The Best and Most Reliable Linux Server Distros of 2020
It is estimated that there are close to 600 Linux distributions available on the market in 2020 so there’s definitely no shortage of options to choose from. Whether you looking for a lightweight Linux distribution for your old machine or a child-friendly distro for your little ones, you can bet there’s a Unix-like operating system out there designed to fulfill your exact needs. Naturally, that also includes server administration.
While most Linux distributions can do a pretty decent job at powering a server, a few of them are better than the rest at this particular job. Regular users generally don’t have to worry about what sort of distribution their server is using or if the server is even running on Linux at all. However, that information can be very helpful for system administrators and experienced users who like to take a hands-on approach to server management.
With that in mind, in this article, we’re going to take a look at the best Linux server distros of 2020. A lot of these are just our personal favorites but we’re also including distros that are objectively better than most of their counterparts at powering servers.
1. Ubuntu Server
- Excellent long-term support
- Very reliable and secure
- Can be used to power cloud-based platforms
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions out there so there’s no real need for a formal introduction. Chances are, you’re already familiar with this distro but what you may not know is that Canonical, the developers of Ubuntu, also created a server variant a while back. Aptly named Ubuntu Server, the operating system comes with Long Term Support (LTS) for up to five years. This means you won’t have to switch to a newer version of the operating system anytime soon because Canonical will provide regular maintenance updates for your current version.
Ubuntu Server supports a wide variety of architectures like ARM64, X86, PPC64LE, and many more. The OS isn’t necessarily specialized on specific types of servers so you can use it for anything ranging from email to media and even gaming. The operating system also works great for powering servers that host websites and blogs.
In addition to Ubuntu Server, Canonical offers an additional distribution designed for cloud-based platforms. Known as Ubuntu Cloud, the OS comes with a similar set of features, including the 5-year LTS, and is said to be used by over 50% of all OpenStack clouds as of 2020.
Latest stable version: 20.04
- Excellent long-term support
- Focuses on stability
- Huge adoption rate
CentOS is a community-driven project that aims to bring Ret Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) to the masses. While RHEL is a commercial operating system that needs to be purchased, CentOS is available entirely for free. Given that around 30% of all Linux-based servers run on CentOS based on some estimates, it’s safe to say that the project was able to gather a very sizeable following over the years. Just like Ubuntu, CentOS benefits from LTS support, though in this case, it’s only until June 2024.
CentOS isn’t updated as regularly as some of the other Linux server distros on this list, but that’s only because the developers like to focus on stability above everything else. The distro comes with built-in support for containers like Atomic CLI and Cockpit along with multiple PHP versions and multiple desktop environments like GNOME, KDE, and GUI.
The developers of CentOS provide a couple of dozen download mirrors, each set in a different location, to make sure that anybody can get their hands on the distro wherever they are in the world. Although this isn’t exactly a lightweight distribution, CentOS is available in a mini version that can fit on a regular CD-R.
Latest stable version: 8.1.1911
- Focuses on stability
- Many versions to choose from
- Comes with a lightweight installer
Debian is among the most reliable Linux server distros you can get your hands on without spending a penny. The Debian Project was established way back in 1993, making this distribution one of the oldest out there. Don’t be fooled by its age, however, because this old timer is just as capable as any modern flavor of Linux, probably even more so.
The secret behind Debian’s success and longevity come from the fact that the operating system isn’t updated very often. That may sound like a bad thing, but developers have been working to improve the distro for close to three decades at this point. Debian is as stable as they come, which is a huge selling point for most server administrators. If possible, you should do your best to update your Linux operating system as rarely as possible because there’s always the possibility that a new update may interfere with other software running on the server.
If you’re looking to test Debian for yourself you don’t actually have to download and install any files because the developers provide a live version that can be booted from a CD, DVD, or USB drive. If you decide you like what Debian has to offer, you can grab one of the installers from the official website. There are quite a few to choose from, including tiny and network boot versions, which range in size from a few hundred MB to less than 30 MB. If bandwidth isn’t an issue, we recommend going for a larger image in order to speed up the installation process.
Latest stable version: 10.4
4. Red Hat Enterprise Linux
- Commercial distribution
- Excellent long-term support
- Plenty of documentation and training courses
We already mentioned this one but it’s worth discussing it in a bit more detail. Right off the bat, this will not be a viable option for some because, unlike other Linux server distros on this list, RHEL isn’t free. Just as its name indicates, this is an enterprise-grade server solution, and a pretty expensive one at that, with prices starting at $349 per license. RHEL is definitely worth it, though, and you can test it for up to 30 days before buying thanks to the free trial.
