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It would be very usefull as a starting point if I can get a comparison of the most used Linux distributions today.

What are the differences between them and what are they traditionally good at?

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Each distro has different strengths and different philosophies.

Ubuntu aims to be easy to use. They are based on Debian but adopt a slightly more pragmatic approach, as opposed to Debian, which is more pure in their quest for Freedom. Ubuntu has LTS releases which are supported for 3 years. I'd say that's a minimum req for anyone intending to use lots of installs. You don't want to upgrade your production machines' OSes every 6 months.

Fedora likes to be close to the cutting edge. Each Fedora release is similar to a Beta of RedHat's workstation/server product. Fedora releases every 6 months and each release is only supported until the next two releases are out. So you should plan to upgrade once a year to keep up with security releases. This is fine for a small number of non-critical machines, but I would avoid it on production servers unless you intend to take over security patch maintenance.

Given a choice between Fedora or Ubuntu, for production work, I'd be inclinded to choose a Ubuntu LTS release, for the 3 year support window. Given the choice of any Linux distro, most of the major vendors are fairly reliable; I'd be inclined to choose CentOS or RedHat because I'm familiar with Fedora/RedHat's configuration, having used it for 12 years now.

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The 3 year support only applies to desktops, goes up to 5 years for server stuff :) –  theotherreceive Jul 14 '09 at 14:53

I know for example that Ubuntu has a large user community and it's targeted to be user-friendly.

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I think this is a pretty opinionated question to ask.

Fedora came out of the Redhat project, I believe around the time Redhat had "dropped" desktop users in favor of their "enterprise" userbase. It is a "community" project.

Ubuntu is based on Debian, and aims to be easy for non-technical users.

OpenSuSE is again a "community" distribution out of the SuSE camp. They sell a commercial product similar to Redhat.

All three are just as much "Linux" as the other, since they offer the Linux kernel, as well as a slew of GNU applications.

All three have their own way of dealing with packages (rpms, .debs, rpms [last time I looked])

All three have strong community support

Any one of these systems could be placed on a netbook, laptop, desktop, workstation, or server. It all comes down to which one you have a preference over, primarily stemming out of their package managements and ethos behind how they consider packages "stable".

Fedora for instance, likes to use "bleeding edge" packages, knowing their users don't mind the occasional hiccup.

If you haven't downloaded, installed, and used each one, you will never know. There are hundreds of other projects just as qualified to take on more users than these three. I recommend you get familiar with installing these on an extra system, or partition atleast, and try them on for size.

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It really depends on what you want your distribution to do. Need a workstation ? Ubuntu is a pretty safe bet. Need a server? Debian is the most stable release there is, because it's designed that way. If you need a professional-grade server, Red Hat Linux is for you.

You will find that there will be as many answers as people who will post in this thread. Because Linux is Linux, distributions are just the same product with different flavors. And for Linux like for ice creams, not everybody (dis)likes the same flavor for the same reason.

In short, you should try several popular distributions and make your own mind, because what could work for one person could be unbearable for you.

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I usually avoid Ubuntu as I have to install lot of things over it. Since Fedora and openSuse install lot of things if we select to install everything I prefer them. If I do not want some service say MySQL, postgreSQL, etc. then I can disable them at startup. But trying to install them when I need them is painful for me. I have no problem in using 4-5 GB of more harddisk space during installation. But installing small-small tools later by hand is not comfortable.

If you are fine with limited set of tools then Ubuntu is fine. If you are new to Linux and want to explore Fedora / openSuSe will give lot of tools installed by default to explore.

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"If I do not want some service ... then I can disable them at startup". Wow, you really take different approach than me. –  Arie K Jul 14 '09 at 11:24
    
How is '(apt-get|yum) install mysql' that much of an issue? Personally, I'd rather have only what I need installed on my boxes. If you find you're installing the same stuff on every machine there's lots of ways to simplify this - simple scripts, tools like puppet, and custom package type systems. –  theotherreceive Jul 14 '09 at 14:56
    
Slow net speed and usage of Internet matters. It takes lot of time to install on demand and wastes bandwidth which is considerable for my use case. If net speed is fast and we can use as much bandwidth as we want then we can install things later too as you suggest. Plus the question never mentioned that it is for server usage. It is very easy to have things installed on laptop/Desktop for personal use at time of installation. Installing on demand suffers from same slow speed and wastage of bandwidth. We can use createrepo on DVD RPMs but then would also have to create .repo file for it. –  Saurabh Barjatiya Jul 14 '09 at 15:45

I would suggest you to pay a visit on the following article:

3 major distros review

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Ubuntu Linux does not aim to be easy to use. The fact that it is easier than other distributions does not reflect a reached goal that is part of its philosophy. This is just a side effect. The goal of Ubuntu Linux is to bite off a segment of market share from Microsoft by stealing users from Windows.

OpenSUSE Linux smells "Novell" which is bad, because of their affair with Microsoft - a proven enemy of open source community. It smells "Novell" much more than it smells "open". OpenSUSE went as far as commercial SUSE alternatives by disabling features of apps for bowing down to copyright watching sharks.

Fedora Linux is another result of corporate approach. Its user base is used by RedHat for testing purpose, to spot issues that might pop up in commercial RedHat alternatives. It wasn't always like that. Back ago RedHat Linux was free.

Please don't take my answer as a flame. I wrote this with another purpose. The moral of the story is different: "If you go for a Linux distribution, never choose one that is related to a big company if you don't want to bend over and become dependent of them, of decisions they make."

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Anyone who downvotes me just because he disagrees with my point is "ugly and stupid" (C) :-) –  Anonymous Dec 21 '09 at 21:49

I think Saurabh's point is valid. A lot of people who are just starting with Linux would rather have a large variety of tools pre-installed. At that point, they care more about "ease of use" than efficiency. I myself have had to spend hours on the web figuring out what tools might exist and then downloading them with ubuntu. Wish I had started with OpenSUSE.

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