5 top Linux server distros: How to choose the right one

What you need to know to choose among Ubuntu LTS, Oracle Linux, Fedora Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Enterprise Server

intro linux distros

Choosing the right Linux server product can be a daunting task, and with all the different versions of the Linux OS out there, you have a long list to choose from. Are you looking for a supported product, or can you go with a free version? Do you need cloud support or virtualization? We aim to provide some answers and some clarity.

What are Linux servers and why does your business need one?

While the Linux OS was originally conceived as a desktop operating system that would rival windows, it really found its footing in the server space. A Linux server runs the most efficient and powerful variants of the OS, and Linux servers are designed to handle the most demanding business application requirements. Linux servers are used for network and system administration, database management, web services and much more.

There are a number of factors that make the OS particularly well suited for server use:

  • Stability: Linux servers are famous for their long uptime, and can often be maintained without the need for reboots.
  • Security: Linux is generally considered to be more secure than Windows or macOS.
  • Flexibility: Because Linux is open source and available from numerous vendors, it's easier to get a Linux server that does what you want it to do or to customize it to your needs.

Then there's the matter of what Linux servers cost. As we'll see, some Linux servers are free; some vendors will charge in order to provide a built-to-order experience. And even most free distributions offer paid support services to help keep your systems up and running.  

Related: Must-know Linux commands

nw linux servers pro cons chart IDG

Which Linux OS is best for servers? This is, of course, not a simple question with a single answer. This article will instead examine different types of Linux servers. We'll review five top Linux server distros, and try to give you a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each, as well as what each Linux server distro is used for:

  • Ubuntu LTS offers the stability of a long-term release along with access to necessary bug fixes. It is also dominant for use in OpenStack.
  • Linux Fedora is free and offers frequent upgrades but lacks paid-support options.
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is cloud-friendly, and has powerful management tools — but these come at a hefty price.
  • Oracle Linux is an obvious choice if you're already using Oracle's database or middleware products. It's compatible with Red Hat, but it's free to use and the paid support options are reasonably priced.
  • SuSE Enterprise Linux Server offers a solid server environment and the ability to create custom server appliances.

Let's take a deeper look at each.

Ubuntu LTS: A long shelf life and a range of options to fit any organization

 Ubuntu is one of the most popular versions of Linux, with a very substantial market base, especially in the cloud.

The server is friendly to OpenStack, making it desirable to those who want to use it in public and private cloud deployments.

For this review we looked at Ubuntu LTS 16.04.02, a stable release using the Linux 4.4 kernel that is supported for five years. For administrators, this means access to bug fixes when needed, but without the major release updates that may introduce instability in mission-critical operating environments.

If you use OpenStack, note that Ubuntu is a dominant player, with over 50% of the market in large, 1,000-plus-core installations. Ubuntu offers several paths to get started with OpenStack, from fully managed on-premise installations to self-installs using Canonical’s OpenStack Autopilot to build a production cloud. Of note to Windows shops, there is also a Ubuntu Server 16.04 LTS version that is certified to host Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2008 R2 guests under its Microsoft’s Server Virtualization Validation Program (SVVP).

For those seeking to use the public cloud, Ubuntu provides certified images for most providers, including Azure, Google, AWS and Rackspace. Ubuntu's Metal as a Service (MAAS) provides for the transformation of physical infrastructure into a cloud. MAAS can be used with existing DevOps tools such as JuJu and Salt, and supports Windows, Ubuntu, CentOS, RHEL and SUSE.

Installing Ubuntu

 The default installation method for Ubuntu is an ISO that can be used to create DVD or USB flash drives. The ISO can also be used to install and run as a virtual OS. There is also a network installer available for instances where a DVD/USB installation is not feasible. The system requirements for a basic installation are definitely on the lighter side with 512MB RAM, 1GHz processor and 2GB of hard-drive space, although this configuration would not be adequate for anything except minimal testing.

Ubuntu uses a slightly dated DOS-like installation interface, but while lacking in visual appeal, it gets the job done. We note that it would be nice to have an installation option that allows you to select all the settings up front and let the installation proceed automatically, especially since our install was fairly slow, taking upwards of an hour on a multi-core server with more than adequate resources and a gigabit Internet connection.

Ubuntu management

There are several options for managing the server. You can use the command line; you can install a GUI like Webmin or you can choose the flagship Ubuntu Landscape management tools, a Web GUI that allows you to manage, deploy and monitor literally thousands of Ubuntu servers.

Given the growing popularity of remote administration options, we suspect for most installations the Landscape manager is going to be the best choice. Landscape can be used in three different configurations: an on-premises version, Landscape Dedicated Server (LDS) that is free for up to 10 servers, a Software as a Service version that charges one penny per hour per server, and the Ubuntu Advantage solution, which includes Landscape as one of its features. Advantage also includes the OpenStack Autopilot feature that allows administrators to build, deploy and manage OpenStack cloud architectures.

