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 particular 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 will mostly be an issue of personal preference. However, we'll list some of our favorite ones below.
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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. 20.10).
One of the highlights of the latest LTS release (20.04) is the inclusion of the popular virtual private network (VPN) WireGuard, which is now included by default in the Linux kernel starting with v5.6.
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 OpenStack cloud for you.
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.
Debian is available in several variants. You can install Debian over the Internet using the minimal Network Boot Image, which you can use to build your server from the grounds-up. There’s also a Cloud Image that you can deploy on any of the supported cloud providers including Amazon EC2, Azure, OpenStack, and others.
OpenSUSE is one of the most underrated server distros. Besides the regular release called Leap, OpenSUSE also produces a rolling release version named Tumbleweed.
Thanks to its stability, many users prefer running servers atop OpenSUSE Leap. The distro is available as a minimal network image that fetches packages from the Internet, as well as a heavier DVD image, which includes all the packages.
The distro doesn’t produce a separate image for server installation. Instead its installer offers the option to install a server. Furthermore, you can also easily setup your OpenSUSE server with a read-only root partition and transactional updates by choosing the Transactional Server option.
The highlights of the distro are the YaST Control Center and the Zypper package manager, which will help you with the administration and management of your installation. The distro is also well documented, with adequate avenues of support.
Fedora is a community developed distro that serves as the testbed for the commercial Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) distro. Fedora Server is a special implementation of the OS that’s tailored to help you deploy and manage a server installation either on bare metal or on the cloud.
To that end, the distro produces installation images for 64-bit machines and for ARM servers, as well as a range of images for various cloud environments including Openstack, Vagrant, the Amazon Public Cloud, and more.
Fedora Server includes FreeIPA, which enables you to manage authentication credentials, access control information and perform auditing from one central location. The highlight of the distro is that it groups certain packages as modules, which are available in streams that you can run across different versions for a consistent environment.
The second Fedora-labelled distro in our list, Fedora CoreOS is designed specifically to run containers. It describes itself as an automatically-updating, minimal operating system for running containerized workloads securely and at scale.
Red Hat, Fedora’s corporate overlords, has been participating in several open source projects that were working for creating container-optimized environments. It acquired CoreOS in 2018 and soon Fedora CoreOS emerged as the purpose-build distro for container deployments.
Fedora CoreOS ships with both docker and podman installed and is available in three different release streams, Stable, Testing and Next. All streams release various images. Besides the images for bare metal and various virtualized environments, you also get cloud launchable images for Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP), along with images for all the popular cloud operators such as Azure, OpenStack, Vultr, DigitalOcean, and more.
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.