Finding the Best Linux Distro for Your Organization
Whether you’re excited, nervous, or somewhere in between about the announcement that the CentOS community will focus on CentOS Stream instead of CentOS 8, it pays to understand what this announcement means for your business. While many businesses will happily transition to CentOS Stream, the rolling releases inherent to it may not align with your infrastructural or organizational needs.
For companies unable to make CentOS Stream work, it's essential to both know the available alternatives and understand the factors that make a given Linux distribution the best Linux distro option for your organization.
In this blog, we give an overview of the Linux distribution landscape, then dive into the various Linux distributions that best accomplish a wide swathe of common infrastructural and organizational priorities and needs.
- The Linux Distribution Landscape
- Choosing the Right Linux Distro
- Best Linux Distros for Continuously Delivered Environments
- Best Linux Distros for Building Embedded Systems
- Best Linux Distros for Extensibility
- Best Cloud-Managed Linux Distro
- Best Paid Linux Distros
- Final Thoughts
The Linux Distribution Landscape
Linux distros, at their most basic, are a combination of the Linux kernel, and a suite of supporting software. In general, that suite of software will be curated from other top-level open source projects by the community that supports the distribution. For instance, distributions of Linux designed to be popular desktop operating systems might include a lot of desktop-focused applications like media players and focus on the customizability of the UI. In this case, a desktop operating system is the goal, and the included software 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, the popular Kali Linux distribution contains a suite of software that is useful for security-minded professionals and enthusiasts, whereas Linux Mint aims to be a straightforward, productivity-focused desktop Linux experience.
Enterprise Linux distributions, or distributions of Linux that are conceived to address needs that are specific to businesses that build their infrastructure using Linux, contain a lot of variance as well. Committing to a particular flavor of Linux, especially when deployed at the scale needed by modern enterprises, will have cascading and long-lasting impacts for the business at large.
License Costs and Vendor Lock-In
While mainstream commercial Linux vendors offer a lot of value, they do come at the cost of license expense and vendor lock-in. Typically, commercial Linux vendors will offer guaranteed support SLA/SLO contracts as well as enhanced maintenance and management services such as patching and vulnerability management in exchange for a slice of your business’s IT budget.
If that’s not something that you’re ready to consider, then your overall ecosystem needs will be the deciding factor.
Choosing the Right Linux Distro
With so many good Linux distros – how do you decide? To help, we created a simple guide that offers an objective-driven approach to understanding which factors should be considered when looking at the path forward from CentOS. This guide should not be interpreted as a recommendation to move away from CentOS Stream, but literally as a criteria-driven decision tree for deciding which Enterprise Linux fits your needs.
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Best Linux Distros for Continuously Delivered Environments
Container orchestration patterns have been generally adopted as the DevOps best practice of choice for deployment. Businesses who have matured to this level will want to consider a flavor of Linux that is optimized for running inside of a container, where as much of the fluff as possible has been removed, and the container engine can spend all its time serving the application.
Container-optimized releases of Linux are rolling by nature but also are designed to be extremely lightweight, something that isn’t part of the objective of CentOS Stream.
Distros for Non-Containerized Continuous Delivery
If you are continuously delivering your environments, but you have not adopted containers, the best options for Enterprise Linux include:
1. CentOS Stream
We’ve already covered CentOS Stream in depth and will continue to add more content. 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 Satellite/Spacewalk package management, virtualization options such as oVirt, and the like will still be available to you, and you’ll receive bug fixes and security patches on a faster schedule than before., and the like will still be available to you, and you’ll receive bug fixes and security patches on a faster schedule than before.
2. OpenSUSE 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 will come earlier than in the comparative OpenSUSE Leap regular-release distribution.
Container-Ready Linux Distros for Continuous Delivery
If you are continually delivering your environments, and you are ready for containers, then three different business-class operating systems have risen to the top:
1. Fedora CoreOS
The “Fedora” brand on the CoreOS release leads many to think that this is the notoriously unstable alpha branch of RHEL, but in fact the use of the Fedora brand here is meant to infer that this is the future of Linux in general for Red Hat. CoreOS is a fully container-optimized distribution that sits upstream from RHEL, but offers three distinct update channels of its own: Stable, Test, and Next. CoreOS’s Stable branch is acceptable for businesses who wish to deliver container-orchestrated environments that look and feel like products from the RHEL ecosystem.
