Top Linux Server Distributions
You know that Linux is a hot data center server. You know it can save you money in licensing and maintenance costs. But that still leaves the question of what your best options are for Linux as a server operating system.
We’ve researched, crunched the numbers and put dozens of Linux distros through their paces to compile our latest list of the top ten Linux server distributions (aka “Linux server distros”) — some of which you may not be aware.
The following characteristics, in no particular order, qualified a Linux server distro for inclusion in this list: ease of installation and use, cost, available commercial support and data center reliability.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 Linux server operating systems for 2021.
At the top of almost every Linux-related list, the Debian-based Ubuntu is in a class by itself. Canonical’s Ubuntu surpasses all other Linux server distributions — from its simple installation to its excellent hardware discovery to its world-class commercial support, Ubuntu sets a strong standard that is hard to match.
The latest release of Ubuntu, Ubuntu 17.10 “Artful Aardvark,” Ubuntu debuted in October 2017 and utilizes Wayland as the default display server, GDM as the default display manager, and GNOME as the default desktop in place of Unity. Ubuntu 17.10 also features the Linux Kernel 4.13 and the Pike release of OpenStack, as well as deployment and management tools to help deploy distributed applications more quickly, whether on private clouds, public
clouds, x86, ARM, or POWER servers.
Server updates in the latest Ubuntu Server releases include Juju 2.0 for Ubuntu’s deployment and software orchestration system and MaaS 2.0 for Canonical’s Metal-as-a-Service technology.
Ubuntu plans to release version 20.10 “Groovy Gorilla” in October 2020, with updated applications and new additions to GNOME. However. 20.10 is not an LTS release, so it will only receive support for 9 months. The LTS versions are released every two years and include five years of commercial support for the Ubuntu Server edition. So if you’re looking for a more long-term solution, it is recommended that you stay with Ubuntu 20.04.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux
While Red Hat started out as the “little Linux company that could,” its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) server operating system is now a major force in the quest for data center rackspace. The Linux darling of large companies throughout the world, Red Hat’s innovations and non-stop support, including ten years of support for major releases, will keep you coming back for more.
RHEL is based on the community-driven Fedora, Red Hat which Red Hat sponsors. Fedora is updated more frequently than RHEL and serves as more of a bleeding-edge Linux distro in terms of features and technology, but it doesn’t offer the stability or the length and quality of commercial support that RHEL is renowned for.
In development since 2010, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 (RHEL 7) made its official debut in June 2014, and the major update offers scalability improvements for enterprises, including a new filesystem that can scale to 500 terabytes, as well as support for Docker container virtualization technology. The most recent release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, RHEL 7.4, debuted in July 2017.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
The Micro Focus-owned (but independently operated) SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) is stable, easy to maintain and offers 24×7 rapid-response support for those who don’t have the time or patience for lengthy troubleshooting calls. And the SUSE consulting teams will have you meeting your SLAs and making your accountants happy to boot.
SUSE LinuxSimilar to how Red Hat’s RHEL is based on the open-source Fedora distribution, SLES is based on the open-source openSUSE Linux distro, with SLES focusing on stability and support over leading-edge features and technologies.
The most recent major release, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 (SLES 12), debuted in late October 2014 and introduced new features like framework for Docker, full system rollback, live kernel patching enablement and software modules for “increasing data center uptime, improving operational efficiency and accelerating the adoption of open source innovation,” according to SUSE.
SLES 12 SP3 (Service Pack 3), the most recent update for SUSE, arrived in September 2017 with systemd replacing the System V-based init process and full system rollback support based on Btrfs as the default file system for the operating system partition and snapper technology.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 SP3 also carries over new core technologies like enterprise production support for Open vSwitch with DPDK (Data Plane Development Kit) and secure cryptoprocessor standard TPM (Trusted Platform Module) 2.0 support from SLES 12 SP2.
If you operate a website through a web hosting company, there’s a very good chance your web server is powered by CentOS Linux. This low-cost clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux isn’t strictly commercial, but since it’s based on RHEL, you can leverage commercial support for it.
Short for Community Enterprise Operating System, CentOS CentOS has largely operated as a community-driven project that used the RHEL code, removed all Red Hat’s trademarks, and made the Linux server OS available for free use and distribution.
In 2014 the focus shifted following Red Hat and CentOS announcing they would collaborate going forward and that CentOS would serve to address the gap between the community-innovation-focused Fedora platform and the enterprise-grade, commercially-deployed Red Hat Enterprise Linux platform.
CentOS will continue to deliver a community-oriented operating system with a mission of helping users develop and adopt open source technologies on a Linux server distribution that is more consistent and conservative than Fedora’s more innovative role.
At the same time, CentOS will remain free, with support provided by the community-led CentOS project rather than through Red Hat. CentOS released CentOS 7.4 (Build 1708) in October 2017, which is derived from Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4.
