems. FreeBSD and Gentoo Linux are simply very secure operating systems out of the box. Linspire — not so much. But in a pinch, I would still place a Linspire over Windows Vista any day.
In polar opposition to number 1, some distributions have a release cycle that is far behind others. Unlike Ubuntu, which releases two versions per year (.04 and .10), distributions such as Vector Linux are irregular and slow to release. In some ways this is good. If it isn’t broken, why fix it? But Linux evolves, grows, and changes quite frequently. When security holes are found, they are patched before you can issue the command to upgrade the offending software. So the latest and greatest most likely contains all of the necessary patches as well as the newest additions to the graphical environment. Can anyone say KDE 4.1? (But not 4.0, because that was a nightmare.) If you find your distribution’s release cycle is causing you to be way behind in software (say you’re still using OpenOffice 2.0 or GNOME 2.1), it’s time to jump ship and find a more modern take on the Linux release cycle.
I couldn’t leave out the PPC users out there. Apple hardware is pretty appealing to many people. But to those of us who prefer a more open offering in the software department, OS X is just Windows with BSD underpinnings. But there’s no need to fear. Plenty of distributions out there support Apple hardware. Yellow Dog Linux, Ubuntu, SuSE, and Fedora all have releases for Apple hardware.There are some tricks to getting everything working properly (wireless requires the extraction of the wireless card firmware), but once running it does quite well.
Another type of hardware switch might be migrating from 32-bit to 64-bit. Granted, all 64-bit machines will run 32-bit Linux, but there might be a reason you would want 64-bit running. If you’re running Freespire and you want to get the most out of your 64-bit processor, you are out of luck.
Believe it or not, I know more people who have switched Linux distributions out of boredom than any other reason. After running Red Hat/Fedora from Red Hat 4.2 to Fedora 8, I finally had enough and switched. Sometimes it’s just more interesting to know how the other teams are playing. And sometimes you reach that point where you’ve done everything you can think of doing with a distribution and you know you have to move on. If that’s the case, don’t feel guilty for leaving behind your good ol’ trusted distribution. If the distribution is good enough, you might wind up coming back. If not, you’ll most likely wind up making a new best friend.
Somewhere along the way, you’re going to have one or two reasons to switch to a different Linux distribution — and most likely that reason will be in this list. Whether you’re switching for a specific need or just out of boredom, don’t forget that distribution that first allowed you to make the leap from Windows to Linux. It will always have a special place in your heart. I, for one, still have my install disk from my first Linux distribution. It will never leave my office. It was the key to my computing freedom.