If you’re looking to stay on the more native-Kubernetes path, and certainly if you are already aligned with OpenSUSE/SLES, then jumping straight to Rancher’s build of Kubernetes, the Rancher Kubernetes Engine (RKE) and in turn RancherOS offers an extremely efficient and apparently future-durable approach.
So, what about our options when we are not continuously delivering? Given that this is the status for a lot of businesses, and has been for a while, it’s not surprising that we see more contenders in this category, though that will no doubt change quickly.
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Best Linux Distros for Building Embedded Systems
Linux environments that businesses embed in their smaller hardware products share similar characteristics to container Linux distributions. Typically, these distributions will be running on hardware that was customized for lightweight purposes, and so they will need to run as little of the operating system as necessary to support the application function running on top of it. Since these operating systems tend to be burned directly into hardware systems, they are not typically delivered continuously, though impressive firmware delivery systems exist.
Several business-class embedded distributions are recommended:
1. Alpine Linux
Alpine Linux is considered a business-class embedded Linux distribution primarily because of its focus on security, though its usability and efficiency are very good reasons to consider it as well. Alpine Linux takes special steps to ensure that the code you are running in your environment can’t be tampered with, which is its main selling point, but the choice of ‘apt’ as a package manager also ensures ease of use.
2. Debian Linux
Although Debian also makes a great server or desktop environment, billing itself as the “Universal Operating System,” it is also an excellent choice for embedded systems. It’s as lightweight as you want it to be, offering an unparalleled level of flexibility in a flavor of Linux that is so mature. Debian is the base for other popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint.
3. Yocto Project
The Yocto Project is interesting in that it isn’t one single embedded distribution of Linux, but rather a collaboration suite and toolkit that allows for the generation of bespoke embedded Linux environments based on a set of criteria. Yocto’s toolchain makes it easy to generate a custom Linux environment based on the characteristics of your hardware and your administration preferences, such as your choice of package manager.
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Best Linux Distros for Extensibility
Many businesses will have concerns extending beyond just the single instances of Linux that they are running. Will the operating systems support viable virtualization options? Is it easy to integrate individual hosts with enterprise package management solutions? Have other products arisen that easily “snap-in” and augment the base infrastructure?
Free, Highly Extensible Linux Distros
If you need a proven, mature ecosystem, and you’re unwilling to pay a commercial vendor, then you’re in luck, you have a great variety of Linux still to choose from!
1. CentOS 7
CentOS 7 will still be community-supported through 2024, and some commercial support vendors such as OpenLogic have plans to support it well past that point, LTS to 2029 in the case of OpenLogic. For many businesses, this will be the lowest-risk option for the moment, giving plenty of time for businesses to consider their go-forward enterprise Linux strategies.
2. Rocky Linux
Although at the time of publication this distribution is still a work-in-progress, the Rocky Linux project shows enormous potential. Within days of the announcement of its creation, thousands of volunteer Linux developers and enthusiasts had already flocked to the Slack channel, and hundreds have pledged to volunteer their time. Led by the creator of the original CentOS project, Gregory Kurtzer, Rocky Linux aims to match CentOS’s existing build process, rebuilding each Red Hat source RPM at each release to ensure binary compatibility.
3. OpenSUSE Leap
OpenSUSE Leap is the regular release edition of the OpenSUSE Linux distribution. OpenSUSE is generally considered to be stable for production use, and those familiar with the SLES / SUSE Linux / Slackware product ecosystem will feel comfortable in this environment. OpenSUSE focuses on deployment simplicity, a familiar and lightweight toolchain, and cloud-readiness.
Springdale is another RHEL clone, built from the source RPMs at each release. So, this is another distribution that, like CentOS, is binary compatible with RHEL. Springdale aims to serve the math and science communities and includes special repositories with toolkits specific to those disciplines, such as computational libraries.
