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Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the Linux operating system. This is not to say that Linux doesn't exist; it just isn't what most people think it is. When most of us think of an operating system we think of something like Windows or MacOS -- a graphical environment with various tools and utilities, or perhaps a command prompt and various commands that we can type to make the computer do things. But that's not what Linus Torvalds set out to write in 1991. His creation -- Linux -- is, strictly speaking, an operating system kernel: a piece of software that runs on the bare metal of your computer, and provides services to other programs (such as memory management, scheduling, inter-process communications, access to shares resources like filesystems, disks, serial ports, and so on).
The other components -- command interpreters (shells), utilities, scripting languages, network tools, on-line documentation and help, graphical user interface, and so on -- all came from other sources. Because Linux was written to be a clone of UNIX, most of this stuff came from the UNIX community. Together, this whole agglomeration of free UNIX software and the Linux kernel is referred to as the Linux operating system; but it's a deceptive label, because major components of it differ depending on who put it together.
For example, all Linux (and UNIX) systems need a shell -- the equivalent of the MS-DOS COMMAND.COM program -- which you can type commands into and which can execute scripts; they're basically a pocket programming language, and the main way a user interacts with the system when there's no graphical user interface available. This shell should in principle be the original UNIX Bourne shell. But there are loads of free clones of the Bourne shell out there, starting with the Free Software Foundation's Bash (Bourne- Again Shell), and getting more exotic from there. Most of them have extra features the original Bourne shell lacks; and although most Linux systems use Bash in place of the Bourne shell, it's not unusual to see other shells in the same place: Ash, for example, on floppy-based systems where space is at a premium, or Zsh (the Zorn shell) for people who feel the need to mix non-standard C shell scripts in with their ordinary shell scripts and don't want to keep a separate C shell clone to hand.
All of which can cause no end of confusion. But wait: there's worse ...
Back in 1991, if you wanted a complete Linux system you had to build it yourself. You had to patch the kernel by hand once you'd laboriously copied it onto your reformatted hard disk (so that it would recognize that it was running on an appropriate type of device instead of a floppy). Then you had to obtain and copy the basic tools into the right directories -- things like ls and cp and rm -- then use them to copy in the shared libraries and GNU C compiler, and finally begin compiling and installing everything else. It was all a bit like building a kit car; you had to know a lot about auto engineering before you could drive to the shops.
Luckily, things were made a lot easier by the existence of the Free Software Foundation, whose GNU project ("Gnu's Not UNIX") had set out in 1984 to clone the entire UNIX operating system. By 1991 the FSF had written many, but not all of the components of a UNIX system. While the GNU HURD kernel still wasn't available -- it's in beta today, and may be out before 2010 -- early Linux pioneers could pick up most of the gadgets they needed from the Free Software Foundation. If building your own Linux system was a bit like building your own car, at least there were lots of kit parts available from the FSF store. And to this day, almost all Linux distributions are built around a common set of GNU utilities.
Around 1993, things began to change. Some Linux users had the idea of putting the whole thing on a set of floppies (or a CDROM) so that they could get a basic system running without having to bolt it together the hard way each time. Such a system is called a distribution, because it's redistributable -- you can give a copy of the distribution to anyone else with a PC, and there's a good chance they'll be able to use it to install a working copy of Linux. One point worth noting is that all distributions come with an installer, just like MacOS or Windows: no more building filesystem and patching the kernel by hand!
Hard disks are typically split into multiple partitions -- raw chunks of storage which can be occupied by different operating systems. Each partition is occupied by one (or sometimes more) filesystems; a tree of directories and files (denoted by a drive letter under Windows, or a device name under Linux). A tool called fdisk (originally named under MS-DOS; the name seems to have stuck to the equivalent programs under Linux and other operating systems) can be used to modify the partition table at the beginning of the disk, which tells the computer's BIOS where to look for the start of the different filesystems.
A typical Linux distribution would be installed into a spare disk partition, not occupied by something like DOS or Windows. Using the LILO boot manager (or a commercial equivalent like System Commander), you can select which partition the computer boots from. Using the FIPS repartitioning tool, you can scavenge space from an under-used Windows partition and make it available for fdisk to repartition for use by Linux.
The first distribution was SLS (Soft Landing Systems), which evolved into Slackware.