Given the premium price tag, you can rightly expect better support with RHEL than with most other distros. Not just that, but the developers take LTS to the next level by supporting every version of the software for around 10 years. Red Hat Enterprise Linux works equally well across all environments, be it physical hardware, virtual machines, or cloud-based platforms.
One of the first things that immediately stands out when you visit the RHEL website is the Training and Certification section. There, you can find plenty of great courses and exams that will teach you valuable system administrator skills and test your server management knowledge. If you’re already an expert at those types of things, you can share your knowledge with others by joining the Red Hat Academy program, which revolves heavily around RHEL.
Latest stable version: 8.2
- Very intuitive installer
- Great for newcomers and veterans alike
- Comes in two different versions
OpenSUSE is another Linux distribution that has been around for a very long time. Almost as long as Debian. The developers of the distro are mainly targeting developers and system administrators, however, OpenSUSE can be a good choice for regular desktop users as well. The operating system has one of the most intuitive installers out there. Known as YaST (yet another setup tool), the GUI tool doubles as a control center that can be used to install software packages and configure network settings. YaST can seem a bit complex for beginners but you don’t have to worry about most of the options if you’re just getting started.
OpenSUSE is available in two different variants – Tumbleweed and Leap. The first version is primarily aimed at developers, power users, and OpenSUSE contributors as it always contains the newest packages, software stacks, and IDEs. This version is closer to what some users may consider being bleeding edge Linux. If you’re looking to install OpenSUSE on your server, Tumbleweed is a bit harder to recommend as this version is missing certain modules, though you can install them manually if you know how to.
As far as Leap is concerned, this version is considered to be more stable and receives full-fledged updates, as opposed to urgent patches and upgrades like Tumbleweed. If you value stability over everything else, OpenSUSE Leap is generally the way to go. You may be missing out on certain new features but you’ll have access to all the modules and the updates will still arrive on a fairly regular basis.
Latest stable release: 15.1 (for OpenSUSE Leap)
- Primarily aimed at veterans
- Very lightweight
- New updates are not very frequent
Slackware is a great choice for Linux veterans who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and issue most commands via the terminal. That said, the operating system does support X Window, a more user-friendly GUI that resembles the interfaces used by other operating systems. Much like many of the other distros on this list, Slackware is an open-source project that was established back in the early 90s. This one, however, has seen few iterations when it comes to the overall design, as Slackware aims to be the most Unix-like distro on the market.
Slackware is very lightweight and can easily accommodate legacy hardware. In fact, a significant portion of systems that use it is still running on fairly old Pentium CPUs. But just because the distro does a good job at supporting outdated systems, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice for modern ones. Quite the contrary. Slackware is a fully customizable distribution that offers many advanced features and is a fan-favorite of tech-savvy Linux users.
While new releases are few and far between these days (the last one was over three years ago), Slackware is still being maintained and supported. Slackware has served as the basis for a number of other distros, including early versions of OpenSUSE, and is highly respected by users and developers alike.
Latest stable version: 14.2
- Based on RHEL
- Many variants to choose from
- Comes with a web-based user interface
Just like CentOS, Fedora is an open-source distro based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux that can be downloaded entirely for free. Fedora supports both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures, database management systems like PostgreSQL, a wide variety of integrated desktop environments, and more. This is a slick and modern Linux distro so you can expect all the tools and features that are common for these types of operating systems.
There are quite a few different variants of Fedora you can try, including Fedora Silverblue, Fedora CoreOS, Fedora IoT, and more. But since you’re reading an article about the best Linux server distros, you’re most likely interested in Fedora Server. This version is highly modular, allowing you to upgrade your operating system while keeping older but more stable versions of individual applications or language stacks. You’ll need to learn a few terminal commands in order to make full use of Fedora’s modularity but you can get by even without them.
Administrating a system running on Fedora is pretty simple thanks to Cockpit, an easy-to-use web-based user interface designed specifically for servers. The tool is meant to work hand in hand with the terminal and can easily handle multiple servers at the same time. Despite being relatively easy to manage, however, Fedora isn’t necessarily the best choice for beginners because this is a short-lifecycle OS. But if you like living on the bleeding edge of Linux and want access to all the latest open-source technology, Fedora can definitely deliver.
