The best Linux distros for developers provide an easy, stable, and secure environment for coding and programming applications.
This means it's often essential for techies to be able to work directly in a Linux environment, especially for operating servers and for developing software that runs on them.
While Linux has a reputation for being primarily for coders and programmers, over the past couple of decades there have been moves to provide versions of Linux that are more friendly to ordinary users, such as by providing more of a graphic user interface (GUI) and be less reliant on command line use.
However, at its core Linux still offers a thriving environment for coders and developers.
Here are the best Linux operating systems that will help you create your custom programming and development workstation.
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Best developer distros at a glance:
- Puppy Linux
- Sabayon Linux
- CentOS Stream
- Fedora Workstation
- Raspberry Pi OS
Arch is a powerful distro that can be used to create a customized environment. However, installing the distro is notoriously laborious. You can escape the installation and still experience the best that Arch has to offer using Manjaro Linux. With the help of a whole set of custom tools and utilities, Manjaro takes the pain out of installing and administering an Arch-based system.
Manjaro is available in multiple editions with different desktop environments. If you are a Qt developer, you can use the KDE edition of the distro, which ships with tools such as the Qt Designer and Qt Assistant to help you with your development.
Manjaro claims the distro ships with tools required to compile and develop software for other developers as well. According to the project’s website you can use Manjaro’s intuitive package manager to easily install IDEs like Qt Creator, KDevelop or Netbeans and libraries like libnoise, boost or matplotlib. Of course in addition to its own repositories, you can also access the comprehensive Arch User Repository (AUR) that houses all sorts of tools and libraries.
Puppy Linux is an extremely lightweight distro that has separate editions based on Ubuntu and Slackware. The entire OS is small enough to be run entirely in RAM, which makes it extremely fast and responsive. You can also anchor the distro to your hard disk as well.
Despite its small size, there’s no beating Puppy for out of the box functionality. The distro ships with apps and utilities for virtually all the functions you can perform on a desktop.
There are multiple mechanisms for installing apps in Puppy. One of the most convenient ones involves SFS (SquashFS) files, which are compressed environments that package one or more apps and all their required dependencies. If you want to develop on Puppy you can use the devx SFS file that contains various development and build tools.
Furthermore, the Puppy Linux wiki has a nice introduction to programming, which is a good starting point for new developers. The page also shows you how to install support for over a dozen programming languages in your Puppy installation.
Solus is special in that it's one of the few Irish Linux distros, and also because it follows a curated rolling release model. The advantage of this is that once you've installed the OS, you can keep running updates rather than a major upgrade. Solus, however, tries to avoid installing extremely recent packages and beta software to maintain system stability.
The distro advertises its use as an ideal environment for developers. Solus supports several editors and IDEs such as Atom, Idea and Gnome Builder, as well as multiple version control systems including Git, Bazaar, and others through graphical tools like GitKraken and git-cola. The Solus project website also claims that the OS supports a number of programming languages such as Go, Rust, PHP, Node.js and Ruby.
So while the distro might not ship with very many tools out of the book, you can easily flesh it out with your development toolchain.
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distros for all kinds of users, from Linux newbies to seasoned campaigners. For programmers, the Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) release provides a stable development environment that they don’t need to upgrade every six month.
In fact, Ubuntu is the chosen distro of the Android Open Source Project for building source files. The Android build is regularly tested using the most recent versions of Ubuntu. The distro’s official website hosts several tutorials, guides, and other resources aimed to impress the development and programming prowess of the distro.
Owing to its popularity, you can find virtually all the development and programming tools and libraries in official Ubuntu’s repositories or in a Personal Package Archive (PPA). With the introduction of the snap packaging format, installing new software is a straightforward process.
Furthermore, Ubuntu has a developer friendly command-line tool called Ubuntu Make that you can use to download several developer friendly tools.
In simple terms, Sabayon is to Gentoo, what Manjaro is to Arch Linux. Gentoo is a source-based meta distro that can help you create lightning quick bloat-free installation. The catch however is that just like Arch, installing Gentoo isn’t for the faint of heart. The Sabayon Linux takes the best of Gentoo and wraps it in an easy to consume distro that caters to all kinds of users.
Sabayon Linux is available in multiple editions, based on different desktop environments. The project aims to deliver a fuller out of the box experience and despite being a bleeding edge rolling release, is pretty stable thanks to its Gentoo underpinnings. The project is about to merge with Funtoo, which is led by the original creator of Gentoo Linux.
Sabayon Linux ships with a few development tools, particularly for Python developers, but you can install more using Gentoo’s famed portage package management system.
Debian is one of the oldest Linux distros and is built with stability in mind. All programs included with Debian have to meet the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Packages are carefully selected and tested for inclusion in the 'Stable' branch of Debian meaning that while some may be dated, there's very little chance of system instability, making this OS ideal for programmers.
The Debian website has extensive manuals, including a chapter on programming talking you through the basics of creating a script, compiling it, and using Autoconf to allow your scripts to be compiled on other Linux distros.
Furthermore, Debian boasts of one of the largest repositories of open source software, and you wouldn't have much trouble finding and installing your favorite programming tools and libraries.
CentOS Stream is a free, community-based variant of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). It’s a rolling release distro that’s built using the same packages as RHEL. As a testbed for the commercial RHEL, CentOS Stream gets packages and fixes before they end up in RHEL, which means users can get enterprise-class software at no-cost.
CentOS Stream thinks of itself as a “developer-forward” distro that’ll help users keep pace with the latest technologies in the open source ecosystem, while ensuring the stability of a well-tested distro.
The CentOS Stream distro was visualized as an upstream development platform for distro developers, which means its repositories are flush with apps and tools that will help you set up your ideal development platform, especially once you enable the new PowerTools repository.
Fedora Workstation boldly claims it is “created for developers”. The distro is another community supported derivative of the commercial RHEL, that’s more bleeding edge than CentOS Stream. It also enjoys the distinction of being the distro of choice of Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds.
Aside from being very easy to set up and install, Fedora has a dedicated Developer Portal. Simply click 'Start a Project' to see dedicated guides on developing web, command line, desktop and mobile apps. There's also an excellent section on working with hardware devices such as Arduino.
If this wasn’t enough, the Fedora repositories also include Eclipse, a fully featured and multi-language IDE. Eclipse is probably best known for Java, but also has a C/C++ and PHP IDE. You can expand its functionality even further with plugins.
openSUSE doesn’t receive the same amount of attention as Ubuntu and Fedora, but the project produces a fantastic environment for developers. The openSUSE project produces two distros; openSUSE Leap is the fixed release cycle regular distro, while openSUSE Tumbleweed is the rolling release variant.
You can use either of the two distros depending on the kind of development you’re involved in. Both distros use openSUSE’s excellent YaST configuration tool, which helps you tailor the installation as per your requirements.
Raspberry Pi was conceptualized as a cheap computer to help make learning programming accessible to everyone. The Raspberry Pi OS (formerly known as Raspbian) puts that objective into action by bundling a desktop that’s tailored for coding.
The distro is complimented by the Raspberry Pi website that hosts some impressive guides on using the credit-card sized computer to learn to program, particularly with Python. The Raspberry Pi OS includes the visual programming tool Scratch, which is a wonderful source for taking first steps into programming.
Younger coders might prefer to learn to use the programming language for Minecraft Pi, a mini-version of the highly popular sandbox game.
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