Spreading my Wings^h^h^h^h^h Flippers and Flying out of Windows

TL;DR I’m going to attempt to migrate from Windows to a Linux distribution as my main OS. I’ll probably have to dual boot with Windows because of a few apps that don’t virtualize or handle WINE well (Photoshop, Steam, etc.). I’ll virtualize Windows within Linux for the Windows apps that I can’t live without but do virtualize well. My only problem now is settling on a Linux distro. Care to offer a helpful opinion?

The Time Has Come!

The time has come for me to consider branching out and learning more about Linux than the crumbs that I’ve gathered from glancing interactions with the OS over the last few years. I’ve been more or less happily using Windows for years now. I haven’t had any terrible experiences with it. I actually liked Vista. Windows Server does a great job and Active Directory makes me happy. I’m not a Microsoft basher or Richard Stallman cheerleader. I don’t really care one way or the other about the OS that a person uses, as long as it was chosen for a good reason and it gets the job done well. I just think it’s time to get out of my comfort zone and attempt to be more of a polymath in my profession.

My first exposure to Linux was only a few years ago. My experience with computers was as a casual hobbyist from childhood until age 22 in 2004. As a result, I didn’t even know about such a thing as Linux until 2005 or so when I touched my first Linux distribution which was, to the best of my knowledge, a Fedora Core 4 Live CD. At that point in my life I was up to my eyeballs learning Windows Server and Active Directory so I paid little attention to it. Over the years I had more glancing encounters with the enigmatic penguin. Once I moved to Debian 4 as my main OS on an old Desktop for about 5 weeks in ’07 while my main Windows laptop went careening through the halls of Dell’s technical support complex in Dallas. (I dropped a ProCurve on it and funny things started happening. Three cheers for no-fault warranties!)

As you can see, I’m not totally clueless about Linux. I once knew a person who was something of a hobbyist and could do a decent job building a new home-use PC, however he looked at me straight-faced in ‘06 and asked “Who makes Linux? Didn’t Microsoft buy them?” I’m not that out of the loop. I can putter around in the terminal (partially helped by supporting about 40 Macs at one workplace) and definitely know how to RTFMan page and UTFGoogles.

Now, in 2011, I’ve decided that I need to become more fluent in an OS other than Windows. What caused this change in direction? An array of things building up over time, however recently it’s been due to me writing my competencies out for prospective clients and in the process I have to explain that I’m not competent enough with Linux to accept jobs that involve significant interaction with it. I don’t like the way that sounds. It doesn’t seem right for a SysAdmin generalist to count out a significant portion of possible machines to support. Saying I don’t know AIX or BeOS is one thing, but Linux isn’t a sidelined OS like those are.

Also, my grandmother’s laptop running Windows 7 was hosed with a rather nasty virus. She overnighted it cross-country to me to fix. I promptly installed Ubuntu 10.10 and in the process of setting it up I realized how sharp Ubuntu is. I also realized how familiar I was with the terminal and various Bash commands. I guess I absorbed more than I realized over the years. It was then that I realized that I could easily see myself using one of the more user friendly Linux distributions as my main OS.

So What’s the Problem?

My main problem is that I’m not sure what distribution to choose. I’ve narrowed it down to the following:

  • Fedora 14 (That would get me familiar with an RPM based distro and perhaps I could parlay that familiarity onto studying for RedHat certs)
  • CentOS 5.5 (RedHat without the Red Hat. If I went this direction, I’d have familiarity with the most popular enterprise Linux distro and be poised to get certified in it. It seems too good to be true. The downside is that I won’t be as bleeding edge as Fedora. Or is that a good thing?)
  • Ubuntu 10.10 (All the cool kids are doing it!)
  • Wait for Ubuntu 11 to drop in April (I’m so impatient. I want Linux now! Plus the new Gnome shell looks freaky.)
  • Mint (Looks sharp, and it’s also mainstream so I’ll have good community support)
  • Mint Debian (Same as above, except it’s a rolling distro so no major upgrades. Wewt!)

