The Paralysis of Choice in Linux

One thing I’ve often said is that choosing to go with the Apple ecosystem affords me the ability to narrow down my technology choices. Many times people see this as a problem instead of a solution.

However, the flip side of that is the Linux ecosystem where choice is not just the name of the game, it is what you have to be aware of and prepared for from the onset of even trying to play.

Alright, done with that metaphor.

Recently I’ve changed roles at work from being primarily a webmaster and technician to systems administrator and network engineer. While I used Linux extensively before, now I am administering all of the servers on campus which puts me in contact with Linux every single day … often for multiple hours at a time.

It is fun, but at the same time quite harrowing. Here is a list of the Linux distributions currently being used here:

  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4
  • Red hat Enterprise Linux 5
  • CentOS 6
  • Ubuntu Server 8.04 LTS
  • Ubuntu Server 11.04
  • Ubuntu Server 10.04 LTS
  • Ubuntu Server 12.04 LTS
  • Ubuntu Server 13.04
  • Ubuntu Desktop 10.04 LTS

That’s a good number. Granted, there are many similarities between them, each version brings just a small changes which can easily accumulate with time. The difference between administering an Ubuntu Server 8.04 LTS and Ubuntu Server 12.04 LTS is quite drastic … and I’m already looking forward to April of 2014 for the next LTS release.

The thing is that you have a lot of choice and your skills can transfer quite easily to each distribution that you sometimes can over think things. I know I do. I spend too much time thinking about what I could be using instead of just moving ahead with working on what needs to be done.

For me, that’s the real takeaway. Adding choice in for the same of choice sometimes can cause cognitive overhead that we are not even aware of. Making a decision, as arbitrary as it can seem, can sometimes be refreshing because it allows you to narrow down your choices so that you spend less time thinking about what could be used and more time thinking about what needs to be done.

What’s the downside?

Obviously, you don’t want to limit your choices to the point where you won’t even consider another possibility in the future if the needs dictate you do so. Closing off choices when they are obviously better isn’t going to do you any good. That’s the negative end of what I am talking about.

However, lightening the cognitive load and speeding up the process of “getting things done” by narrowing down your choices might not be such a bad thing.

On my end, I’m going to be taking a hard look at trying to standardize around as few Linux distributions as possible (SUSE Linux Enterprise is also in the mix because of our relationship with Novell). How successful will I be? I’m not sure, but it will be fun to try.