Why user exposure matters for Linux distributions, especially on desktops

June 29, 2008

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (or equivalently CentOS) has any number of things going for it from the perspective of sysadmins, but one of things it does not have is user visibility. Ubuntu is the hot Linux distribution these days, despite its issues, with special acclaim for its desktop experience.

This user visibility matters, contrary to what some people believe (or would like to be the case).

A good part of why we run Ubuntu on our core servers is that research groups were already running Ubuntu on their machines, both desktops and compute nodes, and they wanted to us to have the same environment, partly because it was what they were already familiar with, and partly because it meant that they could easily move programs back and forth between their machines and ours. Those research groups did not select Ubuntu because they had gone through a careful technical evaluation of which Linux distribution would be better; they used Ubuntu because it had the mindshare and because it worked well enough to justify its PR.

In a nutshell, that is why user visibility matters: these decisions do get driven from the bottom up, with users advocating for what they are already using and are familiar with.

(Also, it is easier to sell something to users if it already has the visibility with them. I am sure that there would have been people asking why we weren't using Ubuntu if we'd made a different choice, and yes, their opinions matter.)

I say that user visibility especially matters on desktops because desktops are the easiest and the best place for users to get hooked on something. They're the easiest because in practice they're the machines that users have the most control over, and they're the best because they're what users use all the time.

Comments on this page:

By M. Jones at 2014-03-31 02:51:06:

From my point of view it's RHEL that has unwarranted mindshare -- it's expensive and it's the enterprise standard, so it must be good, right?

We started switching to Debian and Ubuntu around the time of your blog post in 2008. Both offer extremely deep package repositories, relatively nice conventions (RHEL's /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0 format is atrocious), and more current versions of software -- this last is more true for Ubuntu than Debian.

Ubuntu ended up with the nod in the end because it offers the possibility of first-party support, an LTS policy that was liked (although I prefer not to be stuck with an LTS), and a few nice innovations. Ubuntu also admittedly has name recognition.

Written on 29 June 2008.
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Last modified: Sun Jun 29 23:22:12 2008
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