I'll try to keep this focussed, though by my journey's nature it will want to be everything but.

I'm a front-end web developer, I've always developed on Windows with technologies like XHTML, CSS, Javascript and Flash, I've dabbled with PHP and MySQL. I am well used to Windows workflows and tools, from Photoshop to Notepad++, Filezilla and WAMP server stacks to After Effects, and a swathe more - but always on Windows.

I'm at a point where I think I need to start seriously developing on a Linux box, specifically at the moment to create web apps based on Node.js, but compiling tools and programs has become a task I'm more frequently required to do.

My question?

I need to get my hands on a user-friendly install of Linux, but which one? I need common interface developer tools (lists welcome) to replace... well as many tools I have on Windows as possible.

I need to be readily connected to the internet, I need OS updates to not destroy my workflow by crashing the OS, as I've seen Ubuntu do to various friends. I want efficiency, I need to be able to customise what I need to in order to perform development tasks.

I guess this could be a long list, but - I don't have practical working knowledge of the Linux OS, nor how it "compares" to Windows (excuse my faux pas). I'm obviously willing to learn, but I'm far, far more keen to just... continue interface development, just on Linux instead of Windows.

Have fun with this one, and thanks in advance for advice, help, links, lists, and don't-do's.


I'll make the same suggestion that I make to everybody learning Linux... use VirtualBox. VBox is a virtual machine manager that let's you very easily create & run virtual pcs. It has excellent support for Linux, and you can go from installing VBox to having an installed & running Linux machine in about a half an hour if you already has a Linux iso. So download it, grab a few live cds to try out, and see what you like.

As for which distros to try... each one has it's quirks that help make it unique. Some distros like Fedora and Debian take a hardline approach to non-OSS software, so you often won't find proprietary drivers, codecs, and plug-ins in their repos. You can still get them, but it takes more work. Other less hardline distros such as Ubuntu and Mint offer an easier path in this respect, since the repos will contain proprietary software.

Beyond that, there are different package managers to learn, and you need to pick a desktop environment, KDE & Gnome being the most popular. The newest versions of both tend to work a lot differently than Windows, so you may or may not like what you get. This is the main reason that I suggest trying a few distros.

In no particular order, I suggest trying Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, Mint 11, Fedora 15, and openSUSE 11.4. All but the Ubuntu 10.04 are the the most recent releases. Ubuntu LTS is the long-term support version that is less bleeding edge, so it should be more stable than the more frequently released distros. However, if you want to see Ubuntu's latest, go with 11.04.

  • Ok, vmware sounds really good from the reading I've done, there's an awful lot to take in and choose from. If you were to give a "reasonable" amount of time to try different dists, what would you say? A week, a month? 3 months? I want to take fairly serious steps here, so I'm keen to bite the bullet and pick a good one. – danjah Jun 6 '11 at 9:15
  • Yeah, try out VMWare Player or Workstation & VirtualBox, because they each work a bit differently, so you may like one better. As for how long, that's really up to you. I currently have ~12 VMs installed with versions of Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, Windows and Darwin. Whenever I want to try a new distro, I create a new VM, or install over something I'm not using. I keep it for whatever I need to do, and recycle or delete when done. For yourself, I suggest creating a few and building your environment. It won't take long for you to start developing preferences. – Joe Internet Jun 6 '11 at 9:29
  • And just an FYI... if you enjoy working with Linux, at some point you'll want to try other distros anyways, so where you start & where you end up may be completely different. – Joe Internet Jun 6 '11 at 9:33
  • Heh it never occurred to me to create a whole OS to perform specific tasks, via Virtual machines thats probably a very sensible way to go for a traditional Windows user. Will investigate further, thanks for sharing the lateral thinking :) – danjah Jun 6 '11 at 9:41

Ubuntu is by far most friendly distro that I know of. As far as Ubuntu updates destroying things, I have not experienced that using stable updates only mode. IF you change it and want to play with bleeding edge updates and softwares, then you've pretty much asked for instability. Usually comes out of the box readily connected to the internet with Wired LAN, but I can't say the same for wireless as many times I had to find drivers and sometimes even cannot get wireless to work due to the wireless device being too new and undeveloped/under development for Linux.

Alternatively, if you are uncomfortable which many would be first migration, you could play with WUBI which is an Ubuntu that will install inside of NTFS as though it was a windows Software and can even be uninstall normally. It does run as a dual boot so you can get a good feel for Ubuntu running native with your hardware.

