SUSE, Fedora or Debian for sys admins: A closer look

Posted by tadelste on Mar 9, 2006 9:35 PM EDT
LXer.com; By Tom Adelstein
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While preparing a market study for a technical book publisher, we discovered that the majority of Linux users prefer non-commercial Linux distributions. The most popular include two projects from Red Hat and SUSE while users prefer Debian and consider it enterprise ready. You might find some surprises as we did.

Before starting a system administrator's book for Linux , we had to do a marketing study as part of the proposal. Publishers want to know what existing books cover the same material and the distributions of Linux we should cover.

It might surprise some people that distribution specific books do not sell well, while non-specific Linux books do sell nicely. You'll find "Running Linux", one of the all-time best selling Linux books while "Learning Debian" underachieved. I liked the Debian book and found it valuable. That's just an example.

So, when we did our survey, we found three distributions accounted for 65% of the deployed systems. Additionally, when we looked at the other distributions, all but one were based on the other three. So, you could write a book covering Debian, Fedora and SUSE and hit the vast majority of users.

Interestingly, Debian accounted for 44.6% of the Linux systems deployed while SUSE had 11.4% of the systems deployed. Fedora and Red Hat legacy distributions accounted for 9.2%. The later surprised me.

We also discovered that most system administrators didn't see much difference in managing any of the distributions as long as they didn't use X. With command line interfaces, experienced admins didn't have many preferences. Utilities such as Yast didn't see much use on the command line. I heard comments such as "I find starting it up, unnecessary".

Ok then, why Debian?



Overwhelmingly, system administrators preferred apt-get for adding, removing and updating their servers. We also discovered that system admins added ports of apt-get to Fedora and SUSE. So much for yast -i. The preferred Debian administration utility drove people who used the non-commercial distributions to Debian.



A note here for some of my critics. I have read comments that say I'm an old time Debian user and have a bias for the Free Software distribution. I never used Debian on the desktop until I picked up Ubuntu 5.10. Prior to that I used Red Hat and SUSE with gnome. When I developed software, I personally used Red Hat 9 and prior. I also have RHEL 4 running on a web server for some sites I manage. I use Debian 3.1 on my personal server now.



How does Debian compare



I found another surprise in the surveys. In shops that consider themselves "do it yourself IT", Debian had a larger presence than either SUSE or Fedora. The rap on the later distributions revolved around instability. For commercial use, Debian stable influenced the system admins.



Debian also compares favorably with both Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise System (SLES). When I questioned the lack of deployment and management tools, people pointed me to enterprise tools available for Debian such as FAI.



From the FAI web site:
FAI is an automated installation tool to install Debian GNU/Linux and similar distributions on a Linux Cluster or a bunch of different hosts. It's similar but more flexible than other tools like kickstart for Red Hat, autoyast and alice for SuSE or Jumpstart for SUN Solaris.
I found out that the city of Munich used a combination of FAI and GOsa. From the GOsa site you can find this information:
The GOnicus System Administrator (GOsa) is a GPL'ed PHP based administration tool for managing accounts and systems in LDAP databases provided by the GONICUS GmbH, Arnsberg, Germany. It administers users and groups, mail distribution lists, thin clients and faxes. Users can retrieve information about themselves, use LDAP telephone lists, change their password, view fax statistics and are allowed to configure their mail account in a limited way.
With apt-get and a variety of utilities such as lokkit ported to Debian, many people feel like they have what they need.

Personal Experience

I have a co-author working with me on the system administration drafts. Neither of us seem to have a bias or preference for any of the three non-commercial distributions. Of course, we primary use the CLI for the majority of the book. We're also able to harden all three distributions in the sense of making them as secure.

People do ask me which distribution I recommend. I find that a difficult question to answer. In terms of administration, I find Debian easy to administer. Even so, I have little trouble with either SUSE or Fedora. I recommend trying all three and see which one suits you best.

From a philosophical standpoint, I prefer Debian since it adheres closely to the Free Software standards. In a server context it doesn't matter as much so I choose GNU/Debian for those philosophical reasons. For my desktop, I will use non-free software such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and a couple of applications that run in WINE.

A final note



We have discovered that Debian, SUSE and Fedora need more documentation support. So, we plan to show our readers how to administer all three distributions. I'm looking forward to the publication date as well as seeing Linux becoming the dominant operating system on the planet.

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