The Ubuntu Conundrum

Ubuntu is perhaps the most popular Linux-based operating system, however for that very reason it has as many proponents as enemies. I myself use Ubuntu (Xubuntu 16.04 LTS, to be exact) at work, both as a development platform and to host services in libvirt/KVM virtual machines (Ubuntu Server 16.04 LTS there). It performs alright and so far hasn’t let us down, though we haven’t been using it through more than 2 releases so we’re unable to gauge its reliability properly. On more personal grounds I can say it works splendidly on my early-2011 MacBook Pro 15″ with faulty AMD graphics and has since the very beginning (out-of-the-box, as one might say). Singular package upgrades don’t bring about all of the regressions people profess so fervently. However, I can understand where the hate is coming from and I admit it is partially justified.

Product and popularity
For whatever reason human psychology dictates that we equate quality with popularity. If something is extremely popular, it simply must be good, right? Wrong. Completely. A product is popular, because someone with enough resources made it visible to as many consumers as possible. The product was made popular. Quality is a useful, but clearly secondary measure. A good anecdote is the long gone rivalry between VHS and Betamax. We all remember VHS, though most of us do not remember Betamax, which was technically superior. However, it lost the popularity race and will forever be remembered as the second best or not remembered at all. Now, this is not to say that Ubuntu is in any way inferior…

Ubuntu, the (non)universal operating system
The main issue with Ubuntu is that it succeeded as a more open operating system alternative to Windows and macOS X, however did not solve the underlying problem – computer literacy. Of course, not every computer user has to be a geek and hack the kernel. However, when I see that Ubuntu users address their PC-related issues with the same shamanism and hocus pocus as in Windows, my soul twists in convulsions. We did not flee from closed-source operating systems only to change the names of our favorite tools and the look of our graphical user interfaces, though observing current trends, I might be terribly wrong. The other problem is that Ubuntu’s popularity has become self-perpetuating. It’s popular, because it’s popular. Many tutorials online and in magazines assume that if one uses Linux, he or she surely runs Ubuntu on all of his or her computers. This is extremely hurtful to the entirety of the Linux ecosystem, because neither Debian nor Ubuntu represent standard Linux. Both of those systems introduce a number of configuration improvements to applications, which are not defined in upstream documentation and absent in other distributions (so-called Debianisms). Therefore, Ubuntu being a universal operating system is more of a publicity gimmick than a fact. Especially, considering that on servers, SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise edition), CentOS and Red Hat clearly dominate.

The solution?
I would say it’s high time we begin showing newcomers that there is an amazing world of Linux beyond Ubuntu. To that end, I have a couple of suggestions for specific needs and distributions covering those needs. Related questions come up often in the Linux Facebook group and around the Internet, but get answered superficially via click-bait articles listing top 10 distributions in 2017/18. Not exactly useful. Anyhow, the list:

  • Software development:
    – Fedora (up-to-date packages and developer-centric tools like COPR)
    – Arch Linux (up-to-date with a wide range of packages via AUR and vanilla package configuration for simplicity)
    – openSUSE Tumbleweed (up-to-date with a rolling, snapshot based release cycle, but sharing the Leap / SLES high-quality management tools like YaST2)
  • Servers:
    – openSUSE Leap (3-year long support life cycle, high-quality management tools like YaST2 and straightforward server + database + VM configuration)
    – CentOS (binary compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux)
    – FreeBSD (ZFS hard drive pool management + snapshots, reliable service/database separation via jails, rock solid base system)
  • Easy-to-use:
    – Manjaro Linux (based on Arch Linux, with lots of straightforward graphical configuration tools, multiple installable kernels, etc.)
    – Fedora (not only for developers!)
    – openSUSE Leap (for similar reasons as above + a streamlined, user-friendly installer)
  • For learning Linux:
    – Gentoo (painful at first, but extremely flexible with discrete software feature selection at compile-time via USE flags)
    – Arch Linux (Keep It Simple Stupid; no hand-holding, but with high-quality documentation to make the learning curve less steep)
    – CRUX (similar to Gentoo, but without the useful scripts; basically, vanilla Linux with a very simple package manager)
  • For learning BSDs:
    – FreeBSD (as mentioned above)
    – OpenBSD (strong emphasis on code-correctness, system engineering and network management)
    – DragonflyBSD (pioneering data storage and multi-processor systems)