If you’re confused by Debian’s inclusion here, don’t be. Debian doesn’t have formal commercial support but you can connect with Debian-savvy consultants around the world via their Consultants page. Debian originated in 1993 and has spawned more child distributions than any other parent Linux distribution, including Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Vyatta.
Debian Debian remains a popular option for those who value stability over the latest features. The latest major stable version of Debian, Debian 9 (codenamed “stretch”) was released in June 2017, and it will be supported for five years.
Debian 9 Stretch (named after the Octopus toy Stretch in the movie Toy Story) utilizes the Linux Kernel 4.9 LTS series, PHP 7.0, GCC 6, and Python 3.5, and replaces MySQL with MariaDB as its default database. Debian 9 also includes the latest releases of Apache, LibreOffice, Perl, Xen Hypervisor, and the GNOME and Xfce desktop environments.
The latest update for Debian 9, version 9.3, debuted on December 9th, 2017.
If you didn’t know that Oracle produces its own Linux distribution, you’re not alone. Oracle Linux (formerly Oracle Enterprise Linux) is Red Hat Enterprise Linuxfortified with Oracle’s own special Kool-Aid as well as various Oracle logos and art added in.
Oracle Linux Server
Oracle’s Linux competes directly with Red Hat’s Linux server distributions, and does so quite effectively since purchased support through Oracle is half
Optimized for Oracle’s database services, Oracle Linux is a heavy contender in the enterprise Linux market. If you run Oracle databases and want to run them on Linux, you know the drill: Call Oracle.the price of Red Hat’s equivalent model.
The latest release of Oracle Linux, version 7.4, arrived in late July 2017 and is based on RHEL 7.4.
ClearOS is an open-source Linux operating system based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS that combines a server, network and gateway platform.
ClearOSFormerly called ClarkConnect, ClearOS has gained traction as a viable Linux server option, particularly in the small business market. With its highly touted administration interfaces and superior documentation, ClearOS serves as an ideal option for less-experienced admins or for anyone looking to get up and running on a Linux server OS quickly and without a lot of fuss.
ClearOS offers a free, open source Community edition as well as an inexpensive Professional version that includes a range of support options and additional features. The Clear Foundation maintains ClearOS and the ClearCenter Marketplace, which serves as an app store with both free and paid apps for extending the capabilities of ClearOS.
The latest major release of ClearOS, ClearOS 7, became available for download in March 2015. The most recent update, ClearOS 7.4, became available in November 2017, and it offers ClearOS Home and ClearOS Business editions, improved VM support (including Microsoft Hyper-V), XFS and BTRFS Filesystem support, a new Dynamic Dashboard, streamlined Theme system, support for LVM caching, and IPv6 support.
Mageia is an open-source-based fork of Mandriva Linux that made its debut in 2011. The most recent release, Mageia 6, officially debuted in July 2017, and Mageia 7 is expected to be released in the second half of 2018.
Mageia and Mandriva Linux For U.S.-based executive or technical folks, Mageia and its predecessor Mandriva might be a bit foreign. The incredibly well-constructed Mandriva Linux distribution hails from France and enjoys extreme acceptance in Europe and South America. The Mandriva name and its construction derive from the Mandrake Linux and Connectiva Linux distributions.
Mageia maintains the strengths of Mandriva while continuing its development with new features and capabilities, as well as support from the community organization Mageia.Org. Mageia updates are typically released on a 9-month release cycle, with each release supported for two cycles (18 months).
As for Mandriva Linux, the Mandriva SA company continues its business Linux server projects, which are now based on Mageia code.
A simple, lightweight Linux distribution, Arch Linux is definitely designed with more competent Linux users in mind. Arch Linux doesn’t provide the level of support and ease of use that other Linux server operating systems offer, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a viable server for more experienced administrators. Those interested in giving Arch a spin as a streamlined server are encouraged to start with the Arch Linux Server site.
Arch LinuxLike the Gentoo Linux distro, Arch Linux utilizes a rolling release model, which means regular system updates are all that are needed to keep current with the latest Arch Linux components and packages.
Arch Linux’s home-grown “pacman” package manager provides updates to the latest software applications with full dependency tracking, and Arch Linux updates tend to follow the pace of Linux kernel releases in order to provide optimal hardware support.
The Arch Linux development team typically updates the Linux server distro on a monthly cadence, with the latest kernel and base packages from the package repositories. The first release of 2018, Arch Linux 2018.01.01, arrived on January 1st, 2018, and included the Linux Kernel 4.14.9.
While not generally associated with commercial distributions, Slackware Linux Slackware maintains relationships with several companies that provide fee-based support.
One of the earliest available Linux server distributions with its original release in 1993, Slackware has an extensive and faithful fan base. Its developers release new versions every year or so, with the most recent, Slackware 14.2, having debuted in early July 2016.
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