As you might expect, Linux server distributions are optimized for use with servers. ‘Distributions’, or ‘distros’ for short, are the names given to the different ‘flavors’ or versions of Linux that are available. They allow you to set up your Linux machine in a way that’s best suited to your own needs, with all the right capabilities and tools in place to meet them.
Linux server distributions are stripped-back versions of the software, sometimes pared down to such an extent that they may not even come with a typical user interface, but what they do give you is plenty of tools to make the machine quick, reliable, and secure, all the things you look for in a high-quality server OS.
Sounds great right? But the only problem with this is that there are many, many Linux server distros on the market, so which one should you select for your home or business use, and which ones are the best Linux server distros 2021? Well, we’ve solved that problem for you! Here’s our take on the top 10 for you to consider.
The server edition of Ubuntu Server has its roots in probably the most widely-used Linux distro on the market, so if you’re already on board with it then the shift over to Ubuntu Server should not be too uncomfortable for you. It’s known among Linux server distros for its usability and comprehensive feature set and it includes FOSS and a lot of closed-source software too. The LTS version comes with five years’ worth of support, which means you will get the benefit of five years’ security updates, whether or not you upgrade during that time.
Ubuntu supports many popular architectures including x86, ARM64, PPC64LE, and a whole galaxy of others. You’ll also be able to get your hands on a prodigious array of tools so you can use it with servers that are built to handle a variety of common tasks like email, files, media, and gaming.
The company responsible for Ubuntu is called Canonical, and they have now come up with Ubuntu Cloud – a version that offers additional support for cloud-based platforms.
- Five years of support.
- Ubuntu Cloud — support for cloud platforms.
- Compatibility with loads of software, both FOSS and closed-source.
- Works with a variety of architectures including x86, ARM64, PPC64LE, among others.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Nine out of ten Fortune 500 companies use Red Hat Enterprise Linux or RHEL, and they gravitate towards it in part because you get 10 years of support thrown in, which is one of the most generous offerings you’ll find anywhere. It’s a whole decade’s worth of bug fixes, security patches, and kernel updates, and as if that weren’t enough it also supports kernel patching without the need for a system reboot.
RHEL also comes with a lot of exclusive tools and software, so it’s ideal for today’s data centers and cloud-based servers. You also get support for a variety of architectures including X86, ARM64, Power Architecture, Z/Architecture, S/390, and others.
But you do have to pay for enterprise-level functionality. Subscriptions start at $349 per year, which seems pretty good value if you’re an enterprise that wants to keep your cloud-based server infrastructure humming along nicely.
- Stability, security, and a bug-free environment.
- The LTS version comes with 10 years of support.
- Kernel patching without the reboot requirement.
- A variety of powerful and unique tools and software made for server administrators.
- Great architecture compatibility — X86, ARM64, Power Architecture, Z/Architecture, S/390, and many more.
Fedora Server is our next candidate. It’s open-source and was developed by the community to be a leading-edge solution, and to that end, it serves as a testing ground for all of the latest features that are being tried out for use with RHEL. The opportunity to take a look at interesting new features before they are fully implemented is a definite plus point.
But the price you pay for such ‘up-to-dateness’ is Fedora Server versions changing every 13 months or so. If that’s okay with you, then you’ll get one of the best Linux distros with a fantastic feature set. For instance, you get to play with lots of package management tools straight out of the gate, including Yum, DNF, Packagekit, RPM, and Yumex. Compared to most distros you’re getting your hands on a much greater pool of software.
Fedora Server uses the Bell-La Padula Mandatory Access Model to make it extra secure, and this lets you apply customized security levels to each user according to need.
- Hands-on with the most up-to-date FOSS technologies.
- Top management tools — Yum, DNF, Packagekit, RPM, and Yumex.
- Bell-La Padula Mandatory Access Model for additional security.
- Works across many architectures — X86, ARMhf, Power, PPC64LE, ARM64, S390X, and lots of others.
OpenSUSE is one of the longest-running and most widely-used Linux server distros and it came onto the scene back in 1993. That kind of longevity means it’s proved its worth, and OpenSUSE comes in Tumbleweed and Leap versions. Tumbleweed comes out in a rolling release fashion, with frequent updates, and it’s for that reason that we think OpenSUSE Leap is preferable. Releases come regularly and predictably, so it’s ideal for web and home servers.
The best part of OpenSUSE is Zypper package manager access and the YaST Control Center. This gives you a very detailed level of control of the OS, which is the kind of control that high-end users will gravitate towards.
OpenSUSE’s is limited to officially supporting X86-64 architecture, and that’s it, so this could be seen as a bit of an Achilles heel. Unofficial support exists via the community for ppc64le and aarch64, so this limitation is something you may want to consider before investing in OpenSUSE.
- Has been around for a long time and is stable.
- Access to robust tools such as YaST Control Center, Kiwi, and Zypper Package Manager.
- Architecture compatibility — X86-64 (official) and ppc64le and aarch64 (unofficial via the community).
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
SUSE Software Solutions sponsors OpenSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). SLES is considered to be the more reliable one of the two because it goes through more stringent testing to establish the stability and enterprise readiness of its components. Major releases come every three or four years and service packs come out every year and a half.
This makes SLES one of the most stable, secure, and robust Linux server distros around, as evidenced by the trust placed in it by enterprise-level Cloud providers such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.
