Articles about Linux and mainstream Linux news tends to be dominated by the big Linux distributions, those with large corporate backing and/or large development teams. I’m primarily talking about Red Hat Enterprise Linux and it’s free clone CentOS, Novell/SuSe, and Ubuntu on enterprise servers and Ubuntu, Fedora, Linspire, and Mandriva on the desktop. Throw in two venerable and widely respected distributions, Debian and Slackware, and you’ve got about 90% of the industry chatter covered, maybe more.
These distributions also have something else in common: with the exception of Linspire/Freespire, which I haven’t tried, they have all frustrated me on one level or another. I’ve found recent Fedora, SuSe, Mandriva, and Ubuntu releases all to have more bugs than I would expect, often very annoying and obvious ones. All of the above mentioned distors except Slackware are unimpressive in terms of performance. Most tend to be bloated and full of all sorts of cruft that I don’t need that gets installed by default. The notable exceptions are Ubuntu and Mandriva One which both come on a single CD and install a stripped down, clean OS which you can then build on. However, in the case of both Ubuntu and Mandriva One they seem to get a whole lot less useful stuff on that single CD than some other distributions seem to manage.
In the past year a number of medium sized and small distros have leaped past the big players among Linux distributions, offering single CDs with lots of apps, excellent hardware support, speedy performance, and relatively few bugs. Some are also far more user friendly than distros like Ubuntu and Mandriva, often touted as the best place for a newcomer to Linux to start. When I say medium or small I’m referring to both the developer community and user community around each distro. In some cases the developer community is just one or two people.
Some smaller distribution will surprise everyone and not conform to this normal pattern. They will either go “cutting edge” and beat the big guys to the punch, or address a need that is not addressed, or not addressed well, within the larger distributions. Last year it was Sabayon and Linux Mint who heaped on extra functionality, and GoblinX with it’s amazing artwork. So far this year it’s Wolvix.
My personal favorites at the moment are Vector Linux, which I write about frequently, and Wolvix. In the few weeks I’ve run Wolvix I, like Mr. Robinson, have been tremendously impressed.
Vector Linux qualifies as medium sized. Their first release candidate of the forthcoming version 5.8.6 SOHO has fewer bugs than the final release of many of the big distributions and yet it’s still considered a work in progress. Wolvix is the quintessential small distro with only two developers. For an English-speaking user it may be about the most user friendly Linux distro I’ve seen, easy to try as a Live CD, easy to install, and things just work right out of the virtual box. I’ll post a full review of Wolvix 1.1.0 in coming days. Tood Robinson also mentioned GoblinX, a small distro from Brazil that I also like quite well. Interestingly all three of these distros are Slackware derivatives and all three have conquered the areas Slackware is normally criticized for by offering friendly, easy to use distributions and sane package management.
2007 may well be the year of the small distro. Back in January I wrote an article called So Many Distros, So Little Time, complaining about the number and proliferation of half-baked little projects. My objections to new little distros disappear when someone genuinely comes up with something new and innovative. In upcoming reviews of Wolvix, GoblinX, and even AliXe I’ll focus on just what makes some of these up and coming flavors of Linux stand out from the pack.