I’m not exactly sure when I first heard of Linux. It was either 1993 or 1994, just before I began my first year at university, and I don’t mind admitting it pretty much passed me by.
At university I used SunOS/Solaris and Ultrix, and I had friends already using NetBSD/RiscBSD at home. I became converted to the power and elegance of UNIX, something I’d previously only found on Amiga computers, so it was with much sadness that I graduated and found myself without access to a flavour of UNIX. Commercial workstations were out of my league, I refused to own an x86 PC, and my Amiga A4000/030 lacked an MMU to run NetBSD. There was MINIX though, which ran on an A500, which I’d had great fun hacking during an operating systems development module at uni, but it wasn’t the same.
I rediscovered Linux in 1999. On joining a new company, I was offered the choice of operating system for my desktop machine: Debian GNU/Linux, Red Hat Linux or Windows 98. It was a no-brainer: no way was I running Windows. But which distro of Linux? “If you pick Red Hat, you’ll lose the respect of your colleagues” was the only advice I had. So I picked Debian.
In a way, picking Debian was the right choice: I had to do everything myself, including a rather painful process of getting X up-and-running. I learnt a heck of a lot that day and ended up biting the bullet and building a K6-2 PC (a box I still own) for home use. I was going to install Debian on the home PC, when I ran across something called Mandrake Linux.
Mandrake was based on Red Hat, and a few sources touted it as “bug fixed Red Hat” (whatever that meant). I decided to give it a go so I could compare and contrast between Debian and Red Hat / Mandrake. It was certainly a lot easier to set up, and used something called KDE which was a bit too Windows-like for my taste, but very usable and geared towards a useful desktop system. As I wasn’t in the mood for a high-maintenance system for home use, it fit my needs and I stuck with it.
In 2000 my work PC running Debian decided to self-combust and I was forced to rebuild the machine. Most of the guys in the team had switched to Red Hat Linux, so I decided to standardise with them and switched from Debian. I still retained Mandrake at home, but it was the defining point in my preference towards Red Hat / Fedora style distros.
In 2003, I drifted a little away from Linux and back to my BSD roots: installing NetBSD and FreeBSD, and buying a Powerbook G4 running Mac OS X. OS X became my main UNIX flavour at home. I didn’t abandon Linux entirely, still using my now out-dated Mandrake installation for a few things and having a rather frustrating experience with SuSE on a new second K6-2 box. SuSE was my first, and so far only, bad Linux experience and having had to deal with an equally flakey OpenSuSE 11 system at work last year, things obviously haven’t improved.
Helping to introduce Red Hat Enterprise Linux to work in 2007 reignited my interest in Linux. Fedora took over as my typical Linux distro, and it feels just right: a great community, good support, strong backing from Red Hat, and the right focus and direction. In the last few years, I’ve begun to take more of interest in the community and goals behind a distro, not just what a project offers in terms of software. Fedora meets the goals of a high-quality distribution, backed up by a responsible and open attitude.
There is another distro I have come to enjoy and use, one which takes me back to the first time I installed Debian… albeit much easier: Arch Linux. Arch was introduced to me by the SourceCast (later DistroCast) podcast in 2008. It’s not a newbie distribution, offering something very powerful and in-keeping with the UNIX traditions I was introduced to at university. It’s a minimal, elegant distribution that gives the user massive scope for building a system that fits the user’s needs exactly. It’s backed with an above-average technical user community with a high proportion of contributors. Above all: it’s great fun to use, just like Fedora has been.
So there we have it: from Debian to Mandrake and Red Hat to Fedora and Arch, with a few experiments on the way (like SuSE, Ubuntu, Gentoo, and gNewSense) that didn’t quite grab me.