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August 10, 2023

Finding the Best Linux Distro for Your Organization

Operating Systems
Open Source

No one predicted that there would be so much news about Linux distributions in 2023. From open source licensing and compliance controversies to significant announcements by major players in the Linux space, this year has brought a great deal of attention to the Linux operating system. Many teams are reassessing what is the best Linux distro for their current and future needs in light of all that has recently changed. 

In the latest news, Red Hat’s recent move to restrict access to the source code of their Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) distribution has sparked significant attention. RHEL-compatible, alternative open source projects such as Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux were affected, and companies such as Oracle have voiced their perspectives and declared their commitment to maintaining their own CentOS/RHEL-compatible alternative. SUSE has also announced its intention to invest in a new RHEL fork.

In light of this state of affairs, and the upcoming CentOS end-of-life (EOL) , this blog gives you an overview of the current Linux landscape, and dives into the most-used Linux distributions so you can determine the best Linux distro for your organization. 

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The Linux Distribution Landscape

Linux distros are a combination of the open source Linux kernel and a suite of supporting software (also known as packages) that facilitate the development and operation of applications. In general, the suite of packages come from other top-level open source projects added by the community that supports the distribution. For instance, Linux distributions designed for desktop operating systems might include a lot of desktop-focused tools like media players and a focus on the customizability of the UI. In this case, a desktop operating system is the goal, and the included packages follows those presumed use cases.

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It follows, then, that individual communities will make different decisions about which software to include with their distribution and prioritize different use cases for the kind of Linux that they wish to build. For instance, some Linux distributions are for security-minded professionals and enthusiasts, whereas others aim to be a straightforward, productivity-focused desktop Linux experience. 

Other Linux are built to support IT infrastructure, typically known as Enterprise Linux distributions. They are conceived to address needs that are specific to organizations that build their technology infrastructure on Linux and contain variances in the individual packages as well. Committing to a particular Linux distribution, especially when deployed at the scale needed by modern enterprises, has cascading and long-lasting impacts for the business at large, because every environment and every deployment is built and tested with what the operating system provides. Significant testing and tune up is required at the application level.

Open Source vs. License Costs and Vendor Lock-In

Among all Linux distributions, there are two distinct categories that cater to different user preferences: open source community distros and commercial distros.

A community distro is a collaboration in the open source development community. It’s a free Linux distribution that thrives under the watchful eye of individual contributors who dedicate time and expertise to its support and maintenance. There’s a community commitment to release life cycles.

On the other end of the spectrum, vendors commercializing open source Linux offer value in terms of accessibility and support for organizations. This value comes at a subscription or license cost and vendor lock-in. Typically, commercial Linux vendors will offer technical support contracts and professional services in addition to defined release life cycles.

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Choosing the Best Linux Distro For Your Organization

With so many good Linux distros – how do you decide? To help, we loosely categorized Linux distros and included a brief description with factors that should be considered when looking at the path forward from already EOL CentOS 6 and 8, or soon to be EOL CentOS 7. Even if you are not using CentOS today, this blog will help you become familiar at a high-level with different Linux distros. 

To select your next Linux distro, we recommend you look at the open source community. Some distros stand out based on the number of users, size of the community, and number of releases. There are hundreds of open source Linux distributions providing different features. The following list includes some of the most used distros.

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Best Linux Distros and Categories

A complete Linux distro typically encompasses a combination of essential components that collectively provide a functional and usable operating system environment. While distros may have similarities and variations, in terms of included packages and focus, there are several characteristics that allow us to create categories: 

Rolling Release Distros

A rolling release Linux distro is an open source project where updates and new features are continuously and incrementally released. Frequent updates on the Linux kernel, libraries, utilities, or any package are released as soon as they are ready without waiting for a defined release date. Typically, rolling release Linux distros do not require users to perform large-scale version upgrades. Instead, users receive small and incremental updates. Issues, bugs, and vulnerabilities can be identified and resolved more rapidly compared to traditional fixed-release distros.

Rolling release distros can be appealing to users who prioritize having the latest software and features. However, they may also require users to stay proactive in system maintenance and be prepared to address potential issues due to the constant updates. Some consider rolling release distros unstable and risky for important or business-critical applications.

CentOS Stream

https://www.centos.org/centos-stream/

You can learn about CentOS Stream in depth in this webinar. But to summarize, CentOS Stream became the upstream project on which RHEL releases are based. It takes the distro from Fedora to RHEL, the same source code Red Hat uses to produce the next version of RHEL.

At this level of the decision-making process, it comes down to your preferences for your overall Linux ecosystem. Everything that you expect inside a RHEL/CentOS ecosystem, such as package manager and virtualization options will still be available to you, and you’ll receive bug fixes and security patches on a faster schedule than what you are used to using CentOS Linux.

