Usually bundled along with Apache, MySQL, and PHP - and frequently referred to as a LAMP configuration - a wide variety of different Linux distros are used not just for the servers that power the internet but also for the virtual networks behind cloud computing.
Sometimes the choice of which Linux distro you use on your servers is down to personal preference, sometimes market forces, and sometimes due to small advantages a particularly distro will have in regards to the core applications to be used, security concerns, or stability issues.
Ultimately, most web users will never notice any difference because the OS works very much in the background, and it will only be the system administrators and IT managers who take notice of which distro of Linux is used.
But which Linux should be used? In most situations the choice won't be critical and mostly be an issue of personal choice. However, we'll list some of our favorite ones below.
Linux Administration Bootcamp: Go from Beginner to Advanced, $12.99/£11.99 at Udemy
Learn the ropes of two of the most popular Linux distributions in the world, Red Hat Linux & CentOS, and use the in-demand skills to start a career as a Linux Server Admin or Linux Administrator. The course is presented by Jason Cannon, the author of Linux for beginners, and includes around 500 minutes of in-demand video and four downloadable resources. View Deal
Linux PDF Bundle with Wiley, from $0.99/£0.99 from Fanatical
Linux is an OS that runs desktops, servers and embedded systems across the world - and with the Linux Bundle with Wiley, you'll unlock its full potential! In this tiered collection, you'll be able to legally own from up to 17 eBooks (PDF/EPUB) and thousands of pages specializing in all things Linux, covering the basics of how to get started as well as advanced, professional tools for those at a more intermediate or expert level. Save even more with the exclusive code "TechRadar20", valid till April 10th.View Deal
- These are the best Linux training providers and online courses.
Check out more of our features on Linux:
- 10 of the best Linux distros for privacy fiends and security buffs
- What's the best Linux distro for beginners?
- How to choose the best Linux distro for laptops
- We've featured the best Linux laptops.
Best Linux server distros - at a glance
While Ubuntu is best known for bringing desktop Linux to the masses, its server variant is also extremely competitive.
Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has developed LTS (Long Term Support) versions of Ubuntu Server, which like the desktop flavor can be updated up to five years after the date of release, saving you the trouble of upgrading your server repeatedly. Canonical also periodically releases versions of Ubuntu Server at the same time as the latest desktop distro (i.e. 18.04).
If you're intent on building your own cloud platform, you can also download Ubuntu Cloud Server. Canonical claims that over 55% of OpenStack clouds already run on Ubuntu. For a fee, Canonical will even set up a managed cloud for you using BootStack.
Like Fedora, CentOS is a community developed distribution of Linux, originally based on the commercial OS Red Hat Enterprise Linux. In light of this, the developers behind CentOS 7 have promised to provide full updates for the OS until the end of 2020, with maintenance updates until the end of June 2024 – which should save the trouble of performing a full upgrade on your server in the near future.
You can avoid unnecessary packages by installing the 'minimal' ISO from the CentOS website, which can fit onto a 90 minute CD-R. If you're eager to get started, the site also offers preconfigured AWS instances and Docker images.
Debian is over 20-years-old and in part owes that longevity to the emphasis placed on producing a stable operating system. This is crucial if you want to set up a server as updates can sometimes clash badly with existing software.
There are three branches of Debian, named 'Unstable', 'Testing' and 'Stable'. To become part of the Stable current release, packages must have been reviewed for several months as part of the Testing release. This results in a much more reliable system – but don't expect Debian to incorporate much 'bleeding edge' software as a result.
You can get started with Debian using a minimal Network Boot image which is less than 30MB in size. For a faster setup, download the larger network installer which at just under 300MB contains more packages.
OpenSUSE (formerly SUSE Linux) is a Linux distro specifically designed for developers and system admins wishing to run their own server. The easy-to-use installer can be configured to use 'Text Mode' rather than install a desktop environment to get your server up and running.
OpenSUSE will automatically download the minimum required packages for you, meaning only essential software is installed. The YaST Control Center allows you to configure network settings, such as setting up a static IP for your server. You can also use the built in Zypper package manager to download and install essential server software such as postfix.
Fedora is a community developed operating system based on the commercial Linux distro Red Hat. Fedora Server is a special implementation of the OS, allowing you to deploy and manage your server using the Rolekit tool. The operating system also includes a powerful PostgreSQL Database Server.
Fedora Server also includes FreeIPA, enabling you to manage authentication credentials, access control information and perform auditing from one central location.
You can download the full ISO image of Fedora Server using the link below. The same page contains a link to a minimal NetInstall Image from Fedora's Other Downloads section for a faster barebones setup.
More Linux server distros to consider
There are a small number of Linux distros commonly used for internet servers, and although we've covered the main contenders above, there are a couple more definitely worth considering according to your circumstances:
Red Hat is the big brother to Fedora and CentOS, designed specifically for commercial deployment in enterprise environments. It's still open source but requires a proprietary licence for use. Red Hat have been established for a long time, and while licencing fees might put some people off, a lot of businesses equate that with a guarantee of support, reliability, and quality.
FreeBSD isn't technically Linux as much as a Unix-powered operating system, but will sometimes be offered by hosting companies as a server option in powering a LAMP configuration alongside various Linux distros. While Linux relies on a lot of third-party development for software utilities, FreeBSD comes as a complete set which gives it a reputation for being especially secure and stable.
CloudLinux is a distro of specifically built for virtualized cloud operations to power shared hosting services, by allocating and limiting server resources to each tenant. Additionally, each tenant is partition from each other, in other to create a more secure environment. The result is a hosting platform that has built in redundancy, stability, and security, in order to provide a better hosting environment.