Which Linux Server Distro is Right for Me?

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  • DevynCJohnson
    DevynCJohnson
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    Many people ask me which Linux distro is the best for servers. This popular question inspired me to write an article for that question. There is not a single easy answer. The answer depends on the user's needs and preferences. This article will discuss the various needs and possible solutions.

    Support or No Support

    Some admins want to get a Linux distro with paid support and some do not want support. With paid support, the admin can get help from the distro's vendor. Without support, the admin must fix the problem themselves, but they save money.

    If you like RedHat, but do not want to pay for support, then try CentOS. CentOS is RedHat without the paid support. Also, Ubuntu can be obtained with or without support. A support-free alternative to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) exists as OpenSUSE, or SLES can be obtained without support.

    Distro Type

    If the admin wants to choose a distro based on the distro type (i.e. Debian-based, RedHat-based, etc.) Here are some suggestions with explanations.

    Debian-based

    • Debian - Debian Linux supports a large range of architectures. Also, Debian uses *.deb installation files, dpkg, and apt-get. The Debian repos are quite large and support many processor types. Debian is a very stable system. With Debian, many packages (or all needed packages) will not need to be compiled, so Debian is perfect for admins who want the packages installed quickly or are not comfortable compiling from source.
    • Ubuntu - Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/) can be obtained with or without support (from Canonical Ltd.). Ubuntu is the most widely used Linux distro for desktop and server purposes. With Ubuntu, many packages (or all needed packages) will not need to be compiled, so Ubuntu is perfect for admins who want the packages installed quickly or are not comfortable compiling from source. However, unlike Debian, Ubuntu works on a few platforms like x86, x86-64, ARM, PowerPC, and IA-32.

    Miscellaneous

    • Arch - Arch Linux is a rolling release and it is highly portable (works on many processors like Debian). Like, Slackware, the applications are compiled for the system. Arch uses systemd rather than Upstart or initd. Arch also uses a ports-like system unlike Debian or RedHat systems. Arch is lightweight and fast, although Arch is recommended for experienced users. Arch does not require X11 and a system can be installed and ready in 20 minutes or less. Another advantage of Arch is its detailed documentation (https://wiki.archlinux.org/).
    • Gentoo - Gentoo is a rolling release distro that works on a variety of platforms. Gentoo uses Portage rather than RPM, Dpkg, and other common packaging systems. However, Gentoo has a GUI package manager called Porthole which is similar to Synaptic. Gentoo is a suitable alternative to Arch if admins want an Arch-like system for their server. However, Gentoo is not as lightweight as Arch.
    • OpenSUSE - https://www.opensuse.org/en/

    Slackware-based

    • Slackware - All code is installed from source code (http://slackbuilds.org/repository/). This means that the applications are compiled specifically for the hardware. Thus, Slackware servers are secure and fast. However, some inexperienced users may not like compiling and installing from source. Another advantage of Slackware is that it is one of the best Linux distros as far as GPL compliance/adherence is concerned (as long as Java is not installed).

    RedHat-based

    • CentOS - CentOS (http://centos.org/) is a great RedHat alternative (because of no support fees). The only differences (that I am aware of) between RedHat and CentOS is the paid support, branding (logos and such), and architecture support. Unlike RedHat, CentOS only supports x86-64. (http://wiki.centos.org/About/Product)
    • RedHat - With RedHat (Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)), admins can get paid support (http://www.redhat.com/). Therefore, admins can get easy help fast and bugs are likely to be fixed promptly. Also, bugs and security flaws are usually found and fixed in RedHat relatively quickly. Obviously, RedHat uses the popular RPM and Yum systems. RedHat supports x86, x86-64, PowerPC, and other architectures.

    Server Type

    If there is a particular server type that the admin needs (like FTP, HTTP, email, etc.), nearly any Linux distro would work. Look in the distros repos or obtain the source code.

    Miscellaneous Tips

    If an admin wants support, but cannot pay for it or support is not offered, perhaps the admin could try to find a forum or mailing list. Many free mailing lists and forums are available for Linux in general or for a specific distro or application.

    It may be best to not choose an unpopular (seldomly used) Linux distro as a server since not much support or info will be available on the Internet. Also, Linux distros with little support may become abandoned/discontinued.

    In summary, the top three distros I would recommend for server use includes

    • Ubuntu - stability, support, reputation, wide-use, large repos, easy package management
    • Arch - speed, performance, portability, documentation
    • CentOS - free-of-cost alternative to RedHat

    Further Reading

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