SLS Linux consisted of a set of floppy disk images divided into alphabetized categories (often with more than one disk per category). You used a floppy disk containing Linux to book; this loaded a RAM disk into memory and ran a minimal Linux system off it. This would then run an installation script which would copy files from floppy disks as you inserted them. The packages were typically gzip-compressed TAR archives -- known as tarballs -- containing all the files associated with one task; you could selectively install different tarballs, or upgrade a subsystem by overwriting its tarball with a more recent one. (A TAR file is an old-style UNIX Tape Archive; a file containing other files, uncompressed. Gzip is a free compression system that can be applied to TAR archives; generally it achieves a better compression ratio than WinZip or StuffIt, and GNU tar -- which is old-style tar with optional gzip compression -- is one of the commonest archive formats in the Linux world.)
Tarballs have deficiencies as a tool for distributing software. They're just a group of files stored in one compressed bundle. The problem is that lots of Linux subsystems share files. As with other operating systems, Linux uses dynamically linked libraries (DLLs) that can be shared between programs; this means that programs can be smaller (they draw upon shared libraries when they need to load some features, instead of having to duplicate the common code) and use less memory when running (two programs can use the same shared library simultaneously, so the code need only be loaded once).
Now imagine you have two packages, A and B. Both of them rely on a shared library called C. Both tarballs, in fact, contain a copy of C, just in case it isn't present on the system when you install them. But A comes with C version 1.01, and B with C version 1.02. If you try to run B with version 1.01 of the library it won't work, because it requires some feature that was only added in version 1.02. Now suppose your installation package tries installing both packages, A and B. If you install A before B, you will get version 1.02 of the shared library C, and both packages will run. But if you install B before A, the version 1.01 library will overwrite the copy installed with package B, and the result is that B will stop working.
This is called a package dependency conflict; packages B and A depend on C, and moreover they depend on specific versions of C being in place. Tarballs have no mechanism for resolving package dependencies, which is why the Linux world has latched onto a couple of more sophisticated formats for distributing software.
The two main systems for avoiding package dependencies are RPM (the Red Hat Package Manager) and DPKG (the Debian Package). Both systems contain dependency information; in our example above, if you tried to install the packages in the wrong order, the RPM tool would spot the problem and alert you before you could blow away another package. RPM has other advantages; programmers can add post-installation scripts to their files (to do things like set up machine-specific databases and configuration files, or ask the system administrator useful questions). RPM is open source, fully documented, and currently used by several leading Linux distributions -- Red Hat, Caldera, and SuSE. DPKG is also open source, and is used by Debian Linux and the forthcoming Corel Linux distribution.
RPM has one minor problem. While it will (try to) stop you installing a package that will clobber some other system or that is missing some vital pre-requisites, it isn't so good at actually going out and finding the missing pieces. DPKG is designed to do just that; given an internet connection, you can tell it what you want to install -- and it will go and upgrade your system as necessary in order to successfully install the package you wanted. (This can be a rather bandwidth-consuming job, if it turns out you need to upgrade your graphical user interface or something, but at least it will save you from accidentally breaking anything.
Anyway, now we know roughly what a distribution is; a set of packages (possibly with a package management system to prevent dependency conflicts) and an installation system. This unpacks itself onto a PC or other piece of equipment to provide a fully functional Linux environment -- that is, a UNIX-like operating system with a Linux kernel, GNU utilities, and so forth. It may also have a distribution-specific tool for handling system administration tasks, and various extras. It is usually distributed on CD-ROM, although installation via floppy disk, from a directory on another machine (via ftp or NFS over the network), or other more exotic means is possible.
Red Hat 6.0
Probably the most popular distribution overall (at least outside of Germany and Japan), and the one everyone keeps talking about, is Red Hat Linux. Red Hat started out as a two-man startup in 1994, specifically to bolt together a linux distribution. They met the package dependency problem early on, and came up with RPM as a solution; the result is probably going to be pigeon-holed as industry history in a few years, if anyone cares.
If you buy Official Red Hat Linux, you get a box, a couple of CDROMs (including the source code as well as a bootable installation CD), a supplementary CDROM (full of demo versions of commercial software and some -- such as Word Perfect -- that isn't demoware but requires registration and is not open source). You also get a couple of floppies (in case your PC can't boot off a CDROM), a book, a cute bumper sticker, and a registration card that entitles you to two months of installation support. This seems to be about par for the course among the commercial Linuxes. Additional support deals are available from Red Hat, for varying amounts of money -- all the way up to full corporate support packages including on-site call-out of engineers (if you are willing to pay a few tens of thousands of dollars per year).