Just like with OpenSUSE you get YaST Control Center’s array of features and tools for creating tailored server solutions to fit your precise remit.
SLES is fairly agnostic towards architectures and will happily mesh with contemporary hardware environments like ARM SoC, z Systems, Intel, AMD, SAP HANA, and NVM Express over Fabric.
- Ongoing support and major releases every 3 to 4 years.
- Robust and comprehensive tools and feature set to suit physical, virtual, and cloud-based servers.
- Visualization and container support built-in.
- Works with a plethora of architectures: ARM SoC, z Systems, Intel, AMD, SAP HANA, and NVM Express over Fabric.
Debian dates back to 1993, so it’s been established to be a stable and reliable partner. This proven reliability is the reason why so many other Linux Server Distributions are based on Debian, including Ubuntu.
There are three flavors available — unstable, testing, and stable. These are fairly self-explanatory descriptions so choose the one that suits you but be aware of the pitfalls with two of them!
The Debian Stable version is the best bet for your server because all of its components have been road-tested for months to iron out any problems. Debian ships with more than 59,000 packages with tools slanted towards beginners, advanced users, and all shades in between. This Linux server distribution works with lots of architectures like ARM64, i386, MIPS, Power Processors, and IBM System z, among others.
- Easy to set up and upgrade.
- 59000+ packages to suit all levels of ability.
- Big, helpful community that’s produced great troubleshooting resources.
- Compatible with a wide range of architectures — ARM64, i386, MIPS, Power Processors, IBM System z, and lots more.
Oracle packages and distributes Oracle Linux. Its beating heart is compiled from RHEL source code and Oracle adds its own software on top.
You get a choice of two kernel options — Red Hat Compatible Kernel (RHCK) and Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK). Whichever one you go for you’ll get total RHEL application library compatibility, but UEK is noteworthy for giving you impressive performance and scalability abilities to assist with memory management, process scheduling, file organization, and even network stacking.
Both versions are popular all over the world, with companies from the smallest to the largest, but Oracle Linux can be found mostly in cloud-based data centers due to its integration with OpenStack.
Finally, this one of our best Linux server distributions works with every x86-based Oracle-engineered system, and you can pay for premium support to get the most out of it if you want.
- Compiled with the RHEL source code.
- Loads of tools and options to assist with managing memory, schedule processes, organize files, and network stacking.
- Integrates with OpenStack.
- Runs on all x86-based Oracle engineered systems.
Mageia appeared in 2010 so it’s one of the newer Linux Server Distributions. It’s a fork of the Mandriva project that’s been driven by community interest and it’s become popular due in part to how simple, stable, and secure it is.
This distro comes with boatloads of tools and packages to suit web and home servers alike. Web servers like Apache, Cherokee, and Lighttpd are supported and you also get helpful directory and file-sharing tools such as Samba, OpenLDAP, and Cups which are already installed, along with access to databases such as PostgreSQL and MariaDB.
For server admins, the distro comes bundled with Puppet, an open-source tool for software configuration and deployment. As for compatibility with different architectures, this Linux server distros has official x86-64 support but can also run on ARM devices.
- Simple, secure, and stable.
- It comes loaded with lots of helpful apps — Puppet, OpenLDAP, Samba, Cups, and others.
- Ships with a fair few web servers — Apache, Cherokee, Lighttpd, and lots more.
- Ships with a number of databases — PostgreSQL, MariaDB, for instance.
- Support for x86-64 systems and ARM architectures (via port).
Arch Linux offers great flexibility compared to many other Linux Server Distributions, so it’s customizable to suit your own specific needs. For this reason, it is often seen as being a general-purpose Linux distribution.
Arch Linux’s strength lies in its extreme light-weightedness. There is no unnecessary software, just a barebones package management system that’s plenty intuitive and a feature-rich toolset that gets the whole thing up and running in no time.
You get total control, which makes Arch Linux the go-to solution for power users, but despite that, novices will find it easy to use. If you do run into any difficulties then you can always refer to ArchWiki, a really comprehensive resource created by its extremely helpful community of users.
Arch Linux could be perfect for you if you want a simple way of creating your ideal server setup.
- Great security, stability, and flexibility.
- Barebones with no unnecessary software.
- Easy-to-use and understand package management system.
- Perfectly accessible for novices, but feature-rich enough to appeal to advanced users too.
- Compatible with X86-64 architecture.
Slackware OS came out in 1993, and since then it has established itself as a very secure and stable lightweight solution.
Slackware OS’s party piece is its compatibility with legacy hardware. It has minimal requirements which means it can run without tripping over on 10-year-old hardware the others would struggle with, while still giving users access to a lot of advanced modern features.
It comes with a virtual suitcase full of development tools, editors, and software libraries, support for the X Windows system, integrated servers, mail servers, and it natively supports C and C++ too.
Slackware OS offers a lot, so there’s a learning curve that makes it less of a smooth ride for beginners unless they’re au fait with using the terminal.
- Lightweight distro that offers security and stability.
- Legacy hardware support and not many system requirements required for smooth running.
- Ships with X Window system, integral web server, mail server, and C & C++ support.
- Lots of development tools, editors, and libraries available from the get-go.
- Supports X86-64 architectures.