Cutting Through Multiple Linux Distribution Concerns

Posted by tadelste on Oct 9, 2005 7:52 AM EDT
LXer; By Dean Pannell and Paul Ferris
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Over the course of the Linux emergence into corporate America, one fear has repeatedly emerged -- that Linux would fragment, that there are too many distributions -- that customers and corporate managers would be confused by the myriad of choices on the Linux distribution landscape. Paul Ferris and Dean Pannell have taken sides on this issue. People need clarification. They need to understand the issues at hand. They need clear, concise, professional sources of information where decisions of this magnitude are at stake.

Are they likely not to get that kind of information here? You'll have to find out, as here comes another Penguin Counter Penguin.

LXer Penguin<Counter>Penguin LXer

Cutting Through Multiple Linux Distribution Concerns
by Dean Pannell and

Paul Ferris, contributoring editors.

Dean, I've heard an ugly rumor.

I've heard that you think there are too many Linux distributions. All I have to say is: "What's wrong with choice?" I mean, when have you ever gone into the supermarket, gotten to the beer isle, and said "Hey, there's too many choices of brew here?". This is a crazy argument, and from my perspective, I just can't see how it causes trouble.

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
Ugly rumor? Ugly? Paulie, are you projecting again?

I'll admit to this much: I think there are more distributions than we need. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that here is a DOS-hardened Linux called Weeble Linux. because it wobbles but won't shut down. Or, maybe, Mighty Mousix, a distribution whose GUI supports mouse gestures that might get you fined by the FCC if they were on television.

I live in constant fear that somebody will ask me for help with their Mepis machine. I don't mind helping so much, but I'm afraid I might break out laughing and pee my pants if I actually have to say Mepis.

The solution to this problem depends, Dino. Rather, I meant to say, the Solution to this problem is Depends. They sell em' at the local drug store. There's more than one brand, thankfully.

The whole "too many distros" thing, though, is often cast heaviest toward the (supposedly clueless) corporate environment. Supposedly, corporations will fear that Linux will fragment, that the "overwhelming" number of choices will cause confusion. I think you and I have both been around Enterprise deployments of Linux -- the number of vendors that can actually provide support, realistically, is limited to the support staff and the ability to certify functionality of specific pieces of software. That more or less whittles the selection criteria to a pointy-haired-boss-mind-warping 2 to three distros.

On the desktop front, the whopping number of distributions is limited by a similar factor, although the number of choices goes up a bit. I've personally had contact with several friends and relatives that bought the Wal-Mart $200.00 PC. It came with Linspire one time and another distribution the other (sorry, can't remember which one exactly). In both cases, all they knew was that it was a $200.00 PC that ran this "Line-Ucks" thing I had been talking about. Did they say they had a "Linspire" PC? No.

But again, think about how many PCs come pre-loaded with Linux in general. In the true retail and large brand sector, the numbers (at the moment) are staggeringly small. No danger, in other words, any time soon of there being too much choice of anything, in other words.

Okay, so maybe the home-brew market, you find people like you and I building the DinoCyde distro. Big fat harry deal. Someone has to lift up that rock on the web and look under it to find the steaming pile of code that comprises the distro. They're not going to be confused by that time -- they're going to be looking for the one Linux distro that answers some special need.

In this case, they're looking for a special functionality called Hyper-Skitzo, whereby the computer displays alternating moments of brilliance and symptoms of being dumber than a post. The DinoCyde distro would obviously fill a special niche in the market for people that are looking to balance their incorrectly deployed mood-altering-meds.

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
OK. So...Let's say for a moment that we have found a magic oasis of agreement, though, Paulie, I must carefully re-examine any scenario which requires you to be right about something.

Let us bounce through possible distributions.

Hmmmm. We've got CorporateLand. OK. Count off Red Hat, Novell. Can't leave out TurboLinux for our Asian friends.

Let's see...Source based distributions. Gentoo, check. And, why the heck not Lunar, which is a fork of Sorceror. But also, GASP!, Debian, Fedora, and Suse, which can be completely compiled at home.

Let's see...Good desktop distros. Well, there's Linspire if you want nice corporate support behind you and some goodies to go with it. There's also Mandriva, Ubuntu/Kubuntu, and GASP!! Suse. Let's throw SimplyMepis in here because it makes me giggle when I type it.

Hard-Core Distros for the serious Linux soul: Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, Suse, Fedora.

Hey? How live CDs? Lemme see...There's always Knoppix, PCLinux, and Damned Small Linux. Whoops!! Did I leave out SimplyMEPIS and GASP!! Suse Live CD?

For good measure, let's throw in IndLinux because India is a special kind of place.

Now, Paulie, that's a pretty comprehensive list and it covers a darned wide collection of needs. But here's the kicker: That big old sprawling list only comes to 18 distributions!!! Out in the wild, you can find something like 150-200 distributions.


Dino, Dino, Dino. I can see full well that you're frightened. I was frightened as well by the your efficient and effective use of capital letters. That and the fact that you swore.

But what was that about agreement? How can you be frightened about a choice of only 250 distributions, when in the true wild of the marketplace (corporate, roughly two, desktop less than a dozen) the ones that make it in numbers are small enough, even for a brain with your limited cache-size.

