31 Flavors? Yum!

Which would you prefer? Chocolate day in and day out or a new flavor every day of the month? Much maligned, the smorgasbord of Linux distributions is really quite delicious.
Last year, I suggested that Linux distributions and applications standardize several areas that cause the greatest amount of work or confusion (or both) for Penguinistas (see the July 2005 “Booting Up,” available online at http://www.linux-mag.com/2004-07/booting_01.html). Specifically, I wanted a unified package format and consistent system administration across all distributions, interoperable user interfaces between desktops, and expansive, universal support for consumer devices.
Looking back at what I wrote, I still stand by my opinions. In many cases, the diversity of Linux — from kernel mods to the organization of system files — “… makes some things easy and many things hard.” On the one hand, you can find the distribution that suits your needs; on the other hand, you have to find the distribution that suits your needs.
Since I wrote that column last year, the number of Linux distributions has only increased. There are “live” distributions; floppy distributions; a distribution that makes the file system downright Macintosh- like (Gobo Linux); several Linux bundles aimed at clusters (see the “Extreme Linux” columns of the past few months); and any number of user-friendly variations. Indeed, every time I speak to “Do It Yourself” columnist Scott Granneman, he’s found some new Linux that I just have to try. And even a curmudgeonly old salt like “On the Desktop” columnist Jason Perlow can find a new Linux to get excited about — read about Ubuntu, his newfound love, on page XX. While many distributions orbit a larger body — Ubuntu around Debian; Fedora around Red Hat, and so on — differences still abound.
Yes, the sheer number of distributions is overwhelming. Yes, the options are confusing. (Come on. You can admit it. You’re among friends here.) Yes, there are growing pains in the community. Change is a constant.
Darwin would love Linux: its development is natural selection at work. The clever Debian mutates to find an efficient way to keep itself healthy (apt). The opportunistic Knoppix finds the fastest way to propagate itself (the live CD). The risk-taking Fedora and sheltered Red Hat learn to be symbiotic.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the progenitor of evolution. Or put more simply, when you have an itch, you just gotta scratch it.
So while I wish that I could always find the MySQL my.cnf file in the same place on every Linux box (Is it in /var/lib/? /etc/mysql/? Am I getting warmer? It is installed here, right?), I suppose a little tinkering with locate is a small price to pay for the sheer number of innovations the Linux — and open source community at large — get to enjoy.
I doubt there will ever be The One Linux (outside of the kernel release). There are too many individualists, too many special interests, too many itches to scratch in this world. Yes, by all means, let’s standardize where possible to make work easier. Yes, let’s pool talent and resources where common interests are found. But efficiency is a separate goal than novelty, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
The next time you go hunting for my.cnf, cursing the day you discovered the Bourne shell, remind yourself that you’re exercising a choice. Thankfully, Linux comes in a rainbow of flavors to suit any pallet.
Mr.Baskins and Mr. Robbins had the right idea.
Me? I’ll take the Rocky Road.

Martin Streicher is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine. You can contact him at class="emailaddress">mstreicher@linux-mag.com.

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