5. AlmaLinux (formerly Lenix Project)
Maintained by the CloudLinux organization, AlmaLinux promises to be a free RHEL clone rebuilt regularly from the RHEL source RPMs. AlmaLinux was previously known as Project Lenix before a name change in January of 2021. This distribution aims to directly fill the void left by CentOS 8’s original LTS promise, with CloudLinux committing to supporting the distribution through 2029.
6. Oracle Linux
At the moment, Oracle Linux would appear to be one of the most viable choices for remaining on a regular-release RHEL clone. It has been building for years, and, like CentOS is a binary-compatible rebuild of the Red Hat source RPMs. Although the community at large is wary of adopting free software that bears the Oracle logo, at the time of writing this blog there is no technical reason not to consider this release.
Free, Moderately Extensible Linux Distros
If you’re not willing to pay a commercial vendor, and you’re ok with a smaller available ecosystem product set, then either of these distributions are viable options:
1. Ubuntu Community
Ubuntu Community edition is a solid choice for both desktop and server Linux, and although sometimes criticized for its rigid design choices and feature set, it represents a powerful distribution that is safe for 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.
2. ClearOS Community
ClearOS, backed by HPE, is a RHEL clone that is built with simplicity of deployment in mind. It is geared towards small to mid-sized businesses and is even advertised specifically as a distribution for running at home. Its flagship functionality is its impressive web interface, which can be used to fully manage the installation remotely.
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Best Cloud-Managed Linux Distro
So far, Amazon Linux is the predominant Linux that has been forked by cloud vendors and optimized in various ways for a particular cloud substrate. Expect more of this, and also expect that some current flavors will move in this direction. In general, it will be cheaper to use these flavors of Linux in their respective clouds, but in return you will have little to no control over the lowest-level configuration of the operating system, relying on the commercial vendor to decide for you.
Paid, Cloud-Managed Linux Distros With Vendor Lock-In
If paying for licenses is accounted for in your business strategy, and cloud vender lock-in is acceptable, then Amazon Linux is your best choice for cloud-managed Linux.
1. Amazon Linux
We don’t know all of the details of what’s gone into the Amazon Linux mix behind the scenes, given that it now bills itself as an independent distribution of Linux that is maintained by Amazon. Its RHEL/CentOS roots are still visible, and the distribution was originally built from those sources at inception. That said, it has deviated quite a bit from its original state, and really should be considered a stable flavor of Linux that is cheap to run on Amazon EC2, albeit proprietary to that platform.
Best Paid Linux Distros Without Cloud Vendor Lock-In
If you’re OK with paying licenses, but you don’t want to be locked into a cloud vendor, then the “big three” of commercial Linux distributions are the most common options, as well as a newer contender in CloudLinux.
1. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES)
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server is the commercial counterpart to the OpenSUSE Linux distribution and is backed by SUSE’s commercial support offerings. If you are comfortable with or prefer a SUSE/Slackware Linux experience, then this is the best choice for commercial enterprise Linux. Just like OpenSUSE, SLES focuses on deployment simplicity, a lightweight toolchain and ecosystem, and cloud-readiness.
2. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)
Arguably the most widely recognized commercial enterprise Linux distribution on the market, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is the clear dominator in the space. Its recent acquisition by IBM has validated its worth as a business software entity, and as a company Red Hat has been able to keep pace with current trends like cloud-native container orchestration.
3. Ubuntu Enterprise
Ubuntu Enterprise is really just the Ubuntu community distribution with some addons like commercial support, as well as a number of related paid services offerings. These services include things like builds of the OpenStack environment, which is invested in heavily by Ubuntu’s commercial entity, Canonical, hardware certification for hardware vendors, and Kubernetes implementations of Ubuntu.
CloudLinux is a commercial fork of RHEL that is aimed at cloud and hosting providers but is also advertised as a solid choice for production environments. It offers a simple per-license subscription payment model and an enhanced offering that includes dedicated support. Although it is a rebuild of RHEL’s source RPMs, it does have some additional functionality such as a virtualized per-user file system and a number of pre-packaged monitoring solutions.
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Deciding on which distribution of Linux is right 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 the next generation of enterprise Linux. Life after CentOS 8 may not look different to your business at all, with Stream providing a viable, familiar, and adaptable Linux experience, or, you may need to pivot based on the criteria above.
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