I mean, someones gotta try a different recipe for beer somewhere. In the states here we have something called micro-breweries. Some make it, some don't. The ones that truly make it may someday hope to have their beers on the shelf at the local Wal-Mart or Giant Eagle. The others may have to play to a localized limited audience. Still others may make beer that tastes like shoe polish. Those few typically go away.

That's the way a marketplace works, isn't it? I thought you were the staunch believer in such things, or was I missing something? I have yet to meet someone in corporate America (oh wait, besides you) who's had to make a distribution choice and been truly frightened by it. Mostly it boils down, I believe, to a bad thought program that anything but the market leverage abused by traditional monopolistic closed-source won't work -- either for the customer or for the vendor.

I think the success of Linux in general has proven that that model now has a solid alternative. Neither of us is really going to cause there to be more or less distributions. Not unless you want to take me up on the DinoCyde distro, which as far as thought programs go, is sure to be a real core-dumper.

I sincerely don't see a reason to keep pretending that there's anything bad about the variety out there. Time and again, as different vendors have chosen things that their end-users didn't like, people have been at least free to switch to a distribution that offered more value or features that were more aligned with their philosophy. Single-source proprietary vendors, in stark contrast, simply dictate the change De jour, and the users end up with no choice.

So, are you agreeing with me or not? Come on Dino, face your fears! Stop swearing and cowering in the dismal darkness of Draconian distribution doubt. You can do it!

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
Well, Paulie, I have to admit that the mere existence of BigPurpleDinosaur Linux doesn't do my any direct harm. It does do harm to the advancement of Linux in a couple of ways.

The problem of confusing potential new users may be a bigger deal than you think. Not everyone shares your enthusiasm for living in a state of confusion. Or Ohio, for that matter.

One of Microsoft's under-appreciated assets is a large and widespread army of Windows "gurus". Quality control is, ahem, iffy at best, but this merry band of advice-givers provide a security blanket to users everywhere. And, by and large, they tend to say similar things because, in the Windows world, you don't have umpteen choices.

Imagine a Windows user considering the leap to Linux. Even if he or she is lucky enough to know a local guru, that person might just be a rabid aficionado of Rowdy Chihuahua Linux.

The Windows user, after browsing the local bookstore and strolling through google, may find that nearly nobody uses Rowdy Chihuahua, get a little gun-shy, and decide that Windows ain't so bad.

Alternatively, he or she may bite the bullet, install Rowdy Chihuahua, find the local guru unavailable due to a development death march, and, unable to find useful help for the nasty little dog distro, decide that Linux ain't so good.

Multiply this by a couple of hundred hungry little dogs, mepii, etc, and you've got a drag on Linux uptake.

Well, I can see a bit of your point there, so maybe you should wear a looser hat and it might cover that up.

Listen, the whole brand thing is a bit hard to manage in the OSS world. Maybe the confusion will slow things in the way you describe in some circumstances. But I think we have inertia on our side. I think that over time, more and more people will come to grips with this complexity, and (hopefully) come to enjoy it. Given the complexity of technology in general, this might be a bit of a stretch, but we can only hope.

If we have to wait a bit more, I say this is a Good Thing (TM). The alternative (YA-VOL Linux) would be bad. I know you're arguing for less, not a single distro, but say, maybe 10 or so. It is not to be. The reference to the third Reich here kind of dictates the end of our banter, so let's just agree to disagree on this point.

Ohio, though, is a great place to live. You're wrong, I tell you. Wrong!

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
Yeah, just like I was wrong that the White Sox would send the Indians packing in the AL Central.

You've convinced me that we can survive a Saganesque multiplicity of distributions.


Is it possible, however, that all those distros are a symptom of some other problem?

Let's face it, Linux and OSS in general have been very developer-driven.

Corporate interests have helped to temper that in recent years by expressing the need, with dollars and people, for little things like usability, little things that end users might notice, but, in OSS-land, developers remain king.

Now, if you're really excited about FOSS, you have talent, energy, and time, but you're really not a developer, what are you going to do?

Face it, you don't see a lot of people out there offering up props for testers, doc writers, UI designers, artists, etc.

Making a distro is one way to grab yourself some glory without being a heavy developer.

Just a thought.

Let's bury the hatchet on this one.

Paul Ferris (FeriCyde) is an IT professional with over 15 years of *nix experience, and over 5 years of that implementing Linux in enterprise-class situations. He has been discussing Linux for more than 7 years in various publications, on-line and in print. He's an engineer, Linux community member, husband, father and more. Lately he's been contributing to to the general discomfort of the folks in the Northwest.

Dean Pannell (DinoTrac) has been nourishing a general lack of trades for years. Once a performance geek in BIG mainframe shops, he's been horsing around with Linux since 1998, and writing about it since 1999. Brain-damaged along the way, he dropped out to attend law school and became a lawyer. Fortunately for the world, he has come to his senses since then. One troubling symptom remains -- he keeps the license up to date... Wonder if therapy would help?

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features, News Story; Groups: Community, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Linspire, LXer, Mandriva, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, Slackware, SUSE, Turbolinux, Ubuntu

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