Softwares from windows as said by others aren't so great, but some do work. Office 2007, Photoshop I have installed via WINE and works quite well (Not perfect, but very well). As for programming editors, ubuntu comes with GEdit which is a good alternative to Notepad++.

I also think you will find that many Nix distro will come with an option for you to run their OS on live CD or USB to get comfy with it before committing. I just migrated to Ubuntu last year and have been happily using it for my web development without a single problem. Just don't update to Unity yet. Let it mature and see how well things go.

  • Excellent, thanks robx, a few further Q's if I may... I considered a dual boot option for a nix install, USB is ok? And how about if I wanted to then take an install from USB drive to a full box install? How easy is that? I know where all of my "user files" and such are on Windows, is there a standard set of locations I could back up, is this process anticipated and easy? Any suggestions? In terms of development - how about FTP? Does Ubuntu offer native FTP or anything funky? From the link Nich offered up, Fedora sounded good for its security, I like secure, but am open to less secure alts. – danjah Jun 6 '11 at 7:40
  • You can backup your home directory using Backintime to run cron jobs. You can move your home directory from USB to native install if you wish also. Windows is messy with registry, so normally if you want to backup anything, just files that you downloaded/created. FTP is available pretty cross platform, Filzilla being one very popular Frontend FTP GUI for Windows, Nix, and OS X. Fedora is more for server, but security is same as any other OS, you must secure it yourself manually to your needs. Firestarter is a simple GUI firewall tool in Ubuntu. – robx Jun 6 '11 at 14:51

You'll get many different answers on this and there won't be one obvious answer, but I think it's fair to say any of the more mature, end user focused distros should work well for you.

Any distro listed here is likely to be both well documented and user oriented.

Ubuntu and it's siblings, Kubuntu and Xubuntu, are often suggested for new users because you get three choices for 'look and feel' and a vibrant community. From my personal experience with them, if you have a problem, someone else already has had the same problem and it's been solved. The problem with that is you say you've already seen Ubuntu cause problems for friends.

Debian, OpenSUSE, and Fedora are three alternative suggestions that also have large communities and a good level of support. Personally, I have no experience with these three.

On the topic of your work, the more popular a distro, the more likely it is to have the tools you need.

As far as specific tools, you'll need to find a text editor you like and get familiar with it. There are quite a few text editors on Linux, and it seems like each one has a cult following. I think most major distributions should come with VIM, although VIM seems to be very love or hate.

If you're looking for a replacement for Photoshop, your best bet is The GIMP. There is also a version of The GIMP designed to look and feel like Photoshop, known as GIMPshop.

If you need crutches to aide you in your transferal from Windows to Linux, most larger distros will have good WINE support and there will be a good deal of documentation on using WINE with certain Windows applications.

Additionally, for any major usage of Linux, you will want to be familiar with the terminal. This is GNU's official BASH reference manual. Also learn how to use the man pages. Typing 'man " provides a manual for most commands in BASH.

  • Thanks for your answer so far Nich, can you give me any advice on the major con listed on the link provide for Ubuntu: "Cons: Lacks compatibility with Debian; frequent major changes tend to drive some users away". For all of its bloated challenge, I do appreciate Windows' ability to maintain a stable dev environment. Ie; my WAMP stack has only ever been effected by my own changes, and its been that way for... 5 years. Also, WINE sounds promising also. – danjah Jun 6 '11 at 5:36
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    @Danjah The lack of compatibility refers to the fact that software built for Ubuntu does not work on Debian and software built for Debian does not work for Ubuntu (whereas OpenSUSE and others support builds for Debian). In practice this isn't an issue for more popular software because they tend to make builds for both Debian environments and Ubuntu environments. I've not used Ubuntu for any actual large-scale projects but their very frequent changes can sometimes cause problems with software. If the software is still being developed this is usually quickly fixed, but it does cause hiccups. – Nich Del Jun 6 '11 at 5:40
  • A warning - while WINE can sometimes make a good crutch and often provide software that Linux doesn't have a good alternative to, it can be very quirky and difficult to get to work some times. I wouldn't rely on it too heavily unless you're ready to spend some time on getting it to work. – Nich Del Jun 6 '11 at 5:52
  • Awesome, thanks for the info Nich. If there's anything else you can think of please feel free to add it in, and if its ok i'll leave the question open for a few days or so to see if anyone else wants to weigh in. I'm busy reading the... 15 new tabs opened so far :P – danjah Jun 6 '11 at 6:37

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