I’ve remove the following from my consideration

  • Debian (I had too much trouble with the GNU-only nature of the OS a few years ago. I do like the rolling nature of it though. I remove this from consideration with grief. Maybe I’ll put it back on the list to consider if I find some compelling reason to.)
  • Sabayon (Gentoo based, looks awesome and it’s rolling, but it’s not mainstream enough for a noob like me.)
  • OpenSUSE 11 (SUSE was supported on my laptop model at one point. Drivers seemed to work great. However, after using it for a few days recently I noticed a lot of weird redraw errors in the desktop environment and it also didn’t see my LaCie 2Big hard drive. I’m also concerned about its future with Novell.)
  • Gentoo (Maybe someday I’ll be cool enough to run Gentoo. Then, I will be rightly said to have arrived.)
  • MEPIS (It looks like a fine distro, but I have no compelling reason to choose this over a more mainstream distro like Fedora or Ubuntu.)
  • Mandriva, PCLOS, Linspire, etc. (Same as MEPIS)

I’ve also removed BSDs from consideration. That seems like a whole ‘nother can of worms I’m not ready to open up. Sorry @Obfuscurity and @Voretaq7.

There are two minor ussues that are further complicating my choice. Do I choose a rolling distribution or not? 64-bit or 32-bit?

The debate between choosing a rolling distribution or a rip-and-reload version design is causing me some consternation. Being a Windows person, I’m more accepting of the rip-and-reload method. However, the idea of never having to reinstall an OS to get the latest version is intriguing. Very intriguing. However, part of me knows that nothing is ever that simple. There are so few true rolling distros that the pickings are slim.

Once I decide on a distro, should I use the 32-bit or 64-bit edition? I’ve been running 64-bit windows for a while now and am happy to see continuing support for the platform. However, I’m not sure how that will complicate things in the Linux ecosystem. The fanatic in me wants to throw support behind the 64-bit platform. The pragmatist sits back and sips 32-bit milk.

Please Help Meh!

I’d appreciate any insights that you could give me about the major points to consider in a distribution. I know that in most scenarios people simple say “pick the distro that you’re most comfortable with”. Also, hardware compatibility is another consideration. My Dell XPS m1530 with an Nvidia m8600 GT seems to be well supported by Linux distros these days. So far, I think Fedora and Ubuntu are the top two contenders with Mint/LMDE as a third place option.

With any luck, I’ll be running a fine Linux distro by this time next week. That is, if I don’t have any more trashed partition tables, bombed Joomla installs and virus riddled family computers… but those are for entirely different blog posts.


  1. furicle

    February 10, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Quit worrying about update vs upgrade. Moot point. Even if you nuke the OS you don’t have to nuke your settings.

    Do you want user friendly? or do you want to learn things? This is the important point.

    If user friendly go ahead and run Ubuntu or Fedora – flip a coin, you’ll end up trying them both sooner or later anyway.

    If you want to learn things, install Slackware, or Gentoo. Don’t let the reputation scare you – you’re here to learn right?

    If that’s a little too hard core for you, do the CentOS thing.

    My 3c


    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks! My only experience with OS migration is with Windows and that’s not a very migration friendly process. Settings get left behind and preferences have to be re-created from scratch, often from the GUI. Scripts to change settings would be an odd conglomeration of batch files, VB Script, PowerShell and WMI so that’s a deterrent to making a build script. *shudders*

      I hope to learn the finer points of Linux migration as I go along. Your comment makes me believe it’s not so much of a traumatic experience to rip-and-reload so it doesn’t worry me as much now.


  2. esacteksab

    February 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I’ve tried everything on your list, including the BSD’s. I always go back to Ubuntu.

    I’m not a fan boy because there are things I don’t like about Ubuntu.

    Lately I either do a server or minimal install of Ubuntu, enable Root, and ONLY install what I want. I DO NOT install ubuntu-desktop (Default Gnome Desktop). I feel it is bloated, and includes the kitchen sink. MORE than I want/need. Doing a minimal/server install and installing what I want allows me to have a light-weight distro of my choice.

    I actually tried Mint for the first time last month. Mint is just Ubuntu with all the restricted repositories enabled and already installed for you (MP3/DVD, etc). It was nice, I’d install it again (if I wasn’t already tired of trying other distros). I could see it as being my primary home OS.

    I switched between Ubuntu 10.10 and Fedora 13, as I use CentOS and wanted something more similar, but the primary reason that I keep going back to Ubuntu, is that it “just works”. It does require me to customize the distro, as an out of the box install isn’t what I like, but the geek in me enjoys it.

    I did switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu 10.10 on my Dell E6500. I ran Windows XP in Virtual Box and VMware Workstation (VMware workstation has better seemless mode — would recommend to everyone).

