What is the best Linux distro?

As a veteran Unix/Linux Systems Engineer, I get the question everyday, “What is the best Linux distro?” First, I can tell you, there is no best Linux distro; each of them has their strengths and their weaknesses. Secondly, that is the wrong question. The question you should be asking: What is the right Linux distro? I can tell you that there is no right answer here.

Because of my background, my go-to Linux distro will always be Debian. I love the flexibility, granularity, and its immense community. Unfortunately, Debian is definitely not a distro you want to pick up if you are a novice user. Then you must ask yourself, “What is the right Linux distro?” When asking this question, it is actually is twofold; “What is the right Linux distro for you,” and, “What is the right Linux distro for the job?” My intention here is to give you a quick and simple guide on the most-used Linux distros available, as there are over 200 active Linux distros at any given time, that will hopefully help you discern what the best distro for you and your current project may be.

A big reason for considering Linux in the first place is the value add it gives you for your business, with its combination of power and low TCO, so let’s talk about business backends and application stacks first; ie. servers. If you are extremely technical and like to know your system intimately, then you should probably consider Debian or Gentoo; I know EngineYard is running a completely Gentoo based stack for this reason. If you are looking to run OpenStack and have a need for a larger community, I would probably suggest Ubuntu. Currently, Ubuntu seems to be the status quo for Openstack. Ubuntu, Suse, and Red Hat are the best known non-community supported distros. If you are working for a company that still operates with a corporate mindset from the 90s, and wants a Linux distro that offers support and licensing similar to a Microsoft product, since that is all they know, then you’ll want to hit up Suse or Red Hat. Unfortunately, I haven’t ran a Suse system since the mid 2000s, so I don’t much info to share in reference. Red Hat, in my not so humble opinion, is Linux for people or organizations that don’t know Linux; there tends to be a lot of Red Hat in the federal government. Additionally, Red Hat tends to have more proprietary code and licensing restrictions than any other Linux distro. That’s not to say that Red Hat is a bad distro; they are a great distro in their own right and give ample amounts of code back to the open-source community, but I just want you to know what you are getting into. If you would like to give Red Hat a spin without buying a license, look at its completely open-source alternatives, CentOS or Scientific Linux. All things being equal, my datacenter runs Debian, and if I were to build an enterprise data center from scratch, it would probably run Ubuntu.

Linux is not just for the data center any longer. My home, with the exception of my work issued MacBook Air, has been a Linux only environment for a number of years. Even my 14 year old twin daughters run Ubuntu Linux with XFCE as their primary OS on the laptop they use. There are a number of governments around the world that have adopted Linux as their choice of both server and desktop OS, so don’t be afraid to give it a try. If you are considering Linux as a desktop OS, I would suggest Mint or Ubuntu, unless it’s older hardware, then you probably want something that allows you to easily build a minimal system, such as Debian. I have a Dell Inspiron 5100, circa 2002, that I keep in my shop so that I can look at diagrams while working on my motorcycles; it runs Debian so that I can keep the system minimal but still get exactly what I need. While never using it myself, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED), so that may be a good option if you aren’t open to Mint or Ubuntu. If you absolutely need a Red Hat derivative, there is always Fedora. Of course, with over 200 active distros of Linux, there is no end to the amount of distros you can test.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of Linux distros, but it covers the major players, and I do hope it gives you some insight as to the options out there. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or connect with me via my contact page.

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