Best Linux server distro
While Windows may be the world's most popular Operating System (OS) for desktop PCs, the world's most popular OS for the internet's web servers is Linux.
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.
Sometimes it's 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.
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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.
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 flavour 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. 18.04.1).
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.
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 2.7GB ISO image of Fedora Server using the link below. The same page contains a link to a minimal 583MB NetInstall Image from Fedora's Other Downloads section for a faster barebones setup.
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 at 906MB 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.
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.