    Ubuntu has made great strides to being a contender in the Desktop OS space, but it still has its shortcomings…but with each release, it gets closer and closer. I’m excited about 11.04!

    Good luck in whatever you decide.


    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 12:19 pm

      Indeed Ubuntu “Just Works”. That’s both my biggest reason to run to it and also to avoid it. I want at least a *little* bit more of a learning curve. At this very moment I’m trying Fedora 14 and I’ve already had to muck about with PackageKit issues and use yum from the terminal. That was a cool learning experience. I’m gearing up to attempt to install my NVIDIA drivers from rpmfusion.org. Or maybe compile them myself. Hmmm. Also, I keep getting woo’d by Fedora to become familiar with RHEL/CentOS.

      We shall see in a week or so. I tried Mint Live last night and was amazed at how many drivers it automagically saw that I needed including my m8600 GT video card. I think that Mint would be even more drop-dead easy than Ubuntu. Enticing, but kinda defeating my purpose.

      Thanks for the input! It helped to remove some confusion in my mind.


      • esacteksab

        February 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

        That’s partly why I’ve started doing a desktop build from a server ISO or minimal install ISO. It doesn’t hold my hand, it lets me get my hands dirty. You boot up into a terminal. And you get to pick/choose your packages/window managers, etc. etc. Enabling root, also (in my mind) makes it more *nix like, though I know sudo has been around for as long as I can remember, I just like su – instead of sudo. I’m weird like that.

        I don’t know why, but I like apt instead of yum. For my Ubuntu server, I use aptitude safe-upgrade to be safe than sorry.

        Between Fedora or Ubuntu, I doubt you could go wrong.

        And you’re right about Mint, it was created to be even more user friendly than Ubuntu.


  3. voretaq7

    February 10, 2011 at 10:18 am

    I would suggest Ubuntu only because of its wide adoption and massive emphasis on being usable as a primary desktop OS. It is an operating system with many, MANY faults, but when it’s all said and done I think it’s currently the best “desktop” Linux out there.

    CentOS/RedHat, Slackware, Gentoo and SuSe are all definitely good systems to learn on (they’re what you’ll probably encounter in the “real world” of corporations and datacenters too), but your goal seems to be balancing “a learning experience” with “a desktop system that actually lets you do stuff”, and for that you want all the usability work that’s gone into Ubuntu backing you up. Most of what you’d do in a terminal is the same across a wide range of *nix systems, so as long as you don’t get hung up on only being able to do things the “Ubuntu (or Debian) Way” your knowledge will transfer well.

    Incidentally I *wouldn’t* recommend a BSD system as a desktop. Putting aside the BSD userland heritage of OS X and the giant strides made by PC-BSD, the BSDs are really better suited to servers than they are to being a primary-use desktop — witness the fact that the big 3 (Free/Open/NetBSD) don’t ship with a graphical login, or even X, by default. After cutting your teeth on Linux for a while you may want to invest in a cheap box to throw BSD on, but it probably won’t make it as your main system.

    Then again the last time I tried using FreeBSD as my primary desktop was around about 1998-1999. so things are probably at least a little better now…


    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 12:36 pm

      Ubuntu’s usability is actually something of a downside in my mind. If it’s that much of a “set it and forget it” system, will I really learn anything? I mean, I *could* if I forced myself, but I’d like there to be more inherent possibilities for me to need to learn. Fedora is edging out the others in my mind, at the moment.

      I figured that BSD wasn’t really intended as a desktop OS. I mean, I know of people who use it that way, but they’re way more hardcore than I’ll be anytime soon.

      What do you use as your main OS these days?


  4. rmc47

    February 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

    So I guess my choice varies depending on what I’m doing. For anything that’s going to be running as a “server”, by which I mean, most interaction is via the network rather than sitting in front of it, I use CentOS. For “desktop” use, Fedora or Ubuntu are probably the way to go.

    Switching between Fedora and CentOS is pretty easy – they’re definitely part of the same family, and the toolsets are similar.

    I got fed up with running Fedora on server-type systems, as the update / upgrade cycle was just too rapid for me; I wanted something I could set up, and let it keep doing its thing, trusting that some new update wouldn’t break it. But it lacks some of the newer developments in the UI arena that Fedora has, so it’s not as suitable as a desktop OS.



    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      That’s why I think I’ve ruled out CentOS as a desktop OS. I’d like to see what’s coming on the horizon for CentOS/RHEL and I think I’ll have a better UI for a every-day PC. Either that or I’m just a wimp. =)


  5. Jeff Blaine

    February 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    It really depends on what it is you want to become proficient in.

