Tuesday, 21 December 2010
A Tinkerers Top 5 Distributions of 2010
Arch / Archbang
Because: Personally, it's my discovery of the year. Arch Linux can be anything you like, seems solid so far and is immensely well documented. It can be as rolling as you want or one can exclude packages and whole groups from upgrading if you need something more stable for a particular purpose. An LTS kernel is also available if you'ld rather have on your server or want to be sure to avoid having to recompile modules for Virtualbox, wifi etc. every few weeks (it's actually far less than that). Everything is easy to configure by editing simple text files, and without unpleasant surprises where some tool is overriding my edits or them just not feeding through for some reason. There's even a project to port Arch to the Hurd kernel.
But while I enjoy a small base to start of with and customize from there (or, as it turns out, mostly leave as is to keep it light) starting from scratch seems like a waste of time and processor cycles. That's why I gave up on Gentoo and will probably never go as far as Linux From Scratch. Maybe not so much of a tinkerer after all ;-) . Here's where Archbang comes in. I like the choices it makes, mainly Openbox, Tint2, the interactive scrolling menu on top of the screen and the compact conky configuration, so why not start from here? Under that surface it's all Arch and still needs some file editing. It's more like a custom spin rather than an independent distribution. I would probably also like CTKArchLive, the other Arch Linux live CD that comes with Openbox, but have had no reason to reinstall.
The project started out in late 2009 but really came into full swing this year. Whatever you think about different spins and releases for every desktop or window manager out there, it proves Salix is a healthy and active project that is gathering a lot of interest and enjoys community participation. The community has for example significantly contributed to, meaning started really, the KDE and Fluxbox releases. On top of both 32 and 64-bit releases Salix also produces live CD images for several desktops.
Salix is a friendlier looking and easier to install Slackware derivative that is at the same time trying not to deviate from the original under the bonnet to stay fully compatible, with a few of their own tools for easier management and a few applications thrown in, many of which I would normally add in Slackware anyway, like extra plugins for the Xfce panel. This and the addition of more pre-compiled packages in their own repositories that can be used in the Slackware of the same version number just as well makes Salix well deserving of the 2nd place.
Because Slackware has been around for a long time and still is the base for many extremely stable and fast distributions. If you want desktop performance, go for Slackware or a spin-off. If you want solid as a rock, go for Slackware. If you want a stable performant server, go for Slackware. If you want long term support, go for Slackware (even Slackware 8.x is apparently still supported with security fixes, although there is no official policy on this). It may not be extremely up to date like Arch but in return you get predictability, and a new release comes out every 8-9 months, which is still a lot more frequent than Debian "Stable" and on par with openSUSE, for example. For everything else there's running "Current".
People go on about the package management, but security updates can be easily pulled in with 'slackpkg' which, believe it or not, installs the package automatically, and also handles distribution upgrades. Editing text files for configuration is keeping it simple, and what could be easier to remember than the explodepkg, installpkg, upgradepkg and removepkg commands?
I also found Slackware ultimately the easiest to compile and install your own kernel on, due to the lack of patches applied to the vanilla kernel as most distributions like to do, and also easiest for installing proprietary ATI graphics drivers.
Unless of course you already get them pre-installed like with PClinuxOS.
Because it is the biggest project out there and simply impossible not to mention with the impact it's having and all the distributions derived from it. Furthermore the new release of "Squeeze" is close, and this time with a fully free kernel apparently, though everything is still available in the "non-free" repository should you need it. I think it's a good compromise. This way one can install exactly the binary blobs needed but no more, keeping your system as open source and as untainted as possible while still allowing to use your hardware.
Debian currently supports 13 architectures and has about every window manager under the sun in the repositories, and with roundabout 30,000 packages give or take depending on how many sources you add it can provide almost any app or library available. Most apps out there including Google Chrome provide a Debian repository. I've never had to compile anything on Debian, but then my needs are not extravagant. Debian has also given us the Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) and the Debian Social Contract which I consider both hugely relevant. While not always practical, it is important to articulate what things *ideally* should be like so you can strive towards that goal. It also enshrined the importance of anti-discriminatory practice almost before Equal Opportunities and Disability Discrimination Acts were incorporated into law and was pretty much ahead of its time. Lastly, the way Debian is shaped, run and governed by its large global community was/is pioneering and unique. It is not a company, nor is it tied to any particular country or sphere of influence. It will be extremely difficult to bring any kind of law suits against it. Debian is important, and for that reason it will always be in the top 5, even if I'm not currently using it. It may be the last distribution we can go to - highly hypothetically and doom mongering. Or of course we could be using BSD or Haiku if it comes to that. Even then, work is ongoing towards Debian GNU/Hurd and Debian GNU/kFreeBSD to combine the userland with these kernels.
The Unity project, not to confuse with the desktop environment, has had their first full release in July 2010 and have recently updated with a second point release. I like small distributions that provide a minimal base for a custom install, and Unity excells at that. It has been designed with explicitly this aim in mind, while providing users with the Goodies that is the Mandriva set of tools, known as, or better combined in, the Mandriva Control Center. Graphical package management is handled by 'Smart'. As such it is easy to administer and sort of newbie friendly too. RPM5 is providing the underlying functionality. Being this small Unity is also extremely fast and you can turn it into anything you like, but for many the default Openbox environment will be fine.
Also, even if Mandriva went down the tubes and we did not have Mageia to pick up the pieces, the legacy would live on in Unity Linux and its spin-offs like TinyMe, and in PClinuxOS, which would have been next on my list (for ease of use and a quick start, and the 'MkliveCd' tool to copy your installation).
As somebody in the DWW comments section once said, Debian --> Slackware --> Arch seems to be a natural evolution.
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