Choice of OS
Well, no big questions about that one: Linux, Linux, Linux...
The only decision remaining was: which distribution?
Most of my previous Linux experience was with SuSE. I had already installed the distro at home a couple of years previously, and at that time I had thought it was gorgeous because of its system management tool YaST. More recent encounters with SuSE at work left me somewhat disillusioned: even though YaST is an easy-to-use program for the beginner (esp. SaX, the X11 setup tool), the shell script system that drives it has become too complicated for my taste. For me YaST has reached the point where it starts obfuscating things, which is very bad when something does not work as it should and you have to look behind the scenes to fix it.
Additional drawbacks of SuSE were that you have to pay for it, that you even have to pay for updates, and that updates do not come frequently - often you are stuck with a more or less outdated package for which you urgently need an update.
So SuSE ruled itself out.
Note: I am aware that things may be different these days since the advent of openSUSE, and that my criticism is no longer valid. Still, these were my thoughts when I had to find a suitable distro in 2003.
Fedora, Mandrake et al.
Basically the same problem as with SuSE: costs and infrequent updates. To be fair, I didn't give these distros a closer look, I immediately passed to...
Finally, a free (as in "free beer") Linux distribution. Even better, a distro that is also dedicated to the other meaning of "free" (as in "free speech"). These attributes immediately brought Debian closer to my heart.
I started experimenting with the distro and found it also appealing to my technical gusto. I had already heard about the package management system dpkg used by Debian, which was sometimes cited as a better alternative to rpm (the package manager used by SuSE, Fedora and other distros). I was not convinced of this alleged superiority after my first stumbling steps with dselect, which at the time I thought was the best available menu driven front-end for dpkg. I have to admit that I immediately developed an intense dislike for the program - it had too many "peculiarities", if not to say bugs, when it came to handling package dependencies.
But then I discovered aptitude, and everything fell into place. aptitude is a console-based, menu driven front-end for APT, which in turn is a more advanced front-end to dpkg. aptitude usually handles package dependencies intelligently and just right, and when the time of conflict comes :-) it behaves gracefully and is simply a beauty to work with (it provides multiple undos, and these days you can even examine the effects that different alternatives for conflict resolution might have).
After I had seen that Debian's package management is so nicely done, I was excited to see more. I was a bit apprehensive of the notorious backwardness of Debian, but I soon found out that I could "break out" from the rigid and unchanging "stable" package tree. When I enabled the so-called "testing" tree, I found a wealth of packages that were up-to-date and ready-to-use, and with that last barrier gone I did not hesitate any longer and made my choice.
Since that day I have never regretted my decision to use Debian. I do not claim that Debian is an easy-to-use distribution for a beginner - sometimes it has its quirks and peculiarities, sometimes system updates break even important packages. But for me the bottom line is
- it's free (both in the monetary and the ideological sense)
- it provides me with all the freedom and opportunities that I want to have
- it has never ever failed me
Ubuntu et al.
These days Ubuntu and other Debian descendants provide interesting alternatives to Debian. However, since I run a server and am not primarily interested in a user-friendly desktop system, I have never been tempted to switch. Debian is still the real thing for me!