If you've been thinking of dipping your toes in the Linux pool, you might find a lot of the sound and fury surrounding licenses, technologies and strange dealings with Microsoft more than you bargained for when you signed up for a low-cost and powerful file server. This week, though, I'm going to wrap up a trilogy I didn't realize I started when I considered the state of 802.11n hardware by telling you to come on in ... the water's fine.
I found myself with a spare machine over the weekend, the happy result of moving the last of my Windows installations into Parallels on my iMac. Confronted with a decent PC with a goodly amount of storage, I figured it was time to get around to building the extra file server I've been wanting. Since I'm not rich, I decided to do it with Linux.
I used to cover Linux full-time, so every time I settle in to do a Linux installation, it's a little like visiting a hometown. Just keeping up with Linux distributions so I could review them or stay abreast involved doing an installation or two a week, paying close attention to the direction the Linux community at large was moving.
When Gentoo was the new hotness, I dutifully sat through the entire "compile it from scratch" installation. When Red Hat launched the Fedora Project, I gave it a spin, too. SUSE, Debian, Red Hat, Caldera, Corel, Slackware, Progeny, Storm, Mandrake and a few I'm probably forgetting all came and went on my testbed. After a while, I started describing Linux the same way people might describe a new rock band: "Well, it's Debian, only with SUSE's fixation on KDE, but they borrowed Red Hat's GNOME."
Distributions in the Linux world rise and fall in prominence for reasons nobody who's used to Windows or Macs will find very easy to fathom. With Windows, for instance, you get a machine, it has Windows on it, and you probably don't do anything to it for a few years.
It's 2006. Windows XP was launched just over five years ago. A few service packs have come and gone, and Microsoft is starting to do its part to get you prematurely interested in Vista (the second part of this trilogy), but you've never had to contend with all of your friends changing to a different version of Windows because Bill Gates decided to change the licensing on the Windows logo, or because Steve Ballmer posted an intemperate flame about a prominent Windows developer on a mailing list. Or, for that matter, because there's a version of Windows some guy in Denmark has released that provides an easier desktop experience and recognizes all your new hardware. But the average Linux veteran has had to consider a new contender for "best distribution" on grounds similar to those several times over the course of his career.
Depending on your perspective, Linux' capability to branch into so many different competing versions so quickly is part of its terrific strength, or it's a horrible liability.
Because I covered Linux for a while, I can also tell you I'm moving into dangerous territory here, because if there's one thing Linux enthusiasts are sick of hearing about, it's how all those distributions, the Fedoras and Debians and Ubuntus, are a problem for Linux.
Critics have railed for years about just how confusing it can all be, and they've argued that Linux is in danger of "fragmentation," which is shorthand for all the ways those Linux versions could become incompatible with each other, if distribution proliferation keeps up. Frankly, fragmentation is a non-issue, but I'm not going to spend any time on that this week.
In the past few weeks, the never-ending process of Linux distribution churn got a fresh kick in the pants when Microsoft and Novell announced a deal that gets Novell off the hook for any potential patent problems with SUSE, the version of Linux it distributes. Some major Linux community members took exception, including the guys who program Samba, which allows Linux machines to serve files to Windows clients. If you look around the blogs this week you can see evidence that SUSE, which has been a popular distribution for many years, is in danger of losing a share of users to other distributions without any Microsoft sweetheart deals. A likely candidate to scoop up a lot of those defectors is Ubuntu Linux, which is very popular at the moment, and which is barely two years old.
Over the course of this column, I've thrown out almost a dozen different Linux distributions, many of which I installed, used for more than a month or two and eventually discarded from one machine or another. Some have few users anymore, others have disappeared with nothing to remember them by except some old install discs in a shoebox in my basement. Some fell out of favor because they didn't keep up with the state of the Linux art, others because their maintainers made decisions that alienated the Linux community.
The funny thing is that over all the years those distributions have come and gone, I've had a server running just one: Debian. It was the first Linux distribution I ever installed, and it has been a faithful server OS for a long, long time. More faithful, I should note, than the commodity hardware I hosted it on, and, interestingly enough, completely immune to the storms that move through the Linux world now and then. It still serves files, still makes a nice firewall, still shares printers, and everything else Linux servers have been doing reliably and well for years.
I'm not writing this to praise Debian, though, so much as encourage Linux neophytes to set aside their worries about whether or not the version of Linux they pick to provide a simple file or print server is The Very Best One. The chances are good that what's popular now might not be later. As with Vista for Windows users, and 802.11n gear for home networkers, the real key is to take a longer view and consider whether what you have right now meets your needs without paying attention to the stampede of early adopters.
In fact, I'm happy to recommend you check out Practically Networked's own Linux appliance series, which recently wrapped up, for a good starting point. Author Carla Schroder picked Debian as the Linux version for the series, despite the fact that it isn't considered the very most up-to-date or cutting edge distribution. Armed with her guidance and a proven distribution, you can jump in the Linux pool without a lot of worries. All that splashing over which version is the most popular today is just a tempest in a teacup.