59 best linux distros 2015
The Top New Review team selects the cream of the Linux crop for 2015 – there’s something here for everybody.
We don’t need much of an excuse to start playing with lots of different Linux distributions. It’s one of the best ways of spending a wet afternoon, especially if you’ve been using the same clutch of distributions for a while.
Trying something different opens up all kinds of new perspectives on the software we all use and love, and that’s why we’ve put so many together here.
We’ve forgone any ranking of the distributions, instead focusing on a selection we find fascinating and worthy of your consideration, from distributions that take up less space than an email attachment to one that’s helping decode the secrets of the universe.
Considering the vast majority are built around the same software, the breadth of Linux (and a few non-Linux) distributions you can download and try is staggering, and there’s always something new to discover. Each distribution is like an evolutionary branch, even if it leads to a dead end. Installing and playing with all these distributions has also reminded us about just how much has changed. Many distributions are now offering rolling releases, for instance, where you don’t have to go through a monumental system upgrade just to get the latest version of Firefox. And there are now more desktop environments than ever before, with some distributions remaining the ideal choice for users of one desktop or another.
We often joke about the vast number of distributions there are. When you look at the huge list curated by DistroWatch.com, you can’t help but wonder why so many have been created, especially when the effort involved in their creation is so huge. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt by installing and using such a huge number for this issue, it’s that they each have a job to do, and each distribution we’ve chosen does its job brilliantly. If you ever wanted proof for the success of Linux and open source, we’d argue it is its sheer diversity.
“We’ve focused on a selection we find fascinating and worthy of your consideration.”
Ubuntu is a perfect place for us start our epic dive into the world of distributions because this is the one that’s done more than most to make Linux accessible, easy to use and friendly. It pioneered installation from a live CD or DVD, and would even ship these out for free if you simply asked. In a recent post on insights.ubuntu.com, Canonical has also stated that Ubuntu now has more than 25 million users, making it the distribution most people are likely to have heard the most about.
The latest version of Ubuntu is code named Vivid Vervet’ – a ververt being a kind of monkey. The word ‘vivid’ could also be a reference to the latest colour scheme, because Ubuntu is definitely getting less brown and more saturated purple with each release. Prince in his Purple Rain phase would be very pleased with the new backdrop, and we like it too.
There isn’t a huge amount of difference in this release compared to either 14.10 or 14.05; it feels more like a staging environment for the migration to the System boot system. Everyday users don’t need to know about this, and won’t see any operational changes, but for the engineering teams, there’s a huge amount of effort involved migrating from the old system to the new, and 15.04 is proof that the team has done a good job. We experienced no problems on our installation, and the distribution upgrade even worked. Other than the background, visible differences are hard to see. As you’d expect, all the main applications have been updated, and the Unity interface has a few tweaks. It runs well and we’re getting used to it, especially after using the Ubuntu Phone for a while now
Of course, alongside the main distribution there’s also the officially recognized Ubuntu spins. Kubuntu is one of our favourite KDE distributions, for example, and 15.04 is the first release of the newly ordained Ubuntu Mate. Mate is the continuation of Gnome 2, prior to the huge user-interface changes that came in with both Gnome 3 and Unity, as used in modern versions of Ubuntu. It’s what helped give Linux Mint so much momentum, and it’s great to see the work the team has done, as well as the acknowledgement that some people just prefer the old desktop metaphor, being recognized and supported by the original distribution.
The question of whether it’s worth the upgrade or not has more to do with support than new features. And with the non-LTS releases getting only nine months of updates, we’d suggest holding back on upgrading unless you enjoy experimenting with new features and getting the latest applications. But as an indication of where Ubuntu is headed, this is still a great distro. www.ubuntu.com
This is a fascinating distribution built around its own package manager that uses a declarative language to satisfy the desired configuration. Packages are then installed into their own isolated sandbox, making it ideal as an alternative to containers on a server. The downloadable VirtualBox image made testing much easier for us, before deciding on a fully fledged installation. http://nixos.org
SCIENTIFIC LINUX 7.1
Produced by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Scientific is (like CentOS) built from the sources of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which are only available as binaries with a subscription from Red Hat. This makes it incredibly stable, scalable and adaptable. It’s used by many science labs around the world and is also a good choice for austere office environments and servers. www.scientificlinux.org
LINUX MINT 17.1
The most successful offshoot of Ubuntu, Mint at times rivals its progenitor for popularity and influence. Despite early versions defaulting to KDE, it was Ubuntu’s gamble on dumping Gnome 2.x for its own Unity desktop that gave Mint its biggest boost, and both the Cinnamon and Mate desktops offered and co-developed by Mint are still the best reasons for using it.