Red Hat's installation system is pretty straightforward; personally I find it no harder to live with than the Windows 95 installer, and a trifle easier than MacOS 8.5 (despite the fact that both those systems throw up lots of pretty icons and pictures while Red Hat simply uses some character-mode menus and forms). The installer guides you through the appropriate sequence of actions but is fairly flexible, and in particular gives you the option to mess around with virtually any packages you want, showing you a hierarchical outline view of what's available. If you miss anything important out it will warn you and automatically fix any dependency problems before going ahead with the full installation. As a side-note, if your system can boot off CDROM, you don't need any floppies at all; if not, you can probably run the installation with a single floppy (unless you have some unusual hardware, such as a CDROM hanging off a PCMCIA interface).
Feature-wise, Red Hat is fairly good. Version 6.0 is based on the 2.2 series kernel (currently 2.2.5; the latest release is 2.2.11 as of the time of writing, but 2.2.5 is reasonably stable), along with GNU libc 2.1 (which supports multi-threading), the EGCS C++ compiler (now being merged back in with the GCC source tree, ultimately to produce GCC 3.0 real soon now), and supports multi-processor kernels out of the box on Intel machines. (Of course, you need to specify whether you're wanting a copy of Red Hat for Intel, SPARC, or Alpha architecture when you buy a copy; the latter two are something of a specialist choice and certainly won't install on a PC!)) In general, the standard utilities and directories are in the usual places, as per the Linux file system hierarchy standard; they should be pretty familiar if you've used any mainstream flavour of UNIX before. (If you're into such things, see fhs.)
On the server side, Red Hat 6.0 is as comprehensive as ever; support for Windows file and print sharing (via Samba), AppleTalk file and print sharing (via NetAtalk), the Apache web server, INN news server, and a host of other servers make a Red Hat system a piece of systems glue -- stick it on a network and it will do its best to allow other systems to interoperate.
On the graphical side, Red Hat 6.0 ships with XFree86 126.96.36.199 and the xfstt TrueType engine. X11 configuration isn't fully automatic, but some attempt is made at walking the user through setup while Red Hat installs it, using the Xconfigurator program. There's also a rather ho-hum set of macro-driven X11 configuration scripts that set up a couple of different desktop look-and-feel environments (including a NeXTStep-like one and a Windows-like one) as well as GNOME and KDE. To their credit Red Hat include a fairly comprehensive system administration front end (control-panel), the LinuxConf remote system administration tool; and unlike Caldera, they include sound support (albeit only for a limited range of cards, such as the original Sound Blaster and SB16) out of the box.
The default desktop environment for Red Hat is GNOME. I must confess to personal prejudice at this point; I vastly prefer KDE. (KDE has about a years' lead-time over GNOME and is more mature; and in my opinion, the original reason for the development split -- that KDE relied on the Qt widget library, and Qt was non-free -- has been settled by the release of Qt 2.0 under an open source license.) However, as of release 6.0, Red Hat now includes KDE 1.1 as an alternative environment.
Traditionally X11 has been rather bad (read: absolutely lousy) at handling fonts; Red Hat have addressed this problem by building TrueType and Adobe Type 1 font support into their X server, and providing utilities (notably xchkfontpath) to make it easy to add new fonts to the system which will show up on screen and be made available to the GhostScript postscript printing engine. So it should now be possible to expect WYSIWYG font representations in printed and on-screen output.
It's very hard to criticise Red Hat as a product. To me, it has the right balance between power and user friendliness -- but then, I develop software on Linux for a living, so I'm probably a special case. What I like about Red Hat is that it doesn't get in my way: it simply provides an unassuming, relatively uncomplicated but feature-rich UNIX operating system environment, with plenty of extras, and some handy administration tools (accessed via the Red Hat control panel under X11), and a solid package management tool to make upgrades and system maintenance easy. As an indication of its stability, I've seen PC's upgraded all the way from Red Hat 4.1 through Red Hat 6.0 without needing a complete backup and reinstall; the RPM-based upgrade system works reliably. There's a reason why Red Hat ship something like half the packaged Linux distributions sold in the USA; the product is solid, if a bit more expensive than some of their rivals. (Red Hat upped the price on their boxed edition from the common US $49 charged by most distributors to $79 with release 6.0; however you can still download it for free or buy it from a cheap reseller such as Definite systems or CheapBytes.)
