Though it only accounts for a fraction of globally used operating systems, Linux continues to be a prevalent and critical tool for IT administrators and developers.
The open-source software operating system originally released in 1991 is now a large family of variations, giving administrators a range of free and commercial options for managing Linux systems. Servers in particular widely use Linux, thanks to its numerous benefits as an operating system for managing network and infrastructure workloads. In all, Linux is a desirable solution when considering the stability, security, compatibility, and cost benefits for managing modern IT environments.
This article looks at the best Linux distributions, their features, pros and cons, and what to consider when evaluating Linux distros.
Comparing the Best Linux Distros
|Distro||Fork||ARM||ppc64||s390x||Graphical Installation Process||Pre-Compiled Packages||Source Packages||Release Type|
|Oracle Linux||Red Hat||✅||✅||✅||✅||12,000||4,000||Standard|
|Red Hat||Red Hat||✅||✅||✅||✅||12,000||4,000||Standard|
Best Linux Distros
First released in 2002, Arch Linux is a leading choice for advanced users interested in a lightweight, flexible solution. Optimized for the x86-64 architecture, Arch Linux strives for simplicity and avoids unnecessary additions and modifications within its rolling release update model.
Administrators can install, update, and remove software components with the Arch Linux package manager, Pacman. Through Pacman, users also get a suite of tools with Arch Build System (ABS) for compiling and customizing software packages.
Arch Linux Features
- Rolling release update model for fast access to the latest features
- A flexible package manager for installing binary packages via Arch repo or makepkg
- Arch User Repository (AUR) with community-provided software packages
- Lightweight and minimalist design with extensive customization options
- Tools for modern file systems, software RAID, LVM2, and systemd (Init)
Arch Linux Pros and Cons
- Robust community support and documentation
- Continuous updates with rolling release
- More flexibility developing OS with no unnecessary services
- High level of complexity for less experienced users
- Technical installation process
- Rolling updates can affect system
One of the earliest Linux distributions and still a leading choice is the desktop and server specialist Debian. Debian is the largest and most popular branch of open source distros, including another top pick, Ubuntu. Debian’s stability and extensive user documentation make it ideal for enterprise environments and developers alike.
Debian also supports cloud images for all major cloud platforms and virtualization. With a democratic governance structure, the Debian community includes developers in 60 countries, maintaining packages for incorporating new upstream versions.
- Access to over 59,000 stable software packages using deb format
- Support for most CPU architectures, Linux kernel hardware, and proprietary drivers
- Free or commercial long term support (LTS) for sets of packages beyond five years
- Options to update a single package or the entire Linux system
- Publicly available bug tracking system (BTS) for sharing and tracking vulnerability data
Debian Pros and Cons
- Comprehensive installation process
- An extensive number of packages
- Robust policy manual enabling consistent stability
- Old standard release versions lack features
- Non-free software requires adding repositories
- Systemd is a powerful but risky tool
Fedora is also one of the more popular Linux distros with a biannual release cycle giving users access to the latest, most stable system and application software versions. The Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) variation offers five Linux solutions for workstations, cloud infrastructure, IoT, containers, and servers.
Fedora’s latest versions come with enterprise-grade security and quality assurance to give users immediate confidence without extensive prior configuration. Fedora works for application software and next-generation servers and includes modern sysadmin tools like cockpit, dnf, and systemd for init systems.
- Server administration via web-based GUI for beginners to expert Linux users
- Establish mutual trust with other identity management systems like Microsoft AD
- Integrated security info management with DNS, SSSD, NTP, and MIT Kerberos
- RPM packages are groupable in modules for apps, language runtime, or logical group
- Granular control over modules for multiple streams and installation profiles
Fedora Pros and Cons
- Stable and efficient distro backed by Red Hat
- Combines CentOS and RHEL distro features
- Vital uses for R&D workloads and integration with GNOME
- Less stability than CentOS
- Lacks support for proprietary drivers
- User-friendliness and UX could be better
Gentoo is a flexible Linux distribution for advanced users looking for optimal control over configuring software, hardware, desktops, and servers. Gentoo provides users with instructions for installation options, global USE flags, the init script system, environmental variables, files and directories, and more with a swath of documentation.
Gentoo’s Portage is a robust software distribution and package management tool for installing, searching, and querying over 19,000 software packages. Speaking to its namesake — the world’s fastest penguin — Gentoo’s modular and portable design allows for optimizing machine-specific Linux systems.
