GNU Linux started as one man's personal project – it's now one of the most popular operating system bases in the world. But unlike macOS and Windows, there's not just one Linux OS. There are hundreds of individual platforms assembled from components and built upon the Linux kernel. Different distributions (distros) can vary wildly from one another.
So what's the best choice for your small business? We've approached this selection with a few criteria in mind. Stability is first and foremost, because if you're putting a distro to work, uptime is critical, and solid support provision comes a close second.
We've also considered practical capabilities, which is why you'll find a couple of non-desktop distributions on our list: Linux is perhaps better suited to managing your behind-the-scenes hardware than it is being put in front of users who may be unfamiliar with Gnome or KDE.
Built on the solid foundation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux – and, indeed, officially funded by Red Hat as of 2014 – CentOS is undoubtedly a distro with strong credentials. Its default Gnome desktop is pleasant and reasonably familiar to most computer users, the RPM package management system is widely supported, and it's equally at home on workstations and servers.
It harnesses the open source components of its parent OS, which actually make up the majority of RHEL: only Red Hat's trademarks and a few proprietary components are omitted. Thanks to this unique partnership, updates tend to flow to CentOS only a day or two after they hit its parent.
CentOS is now one of the world's most popular server distros, and is perfect if you want to build serious hardware appliances without paying for a Red Hat subscription. The downside of going free is support. While the CentOS community is brilliant, professional support is the key reason for using RHEL – but with server prices starting at $349 (around £270, AU$465) per year, it could be prohibitively expensive for small business use.
ClearOS and CentOS are pretty close cousins. Both run many of the same packages inherited from RHEL. But while CentOS is a functional desktop OS, ClearOS isn't really meant for that – it doesn't even come with a GUI. Instead, it's intended primarily as a server platform administered entirely from a web interface. Once it's installed, you won't need a keyboard, mouse, or even a monitor connected to its home machine.
Because of its tight focus, ClearOS is actually easier to use than most server operating systems. That web interface makes installing this operating system's various components a breeze, so you'll be able to quickly get your business protected with a firewall, manage an email server, install a file server or more, all safe in the knowledge that each of these components will (most likely) work perfectly together.
There's support available if you're somehow overwhelmed – it's not the cheapest, but it's there – and a specific paid-for Business edition which includes only highly-tested software packages and patches.
While CentOS is an open source OS based on a paid-for release, this goes the other way – community-developed OpenSUSE provides the basis of commercially-supported SUSE Linux Enterprise. SUSE actually borrows a lot from Red Hat, including its RPM package management system, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's a clone.
OpenSUSE is one of the few distros to default to the graphically-heavy KDE window manager, though it comes with Mate, LXDE and others, so it'll be comfortable on whatever hardware you try to run it on. This OS also has its own excellent package management system, YaST, which provides an easy way to administer systems, and download then install new software.
Each Leap release receives critical updates for 18 months, after which you'll need to upgrade to stay on top of the latest developments – bear this in mind if security, stability and low IT costs are a concern. Try the Tumbleweed release if you're looking for rolling updates.
If you're running a small business, the security of your network should be as important a concern as the behaviour of your employees. IPFire ticks both these boxes at once. It's an all-in-one Linux appliance: install it on a machine which sits between your internet connection and your network switch and it'll do everything from managing IP addresses to protecting you with a firewall, and controlling what sites your workers are allowed to visit and when.
It does require a certain level of knowledge to get IPFire installed, and its unique nature – it's constructed from scratch, not forked from any specific version of Linux – means it won't be quite as easy to extend as other distros may be.
Also bear in mind that this will require at least a machine with two network connections, and it's all controlled from a web interface – this is definitely not a desktop OS. Caveats aside, IPFire is completely free to use with good documentation and paid support available if it all goes pear-shaped.
It's the most popular Linux flavour out there, but its reputation might lead you to think that Ubuntu is best suited to home users. Not so: Ubuntu's stability and compatibility are very solid, there's a free-to-use Ubuntu Server version to handle your back-end tasks, and its use of Debian packages and the Apt package management system means you'll be able to get the software you need quickly and easily.
Perhaps Ubuntu's strongest feature is its support. The vast user base means there's a raft of technical documentation out there, and its generous community has answered just about every question you might have.
For those times when you need a little more help, the Ubuntu Advantage program offers a reasonably priced support program for desktops and servers. Version 16.04 is one of Ubuntu's LTS releases, meaning it'll get updates and support until 2021 – a system that doesn't need to be regularly upgraded is a great advantage if downtime costs you money.
Manjaro is built on top of Arch Linux, traditionally one of the more complex and obtuse Linux distros out there. This OS does away with that complexity, while sharing Arch's streamlined, fast environment, its fearlessness regarding access to the very latest software, and its rolling release schedule.
Basically this means you should never have to install a later version of the software – you'll get the updates as they're released, and your Manjaro machines will upgrade over time rather than being taken out of service.
Manjaro's default desktop is very Windows-like, so your users will likely feel comfortable immediately, and its other improvements over Arch – a better installer, improved hardware detection, repositories full of stable software – make it a solid choice for end-user systems. That's its strong point, mind you. With some work you could probably build a server from Manjaro's NET edition, a stripped-down version you can build from the ground up, but other distros handle that aspect a lot better.
We're entering the realm of more difficult distros here, and we're doing it without the safety net of a dedicated paid support structure, but give Slackware a chance if you're looking to build bespoke Linux systems.
It's the oldest consistently maintained Linux distro, having first emerged in 1993, and as such it doesn't make any assumptions about the way you're going to use it, giving you more control than most other distros.
You're going to need control, though: its package manager doesn't resolve software dependencies, there's no fixed release schedule (Slackware tends to come out when a new stable version is ready, and the last major release was in 2013), and there are no graphical configuration tools.
But knuckle down, edit a bunch of plain text files, and you'll be able to create exactly the package you need for your business, all on top of a lightweight and bloat-free distro.