SuSE come from Hamburg (in Germany, in case you didn't know). In general, SuSE distributions were released first in German, then in English translation, although from 6.1 onwards they're being released simultaneously. By the time you read this, 6.2 should be out -- this will add KDE 1.1.2 and a newer kernel version than the 6.1 reviewed here. You can find current details, including a hardware compatability database, at SuSE.
The SuSE 6.1 box contains the usual kit: book, boot floppy, and CDROM -- only this time with five CDROMs. It's a big distribution -- they've shoehorned a lot of extras into it -- but most of the kit is obtainable separately elsewhere (for example, you can get the equivalent extras for Red Hat from their Power Tools CD set, or by downloading from contrib.redhat.com). On the other hand, if you buy SuSE 6.1 you don't need to go elsewhere -- a mercy for those of us who don't have fast, cheap internet connections or an unlimited budget.
American software companies often behave as if the world ends at Maine -- I'm pleased to report that this doesn't seem to be the case in the Linux world. Red Hat, SuSE and Caldera all have installers which provide a choice of languages. (Red Hat and SuSE ship a single, 4-500 page installation manual in just one local language in the box; Caldera ships a 500-page book containing five 100-page versions of the same document in different langauges.)
I didn't like the SuSE installation manager, although it was pretty powerful. It tends to make you do rather more legwork than any of the others; where Red Hat or Caldera handle dependencies automatically, when you check for consistency between packages in SuSE it expects you to note down which are missing and go back and add them to your selection manually. However, it got the job done in the end -- and gave a couple of recommended systems you could install, unlike Red Hat. One problem is that SuSE 6.1 comes with a lot of packages, some of which conflict; for example, you don't want to install both the ncftpd and WU-ftpd FTP servers on the same system, but if you select the "install everything" option SuSE will suggest doing exactly that. (Then complain that some files in /usr/ftp/bin conflict with one or other FTP server packages.)
It's hard to comment on the standard UNIX software bundled with SuSE or Red Hat, mostly because there's so much of it. A full listing of what you get in the box would go on for several pages; a full SuSE 6.1 installation occupies something like 4Gb of disk space. A minimal SuSE installation (for example, for a network router) is just about possible on a 486 with 8Mb of RAM and a 120Mb disk, but it's painful -- you won't get a graphical workstation setup with less than 1Gb. One point is worth noting, though: everything you could possibly want, and then some, is represented in this distribution. You probably won't need to go online to grab anything at all -- SuSE is self-contained. The same cannot be said of all the other distributions, and this may well outweigh the perceived drawbacks of having to wade through an entire universe of software in the installer.
SuSE make a lot of hay over their custom system administration tool, YaST. I'm not sure about YaST; it has a disturbing tendency to go off and do whatever it feels like doing after you tell it what yoiu want done, While it's undoubtedly a good idea for new users who don't want to be bothered learning UNIX system administration (and reading the entire bestiary of O'Reilly Nutshell guides), YaST arguably goes too far towards automating the process. (On one system, in particular, I had a fair amount of trouble with a dial-on-demand internet connection -- until I discovered that YaST had quietly re-instated sendmail, which was bringing the link up unexpectedly.)
SuSE uses the standard System V init script mechanism to control startup and shutdown, as do all the other distributions in this review. A series of shell scripts located in directories below /etc/rc.d -- or rather, below /sbin/rc.d in the case of SuSE -- are executed in sequence to start and stop system services, depending on which run level the system is entering or leaving. YaST merrily by-passes the standard rc scripts and slides its own scripts in underneath, using a complex system of environment variables and meta-configuration scripts to rebuild everything (or rather, the configuration files in /etc) the way it prefers to see them.
If you're administering a SuSE box your first point of call should be YaST -- it's got settings for everything buried somewhere inside it, including network administration, ISDN setup, sendmail configuration, and package management. YaST works in conjunction with some pretty low-level configuration scripts that slide in underneath the usual System V init script system (which drives startup and shutdown), so it's a bit dangerous to edit the rc scripts manually. Some aspects of its system management may make up for this; the SAX X-configuration program was particularly good. SAX is not quite as slick as Caldera's installation system, but it's head and shoulders above anything else, and SuSE provide a range of additional X servers which they've ported to support unusual graphics cards. With this in mind, SuSE 6.1 is a good choice for a workstation setup.