    If you want to learn how to deal with common user desktop issues, then modern Ubuntu or the imminent CentOS 6 based on RHELv6 would be my recommendation.

    If you want to learn UNIX/Linux and its administration, ANY distribution works, but you’re much more likely to find RHEL/CentOS in most any enterprise (over Fedora or Ubuntu on servers). Do yourself a favor in this instance and run one in VirtualBox, sit there and go through the manpages and commands (I did this with the MCC Linux distribution via a STACK of 1.44MB floppies in 1992 downloaded via 14.4 modem), and try out, install, and break crap. Learn the ins and outs of the package manager, all from the command-line. Understand WTF is happening. Set up some app that requires MySQL and Apache. Dick around with mysqladmin and Apache settings. Add some swap space. Monitor and understand stuff via vmstat, iostat, etc. Learn some bash programming to write some scripts that hammer the box while you monitor it. Share some stuff via NFSv3 to another box. Understand how the various sharing options work and what they do. The list is nearly endless, and just that above should last you 6 months (done thoroughly) of off-hours tinkering.


    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      I think I’ve got the next few years of life pretty much buttoned up. 😉


  6. Jeff Blaine

    February 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Some more:

    Tweak sshd, understand it thoroughly. Learn how to tunnel with it.

    Learn what every column of output ‘ps -efal’ (and other args) means.

    Set up a logical volume. Expand it. Do other stuff with it.

    Configure Apache to do SSL. Test it.

    Set up and configure an OpenLDAP server. With SSL.

    Screw around with smbclient and Samba.



  7. Matthew

    February 10, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Hi there.

    If learning is your primary objective, please reconsider Debian or CentOS.

    As the saying goes – Keep it simple.

    Ubuntu has at its heart some technologies not yet found elsewhere – Upstart is a good example.
    I belive the same to be true of Fedora (but must confess that I have not ran Fedora for some years).

    Keeping a windows partition _and_ a virtual install of windows seems prudent. I run windows 7 in virtualbox – just for Outlook. 1.5 GB of memory is assigned to this VM, quite a bit for an email client. . I keep the windows partition for Starcraft 2. Not sure how the Windows licensing for this works out..

    If you really need some desktop glitz try adding enlightenment 17 repositoiries.

    Good luck and enjoy.



    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      Back in 07 when I was forced to use Debian 4 as my main OS, I’d say that was a bit too much of a learning experience. So many things had to be done to get the thing off the ground (and then I had to work hard to keep it in the air) that I was more frustrated than enlightened. Maybe I’m just a wimp of a learner? I dunno. I still shutter when I think back to how I had to, with the help of some IRC good Samaritans, hack X to use a resolution greater than 1024×768. What’s worse is that I had no idea what I was doing, and still have no clue how I fixed it. It was so far over my head that the learning curve wrecked my comprehension and I was just button mashing and copy/pasting at that point. That’s probably more my brain’s fault than anything, but I am what I am.

      I admit, Debian 6 has enticed me though.


      • esacteksab

        February 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm

        With that, why don’t you crawl before you walk? Load up Ubuntu, I’m sure there will be things that don’t work, or don’t work as you would expect, that will require some CLI…you can get your hands dirty slowly.

        If anything, you’ll jump into a distro that will be frustrating and put a bad taste in your mouth.


        • Wesley David

          February 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm

          True words. It’s got to be easy enough to remain fun for my personality and learning style, and yet difficult enough to engage the little grey cells.


  8. Matthew

    February 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    FreeBSD is hands down the best learning platform of all.
    Don’t rule it out, do you really need 3d effects on your desktop?


    • esacteksab

      February 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

      What PC-BSD has done with KDE was/is pretty incredible…though I can’t stomach KDE, you can have your flash and trash with BSD if you really want it! 😛


    • Wesley David

      February 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      I figured that FreeBSD would be about the same learning experience as slackware circa ’94 and kinda shied away from it. I don’t need 3D effects on the desktop, but I’d love to play MegaGlest full screen with shaders turned all the way up. =)


  9. Matthew

    February 11, 2011 at 2:35 am

    Hi again,

    I have been thinking about Linux requirements – In fact I have slept on it and have a suggestion / alternative strategy for you to consider. Some of these ramblings will be beneath you..

