A common question I hear is ‘Why are there so many different versions of Linux?‘ Especially when there is simply ‘Windows’, or ‘OS X’, it seems logical that there could be a single ‘Linux’, but for various reasons that is not the case.
Linux is a multi-purpose operating system used for everything from powering Android phones, Linksys routers, Amazon Kindles, to running large corporation server infrastructures, to simply a nice desktop operating system.
Because of these varied purposes, there are many, many different versions of Linux. There are also many different versions because Linux is free to use and modify by anyone. Different versions of Linux packaged together for use are called distributions, or distros for short.
Major differences in Linux distributions to note are:
- Release cycle / Support cycle (When are new versions released? How long is a release supported with security updates?)
- Packages available (How many software choices and also what kinds of software is available?)
- Corporate Support ($$$) or Community Support (aka on-your-own) models (Linux is free, but companies offer paid support if needed.)
Corporations / Academic / Research / Mission Critical
If you are looking for Linux to run for your company’s mission critical servers, these are versions you should consider.
The following versions have tested, stable versions of software which is typically behind the bleeding edge so to be more stable and reliable. These versions of Linux are generally tested and developed for two years or more before being released. Linux server versions are generally run ‘headless’ with no graphical interface, though it is possible to install and use a graphical environment with these versions as well. Support cycles are often 5-10 years. Note that ‘enterprise’ is only a buzz word and does not have any official meaning in the Linux world other than a marketing term.
If your boss or C-level exec asked for recommendations on ‘Linux’ for your company servers, these are versions you should consider. Or if you are looking to deploy Linux desktops for a company, these versions are a good choice due to the long support cycle and stability of software.
If you “need” Red Hat, your company must use Red Hat. If you want Red Hat without the subscription or support, use CentOS which is Red Hat without the subscription or logos (free).
I recommend Ubuntu Server LTS because of the ease of administration, large number of packages, and long support cycle. Ubuntu offers paid support if that makes the boss or decision makers happy as well.
|Paid / Community Support||Support Cycle||Release Cycle||Number of packages included||Upgrade in place|
|Red Hat Enterprise Linux||Paid Subscription||10 years||2-3 years||7,000||No|
|CentOS||Community||10 years||2-3 years||7,000||No|
|Debian stable||Community||3 years||2 years||30,000||Yes|
|SUSE Linux Enterprise||Paid Subscription||2 years||2 years||7,000||Yes|
|Ubuntu Server LTS||Paid or Community||5 years||2 years||30,000||Yes|
Desktop Linux / Non-Mission Critical / General Use
There are a ton of varied Linux distributions for desktop use. These versions generally have more bleeding edge and current software but also a shorter support cycles of security updates. It is common to have a ~6 month release cycle for desktop releases. If you want to try out Linux on your desktop, use one of these versions though keep in mind you will be frequently updating to the newer release.
Below are the more common distros for desktop use:
|Notes||Support Cycle||Release Cycle||Number of packages included||Upgrade in place|
|Ubuntu||Odd default desktop ‘Unity’||18 months||6 months||30,000||Yes|
|Fedora||No mp3 or flash video by default||1 year||6 months||7,000||No|
|Debian testing||Testing or Stable ok for desktop||3 years||2 years||30,000||Yes|
|Linux Mint||Best desktop Linux distro||18 months||1 year||30,000||Yes|
|OpenSUSE||Good KDE||18 months||8 months||7,000||Yes|
More advanced versions which are popular: