Picking a Linux Distribution: Beginner

Linux/GNU, commonly referred to as Linux, is a free, open-source OS that was created by Linus Torvalds. Because its source code is free and open, people all over the world help maintain, update and create more features for the OS. (New operating systems, like Google’s Android, have even been built using the Linux kernel.) As a result, Linux is extremely customizable and can be tailored to all sorts of specific needs. For these reasons, a majority of servers around the world — including Linode’s — use Linux as their OS.

Different user communities adapt Linux differently, creating their own distributions — Fedora, Debian, Gentoo — contingent on specific need. Most Linux distributions, or distros, can be used universally, but some are better at specific tasks. For example, Arch is an extremely powerful, detailed distro that grants the user customization over even the smallest functionalities of a solution in the stack. The Ubuntu distro handles many small configuration details by default, rendering installation and configuration easier for newer users.

Linode offers eight different distros that can be deployed (alongside any that a user installs manually) on its servers; the following six are the most popular.

One of the earliest distributions, Debian has become one of the most popular and frequently maintained distros among Linux users. It leverages stable, steady and reliable services with greater deliberation about adopting recently released features available in other distros.

Why use it? Debian ranks as one of the best, most time-tested distros available and affords the advantage of having tens of thousands of software packages available to it.

One of the easiest distros to learn and operate, Ubuntu is arguably the most popular. Derived from Debian, Ubuntu uses the same package management, but its own repositories. Ubuntu gets updates throughout each year, with longer-lasting LTS versions released every two years.

Why use it? Ubuntu is simple to use. Executing a handful of commands will typically get any solution running quickly.

Fedora accommodates the latest, bleeding-edge software. It supports and runs services prototypes that can be considered unstable.

Why use it? Fedora is for power users who enjoy getting their hands on new services early.

Essentially the Red Hat distribution without proprietary services, CentOS is usually selected for its powerful web-hosting capabilities, as it can install and run cPanel. (Red Hat is a distribution well known by enterprises that use Linux servers for their web solutions — it’s one of the few distros that comes with a price tag, but also a telephone/ticket call line for customer support.) Administrators who have experience with Red Hat but don’t want to pay for persistent licensing can migrate to and use CentOS, instead.

Why use it? In a word: cPanel, which can help anyone efficiently and smoothly run a website.

Arch is a minimalist, detail-oriented, bleeding-edge distribution for power users. One of the more complicated distros to run, Arch empowers a user to manually customize every nuance about the server’s configuration. Rolling updates keep all Arch versions uniform and consistent.

Why use it? Arch Linux delivers full control over your server, which means you can do just about anything with it, as long as you invest enough time to understand how the services work.

This is a detail-oriented, challenging distro. Its source code is compiled by the user to fit exact needs with installed hardware. By proxy, this would mean users are intimately knowledgeable about their now optimized server. Like Arch Linux, Gentoo follows rolling updates.

Why use it? Gentoo’s ability to deliver complete optimization of your server means you can milk every ounce of value from your hardware and software.

Selecting a distribution is a fundamental step in getting your server running as you desire. Once you’re acquainted with each respective distro, your choice really is based on which is most comfortable for you. Each performs some tasks better than another, but you can accomplish most of the same actions with any of them.

Linode allows you to seamlessly spin up and delete distros at whim, so feel free to make an image of each one and see which speaks loudest to you — there really is no poor option.

Discuss your favorite distro on Linode’s forums.

Check out our guides for more information on these distributions.

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