    First a few statements which I hope people can agree on:

    — From an administrative point of view:
    — 1) Linux excels as a server OS.
    — 2) The Linux desktop (Gnome and KDE) is not trivial to control.

    Furthermore, there are not so many people attempting 2). If you want to meet some, try the Linux Terminal Server project, OpenLikewise and NoMachine.

    — Learning Linux is best achieved from the ground up.

    One of the joys of UNIX is it’s transparency and simplicity. Don’t assume that something that is made from simple components can not be complex.

    To fit these statements please consider doing the following:

    1) Don’t stress about your desktop environment yet. Windows works fine as a bootstrap for putty.

    Do you really want to learn how to manage Gnome or KDE?

    2) Set your self a server task to achieve using Linux.

    A nice one might be to set up a monitoring platform around Nagios. (Nagios in particular as it requires pretty low level activities and scripting – and the documentation is excellent.)
    Extend the capabilities of your monitoring solution by:
    — Integrating the Nagios web user interface with a Wiki.
    — Manage your racks with something like Rackmonkey, get familiar with MySQL.
    — Sending SMS alerts.
    — Checking your Active Directory health.
    — Checking for changes on your network (ie unauthorised clients).

    Unfortunately this will require additional resources either physical or virtual…

    3) Choose debian.

    4) Read Slashdot.

    5) Check in on freshmeat.net every now and again.

    6) Wait until Windows annoys you on a daily basis (eg: “Why the hell can’t I just do X and…”) then switch to whatever you now know to fit you best.

    I have passed these comments past the other system administrator here.
    They meet his approval.




    • esacteksab

      February 11, 2011 at 10:45 am

      Mat makes an interesting point. I’ve only ever been able to learn something, when I needed to learn it. I had to have a purpose.

      I definitely got my hands dirty in nagios/nrpe/vim when I needed to monitor a Win2k8 server with PowerShell. It was a great experience, and I enjoyed it greatly.

      I’ve also gotten pretty familiar with httpd.conf files running a VPS with virtual domains and multiple IP’s. Again, I HAD to learn it. Fun, but also nerve racking.


      • Wesley David

        February 11, 2011 at 11:01 am

        Indeed task based learning is how I learn the best. Also, fear based learning isn’t too bad either. “I just totally hosed $n system and need to recover it and make sure that never happens again!” Fortunately, the second scenario hasn’t happened too often. =)


        • esacteksab

          February 11, 2011 at 11:07 am

          Luckily I’ve never hosed a production system where I work…but my personal http server ran CentOS for 4 years. And every time I upgraded Plesk, it hosed my httpd.conf file…I had 3 IP’s and about 10 domains on that box…so I had to change IP’s and what not…and the occasional path for the www root when it changed and what not…

          As far as your comment regarding Nagios/OpenNMS/Groundwork, I dabbled quickly in them (except Groundwork as I thought it was a commercial product). Nagios is what it is…monitoring/alerting. There are plugins/extensions, but for monitoring/alerting, it does what it does, very well.

          I chose Cacti for SNMP monitoring/trending/history. That’s something else you could potentially stand up and play with, but Cacti really does just stand up and “work”…LDAP authentication was probably the most complicated thing I had to do, and that didn’t even take 20 minutes…


          • Wesley David

            February 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm

            I tried to do a RRD / Cacti install on Debian 4 a few years ago. Didn’t go so well.

            GWOS has a commercial product, but I think it’s well worth it.

    • Wesley David

      February 11, 2011 at 11:00 am

      Interestingly, I wasn’t so sure about agreeing with Gnome and KDE not being trivial to control. Perhaps it’s just a lack of experience. Once I got past the initial “where is everything!” moment that a new OS brings with it, I was able to settle in decently. Of course, tweaking metacity options in Gnome opened up many possibilities for fun and destruction. 😉

      And as to the question “Do you really want to learn how to manage Gnome or KDE” my answer is a quizzical… “Umm… yes?”

      Yes, I learn best from doing actual projects… once I get a tad bit of theoretical reading out of the way. I think it’s time to jump into some kind of a task. I looked into Nagios seriously a few years ago and was annoyed at some of its limitations, so perhaps I’ll snub it in favor of OpenNMS which was what I much preferred the looks of. Of course, GroundWork is my favorite, but that’s too simplified for my learning needs. 😉

      I admit, I’m not a fan of slashdot, but I’ll bump it up on my priorities list now. Thanks so much for all the coaching!


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