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Best Linux distributions for server and cloud

Linux distributions for server and cloud: overview


Published June 29, 2022


Choosing an optimal solution for your business

Windows might be the most popular OS for desktop use, but Linux has the upper hand in the world of server applications and cloud computing. However, it is challenging to choose a perfect Linux distribution for server or cloud with the abundance of distros available on the market. Bottom line is that it should be small to help you save resources and money, and have reliable support that provides you with timely updates and prompt bug fixes.

We decided to help you with the choice and compared the most popular Linux server/cloud distros based on their size and what they offer. The summary with key characteristics, pros, and cons of each Linux is presented below.

  1. Best Linux server/cloud distros
    1. Ubuntu
    2. Debian
    3. RHEL
    4. CentOS
    5. Amazon Linux 2
    6. Oracle Linux
    7. Alpine Linux
  2. Comparative table for Linux server/cloud distributions
  3. Unlock the bonus: Linux for Java

Best Linux server/cloud distros

1. Ubuntu

Ubuntu
Benefits:
  • LTS releases
  • Commercial support available
Drawbacks:
  • Shorter release cycle
Base container image size (compressed): 27.01MB (ubuntu:20.04)

Ubuntu is Debian-based and well-known as a desktop Linux distribution, and it also has a great Ubuntu Server option with LTS support from Canonical Ltd. Ubuntu Server is highly scalable and versatile and can be used for multiple purposes such as Kubernetes clusters, cloud computing, IoT, etc.

LTS versions are supported for an extended period so that you can upgrade at your pace. For example, the latest 22.04 LTS release will receive updates until 2027 and Extended Security Maintenance until 2032. However, Ubuntu has a shorter release cycle than some other Linux distributions. LTS releases are made available every two years, and interim versions are released every six months. Although frequent updates are beneficial per se as they provide the developers with fresh packages and settings, the migration to the next LTS release requires more time and effort, which may be suboptimal for some companies.

Ubuntu Server is free, but a commercial subscription with 24/7 support is also available. An essential feature of paid services offered by Canonical is Livepatch, which installs kernel security updates without rebooting the system.

2. Debian

Debian
Benefits:
  • Stability
Drawbacks:
  • No enterprise support
  • Delayed feature integration
Base container image size: 29.93MB (debian:stable-slim11)

Debian is a well-established Linux distro with 30 years of history and a primary focus on stability and security. There are no LTS releases but rather ‘Unstable,’ ‘Testing,’ and ‘Stable’ branches. Stable versions are released every two years and supported for three years. On the one hand, three development stages and an extensive review provide exceptional stability and reliability of Debian packages. On the other hand, they don’t include the latest features or cutting-edge software.

Debian is 100% open-source, with a large community of volunteers working on its enhancement. But the lack of dedicated commercial support means your issue won’t be resolved quickly. You may have to wait several weeks for a bug fix, which is unacceptable in an enterprise environment.

3. RHEL

RHEL
Benefits:
  • Reliable support
  • Increased security
Drawbacks:
  • No community edition
  • Expensive
Base container image size (compressed): 10.3MB (distorless redhat/ubi8-micro:8.6)

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a commercial Linux distribution developed and supported by Red Hat. The company provides LTS releases and 24/7 support. RHEL boasts increased security for a reason. It includes SELinux, a set of kernel modifications defining access control for applications, files, and processes, and kernel live patching. RHEL builds also attained Common Criteria Certification, which guarantees reliability and enhanced security of IT products.

There are no community versions of RHEL, but recently Red Hat introduced a build for individual developers only. If you are not ready to pay a high price for a subscription, it would be better to stick to free Linux distributions with optional support.

4. CentOS

CentOS
Benefits:
  • Community-based
Drawbacks:
  • Heavyweight
  • Discontinued
Base container image size (compressed): 79.65MB (centos:8)

CentOS is a community-based Linux distribution and has been an official fork of RHEL since 2014 when Red Hat announced that it would sponsor the CentOS Project. For a long time, developers enjoyed all benefits of RHEL in free CentOS distribution. But in 2020, Red Hat discontinued CentOS development, leaving the developers with CentOS stream, a development version of RHEL. As a result, users will get all the new features in CentOS stream but no bug fixes or security patches, which will only be introduced into the stable RHEL version.

Therefore, CentOS is not a viable option for enterprise development.

