In Defense of Distro-hopping
Brian Proffitt recently tackled the topic of distro-hopping over on LinuxPlanet. Proffitt wonders whether the practice might be passe or something to be discouraged, but it's here to stay and should be encouraged rather than looked at askew.
Distro-hopping, if you're not familiar with the term, is the practice of switching Linux distributions. While some users find a "home" and stick with one Linux distribution, others "hop" around and try out several distros. Sometimes in an effort to find the One True Distro, other times just because the variety between distros is something to be enjoyed and experienced. Whatever the reason, it's a good thing for the user and community when people have experience with more than one operating system.
Looking through the lens of an IT professional, whether that's a system administrator, tech writer, developer, or working in IT marketing, it's a really good idea to have an accurate view of the landscape. And you don't get that by jockeying only one distro all day every day. What I've seen happen to all too many users is a sort of Linux myopia, where the realm of what's possible is scoped to only one distro, and the understanding of what's available is dialed down to what's available in the user's chosen distro.
For most of the time that I've used Linux, I've switched distros at least every six months and/or ran different Linux distros on different computers. If I had Slackware on my workstation, I'd run SUSE on the laptop. If my Web server ran Debian, then I'd run CentOS on my home server. The net effect is that it was much easier to work with any distro and easier to recommend the right distro for the right job. Initially I hopped because there was a sort of one-uppmanship going on with each new distro release. The latest SUSE or Debian release might solve a pain point that other distros just hadn't gotten to yet, or Mandrake (when it was still called that) might have a newer set of packages for KDE than others. These days, as Brian points out, it's not necessary to distro hop just to find one that works. All the major distros should work for most users at this point. But they still have plenty of variety and different things to offer.
It's doubly important for contributors who participate in FLOSS projects, especially distro development, to have a good hop now and again. Cross-pollination is one of the things that make open source great. Without frequent and repeated exposure to other distros and software, it's too easy to get locked into the idea that there's One True Way.
Doing it Well
Once you've decided that distro stagnation isn't for you, the next step is to get a setup that works well for distro-hopping. One of the things that stops many users from hopping is the pain of recreating a default install or migrating data. Keeping a separate home partition on your workstation and laptop can go a long way towards solving this problem.
Generally, I keep a setup with a default distro dual-booting with test distros. For instance, my dual-Xeon workstation has openSUSE 11.2 and Ubuntu 9.10 dual-booting, and I've got VMware on other machines to let me run multiple OSes simultaneously. VMware (or another virtualization solution) is a great way to go if your system is beefy enough. When running Linux under VMware with 2GB or 3GB of RAM allocated, in full-screen mode on a Core2Duo, it's not easy to tell the difference between running natively on the hardware as long as there's not too much disk thrashing.
Distro-hopping doesn't have to mean not putting down roots in one or more communities. But having some exposure to other communities is a good thing too. If you're a Linux user who's never tried more than one, or if you've been on the same distro for more than a year without trying alternatives, you owe it to yourself to spend some time checking out the others.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.