There are numerous flavors, or “distributions,” of Linux, each offering a distinct experience for a particular taste or purpose. All are based on the Linux kernel, which is its core OS code. On top of that kernel, distributions may add different desktop environments, applications, and features.
Ubuntu and Linux Mint are two of the more popular contenders. But a quick glance at DistroWatch, which keeps tabs on most distributions, shows just how vast the pool of choices is. Most distros, as they’re called, are easily customizable, whether with industry-specific apps and modules or varied graphical interfaces. That said, the more your base Linux package delivers what you want, the less time you’ll spend tweaking it.
How do you pick the right distro? An online chooser such as this one is a good place to start. For a more complete consideration, break down the decision in terms of what you have and what you need. On the “what you have” side, there are three primary considerations for business users: the niche you’re in, the hardware you’re using, and the Linux skills your staff has.
Your niche: Some Linux distributions focus very narrowly on particular industries. Scientific Linux is produced by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the
European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Another niche example is EduBuntu, a variation of Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux tailored for classrooms and schools.
Your hardware: As touchscreen features are being incorporated within OSs, such as Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux, your hardware can make a big difference. Linux has always been an excellent choice for less-than-cutting-edge hardware. If your PCs are resource-limited, then consider a lightweight distro such as Puppy Linux, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Bodhi, or Damn Small Linux.
Your skills: Have you or your employees ever used Linux before? If not, choose a distribution that’s friendly for beginners, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS, Zorin OS, or the new Linux Lite. Distributions like Gentoo and Slackware, on the other hand, are probably best for users with more experience. Numerous distros fall somewhere in between.
As for the “what you need” side of the equation, there are three key considerations: application support, mobile support, and user support—i.e., employee hand-holding.
Must-have software: Is there software your business just can’t do without, such as Microsoft Office? For most, an excellent open-source equivalent is probably already available in the Linux world’s equivalent of an app store, for nearly any distro. Just in case, though, check the offerings before you pick a distro.
OSalt lists open-source alternatives to popular proprietary software. If you can’t locate what you want, find out if the proprietary app you rely on has already been made to run on the Linux flavor you’re considering. You can even run Windows apps on Linux with help from Wine or CrossOver Linux.
Mobile support: If your business relies heavily on mobile devices, pick a distro and apps that play well with them, which generally means one of the bigger names. The Ubuntu One cloud storage offering for Ubuntu Linux, for instance, offers clients for both Android and iOS. In the realm of desktop applications, GnuCash offers an Android app, while LibreOffice offers one that enables remote presentations.
User support: How much hand-holding would you like for the Linux transition? The majority of the big Linux distributions offer paid support. For your small or medium-size business, however, it depends on the skills you have in-house, and how much effort you can expend to resolve issues that might come up. Virtually every Linux distro has an active online community of developers and users, so check out the forums for a sense of the kind of help they offer.
Finally, before committing to a desktop Linux distro, take a commitment-free test-drive, such as via Live CD or Live USB. That way, even if you decide against the OS, you’ll have lost nothing. If you love it, however, then go ahead and install.
Make yourself at home
Ubuntu Linux’s app store invites you to explore.
So you’ve found and installed a Linux distribution you like. What now? Play around on the desktop to make it comfortable. Set your preferences, choose wallpaper, and check out the preloaded apps. Most every Linux distro comes with a default desktop environment, which determines the look and feel of pretty much everything you see. Most offer alternative options as well. If you don’t like your default look and feel, you can swap in numerous others.
The mobile-inspired GNOME 3 is the default desktop in many of the bigger Linux distros, including Fedora, while Unity (also mobile-inspired) is what you get in Ubuntu. A growing number of newer distros, including SolusOS and Fuduntu, display more classic default desktops based on the style of GNOME 2.
If you dislike your default desktop, check out the alternatives. KDE and Enlightenment (E17) are generally considered the most visually appealing desktops, while Xfce and LXDE are minimal and lightweight. This Wikipedia page offers a nice glimpse. Keep in mind that the more similar your distro is to the OS you and your staff have been using, the shorter your learning curve will be.
Get the apps you need
GIMP can replace Photoshop.
There’s no need to waste time searching the Web to find software. Instead, software for Linux is available in what’s known as the software repository, similar to an app store. For Ubuntu Linux, that’s the Ubuntu Software Center; but for the most part, each distro has its own equivalent (to find it, look in the administrative menu of your OS). Typically, software there is vetted, reviewed, and safe to download.
A tool called the package manager lets you find and download software from the repository. If you’re looking for an equivalent to a big-brand, commercial application, OSalt is a good place to start. Wikipedia has a nice list as well.
You’ll find user reviews for most of the following apps in the Ubuntu Software Center. For other distros, try Gizmo’s Freeware site as well as OSalt. The following popular, free, and open-source business applications will often already come bundled with your Linux distro:
LibreOffice includes free alternatives to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Office productivity: LibreOffice is the most widely used open-source option. However, OpenOffice, Calligra Office, and the non-open-source, online-only Google Apps each have their own advantages.
Accounting: Though not open source, QuickBooks is often held up as a reason for not switching to Linux. Its availability in browser-based form removes that obstacle. Also available is the free and open-source GnuCash. GnuCash can do most of what QuickBooks does.
Database Management: MariaDB, Eclipse BIRT, and Actuate. A 2010 Forrester report compares these and other options.
Web browser: Firefox and Chrome are the two biggest options for Linux users. Firefox integrates nicely with Thunderbird for email, but the choice between the two mostly comes down to a matter of personal preference.
Email and shared calendars: Mozilla Thunderbird is probably the most widely used desktop email client, while Gmail and Google Apps for Business online are also good.
Graphics: GIMP is the default graphics package included by nearly every distro, and it’s excellent.
Desktop publishing: Scribus offers a user-friendly interface, along with support for professional publishing features such as color separations, CMYK and spot colors, ICC color management, and versatile PDF creation.
Backup: Amanda and Bacula are good open-source backup options, but Amanda tends to be viewed as more mature. Amanda Enterprise offers extra business-focused features.
Remote desktop access: To access a user’s PC from afar, rdesktop, RealVNC, and FreeNX are popular options.