We tested the on-premises LDS version of Landscape first. Installation is launched from the command line and takes just a few minutes. Once installed, we were able to access the Landscape Web GUI from a browser. The features are similar across all versions of Landscape, hosted or on-premises. Landscape lists all registered servers, and you can manage one or multiple servers at once. On the monitoring side, Landscape provides built-in graphs that display variables such as CPU load, memory usage, disk space usage and server temperature. Another feature we found very useful is the ability to install, update and even roll back packages on servers. Landscape will alert you to servers needing updates, and you can deploy updates immediately or schedule them for a future time.

Related: Get ready to use Linux containers

While the Ubuntu server itself is free to use, there are costs associated with some of the aforementioned tools and features. The option most likely used in an enterprise setting would be the Ubuntu Advantage for servers. This gives users access to the Landscape online management console, live patching, the Ubuntu Assurance program and various support options. The cost is either $750 or $1,500 per server per year, for the Standard and Advanced options, respectively. Ubuntu 16.04 LTS is available for purchase on USB stick from the online Ubuntu shop. LXD Linux container hypervisor enhancements including QoS and resource controls (CPU, memory, block I/O, storage quota). Linux 4.4 kernel and systemd service manager.

Ubuntu in the enterprise

There are not many things not to like about Ubuntu server. As mentioned before; we wish the install was a bit more streamlined and modern. Also, the cost of support can add up in a hurry if you have multiple server instances, virtual or physical. On the plus side of the ledger, in addition to performing well as a regular file, Web or database server, Ubuntu has also emerged as a leader in the cloud. Although reliable statistics can be hard to come by, it seems safe to posit that Ubuntu has the largest market share of all OSs in the cloud. The five-year ‘shelf life’ of LTS versions makes it easier to evaluate, approve and deploy in enterprise environments. Moreover, we found the various Landscape management options to be very solid and a major selling point for Ubuntu.

Fedora: A free Linux server that offers upgrades as they become available

If you’re looking for a free Linux Server that gives you access to the latest Linux features as they become available without waiting for a major version release, then Fedora Server 26 could be for you.

Fedora, although sponsored by Red Hat, is its own Linux distribution maintained by the Fedora Project, a community consisting of thousands of contributors. Unlike Ubuntu and SUSE, which focus primarily on long-term support (LTS) server versions, Fedora takes a different approach.

Fedora’s focus is on providing a short-lifecycle server that provides administrators with access to the latest technology without having to wait for major upgrades every two-to-three years. New releases of Fedora are not on a set schedule, but generally new versions have been available twice a year for the past several years.

Fedora provides cloud-ready images that can be used with Amazon Web Services (AWS) as well as with Openstack and Vagrant/VirtualBox. For those needing containerized applications, Fedora provides a Docker role that runs independent applications on a single Linux installation without incurring the overhead of a virtual machine. In addition to the regular Fedora Linux server, there is also Fedora Atomic, a cloud-based immutable platform specifically for use with containerized applications.

We tested Fedora Server 26, offered in only one download option, an x86 64-bit ISO file. The system requirements are pretty basic; 2GB RAM, 6GB of free disk space and CPUs that are hypervisor-capable if using virtualization. The installer is essentially the same as Red Hat and Oracle Linux, where you make all your selections up front and the installation chugs along without any other input needed.

Fedora installation

As with other versions of Linux, Fedora can be managed from the command line, from a GUI such GNOME or KDE, or by using the Cockpit management interface. Cockpit is a stand-alone management tool that can be used to manage various Linux installations, including Fedora. Fedora includes Cockpit as part of the server installation and it can be launched from a browser by simply using the server IP address and a custom port. While Cockpit may not be as feature-rich as some of the more expensive commercial management tools, it delivers a lot of information about CPU, memory and network traffic. It also has decent log capabilities, and you can start, stop and restart services from the services tab.  You can also create new accounts and launch a terminal window directly from Cockpit, something that is handy when you’re not at the server console. Separately, by using the Rolekit tool, Fedora allows administrators to deploy and manage prepared server roles, eliminating the need configure a server from scratch.

Fedora documentation

Fedora’s online documentation is very good and we appreciate the fact that it can be downloaded in PDF format, for those times when you need to read up on something when offline. Fedora support is mainly provided through online documentation, a community knowledgebase and various other forums. We were able to locate most of the information we needed through online searches. However, there is no paid support available, so if the server starts acting up, there is no 800 number to call and you’re on your own. However, we would not let this discourage anyone from using Fedora.

The main negatives for Fedora are the relatively short support cycle and lack of paid support. Other than that, we found Fedora to be a very solid server product that fills an important niche. It’s free to use, the support is good and it offers the latest and greatest Linux has to offer through automatic updates and access to the latest in Linux security.

RHEL: Cloud-friendly, but with pricey management tools

 If you need comprehensive support, the comfort of having a well-established Linux vendor on your side and you have the budget to pay for it, then you should give Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4 a careful look.

It is should also get your attention if you’re looking for an operating environment that embraces the cloud, from tools to build your infrastructure to management platforms.

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