Gentoo Linux Features
- Broad support for CPU architectures including Alpha, x86, MIPS, PPC64, and SPARC
- Native software tools including OpenRC (Init) and the package manager, Portage
- Thorough documentation for managing installation, configuration, and packages
- Network configuration management for wireless, dynamic, and modular networking
- Advanced tools for hooking in ebuild process and non-standard patches
Gentoo Pros and Cons
- Great for professionals and beginners
- Strong portability across architectures
- Extensive access to software packages
- Manual installation process via instructions
- Longer update process with compiling
- OpenRC, Gentoo’s Init, can be difficult to manage
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The openSUSE project opened the development of the enterprise Linux distro to external users and developers after the success of SUSE Enterprise Linux (SLES) in the early 2000s. Users can choose from two distribution options with Tumbleweed (rolling release) or Leap (standard release).
Tumbleweed is an upstream distribution for both SLES and Leap and offers administrators the newest repositories for Linux kernels, productivity applications, SAMBA, and more. Leap provides more stability for enterprise Linux users and seamlessly transitions to SLES for interested customers.
- Administrator management tools including YaST, Kiwi, OSEM, OBS, and OpenQA
- Rolling release (Tumbleweed) or standard release (Leap) options
- Support for hardware and virtualized systems including VMware, QEMU, and Xen
- Open Build Service (OBS) to build and distribute packages efficiently
- Broad contributor community including developers, testers, translators, and UX experts
openSUSE Pros and Cons
- Easy installation process with a one-click option
- Very active user community
- Stable, reliable, and well-tested
- Standard packages can lag behind the latest releases
- The user interface requires more technical experience
- Smaller software package selection
Oracle Linux is ideal for existing Oracle customers and enterprise clients looking for a secure, stable, and modern Linux distribution. Like Fedora, Oracle Linux is also a variation of Red Hat’s enterprise distro and offers clients robust support for Linux system management.
Oracle can be a one-stop shop for operating systems, databases, hardware, virtualization, cloud, and management tools — with perhaps the most comprehensive solution stack for managing infrastructure. The Oracle Linux Support is an essential subscription for advanced users looking for the most resources, technical support, and features to manage Linux-based systems.
Oracle Linux Features
- Cloud-built Linux option for Oracle Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and AWS
- Ksplice technology updates kernels, hypervisors, and user-space without downtime
- Support for Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) hypervisor virtualization
- High availability for Oracle and third-party enterprise workloads
- Automation manager and engine for provisioning, deployment, and configuration
Oracle Linux Pros and Cons
- Quick and easy installation process
- Strong security, availability, and performance
- Users appreciate the system, database, and user administration
- Lacking documentation and tutorials
- Fewer software packages are available
- The user interface isn’t amicable
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Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a longtime leader in commercial software for Linux management, serving an influential network of Fortune 500, telecommunications, financial, and governmental organizations. The enterprise distro includes built-in integration with Red Hat’s suite of software management, automaton, middleware, and virtualization tools.
Red Hat Insights comes with RHEL subscriptions and offers the threat intelligence, business impact, and modernization expertise to wholly manage hybrid IT environments. This managed service includes predictive analytics, license tracking, performance monitoring, and deep domain expertise to ensure clients have actionable insights into critical operations issues.
- Native tools for deployment, development, and automation of critical workloads
- Security including system-wide cryptographic policies, auditing, and compiler flags
- Broad integration with enterprise apps like PostgreSQL, SQL Server, and SAP HANA
- Container infrastructure and tools for development and deployment of container images
- Support for workloads across the hybrid cloud, virtualized, and bare-metal environments
RHEL Pros and Cons
- Stable and outstanding for web apps in particular
- Robust support and delivery of updates
- Reliable, functional, and fast
- Licensing model is different from most distros
- Training and documentation is expensive
- Favors stability over new technologies
One of the earliest Linux distros, Slackware, is the pure-play for advanced users interested in the most Unix-like experience. Though there is no graphical installation process, users will learn a lot in installing and configuring the classic Linux distro. Administrators can use Slackware for email, FTP, web servers, and more with immense flexibility.
Slackware offers administrators access to a complete KDE environment, including applications for KOffice, Konqueror web browser, development tools, and multimedia programs. Slackware can also install, upgrade, remove, uncompress, and create packages from local sources for software package management.
- Configuration management through the command line and plain text files
- Basic command for package installation and tracking software packages
- BSD-style init system with LILO bootloader installed
- Self-compile code or use tools to convert .deb and .rpm files
- Comprehensive default installation with KDE, productivity apps, and Xfce desktops
Slackware Pros and Cons
- Veteran distro offering stability
- Great for learning Unix-like systems
- Design simplicity and user control
- Fewer available software repositories
- More dependency issues than other distros
- Smaller and more niche community
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SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
Before the release of openSUSE, open-source software company SUSE was already a leader in bringing Linux products to enterprise environments with the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES).