Latest stable release: Fedora 32
8. Oracle Linux
- Commercial distribution
- Stellar support
- Has a fully autonomous version
Just like RHEL, Oracle Linux is a commercial distribution, meaning you’ll need to buy a license in order to get full access to the software. However, Oracle does offer a free tier along with a free 30-day trial, both in the same package. The difference between them is that the free tier doesn’t have a time limit but comes with other restrictions. Meanwhile, the trial essentially gives you access to the full product but only for up to a month.
Oracle is one of the most well-known computer technology corporations in the world so the support here is absolutely stellar. The company is known for always pushing the limits when it comes to technology and had its most recent breakthrough just last year when it introduced the first autonomous Linux distribution. As of this writing, Oracle Autonomous Linux is the only operating system of its kind and its capabilities are quite impressive.
The autonomous version of the OS is based on the regular Oracle Linux but comes with additional features. Some of the highlights include continuous exploit detection, threat monitoring, and configuration compliance checks, automatic diagnostics collection, the ability to perform patches and updates while the system is running, and more. This particular version of the operating system is still fairly new so expect it to get even better further down the road.
Latest stable release: 8.1
9. Arch Linux
- Easy to work with
- Rolling releases
- Welcoming to newcomers
If you’re looking for a lightweight and flexible distro, you won’t be disappointed by what Arch Linux has to offer. Given that the distribution follows the motto “Keep It Simple”, you can expect Arch Linux to be very welcoming to newcomers. The default installation is very minimalistic, which makes it great for users concerned about bandwidth, however, power users can add a wide variety of modules and packages in order to expand Arch Linux’s capabilities.
Arch Linux follows a rolling-release model but only incorporates stable versions of software developed upstream. The distro is generally free of bloatware as the developers do their best to not incorporate any unnecessary modifications or additions. Naturally, you can expect some distribution-specific changes here and there but these are generally few and far between. It’s not uncommon for the developers to actually remove minor features coming from upstream in an attempt to make the OS more streamlined.
Despite focusing on simplicity and ease of use, Arch Linux is a fairly advanced distribution that comes with a wide variety of modern features. Some of the highlights include support for udev and LVM2 (Logical Volume Manager), software RAID, systemd, and more. The Linux server distro also supports both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures.
Latest stable version: 5.6.15 (rolling release)
- Very flexible
- Modular design
- Rolling releases
Gentoo is a very interesting open-source project that does things a bit differently than many of its counterparts. The distro was built using Portage, a Python-based package management system that focuses on extreme flexibility. The system’s main feature is the ability to compile packages directly from the source code based on user specifications. This allows for a very high degree of customization, however, it can also cause certain issues as all programs and libraries you select will be compiled directly on your system.
Often referred to as a “meta-distribution”, Gentoo can be a bit difficult to wrap your head around if you’re a beginner. If you’re an advanced user, on the other hand, there’s a lot to love about this Linux server distro. Gentoo’s modular nature allows it to be customized and adapted to each user’s specific needs. As a result, a large portion of those who use Gentoo have configurations that are completely unique to their systems.
While the Gentoo Wiki does contain some helpful articles on how to get started, working with this Linux distro involves a lot of trial and error. Configuring Gentoo to your liking tends to take a lot of time but the results can be quite impressive. Still, given the distro’s complexity, it’s difficult to recommend over some of the other entries on this list, especially if you’re a beginner. If you know what you’re doing, however, Gentoo may very well be the best Linux server distro as it gives you complete control over the software running on your system.
Latest stable version: 17.1 (rolling release)
Although we think any of the distros we covered as part of our main list can do a great job at powering your server, there are definitely a lot of other Linux-based operating systems out there that are worth your time. We don’t have enough experience with these distros to give them full recommendations but we do think they are worth looking into if you’re searching for some good alternatives.
Some people might say that it doesn’t really matter which Linux distribution is powering your server because they are all pretty similar at the end of the day. While there is some truth to that, especially if you’re not interacting with the operating system too often, there are certain distros that include features that could be very valuable for system administrators and power users. But don’t take our word for it. All the distros we covered today are either free or offer free trials so don’t hesitate to check them out for yourself.
Since you’re looking into Linux distros for servers, we’re willing to bet you could also use some good monitoring tools to complete the package. If so, our list of 40 Linux monitoring tools every sysadmin should know about might be just what you’re looking for. And speaking of useful tools, we also recommend checking out our article on the best remote desktop access clients for Linux.
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