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The 3 best free linux distros for server hosting

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The open-source nature of Linux means that there exists a downright staggering selection of different distributions, each one designed with a slightly different purpose in mind. While one of the platform’s greatest strengths, it could also be considered one of its most glaring weaknesses, as new users might feel somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices available to them. This holds particularly true when you’re trying to select a Linux distro for your server, as choosing the wrong one could have dire consequences.

If one happens to be part of an enterprise with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of users, then the choice seems a fairly easy one: go mainstream. Oracle, Red Hat Enterprise, or SUSE Linux Enterprise are all designed with enterprise users in mind. As an added bonus, each of these distributions also has the support of a large, established vendor.

Mainstream isn’t always the way to go. Independent administrators and smaller organizations might find it difficult to foot the bill for some of the above, while others might find that the mainstream server platforms don’t really fit their needs. If you’re working with a narrow target audience, running on unique hardware or utilizing your servers for specific application development, a community-driven solution might well be the way to go.

Debian

Debian remains a popular option for those who value stability over the latest features. The latest major stable version of Debian, Debian 8 “jessie,” was released in April 2015, and it will be supported for five years. – Server Watch

First developed back in 1993, Debian is one of the oldest Linux distributions currently in circulation. Although it’s entirely community driven (and developed), it’s nevertheless supported by a surprisingly organized network of professionals and enthusiasts, who work together to keep things running smoothly and efficiently, with updates rolled out fairly frequently. It’s incredibly versatile, supporting a wide variety of different packages and rarely requiring a reinstall. This makes it quite well-suited for running a dedicated application server.

Compared to other distros on the market, Debian has three primary disadvantages. The first is that it is most assuredly not a distribution for non-experts. If you don’t know your way around Linux, I’d strongly advise looking for a different distro on which to run your server.

The second is related to cost – though whether or not this is to be considered a disadvantage depends entirely on the user. Since Debian is completely free, it naturally lacks an option for paid support. What that effectively means is that if you run into trouble, you’re looking to either your own team or the community.

Lastly, Debian tends to lag behind a bit in software updates compared to its competitors.

CentOS

If you operate a website through a web hosting company, there’s a very good chance your web server is powered by CentOS Linux. This low-cost clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux isn’t strictly commercial, but since it’s based on RHEL, you can leverage commercial support for it…CentOS CentOS has largely operated as a community-driven project that used the RHEL code, removed all Red Hat’s trademarks, and made the Linux server OS available for free use and distribution. – Server Watch

CentOS is noteworthy for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s basically a free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux – the most widely-supported distribution in corporate IT. By association, this means that CentOS also enjoys widespread enterprise support. That alone gives it considerable clout, and effectively makes it the only sensible choice if you’re looking for a low-cost alternative to one of the mainstream server options.

As an added bonus, working with CentOS means you’re building the skills to work with RHEL.

Secondly, it’s also one of the most stable, secure, and hardened community-driven distributions around. This security makes it a very good choice for anything Internet-facing, while its reputation for stability means that you can rest easy using it to run mission-critical servers.

CentOS isn’t perfect, of course. Historically, the distribution’s software repository was somewhat outdated and disorganized, while updates were both eclectic and unreliable. Given that CentOS now has official Red Hat support, however, these issues seem a moot point.

Ubuntu

At the top of almost every Linux-related list, the Debian-based Ubuntu is in a class by itself. Canonical’s Ubuntu surpasses all other Linux server distributions — from its simple installation to its excellent hardware discovery to its world-class commercial support, Ubuntu sets a strong standard that is hard to match. – Server Watch

Although Ubuntu itself is primarily a desktop Linux distribution, the brand also includes one of the most powerful free server distributions around. Ubuntu Server boasts a fast and frequent update cycle and comes bundled with a useful and diverse set of package groups. In addition to this, it’s also got an option for paid support which includes training and online services such as Landscape and Ubuntu One.

The best feature of Ubuntu – and the thing that makes it such a formidable choice – is that it features a unified package repository for all its different versions. This gives it an unprecedented level of versatility, allowing administrators to easily switch between server kernels until they find one that suits them.

So, Which Is The Best Linux Distro For Me?

Especially for new users who are still just cutting their teeth on Linux, the sheer degree of choice it offers can be more than a little overwhelming. After all, if you’re coming from Windows or Mac, the only decisions you’ve ever really had to make involved which version of the operating system you wanted to install. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by all the different options available to you.

Are fast update cycles a must for you? Do you need a diverse set of package groups, and access to paid support and training services? Is versatility something you absolutely demand of your operating system?

If so, go with Ubuntu.

But what about stability and security? What if you’re using your distribution to host mission-critical, highly-sensitive data? Sure, there’s something to be said for fast update cycles, but security trumps that.

If those are questions you’ve asked, CentOS is your best choice – you’ll basically be getting an enterprise-grade Linux distro at a fraction of the cost.

But maybe you’re not a Linux novice. Maybe you’ve been around the operating system for years, and you’re just taking a look at this article to give yourself a refresher. Maybe you’re running a system for which regular updates aren’t absolutely necessary, and you’ve enough experts on staff that the lack of any sort of paid support isn’t really an issue. And maybe, just maybe, you value stability more than anything else.

If that sounds like you, then you’re going to want to roll with Debian. It may be old, but that doesn’t make it any less formidable. That’s especially true with the April 2015 release of Debian 8, which switches to the systemd init system from the SysVinit init system.

Mainstream isn’t always the best choice. Larger Linux distros may offer more support and (potentially) more power, but they also cost significantly more. If you’re a smaller organization or working with a tight budget, community-driven may well be the way to go. We’ve previewed three of the best here, but they’re far from the only ones available, and since every server’s a little bit different, they might not work for everyone.

What about you fine folks? What distribution do you use to run your servers?

Image: Flickr/Nguyen Vu Hung

Matthew Davis

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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