5 best open source Linux server distributions

Looking for a Linux server distribution? Try one of these five.

5 best open source Linux server distributions

In this modern age, when you ask yourself, "What server platform should I use?" the default answer is no longer a simple, "Windows Server." There are tons of available options, from on-premise servers, to cloud-based solutions, and everything in-between. But for those who want a standard, bare-metal and OS solution, there's always Linux.

Nearly any Linux distribution can be made into a server. That doesn't, however, mean you should go with that idea. Why? There are certain distributions that simply make for better server platforms. Which ones?

Let's take a look at the five I believe to be the best platforms to meet your small to mid-size business needs. The only requirements for this are that the operating system must be open source and Linux.

SEE: Securing Linux policy (Tech Pro Research)

Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu Server is my go-to server distribution of choice. Why? In a word, simplicity. Ubuntu makes installing and configuring a server, of nearly any type, a task that can be handled by any IT admin. Once you install the operating system (Figure A), getting the rest of the pieces in place is extremely easy. And for those who need support with your servers, you can always opt to go with Ubuntu Advantage (which includes Landscape, 24/7 telephone and online support, livepatch service, access to the knowledge base, IP legal assurance, and more).

Although Ubuntu Server is a GUI-less platform, there are plenty of web-based GUIs that can be used. Or, if you like, you can even install a desktop environment to make interaction with the platform even easier. One benefit of using Ubuntu (over say RHEL and CentOS) is that you don't have to stumble through SELinux to get services running properly. Ubuntu Server is the beginners server distribution that can also serve the more advanced users equally well. And with Netplan now in place, network configuration is easier than ever.

Figure A

Figure A: Ubuntu Server installed and ready.


CentOS 7 is the clear choice for many admins. Why? Easy. CentOS is the best path to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) without having to pay a single penny for subscription fees. Does that mean you should avoid RHEL? Not at all. If you're an enterprise business, RHEL might be the best solution for you. However, if you're looking for about as solid a server operating system as you can find, CentOS 7 should be at the top of your list. One issue that bumps CentOS to the top of most lists is security. With the addition of SELinux (which can be a real pain to work with), CentOS is one of the more secure server operating systems available. And with repository software that's tried and tested, you can be sure that nearly everything you install from the default repositories is secure.

If you prefer a GUI with your servers, CentOS 7 includes the option of installing a full-blown desktop environment (Figure B). With the GUI installed, administering CentOS becomes considerably easier. Tasks like updating the platform are a click away. Speaking of installation, CentOS also includes easy installation of group packages with groupinstall, so installing a complete web server is as simple as sudo yum groupinstall "Web Server."

Figure B

Figure B: The CentOS Desktop Environment.

Fedora Server

You may not know this, but Fedora isn't just a desktop distribution. That's right, Fedora also has a server-specific flavor of Linux. Fedora Server is a short-lifecycle, community-supported server operating system. The one thing you must know about Fedora Server is that it is geared toward seasoned administrators. Unlike Ubuntu, which is a distribution for any admin (of any skill level), Fedora requires a certain level of experience to get the most out of the latest technology found within. In other words, new users need not apply.

Fedora Server does, however, include one of the finest web-gui admin tools on the market--Cockpit (Figure C). Cockpit makes administering the Fedora Server a breeze. Tasks like managing services becomes incredibly simple. Cockpit also allows you to manage resources and accounts, view logs, and install/upgrade applications.

Figure C

Figure C: Cockpit running on Fedora Server.


Debian might not be your first choice for a server platform, but it should certainly be on the list. Why? Because it's Debian, the mother of all Ubuntu-based distributions. That's right. Ubuntu and all its derivatives are based on this distribution. What does that equate to? Stability. Debian is, without a doubt, one of the single most stable operating systems on the planet. Every package for Debian has been thoroughly tested before being released to Debian. Because of this, packages tend to not be the latest-greatest versions. And because Debian is slower to release than many distributions, you can be sure, when it does finally release, it is rock solid. To make this distribution even more appealing, if you're familiar with Ubuntu, you'll feel right at home with Debian. And because Debian can be downloaded with one of many different desktop environments (Figure D) such as GNOME, KDE, Cinnamon, Xfce), you'll find working on this distribution a point-and-click dream come true.

Figure D

Figure D: GNOME running on Debian.


You might be wondering why such an unfamiliar server distribution is on this list? ClearOS is as close to a drop-in, open source replacement for Windows Small Business Server as you'll find. ClearOS offers three different versions: A free community edition, home edition, and business edition. Of the three, only the business edition includes paid support. But all three versions make for an outstanding small business server. Once installed, ClearOS includes a web-based GUI (Figure E) that allows you to install collections of apps (by function or by category), so that you can get the necessary bits and pieces up and running quickly. Available apps include the likes of Directory Server, MS AD Connector, Custom Firewall, DHCP Server, DMZ, DNS Server, OpenVPN, Antivirus, RADIUS Server, Web Access Control, ownCloud, Dropbox Sync, and much more. Many of the available apps are free, but some do have an associated cost.

Figure E

Figure E: The ClearOS web-based GUI.

Take your pick

And there you have it. Five outstanding Linux server distributions, all of which are free, open source, and ready to take your small or mid-sized business to the next level. Give one of these flavors of Linux a try and see if doesn't meet or exceed your needs.

Also see

Image: Jack Wallen