In our opinion, they’ve even helped smooth the acceptance of the rather revolutionary Gnome 3.x by providing a well-supported alternative to the older version while the Gnome team got their act together.
Mint installs easily and complements Ubuntu’s packages with its own apps and design, and it also runs well on older hardware. Support comes from an excellent community and the distribution is well funded, which means you can rely on a Mint installation providing a straightforward productive desktop environment that’s going to last. It would be unfair to describe it as the Windows XP of Linux, especially as XP is no longer supported, but it’s close. The Debian edition is also worth a try. www.linuxmint.com
There are probably more Debian-derived distributions in this feature than any other, especially if you include Mint and Ubuntu. Solyd’s (the X or K above is for Xfce or KDE) killer feature is that it’s a rolling release distro. You install once and simply upgrade to get the latest packages. It accomplishes this brilliantly, making it an easy alternative to something more technical, such as Arch. http://solydxk.com
Revolutionary from the beginning, Knoppix was one of the first distributions to run in a live environment directly off a USB stick or CD/DVD. It used to default to a KDE desktop, but the move to LXDE was a sensible one, as it runs much better from slow media. The latest release is excellent, but you’ll need to wait for a distribution exclusivity agreement to expire before being able to download it. www.knoppix.org
We’re big fans of Arch here at Linux Voice but it’s not for everybody. For a start, in an era where distributions are often installed with one or two clicks of the mouse, installing Arch needs time and patience. You’ll need to read the installation guide carefully (or take a look at our own guide in our very first issue) and adapt the installation for your own hardware. It’s not difficult but it requires a different kind of mental approach, and the same could be said for running and maintaining the system after you get it installed.
There are several huge advantages to explain why you might want to do this.
The first is that you’ll learn a lot about how Linux works. Just connecting to the internet, for example, will teach you about your hardware, the kernel drivers and the commands needed to configure and connect them. It’s the same for installing a graphical environment or building your own packages. And you’ll be left with a system fine-tuned to your exact requirements, which means the typical Arch installation will occupy less space and boot faster.
Another huge advantage is that Arch is a rolling release distribution. Packages are constantly updated and can be constantly upgraded. Even hourly, if you so choose. You often need to proceed with caution, but it makes Arch the best distribution for cutting-edge releases and upgrades. The package manager is also very powerful, enabling you to roll back and forward through your locally cached downloads, and the user repository of unofficial packages has the largest breadth of choice we’ve seen, with even the most esoteric of projects getting a relatively painless installation package.
Arch is one of the only distributions that has the latest and greatest KDE 5 packages.
If you like building and modifying, the source and build trees that can be created are also very powerful, enabling you to automatically handle dependencies and patch only specific files.
Finally, the quality of the documentation is unparalleled, whether it’s explaining how to get networking working or the differences between the various audio layers. This is a huge part of the project but it requires some skill to find the pieces relevant to your installation and requirements, as well as navigating the occasional contradictions or out of date material.
Every upgrade needs preparation, which means Arch needs some serious commitment. But get past the relative complexity and labor of running an Arch installation and we feel you have one of the best distributions available, whether that’s on a Raspberry Pi or the latest PC hardware. If all this sounds too complex, there are some easier-to-maintain alternatives, such as Manjaro or KaOS. These can offer many of the advantages without the install and update hassle. But for purists like us, nothing quite beats the real thing. www.archlinux.org
Valve’s reputation is mythical. It’s a games company that has not only created some of the best games ever made, but also the games platform at the heart of PC gaming. When Valve announced it was moving to Linux, bringing its games, APIs and gaming partners with it, there was a huge wave of expectation. SteamOS is its Linux distro, created to deliver seamless integration between your PC, your games and the community. It’s perfect on a powerful box tucked beneath your TV, and is now relatively easy to install. It streams games from other machines, and can be augmented with standard Debian repositories. We can’t wait for commercial boxes to appear. http://store.steampowered.com/steamos
As old Mandrake users, will still remember Texstar’s brilliant set of KDE packages that transformed the appearance and capabilities of that old distribution. And it was these packages that led to the creation of PCLinuxOS over 10 years ago. The package manager may have changed, and its old muse has fallen on hard times, but PCLinuxOS is still a distribution with the same emphasis on a great-looking desktop.