OpenSUSE Tumbleweed

https://software.opensuse.org/distributions/tumbleweed

If you prefer the SUSE Linux Enterprise Server ecosystem, the OpenSUSE community also offers a rolling release Linux in the form of Tumbleweed. Just as in CentOS Stream, bug fixes and security patches come earlier than in the comparative OpenSUSE Leap regular-release distro. Tumbleweed also benefits from a large open source OpenSUSE community and its strong support for a wide range of desktop environments, software libraries, and tools. Tumbleweed is suitable for users who want a balance between having access to the latest software and maintaining a stable and well-tested system.

Arch Linux

https://archlinux.org

Arch Linux is a lightweight and highly customizable Linux distro that emphasizes simplicity, minimalism, and a "do-it-yourself" approach. It is designed for experienced users who want to build a tailored and efficient operating system environment according to their specific needs. Arch Linux rolling-release model provides continuous updates to the latest software packages and features without the need for major version upgrades. Arch Linux is popular among enthusiasts, power users, developers, and those who enjoy learning about and fine-tuning their Linux system.

Debian Testing

https://wiki.debian.org/DebianTesting

Debian has a Testing branch, similar to a beta version, it is an intermediary stage between Debian's unstable and stable branches. The Testing branch is intended for users who want a balance between access to newer software and a relatively stable system. Debian Testing gets new features and fixes before the stable Debian release, allowing users who are comfortable troubleshooting potential issues that might arise to do so.

Fedora and RHEL-based Enterprise Linux Distros

Closely related are open source Linux distros that share a common foundation, Fedora. From Fedora, RHEL is developed and supported by Red Hat, and it is designed with a strong focus on stability, reliability, and long-term support, making it an ideal choice for enterprise environments. Because of the nature of the Linux open source GPL license, RHEL source code is also available for others to use and that has created an ecosystem of Linux distros.

Fedora

https://fedoraproject.org

Fedora is a popular, community-driven Linux distro known for its emphasis on new features and technologies, open source collaboration, and strong ties to the upstream software development communities (RHEL). It aims to provide a platform for both desktop and server users, offering the latest software while maintaining a balance between innovation and stability. Fedora users appreciate staying on the forefront of technology, contributing to open source projects, and experimenting with the latest software innovations.

CentOS Linux

https://www.centos.org/centos-linux/

With CentOS 6 and 8 already EOL, CentOS 7 will still be community-supported through June 30, 2024. OpenLogic will support it well past that point, extending long-term support post EOL until 2029. For many businesses, this will be the lowest-risk option for the moment, giving them plenty of time to consider their go-forward Linux distro strategies. Migration and decommission environments take time with a lot of planning and testing. Having a post EOL LTS option that provides patches for high-severity vulnerabilities reduces risk and meets IT compliance for internal or external regulation. OpenLogic CentOS LTS is already available for CentOS versions 6 and 8.

Rocky Linux

https://rockylinux.org/

Rocky Linux is a community-driven, enterprise-grade Linux distro designed to serve as a free and open alternative to CentOS Linux. It was created in response to the EOL announcement for CentOS. With a promise of bug-for-bug compatible to RHEL, Rocky Linux aims to provide a stable, reliable, and compatible platform for organizations and users who were previously relying on CentOS for their server infrastructure.

Despite recent restrictions on the availability of RHEL’s source code, Rocky Linux has reiterated its commitment to bug-for-bug compatibility.

AlmaLinux

https://almalinux.org/

AlmaLinux is a community-driven, open source Linux distro created as a direct alternative to CentOS Linux. Like Rocky Linux, it was created in response to the EOL announcement for CentOS and community move to CentOS Stream. AlmaLinux aims to provide a reliable – it's not bug-for-bug compatible, rather application binary-compatible distro – enabling it to make applications run on AlmaLinux as seamlessly as in RHEL.

AlmaLinux has announced its intention to collaborate and contribute with the CentOS Stream community, while keeping AlmaLinux as an open source alternative for CentOS and RHEL.

Oracle Linux

https://www.oracle.com/linux/

Oracle Linux is packaged and freely distributed by Oracle, it is compiled from RHEL source code, replacing Red Hat branding with Oracle’s name. It has been built for years, and, like CentOS is a binary-compatible rebuild of RHEL’s RPMs. Oracle Linux is particularly tested and optimized to work well with Oracle's software offerings, making it a suitable choice for running Oracle databases and other application workloads.

Oracle has announced its commitment to continue building Oracle Linux despite the recent changes in availability of RHEL source code.

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The Best of the Rest Linux Open Source Distros

The vast number of open source Linux distros reflects the diversity of needs, preferences, and goals within open source communities. While this diversity can sometimes be overwhelming, it also contributes to the richness and adaptability of the Linux ecosystem, allowing users to choose a distribution that best fits their requirements. The following list includes some of the most-used open source Linux distros:

Alpine Linux

https://alpinelinux.org/

Alpine Linux is a security-oriented lightweight Linux distro designed for resource efficiency and containerization. It is known for its small footprint, speed, and focus on security measures. Alpine Linux is often used in scenarios where size and security are critical, such as in containers, IoT devices, and embedded systems. Alpine Linux is particularly suitable for scenarios where fast boot times, small memory usage, and strong security are required.

