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May 30, 2024

CentOS vs. Fedora: Features and Use Cases

Operating Systems
Open Source

Making sense of the open source Enterprise Linux landscape can be a tall task. With the CentOS project being discontinued and all versions end of life (EOL) as of June 30, 2024, it's helpful to understand the relationship between Fedora, CentOS, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). 

In this blog, we focus on two of those distributions: CentOS vs. Fedora. But before we jump into comparisons, let's start with a quick refresher on Fedora and its role in the landscape.

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What Is Fedora?

Fedora is the upstream Linux distribution for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It has several different distribution types, called spins, such as a workstation, and a server-focused version. The project is supported by a community of developers and contributors that believe that software patents are harmful and hinder innovation.

Fedora is essentially a testing ground for software that may eventually make it into RHEL. Some software, however, may not be included in RHEL, or the latest version may not be available in RHEL. 

Fedora contains new software, bug fixes, new versions, and other variables that may make some software unstable, or not appropriate for production use. It is a good distribution to use as a development platform to test new software or try out new features of existing software.

With newer libraries, newer packages, and newer kernels, Fedora allows you to test against newer hardware that CentOS may not have support for yet, enabling you to plan for the future better. 

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Fedora Features

Fedora provides a lot of different software, in many different areas. There are installations called spins that group different pieces of software together for a different installation setup. This means instead of one boot image that contains every piece of software that could be installed, there are multiple images that you can choose that have the desktop environment you want.

There is a Gnome spin, a KDE spin, an XFCE spin, and several others, that install those desktop environments. There are also other images based on other concepts, like server based, IoT, CoreOS, and others.

Fedora is also a short lifetime distribution. New releases are generally every six months, with a specific release being updated up to two releases behind. For example, Fedora 40 recently came out, so Fedora 38 is no longer being updated. Sometimes repositories for the older version actually disappear, such as EPEL or RPMFusion, meaning there would be no updates available whatsoever. At that point you generally must update, or make sure there are adequate controls in place to protect your system from exploits.

This means you have to update your systems to the latest major version more often, which has two major implications: You can get more buggy or defective software as they are added for testing, but on the flip side, you can also get bug fixes and security updates more often.

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RHEL vs. Fedora

The main difference between RHEL vs. Fedora is that Fedora is upstream from RHEL. Software is packaged and made available first on Fedora, and tested by users. Some or all of that software gets included in the next major release of RHEL. 

Since Fedora is a community open source project, it depends on users to file bug reports and even submit patches to fix problems problems that may exist in the software itself or in the packaging or installation. After a test period, the package may be included in a version of RHEL, but not always. This generally means the next major version of RHEL, not the current major version. When a package is deemed unreliable, unsupportable, or undesirable for other reasons, it won’t be included in the RHEL release.

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CentOS vs. Fedora

Since CentOS is a downstream recompilation of RHEL, the relation to Fedora is the same as with RHEL. CentOS is downstream of RHEL which is downstream of Fedora. 

After the introduction of CentOS Stream, CentOS major version releases typically lagged behind RHEL by a couple of months, whereas security patches and bug fixes were generally released within a day or so of them being released for RHEL. 

CentOS Stream is ahead of RHEL, but behind Fedora. So new packages would get introduced into Fedora, make their way to CentOS Stream and then to RHEL, and then to CentOS until it was discontinued. 

CentOS Stream vs. Fedora

In 2019, Red Hat released the first version of CentOS Stream (CentOS Stream 8) which is a rolling distribution. It gets updates continuously, rather than in batches like the point releases of RHEL. Fedora is ahead of CentOS Stream, though, so it will have newer packages with perhaps more bugs than CentOS Stream.

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When to Use CentOS

Before it was discontinued, CentOS was an excellent option for getting the stability of RHEL without the subscription cost. Because it was a little behind RHEL, you could see what bugs, patches, and other issues that packages may have had and plan accordingly.

However, with CentOS 7 EOL on June 30, 2024 and all other versions having already been sunsetted, it is recommended to migrate to CentOS alternatives like Rocky Linux or AlmaLinux or make the switch to CentOS Stream.

Migrating to Fedora would be more difficult, and it would be easier to rebuild and copy data over than to migrate the current system to Fedora.

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When to Use Fedora

Fedora is useful as a development platform, or even a desktop environment. You do have to be aware of software version differences between Fedora and your server OS, though. Since it tends to be more bleeding edge, you can test new features easier. It may be some time before those versions get into the stable distributions, however.

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Final Thoughts

When it comes to Enterprise Linux distributions, Fedora is a good for those who like the Red Hat ecosystem, but prefer more bleeding edge software. It is more suitable for desktop or development use than production, and functions well as a testing ground for software. 

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