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Ok so I know absolutely nothing about linux but I've bought some hosting from slicehost.com as a project to try and learn. Basically my goal is to set everything up with PHP + MySQL and secure the server, then use it to host a small website.

First off I wasn't sure which distro to use, I picked CentOS 5.3 but I can rebuild it pretty much instantly if necessary. My first question is what do you think the best distro is for a complete noob? My choices are:

  • Arch 2009
  • CentOs 5.2 or 5.3
  • Debian 5.0
  • Fedora 10 or 11
  • Gentoo 2008
  • Redhat EL 5.3
  • Ubuntu 8.04.2 LTS
  • Ubuntu 8.10
  • Ubuntu 9.04

The amount of resources available on server admin for the distro should be taken into consideration, which brings me to my second question: where can I find the best guides for basic (noob) server admins.

I realise learning linux from nothing is a big task and that's why I'm starting small, but a push in the right direction would be greatly appreciated! :D

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9 Answers 9

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You can't ask for a easier way to install, configure and manage packages than APT, Debian is the way to go in my opinion, not only its one of the oldest distros around (lose the first place only to slackware) but it also has THE largest package repository (software available) not to mention one of the most active and competent communities around, Debian is also known not only for being one of the most stable OS in existence but also for its outstanding performance.

Debian is not only easier on beginners but is powerful enough to handle pretty much anything you may come across in the future.

I have switched to debian from RH around 8 years ago and i have never looked back, i have dozens of servers running debian and i have NEVER EVER had ANY problems, to be honest, now i run debian everywhere even my workstations are debian.

Note that i'm not saying at all that others distro are not good, generally they are all awesome with amazing people and communities behind them and you would benefit immensely from learning any of then, ultimately start with the distro that seems easier to you.

Take a peek on Distowatch.

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I advise you to go with Ubuntu 8.04.2 LTS for starters. It's stable and most of the problems are ironed out. Management of packages is really easy. LTS means it has "Long time support" (5 years of updates for server edition) and if there are major security risks, they are highest priority for the LTS and on. While you're on older and stable software (which is normally near-current versions with security patches), you will learn basics and follow tutorials and switch to the next LTS when you're ready and feel comfortable with the underlying system.

Since Ubuntu is compatible with Debian, tutorials are easy to find for LAMP (Linux+Apache+MySQL+PHP) installation as well as customizing and even advanced configurations.

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Use Debian instead - Ubuntu is just not a quality server distribution. Anything in universe is imported automatically from Debian without checking what bugs it has, and getting bugs fixed after a release is excruciatingly slow, if it happens at all. The only reason to use Ubuntu LTS over Debian is if you need to use the same release for 3+ years (Debian offers security support for a year after the next release, which take 22 months atm). Upgrading Debian is much smoother than Ubuntu, particularly going from LTS to the next. –  TRS-80 Jun 22 '09 at 2:38
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Ubuntu would be my reccomendation. It mightn't have the most hardcore Linux features, and can be rightfully accused of pandering to Windows users, but when you're starting off, that's just what you need. It's also the only Linux distro to consistently "just work" with no hassle across all my pcs.

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Well I'm using remote hosting so I'm doing everything remotely, I shouldn't have a problem with compatibility :D –  zuk1 Jun 21 '09 at 19:54
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Gentoo and Arch are both aimed at much more advanced users, avoid them.

Ubuntu is better for new users, and I'd recommend the latest if you're only doing a small site. Get the server edition, and don't install X (the gui). CentOS/Red Hat are more enterprise focused, but I prefer the debian based distros, for the package manager.

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So Ubuntu 9.04? I know Ubuntu is very popular so hopefully it will be easy to find information. –  zuk1 Jun 21 '09 at 19:44
    
Yes, 9.04 is the latest version. –  Dentrasi Jun 21 '09 at 19:57
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Doing a gentoo install from bottom up is the best I can think of for a first start, it gives a nice perspective on how things work from inside out.

But setting up a complete (production ?) web server with php+mysql seems a little bit too much for an introduction.. (although under debian it's only a couple of apt-get's away - Compile from source!!)

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Doing a Gentoo install from scratch teaches you a bit about how to build a Linux system from scratch and compiling software. However, none of that is usefull for someone who's never even used Linux before, and wants an easy introduction. As someone who's done a Gentoo install before (and used it as my primary desktop for PHP development for nearly a year), I can honestly say if that had been my first experience of Linux, I couldn't have done the install and nothing I learnt doing it would have been useful for running a simple web server. –  Jim OHalloran Jun 22 '09 at 0:01
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My vote would be to take it easy on yourself and pick up Ubuntu in any flavor to start with. There are silly little traps for getting too comfortable with Distros (aptitude vs. zypper vs. rpm vs. yum vs. Synaptic vs. GodKnowsWhatTheHeckElseSomeOneWillCallTheSameCrap). Make sure you know what an rpm file is and avoid anything but a standard bash or ksh shell and you should make some decent progress.

A great resource for learning the ins and outs is Linux Server Hacks by O'Reilly. There is a follow up called More Linux Server Hacks. I learn best by diving the deepest and a majority of the Hacks made no sense to me at all. I had to struggle through them and from each one a Perl of wisdom popped out. Strangely enough after three years some of them still make no sense to me but such is life. I pick the book up often either as a reminder or as a challenge. Good luck and God speed!

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Ubuntu seems to be the beginner's choice these days so it's probably a good one to start with. I personally don't use it but it seems to be all the rave with Windows users and people not familiar with Linux.

That said, CentOS is an excellent choice for setting up a server.

One of the best documented distro's in my opinion is Debian. You can find a lot of information both on Debian's website and via http://www.google.com/linux.

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Since you're starting out I'd have to recommend Ubuntu 8.04.2 LTS

  • The Ubuntu LTS support cycle is wonderful - there's another 4 years of support for hardy server, so you won't be forced to upgrade in the next year or two. This alone is a good reason to pick it, and why I'd take it over the other ubuntu/fedora options.

  • Ubuntu comes with all the benifits of Debian (It's based on Debian, and many Ubuntu packages come straight from Debian test without much modification) , but as well as the longer support cycle, the sheer amount of new users that ubuntu has attracted over the last few years means that there's very active forums for new users, and tons of ubuntu specific documentation.

  • Which is why I'd avoid RHEL, it just won't have the same level of support from other new users.

  • Apart from that Ubuntu is a very good 'all round' OS. You can get most things done without too much specific knowledge, and there's packages available via apt-get for almost anything (far more than is available for CentOS imo)

  • I'd definatly avoid Gentoo for my first server, I'd totally agree with comments saying that the slightly harder to use distros are a good learning experience, but I'd recommend picking up an old machine and keeping it at home for that kind of learning.

  • Whatever distro you do decide to use, subscribe to some of their lists, in particular the security announcement list.

Some links that may help:

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"many Ubuntu packages come straight from Debian test without much modification" is Ubuntu's biggest failing - they often import packages with bugs that later get fixed in Debian before it releases, but don't in Ubuntu. –  TRS-80 Jun 22 '09 at 2:40
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I'd second the Ubuntu/Debian comments (I'm a debian guy myself, but Ubuntu's easier for newbies).

However if you "need" commercial support go RHEL unless you're already a Novell shop. CentOS is fine if you need something fully RH compatible just not supported.

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