Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Choices, choices…

10th November 2007

Choice is a very good thing but too much of it can be confusing and the world of Linux is a one very full of decisions. The first of these centres around the distro to use when taking the plunge and there can be quite a lot to it. In fact, it is a little like buying your first SLR/DSLR or your first car: you only really know what you are doing after your first one. Putting it another way, you only how to get a house built after you have done.

With that in mind, it is probably best to play a little on the fringes of the Linux world before committing yourself. It used to be that you had two main choices for your dabbling:

  • using a spare PC
  • dual booting with Windows by either partitioning a hard drive or dedicating one for your Linux needs.

In these times, innovations such as Live CD distributions and virtualisation technology keep you away from such measures. In fact, I would suggest starting with the former and progressing to the latter for more detailed perusal; it’s always easy to wipe and restore virtual machines anyway and you can evaluate several distros at the same time if you have the hard drive space. It also a great way to decide which desktop environment you like. Otherwise, terms like KDE, GNOME, XFCE, etc. might not mean much.

The mention of desktop environments brings me to software choices because they do drive what software is available to you. For instance, the Outlook lookalike that is Evolution is more likely to appear where GNOME is installed than where you have KDE. The opposite applies to the music player Amarok. Nevertheless, you do find certain stalwarts making a regular appearance; Firefox, OpenOffice and the GIMP all fall into this category.

The nice thing about Linux is that distros more often than not contain all of the software that you are likely to need. However, that doesn’t mean that its all on the disk and that you have to select what you need during the installation. There might have been a time when it might have felt like that but my recent experience has been that a minimum installation is set in place that does all of the basics and you easily can add the extras later on an as needed basis. I have also found that online updates are a strong feature too.

Picking up what you need when you need it has major advantages, the big one being that Linux grows with you. You can add items like Apache, PHP and MySQL when you know what they are and why you need them. It’s a long way from picking applications of which you know very little at installation time and with the suspicion that any future installation might land you in dependency hell while performing compilation of application source code; the temptation to install everything that you saw was a strong one. The learn before you use approach favoured by the ways that things are done nowadays is an excellent one.

Even if life is easier in the Linux camp these days, there is no harm in sketching out your software needs. Any distribution should be able to fulfill most if not all of them. As it happened, the only third party application that I have needed to install on Ubuntu without recourse to Synaptic was VMware Workstation and that procedure thankfully turned out to be pretty painless.

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