Selecting an Open Source Operating System

Selecting an Open Source Operating System

Pick the best OS for you

There's a large selection of free and open source (FOSS) operating systems available these days, and choosing the right one for any given circumstance can be quite a challenge. This article is intended to help you pick the best operating system for your needs and experience level. Although this article is geared primarily toward those who have little to no experience with FOSS operating systems, we've included some pointers for more savvy open source users – say, those who use a FOSS operating system at home and would like to deploy one on the job.

We've come up with five points to consider when selecting a FOSS operating system:

Intended Use

How you plan to use a FOSS operating system is a key point to take into account when making your selection. Many of the systems are quite flexible and can be used for different purposes, but it still pays to consider their relative strengths and weaknesses.

We've come up with three broad categories with which to categorize most FOSS operating systems: desktop, server, and special purpose.

Desktop Operating Systems

If you expect desktop functionality from your FOSS operating system, you'll want to find one that's been designed for that purpose. Desktop operating systems tend toward friendlier installation and greater use of graphical user interfaces. In addition, they usually sport newer versions of popular desktop software like browsers and mail clients.

Sample desktop FOSS operating systems include:

  • Mandriva
  • openSUSE
  • PC BSD
  • Ubuntu

Server Operating Systems

Server operating systems may favor stability over the latest versions of software applications. With some server operating systems, the installation of the operating system and programs is done with less graphical (and often less friendly) tools than you'll find in desktop operating systems. The software in server operating systems tends to be somewhat behind "right out of the box", but can be fairly easy to update using the software management tools provided. However, care should be taken to make sure that your updates will work, especially if the software you're installing includes dependencies on other packages – in which case you'll need to update those, too.

Sample server FOSS operating systems include:

  • CentOS
  • FreeBSD
  • Red Hat

Special Purpose Operating Systems

There are a number of special purpose FOSS operating systems that offer bundles of pre-configured applications with graphical installer and management tools. Some of the most common special purpose operating systems are for file serving, firewalls, and rescue CDs. They're usually based on an existing general purpose desktop or server operating system, but with the installation modified in such a way that a certain set of software is installed. Management in special purpose operating systems is usually very specific and tends to emphasize the system's particular function. Many areas of management are not readily accessible through the default management interface. On the bright side, special purpose FOSS operating systems may provide a quick and easy way to fulfill a specific need – if you can find one that accomplishes what you require.

Sample special purpose FOSS operating systems include:

  • Knoppix Rescue CD
  • FreeNas Free NAS file server
  • Smoothwall Firewall

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