In its fifteenth edition, SLES is a multimodal Linux distro designed with stability, security, and proven standards in mind. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server offers administrators extensive options for enterprise applications, third-party subscriptions, virtualization, and containerization.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server Features
- Server and application virtualization via hypervisor and cloud platforms
- Business continuity through the SLES high availability extension and live patching
- Snapshots and full system rollbacks of kernel files
- Standards compliance and security with TPM 2.0, disk encryption, and SSO
- Support for SAP applications, POWER systems, Arm, IBM Z, and LinuxOne
SUSE LES Pros and Cons
- Consistent performance across CPU architectures
- Strong technical and hardware support
- Regular updates for mitigating active exploits
- YaST tool can be cumbersome with some tasks
- Steep learning curve for managing GUI
- Expensive licensing relative to other distros
One of the most popular and best Linux distributions is Ubuntu. A variation of Debian, Ubuntu is a product of UK-based Canonical and offers Linux solutions for desktops, servers, IoT devices, and more.
With a biannual release schedule, Ubuntu is known for its user-friendliness and stability, with the option to pay for premium support services. Ubuntu’s bounty of features for modern IT environments include multi-cloud orchestration, Linux container hypervisors (LXD), and bare metal provisioning for deploying complex workloads on on-premises hardware.
- Certified native drivers for NVIDIA virtual GPU (vGPU) software
- Supports all major CPU architectures
- Secure Shell (SSH) protocol supporting two-factor authentication (2FA)
- Option for minimal system installation with Server Lite Installer
- Regular hardware and security updates with the latest Linux kernels
Ubuntu Pros and Cons
- Lightweight, flexible, and very customizable
- Extensive community support
- Package management and pricing
- Less suitable for advanced users
- Lacking dedicated support for users
- Missing or spotty driver support
Honorable Mention Linux Distros
- Alpine Linux
- Mageia Linux
- Rocky Linux
- Zorin OS
What Is a Linux Distro?
Linux distributions, also known as Linux distros, are the universe of operating systems based on the open-source Linux operating system released in 1991 by Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds.
Linux distros contain several components like the Linux kernel, GNOME desktop environments, LibreOffice suite applications, Xorg X server, and GNU shell utilities. These compiled components produce a software package users can easily install for regular business or niche workloads.
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How to Choose a Linux Distro for Servers
Knowing what Linux distribution to use is essential to optimizing its installation and use in the first place. Several factors guide this decision, including the level of community or commercial support, user documentation and friendliness, patch management, and more.
Compatibility and Instruction Set Architecture (ISA)
Administrators must consider whether the Linux distro supports the CPU architectures of existing hardware. The instruction set architecture (ISA) describes the model in which a machine’s CPU functions through the Linux software. Not every Linux distro supports every architecture, so make a note of incompatibilities when considering options.
Examples of popular instruction set architectures include:
|Intel||x32, x64||16-bit, 32-bit, 64-bit|
|ARM||arm, arm64||32-bit, 64-bit|
|IBM Z||s390, s390x||31-bit, 64-bit|
|IBM PowerPC||ppc, ppc64||32-bit, 64-bit|
|MIPS Technologies||mips, mipsel||32-bit, 64-bit|
Community or Commercial Support
Several Linux distributions have giant communities of users and developers, as the operating system has been a central force in open-source software development. These communities offer forums, documentation and tutorials, and more to give users the information needed to optimize their Linux experience.
For enterprise developers and business users, commercial support continues to become a worthwhile investment for additional features, advanced support, and extending the lifetime of Linux systems.
Documentation and Tutorials
The learning curve for users working with a new Linux distribution involves both the user’s technical experience and the availability of user content. For users, this means documentation covering installation and initial configuration and tutorials for more technical processes when needed.
Depending on the distro developers and community, documentation for users could be immense or lacking for specific features, making a user’s job of finishing a task that much easier or harder.
Interface and User Friendliness
While Windows and macOS dominate the consumer electronics market, Linux is the operating system of choice for technical users. That said, there is a spectrum of difficulty for Linux distros. Linux distros offering more modern interfaces and user interaction support features are harder to come by, which makes learning Linux’s intricacies a valuable skill no matter the use case.
Advanced Linux Distros for Experienced Users
- Arch Linux
- Clear Linux
- Kali Linux
User-Friendly Linux Distros for Beginners
- Elementary Linux
- Linux Mint
- Zorin OS
Update Release Cycle
As with any software development lifecycle, patch management by distro developers ensures bugs get resolved, and security remains intact. Developers for Linux distributions are also responsible for deciding between an update release cycle for users. The two types of update release cycles are:
Standard Release: The most common update release cycle is a long-term process by Linux distro developers to bundle the latest versions and components. They then test these software packages before a stable release to users.
Rolling Release: A rolling release update cycle never “freezes” its distribution. Instead, it continually updates a single version of the Linux distro with the latest additional features over time.
Rolling release cycles can mean less testing of software components before releasing to users, but includes the benefits of having the most up-to-date features. Automatic updates mean users may need to conduct further testing for software compatibility, whereas the strength of standard releases lie in their stability.
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