In use, SuSE resembles any other recent Linux; SuSE 6.1 is based on KDE 1.1 just like Caldera 2.2 (or Red Hat 6.0 with KDE as the default desktop). Unlike the others, it comes with the latest pre-release KDE gadgets as an installable bundle -- KOffice, for example. There are some other nice touches. For example, there's a (licensed) copy of the Open Sound System; choose to install the rpm and it dumps the OSS kit into /tmp, from whence you conduct the standard OSS installation and configuration. This probably makes it about the best distribution in terms of sound card support, out of the box (unless you're lucky enough to have one of the somewhat narrower range of boards supported by Red Hat's soundconf).
After working with a desktop machine running SuSE 6.1 for a couple of months, I have mixed feelings -- but more positive ones than when I started out. SuSE Linux is a heavyweight Linux distribution with an excellent range of bundled commercial software and good support for some nice hardware add- ons like ISDN and sound cards. YAST is a law unto itself and quite unlike any other system administration tool -- it takes a bit of getting used to -- but eventually you learn to reach a working accomodation with it. If you want a one-stop-shop SuSE may be better than any of the other distributions on offer -- as long as you don't mind the odd administration tools. SuSE certainly seems to offer a wider range of configurable doohickeys and installable thingumabobs than Caldera. Unless you really, absolutely, know nothing about Linux and are desperately afraid of having to install it, it's a toss-up -- with SuSE having the edge on bundled packages.
Caldera Systems, based in Utah, was set up to produce a business-oriented Linux distribution. Their initial capital came from Ray Noorda, founder and former chairman of Novell. Caldera's Open Linux product is currently at version 2.2, based on a 2.2 series kernel. Details of pricing and suppliers can be located by way of Caldera Systems.
The box, as sold, contains the usual: a manual (actually quite brief, as it's repeated in five different languages), boot floppy, bootable CDROM, source code CDROM, and registration card. You can download the Open Linux Base for free (or maybe get them off a magazine cover disk or something), but you won't get StarOffice or Sybase or the other commercial bits in that case.
This distribution aimed squarely at the corporate desktop, rather than the techie/hobbyist or server markets. To this end it includes additional commercial applications with their core distribution, and focusses on stability rather than feature count. It may sound boring, but OpenLinux 2.2 breaks new ground in terms of ease of installation and setup. It's substantially easier to install than Windows 98, never mind the other linux distributions.
Caldera 2.2 uses the most user-friendly instllation system of any Linux distribution. For the first time, it makes a decent stab at automatically repartitioning your hard disk for you -- a big stumbling block to new users who may not even know what a partition is -- and then it actually tries to autodetect your video card and set up X. This was a qualified success on my main desktop system; it spotted my Matrox Millennium II, but rather conservatively assumed it only had 256K of video RAM (until told otherwise). Nevertheless, it got it right, and got it right without forcing me to run a separate program or go grovelling through the video card's manual looking for obscure technical details.
Lizard has decent online help, and does a good job of protecting the naive user from the complexities of the underlying system. In fact, you can run right through an OpenLinux installation until it's done, reboot straight into KDE (the default desktop that comes with OpenLinux 2.2), and be working in a GUI environment without ever seeing a command prompt. Note, however, that if something goes wrong with the installation it may not be immediately obvious from within Lizard. One laptop system simply refused to complete the installation process and could not be configured using OpenLinux 2.2; in the end SuSE worked fine on it.
In use, OpenLinux 2.2 differs from Red Hat mostly in that it is aimed squarely at the desktop user rather than a server/technical market. In place of Linuxconf, OpenLinux comes with COAS, the Caldera Open Administration Framework: a fairly powerful-looking system management utility. This looks as if it's going to evolve into a powerful system administration front-end -- most of the essentials are already in place, and it's adequate for a standalone desktop system with local ethernet connectivity or a dialup network connection to the internet. Bundled software includes StarOffice 5.0 Word Perfect 8.0 (which you need to go online to grab a registration key for), the BRU backup utility (also shipped with official Red Hat Linux), Netscape 4.5.1, and Partition Magic and Boot Magic built into the Lizard to help you repartition while installing.
