Confused over the many flavors of Linux CDs? Here, Phil Hughes gives us a brief summary of what's out there.
As the Linux movement has grown, so has the size of a Linux distribution. Buying a CD-ROM is now the only practical way to get a complete distribution. Fortunately, as the amount of code has grown, so have the buyer's choices in terms of distributions on CDs. And it continues to grow every month.
Linux is a very stable product with some people running distributions many months old. (Our server system at Linux Journal is running a distribution from October, 1993.) But each new release offers new features and new bug fixes. This means that new CDs are appearing virtually weekly. Here are some shopping hints.
Although the name Linux really applies to the kernel, packages that include this kernel with lots of utilities and applications are commonly called Linux packages. Some of these packages are designed for a specific (and generally non-commercial) purpose. Others are designed specifically to be a retail product and others are a combination of the two.
To add to the confusion, there are the companies that develop the content of the CD and have them manufactured and there are companies that just distribute CDs manufactured by others or include mostly a distribution developed by someone else.
As the distinction between someone who has developed their own package and one who just sells code gets muddled more and more, the real issue comes up: is the product supported? Will the company that sold you the CD (or the manufacturer of the CD) offer you support if you need it?
This doesn't necessarily mean free support or support included with the product. The amount of support you can expect with a $20-$50 package is minimal, although that minimal “hand-holding” to get the package initially running might be important.
Some people are buying Linux to “hack”. If this is the case, support is probably not an issue. But if you plan to have the operation of your company depend on Linux (which is happening more and more today), make sure you can get the support you need before you jump in. That said, on to what is available.
Yggdrasil Computing is clearly the biggest of those who make their own package. Yggdrasil put together their own package (the first was called LGX and the current product is called Plug-and-Play) by selecting from available code. They then developed their own installation package running under X-Windows and made other decisions independent of most other Linux development.
Yggdrasil (and Yggdrasil distributors) sells a package which includes a boot disk and 90-page manual for $34.95. On the plus side, you get a shrink-wrapped complete package. But on the down side, you get Yggdrasil's idea of the system layout and utilities, making it harder to add other software at a later time.
If you want to follow the development mainstream, there are choices. The most popular Linux package today is Slackware, produced by Patrick Volkerding. It followed the general idea of the SLS package, which was to have an easy installation method that would allow the addition of more packages. The package has been freely distributed on the Internet, which means that it has most of the kinks worked out. Pat never intended to make such a package (he just wanted to clean up a few problems with SLS) but it just happened because it worked so well.
Many commercial packagers jumped on the Slackware bandwagon, including Trans-Ameritech, Morse Commu-nications and InfoMagic. But they did it in different ways. Trans-Ameritech produces a CD that includes Slackware plus BSD. The CD comes with bootable kernels and programs to write the floppy boot disks. The CD is $29.95.
Morse Communications produces The Linux Quarterly. They try to add value to each CD produced. The Spring 1994 edition includes programs that run under Microsoft Windows that allow you to read documentation and build the boot disk. It also includes the complete contents of the tsx-11.mit.edu archive site. This CD is $29.95.
Morse also has a Linux Professional package that consists of Pat Volkerding's Slackware and Matt Welsh's Installation and Getting Started book in a shrink-wrapped package. [At the time of this writing we haven't seen this package; it may contain other things as well.] It sells for $49.95.
InfoMagic has decided to offer everything available in the way of code at a reasonable price. Their current distribution consists of two CDs which include all the Linux archives on both tsx-11.mit.edu and sunsite.unc.edu as well as the GNU archive from prep.ai.mit.edu, all of the Linux HOWTO documents with a browser that runs under Microsoft Windows, and the complete Slackware 2.0, SLS 1.0.5, Debian 0.91 beta and TAMU 1.0A distributions. The two-CD set sells for $20.00.
Other vendors who offer Linux on CD-ROM (but haven't yet sent us their products to review) include Red Hat Software, Nascent Technologies, S.u.S.E. GmbH (Germany) and Unifix Software GmbH (Germany).
This information is current as of the end of July. By the time you read this there will probably be a new player or two and the current manufacturers may have new products. The current “production” kernel for Linux is 1.0.9 and the development kernel is 1.1.32. (If the second digit is even it is a production kernel built for stability. If it is odd it contains new features and is more likely to have bugs.)
If you want to be on the leading edge of development you may need to do some serious shopping. If, however, you just want a stable version of Linux, any of the distributions that contain a 1.0.x kernel should fill the bill. In any case, welcome to the exciting Linux movement.