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Thursday, July 21, 2005

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Linux Needs More Distros!

Category: Commentary

In a recent article, author Sal Cangeloso suggested that Linux needs to consolidate into fewer (perhaps even one!) distributions. His reasoning behind this recommendation is that the Open Source Community is unfocused in its goals and is wasting time on multiple distributions. He then cites the Mandrake and Connectiva merger as something he'd like to see more of.

While I agree with Mr. Cangeloso on the Madriva merger being good for the Linux community, I disagree with his logic on why it is good.

Multiple Distros Are a Strength

In the mid to late 90's, the GCC project began to stagnate as tight controls were placed on code contributions. Many GCC developers believed that it needed to be reorganized around a more flexible design, and tried to get support from the FSF. The FSF unfortunately ignored these pleas, so a handful of developers used their GPL-granted rights to fork the project into a technology called EGCS (Experimental GNU Compiler System).

Thanks to optimized code generation, better cross-platform support, and the unification of computer languages compilers, it wasn't long before EGCS began to displace the official GCC branch as the developer community's compiler of choice. The GCC developers eventually realized the power of EGCS and merged EGCS back into the main branch.

The point I'm getting at here is that a successful project is going to tend to become risk adverse. It's not that they don't want to move forward, it's more a matter that they don't want to fail and fall behind. This is a perfectly natural reaction. The loophole that exists to escape these sorts of politics is the ability to fork.

By forking, a developer can explore new paths without placing the primary project at risk. If the fork is successful, then it can be merged back into a more comprehensive project. If it fails, then far less was bet on its success.

As a result, the plethora of distributions is actually a strength of Linux (and the BSD community!), not a failing. If everything follows its natural course, distros will come and go, but a few main trunks will continue to benefit from the development. But why do we need multiple main trunks?

Multiple Product Lines are a Strength

If you've ever bought a car, you have probably realized that auto manufacturers sell cars under several different brands. GM, for example, sells inexpensive Chevy cars, high-performance Pontiacs, luxury Cadillacs, powerful GMC trucks, and experimental Oldsmobiles. While these lines each produce very different vehicles targeted at different markets, they are able to share chassises, parts, and research. This lowers the price while raising the quality of the vehicle.

A similar concept can be applied in software. For example, Apple produces a consumer version of Mac OS X and a server version of Mac OS X. The consumer version is tuned to multimedia, laptops, power management, and other features that end users expect, while the server is tuned to heavy networking, throughput, remote installation, and other features that admins have come to expect. The same is true of the Windows Operating System. (Although the differences between some versions were artificially added by Microsoft.)

In the Open Source world, even more flexibility is offered. Here's a quick rundown of distros, and where they have chosen to position themselves in the market. (No, this is not a comprehensive list. So don't complain about your favorite distro missing.)

RedHat: Long considered the leader in Linux development, RedHat has chosen to target the x86 server market with its product. Its spinoff (Fedora) is where the bleeding edge in Linux technology is tested before being integrated into RedHat's product line.

SuSE: SuSE has used its extensive experience in producing a high quality desktop distribution to position itself as the de-facto Corporate Desktop/Workstation distro.

Ubuntu, Mandriva, Xandros, Linspire: These distros are competing in the massive consumer desktop market. The differences between them can be extensive, the least of which is their choice in Desktop technology. Some choose to present users with GNOME, while other choose to present KDE. Each has its own method of easing the user's difficulties with installing software and interoperating with Windows machines and programs.

Gentoo: Gentoo has positioned itself as a powerful build system for constructing custom operating environments. While it's definitely not a choice for your average user, power-users such as technology workers, engineers, and scientists can customize the system to meet the precise needs of their work.

Yoper: Yoper has positioned itself as the "sports car" of Linux distributions. It's compiled to be faster than most distros, and is carefully tuned to meet the needs of most enthusiasts.

Knoppix: Designed to be the ultimate in demoing and portable desktop technology, Knoppix has evolved to allow users to take a familiar environment with them no matter where they go. Combined with a removable media such as a USB Pen Drive, Knoppix can give users the freedom to roam with their files from computer to computer. All without changing a single configuration option on those computers!

As you can see, the Linux community isn't just "wasting its time".

Aren't You Being Hypocritical?

One of the questions that I realize will come up in response to this article is, "Aren't you being hypocritical? You just told us that we need a standard Linux Desktop across all distributions!"

Let me put your mind at ease. I stated no such thing, nor am I planning to state such a thing. The previous article was called The Linux Desktop Distribution of the Future for a reason. A new distribution to test the ideas I presented could only be good for the Linux community as a whole. After all, why force Linux into a box? Why must packages be the perfect solution? Why must we deal with traditional file systems? Why must we stop moving forward?

I realize that many readers are used to wholesale Linux bashing from writers such as myself, and have instinctively reacted to what they perceived to be more Linux bashing and "make it like Windows" solutions. Put your mind at ease. I don't want to make Linux like Windows. I want to take Unix systems into the future, hopefully before the competition gets there.

So, let me ask you this question: What do you want out of a Linux distro? Or more precisely, how would you like to fork today?

You can email the Batcave at the address

EGCS History
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