The standard desktop is KDE 1.1; expect an upgrade to KDE 1.1.2 soon.
As far as the noncommercial packages go, there's something for everyone. If you own a Palm Pilot you're in for a treat: there're hot docking capabilities accessible from the KDE main menu. There's the usual kitchen sink of general purpose tools; the full KDE suite, Xemacs, XCDroast (if you have a CD burner), a plethora of programming languages and tools (including the astounding DDD debugger), and so on. And it's all driven by RPM, the same package manager that Red Hat, Pacific HiTech, and SuSE all use.
OpenLinux does not come with an Appletalk file/network server (netatalk). It doesn't have IPchains (for firewalling and IP redirection), and indeed would need a fair amount of upgrading to support those facilities. Nor does it come with a working sound system, although the kernel sound modules are compiled and loadable.
Documentation is fair. The manual is multilingual, like the installer, and although it only gives an abbreviated tour of the Linux desktop it's hard to fault. The usual mounds of virtual dead trees lurk under /usr/doc, waiting to confuse the scholastically inclined.
OpenLinux 2.2 is far and away the easiest distribution to install, if your system is fairly standard and you're new to Linux. It's optimised as a workstation system for beginners and corporate users, and has fewer packages than the Red Hat or SuSE offerings, but is probably easier to get to grips with.
Some other distributions
These aren't the only distributions (by a long way). Probably the most interesting of the others is Debian Linux. Debian is the GNU Linux distribution; unlike the distributions described above, it is not produced by a corporation but a collective of programmers. It focusses on building a working Linux system that is entirely open source; restricted software may be installed or used with Debian linux, but is packaged and distributed separately. (This has significant implications if you're planning on building your own sub- distribution for some specific purpose; it means you have a guarantee that you don't owe somebody money because you've given away a copy of the software they wrote under some obscure licensing condition.)
The current stable distribution of Debian is 2.1 ("slink"); work is in progress on 2.2 ("potato"). you can obtain a four-CD set of Debian disks by mail order from InfoMagic, CheapBytes, or other distributors; it's also available bundled with a book (containing the Debian installation guide, which is otherwise available as HTML files on the first CD).
(I would have liked to devote a chunk of this review to Debian, but there is one major drawback with dealing with volunteer groups as opposed to companies: they lack marketing departments who are eager to shower review copies on journalists. My copy of Debian 2.1 suffered a defective CD, and I was unable to contact anyone in time to procure a replacement. Expect an in-depth Debian review in the regular Linux column, soon.)
In addition to these big four, there are a number of other distributions -- more than you can shake a stick at, in fact. In general, these fall into three categories. First, there are meta-distributions based on one of the main distributions. For example, consider Definite Linux. This is a UK-based metadistribution which consists of Red Hat Linux, with all the available update patches (which, for version 6.0, run to around 100Mb of files). On top of this, there's a large array of cryptographic software -- stuff that is undeniably useful, but which is ommitted from Red Hat Linux because it would make it somewhat hard to export from the USA if present. If you're used to running Red Hat but want the crypto tools as well, and don't need the telephone support or colourful box, Definite Linux is probably a good bet: see Definite Systems for details.
Next, there're distributions aimed at specific target platforms. For example, Yellow Dog Linux (funny how those adjective-noun distributions seem to be proliferate, isn't it?) is a distribution aimed at the PowerPC platform -- specifically, recent-ish Macintoshes. As you might imagine, there's a heavy emphasis on Macintosh support here; more to the point, everything is compiled to run on PowerPC hardware. Other platform-specific distributions include the various ports of Debian (runs on SPARC, UltraSPARC, Alpha, and Motorola 680x0 hardware) and Red Hat (runs on SPARC and Alpha). There are also items that hardly reach the level of being a full distribution, but at least make it easier to run Linux on your platform of choice; for example, Psion Series 5 Linux, at Calcaria.
Finally, there are special purpose distributions. These are generally tailored to fit on a floppy disk (so you've got a minimal Linux on any PC you sit down in front of; see mulinux.nevalabs.org), to turn an old PC into a router/print server (Rock Linux), for reliability (Mastodon), and for foreign language support. There are too many to list here, but you can get a feel for what's available at www.linux.org's list of distributions.
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