Help me pick a linux distro

I just upgraded one of my computers and I now have enough spare parts laying around to build a linux box for the heck of it.

What’s a good starter distro? I’m thinking I want something pretty light.

For the most part, there will be no monitor connected. I want to perhaps put a mail server on there to collect and merge email from several POP accounts and filter for viruses and spam, and run some automation type perl scripts from cron. I’ll probably also install apache, mysql, and php. I’ll be doing the majority of work through webmin or telnet.

This is a P2 400 w/384 mb if that matters.

Is FreeBSD a viable alternative any more? I kind of like the easy installation “ports”. Do all linux distros have something similar?


If you’re familiar with *BSD, you might have success with Slackware, which is one of the most BSD-like of the GNU/Linux distributions. Slackware has a very simplistic package management system, nowhere near as powerful as BSD ports. On the other hand, you can get a Slackware box up and running within 20 minutes, and a minimalistic install can fit on a hard disk of only a few hundred megabytes.

Gentoo is a distribution that also caters to *BSD converts, especially with its portage package management system, which was inspired by BSD ports. With Gentoo you can build the entire system from source, optimized for your architecture, which is a rewarding but time-consuming experience. As a local server, your old computer’s performance would probably be adequate with either distro, even though most Slackware packages are still optimized for i486.

Arch Linux is a newer distro that caters to the same markets as Gentoo and Slackware, taking the best features of each distro and wrapping them up in a nice package with sensible defaults. Arch offers BSD-style init scripts, i686-optimized binary packages of the latest stable software releases, and an impressive package management system that resolves library dependencies (unlike Slackware’s) and synchronizes its database with the frequently-updated software database at the Arch website.

A while back when I thought Linux would be a good match for me I installed Mandrake. It installed without a hitch, recognized most of my hardware. I used the same computer with a hard drive swap tray which work very well.

If you want to use it for a server, try Debian.

I’m a Mandrake bigot, but if you are looking for a server that won’t run a window environment, I’d go with Debian or one of the BSD flavors. Gentoo is good, but do you really need to compile everything for a home server?

Mandrake, Red Hat and SuSE would work fine, but Debian and the BSD flavors have the advantage of robust, text-based package tools.

If you have a smallish disk drive, maybe look at one of the minimalist distros like Peanut Linux or Vector Linux (both available from their home page or

You might want to take a peek at ibiblio’s distribution page, anyway. Their are several distributions designed for what you are looking to do.

Thanks for all the replies thus far.

To expand, I’ve been using linux webservers since 1997, but they’ve all been hosted elsewhere, at the high-tech datacenter/dude’s basement or whatever. I installed Red Hat 7.3 dual boot on a PC a year or two ago, but never used it and erased it soon thereafter.

This little project of mine will definitely be a “server”. I already accomplish everything I want to do at home with an XP server, but to me it makes more sense to do all this stuff with linux, and any proficiency I gain with linux is gravy which will also likely help me with my business. Plus it scratches my geek itch to have 5 computers on my home network (plus tivo and xbox), with only two people living here.

I don’t understand the difference between *BSD and linux. It’s all bash to me. I’ve gone through many web hosts using anything from Solaris to SuSE to FreeBSD, but they all look alike since my only interaction is bash and ftp. I currently lease a managed FreeBSD server which I have root access to, and I have used the ports to install things on there like ImageMagick when I didn’t want to bother my tech guys.

What does it mean to be “BSD-Like”? Is it all about the “ports”? I thought I read on slashdot a while ago that FreeBSD was dead? If not, is there any reason NOT to use it? I want the knowledge I gain to be useful in the future, and if BSD is too much of a separate entity from linux, that’s probably enough reason in and of itself.