5. Amazon Linux 2

Amazon Linux 2
Benefits:
  • Cloud-oriented
Drawbacks:
  • For AWS only
Base container image size (compressed): 59.41MB (amazonlinux2)

Amazon created its own Linux distribution tailor-made for AWS Cloud. It comes with enhanced performance optimized for Amazon EC2, configurations providing ideal integration with most AWS services, and many AWS tools such as Amazon CLI, which simplify administrative tasks. The company offers LTS support, ongoing security patches and bug fixes, and kernel live patching.

Amazon Linux 2 is provided as Amazon Machine Image (AMI) upon creating an EC2 instance. Although having an OS developed for a specific cloud saves the trouble of manual configurations and optimizations, issues are likely to arise when switching a cloud provider. In addition, if you have a hybrid- or multi-cloud environment, it would be better to use a unified distribution.

6. Oracle Linux

Oracle Linux
Benefits:
  • Full-fledged substitution for CentOS
Drawbacks:
  • History of sudden changes in licensing policy
  • Enhanced performance with Oracle products only
Base container image size (compressed): 46.5MB (oraclelinux:7-slim)

Oracle Linux is a 100% RHEL-compatible distribution developed as a CentOS replacement. Oracle provides free binaries, updates, and patches and contributes to the open-source Linux project. This Linux distro is designed for hybrid- and multi-cloud workloads and comes in two versions: one with Red Hat Compatible Kernel (RHCK) and the other with Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK). UEK has optimized performance for Oracle Database and Oracle applications.

Although Oracle Linux is free to download and use, the company offers optional commercial support with flexible plans. Kernel live patching and cloud-native computing tools are part of a premier commercial offering. When migrating to Oracle Linux, you should remember that the company plays by its own rules and can suddenly change its attitude towards open source solutions it offers. A product that once has been free can be suddenly commercialized for enterprise use, as in the case of Java 8.

7. Alpine Linux

Alpine Linux
Benefits:
  • Lightweight
  • LTS releases
Drawbacks:
  • Decreased performance due to musl
  • No commercial support
Base container image size (compressed): 2.67MB (alpine:3.16)

Alpine Linux is the smallest Linux distribution in this overview. The base image size of only 2.67MB enables the developers to create microcontainers for Java applications and thus reduce cloud costs significantly. Alpine uses musl and BusyBox instead of glibc and GNU Core utilities and doesn’t contain any unnecessary packages, so it is as tiny and straightforward as Linux can be. It is also 100% free and community-based.

Furthermore, Alpine Linux is suitable for Java development. BellSoft engineers have integrated the Alpine Linux port into OpenJDK, so you won’t encounter any compatibility issues. And Liberica JDK is the best Java distribution for Alpine as it comes with support from engineers who backported this OS into OpenJDK. Based on Liberica Lite and Alpine, we created microcontainers of 42.72MB, the smallest on the market!

As far as technical drawbacks of Alpine Linux are concerned, the lack of dedicated commercial support means you won’t get a prompt reaction to your issue. In addition, musl is associated with inferior performance in comparison to glibc.

Comparative table for Linux server/cloud distributions

In the table below, we summarized all the features of described Linux distributions:

Feature Ubuntu Debian RHEL CentOS Amazon Linux 2 Oracle Linux Alpine Linux
Community edition x Yes, but in a bundle with EC2 instance
Commercial support x x x
LTS releases x x
Kernel live patching x x x
Base container image size (compressed) 27.01MB 29.93MB 10.3MB 79.65MB 59.41MB 46.5MB 2.67MB
Linux distros comparative overview

Unlock the bonus: Linux for Java

To sum up, Linux distributions are similar from a technical point of view. Still, they differ in various ways: performance optimizations, business model, rate of updates, etc. A pivotal point to consider is dedicated support, which is vital for enterprise development.

In addition, if you develop Java applications, it would be great if your OS facilitated the development and deployment by providing useful utilities.

Such a distribution already exists! BellSoft engineers have developed a Linux distro optimized for Java deployment on server and cloud, which at the same time solves the drawbacks of aforementioned products. It

  • Is smaller than Alpine
  • Includes features for enhanced security
  • Comes in two versions: with glibs and musl, the latter having two options, standard one and optimized for performance
  • Supports various platforms and environments
  • Has high-quality but inexpensive LTS-support
  • Receives timely patches and updates
  • Contains tools facilitating development in Java

Combined with Liberica JDK and Liberica NIK, it offers a comprehensive solution for cloud deployment. You don’t have to wait long, we will soon release it worldwide. Subscribe to our newsletter, and don’t miss the news!

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Dmitry Chuyko

Senior Performance Architect at BellSoft

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