Up Close & Personal With Linux

A closer look at five of the most popular Linux variants.

When IT student Linus Torvalds lost patience with the University of Helsinki’s cumbersome UNIX operating system in 1991, he created a basic kernel that would transform computing for generations. Today, Linux’s Android variant powers nearly four in five of the world’s smartphones and has become the planet’s third-largest computer operating system, behind the proprietary Microsoft and Apple platforms.

The text-based interface of formative Linux versions has long since given way to highly stylised GUIs, while the introduction in 1996 of support for multiple devices guaranteed its popularity among PC manufacturers and IT managers alike. Because Linux has always been an open source package it has gradually morphed into numerous different distributions, commonly known as distros. These competing factions all share the same kernel architecture, while using different interfaces and often-incompatible plugins. A handful of Linux variants have become particularly successful over the years:

  1. CentOS. This is perhaps the most enterprise of the various Linux distros since it is targeted at corporate audiences with the support of affiliate Red Hat. Combining professional-standard technical support with a comprehensive portfolio of tutorials and troubleshooting guides, CentOS represents a good option for people who value stability above all. It’s also compatible with the iconic cPanel webmaster platform, although CentOS updates are infrequent and often require a completely fresh installation – a time-consuming and complex process.
  2. Fedora. Currently on its 21st version, Fedora is an enduring distro sponsored by the same Red Hat stable as CentOS. It also powers the commercial Red Hat distro, which offers long releases and high levels of stability. Fedora itself is far more community-focused, with new features being made available all the time. It has the unique claim of being Linus Torvalds’ preferred OS, although the one-year life cycle of each version necessitates regular updating and replacement of plugins and apps.
  3. Debian. Despite sharing most of its architecture with CentOS, Debian uses incompatible source code and is therefore a separate distro. It’s also more community-powered than its corporate cousin, with huge volumes of user-generated apps and thriving forums. Debian-based Linux variants have been created for clients as diverse as the Russian military and Nokia tablets, although each version is only as good as its programmers. Debian can be quite glitchy, and the only technical support on offer comes from fellow users on message boards.
  4. Ubuntu. Despite being closely related to Debian, Ubuntu has some crucial differences: unlike Debian’s ad-hoc community-driven approach to upgrades and revisions, Ubuntu is officially updated twice a year for greater stability. Despite being free to use, Ubuntu’s developer Canonical generates revenue from technical support and ancillary services – a business model closer to CentOS than Debian. The Ubuntu Desktop Edition is a highly polished operating system, and Ubuntu is reported to be second only to Debian in terms of popularity among Linux website hosts.
  5. Gentoo. Gentoo’s self-proclaimed ‘special flavour’ of Linux has many keen exponents, who cherish the flexibility that makes it equally capable of powering secure servers or standalone PCs. A hardcore community of fans regularly create and share new scripts which can be downloaded with a single command and are automatically optimised for each recipient device. However, this means individual users can struggle to resolve technical issues caused by their unique setup and software conflicts. Gentoo’s highly technical functionalities and detailed documentation have ensured its popularity among programmers and administrators, rather than the general public.

There are numerous other Linux distros available, each with bespoke interfaces and appealing features. However, beginners are strongly recommended to use one of the leading platforms since these offer larger numbers of features and greater compatibility with third-party software like web browsers or word processors. This is because they have been in use for longer so the gremlins have all but been eliminated.

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