Debian Linux

https://www.debian.org/

Debian is known for its commitment to open source principles, stability, and extensive package management system. It serves as the foundation for various other Linux distros such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Debian is widely used in both desktop and server environments. 

It is a popular choice for users seeking a reliable and customizable Linux distro for a wide range of applications and use cases, including embedded systems.

OpenSUSE Leap

https://www.opensuse.org/

OpenSUSE Leap is the regular release edition of the open source OpenSUSE Linux distro. It combines the stability of a fixed-release model with the availability of up-to-date software packages. It aims to provide a reliable and user-friendly operating system for both desktop and server environments. OpenSUSE is generally considered to be stable for production use, and those familiar with the SLES, SUSE, and Slackware ecosystem will feel comfortable in this environment. OpenSUSE focuses on deployment simplicity, user-friendly toolchain, and cloud-readiness.

Ubuntu Community Edition

https://ubuntu.com/

Often referred to as simply "Ubuntu," this distro is widely used, and a popular open source Linux distro known for its user-friendly experience, robust software ecosystem, and active community support. It is a solid choice for both desktop and server Linux, and enterprise use. Ubuntu stems from the Debian distribution of Linux, and follows many of the directions of that community, such as the choice of the apt ecosystem for package management. Many AI-related packages are also included in the distro.

Linux Mint

https://linuxmint.com

Mint is an open source Linux distribution that aims to provide a stable and easy-to-use operating system experience for Linux newcomers and experienced users. It is based on Ubuntu and Debian, building upon their foundations while adding its own unique features and design elements.

Linux Mint emphasizes user convenience and a traditional desktop experience. Its focus on providing a comfortable transition for Windows users and its wide range of customization options make it a popular choice for desktop and laptop users.

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The Best Linux Distros: Commerical Options 

Several commercial Linux distros are well-regarded for their features, support, and suitability for specific use cases. The "best" distro can vary depending on individual or enterprise needs and requirements. Here are some notable commercial Linux distros: 

SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES)

https://www.suse.com/products/server/

SLES is the commercial counterpart to the OpenSUSE Linux distro and is backed by SUSE, a German-based multinational enterprise. It is an enterprise-focused distribution with a strong emphasis on reliability, scalability, and high-performance computing. It offers features like Systemd, Btrfs, and containers support, making it suitable for various server and virtual environments. There’s a SLES certified for SAP deployments and SUSE provides a range of support options and services.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)

https://www.redhat.com/en/technologies/linux-platforms/enterprise-linux

RHEL is a leading and widely recognized commercial enterprise-grade Linux distro known for its stability, long-term support, and comprehensive ecosystem. It offers various editions tailored for different workloads, such as servers, cloud, and container deployments. RHEL is based on CentOS Stream and Fedora.

Red Hat, now owned by IBM , provides extensive support, certifications, and professional services to ensure a reliable platform for critical business and government applications.

Ubuntu Enterprise

https://ubuntu.com/

Based on the open source Ubuntu community, Canonical provides commercial support and services for Ubuntu Enterprise deployments. Ubuntu Enterprise is known for its ease of use, regular updates, and compatibility with cloud environments. Commercial versions include Ubuntu Desktop, Ubuntu Server, Ubuntu for IoT, and Ubuntu Cloud -- all optimized versions for their corresponding environments. Ubuntu attracts front-end developers with easy-to-use features and a slew of programming resources, including AI libraries.

Amazon Linux

https://aws.amazon.com/mp/linux/

Amazon Linux is a supported and maintained Linux distro provided by Amazon Web Services for use on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud environments (EC2). It’s offered as pre-configured Amazon Machines Images (AMI) ready to use in AWS. It is designed to provide a stable, secure, and high performance execution environment for applications running on Amazon EC2. Originally built from RHEL, the distro has changed and is developed in the open, with source code publicly available and distributed under open source licenses. Amazon Linux 2 is the second major version of Amazon Linux, it is specifically improved to run in Amazon EC2s with enhanced performance, tooling, and LTS

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Final Thoughts

Deciding on the best Linux distro for your business involves a number of variables and factors. Taking the time to really understand each offering, what it can help your business achieve, and where you might find friction in implementation is key to succeeding with your next Linux distro. Make sure you consider your intended use cases, the skills required and ease of use. Tooling such as package management are important considerations, and finally the ecosystem and compatibility are key factors in your evaluation.

Life after CentOS may not look different to your organization at all, with RHEL or a derivative distro as a viable, familiar, and adaptable Linux experience, or you may want to pivot to a different Linux distro based on the information provided above. Try out a few to see how well they align to your environment, skills, and resources.

Editor's Note: This blog was originally published on January 21, 2021. It was updated on August 10, 2023 to reflect changes in the open source Enterprise Linux landscape, including new distributions.

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