There’s now a choice between KDE, Mate and LXDE, all of which feature similar styling and all the packages you’ll ever need. KDE 5 has yet to make an appearance, which we’re surprised at considering the distro’s heritage, but it will be a great upgrade when it does. www.pclinuxos.com
CRUNCHBANG PLUS PLUS 1.0
CrunchBang, the name for the # and ! symbols you typically find at the beginning of a script, was a hugely popular Debian-based distribution. It didn’t need much in the way of system resources, and its minimal Openbox desktop attracted many users who wanted function over form. But when its creator, Philip Newborough, decided to call it a day, we all thought CrunchBang’s days were over.
Amazingly, CrunchBang’s ethos has been preserved, with new developers and a new version of Debian from which to draw packages. After negotiating the standard Debian installer, version 1.0 looks fabulously minimal, from the login screen to the desktop; everything looks like a shinier version of the command line. Many things can be launched with a simple keyboard shortcut with everything else though a right-click of your mouse. And because this release is built on the latest Debian, CrunchBang is now bang up to date with all the latest packages, making it perfect for power users who want a quick installation and a desktop with minimal distraction or interference. https://crunchbangplusplus.org
CHAKRA 2015.03 “EULER”
This Is a great KDE distribution that’s low on system resources and provides one of the easier ways of staying on top of KDE 5 development through a specific repository. Another great feature is that while the foundation packages are updated only every six months, other packages for many applications are updated quickly, making this a great half-rolling release distro. http://chakraos.org
Because Porteus is a minimal, fast booting live distro, we love the way you select what you want before you even download, from EFI to desktop. You then get a personalized image. Our no-frills LXQt build was just 150MB and booted to a fully functional desktop within just 12 seconds, making it our go-to distribution when we need something quick and clickable. www.porteus.org
Why include a Linux ‘distribution’ developed by Google to run on smartphones? It runs surprisingly well and is useful even without a touchscreen (although this does help). Android’s full-screen apps and streamlined task switching makes it a distraction free working, and Google Play working, there are different apps you can install www.android-x86.org
This is a distribution with only one job – to run the Kodi media centre, and it does this job perfectly. It’s ideal if you want to turn your low-end box or Raspberry Pi into a movie, music and photos powerhouse, and its minimal install and automatic updates means you can stick it onto your computer and forget about it. If you need some help, see our comprehensive guide in issue 12. http://openelec.tv
Sooner or later, something is going to go wrong with your Linux installation, and you’ll need a distro with lots of tools to get you out of trouble. Ubuntu is a good option, but SystemRescueCD is our favourite. We’ve used this after deleting files by mistake, and even re partitioning the wrong drive. It’s quick to download, fits on almost any USB key. (435MB) and is crammed full of hope. www.sysresccd.org
FEDORA 22 WORKSTATION
Fedora should need no introduction. It’s a candidate for being one of the most fun distributions to try, mainly thanks to the cutting-edge nature of many of its packages It also does a brilliant job of remaining true to the projects it packages, meaning the Gnome experience is very close to what the Gnome team see themselves, with the exception of the traditional change in background. By the time you read this, Fedora 22 should be released, but at the time of writing, we could only play with early-May beta version. This included the latest Gnome 3.16 and the new kernel, as well as Fedora’s updated fork of the Yum package manager, DNF. DNF should feel almost identical to Yum. but there’s a lot going on in the background, including a much more efficient approach to dependency resolution.
DNF has been available for some time, but this is going to be the first release where it’s the default tool for package management, and we experienced no issues with the beta. If you’ve yet to try Fedora, version 22 is shaping up to be a great update. https://getfedora.org
PUPPY TAHRPUP 6.0 CE
Despite being based on Ubuntu 14.04, Puppy is so tiny it should even fit on a 256MB USB drive. 256MB is not a typo – with that you get a fully functional desktop, a startup wizard and barking samples. There are many apps including AbiWord and the Pale Moon browser, based on Firefox. If you ever need a desktop on a USB stick, this should always be in your bag. http://puppylinux.org
DAMN SMALL LINUX 4.11RC2
If you think Puppy’s 256MB footprint is small, wait until you try this – a full Linux environment from 50MB. Sadly, DSL hasn’t been updated since 2012, but it still deserves a place here simply because of its size and functionality; MP3 playback, web browsing, SSH, email and text editing. It’s not pretty, but what do you expect for a distro smaller than the PDF version of this magazine? www.damnsmalllinux.org
Elementary OS Freya
Elementary is an Ubuntu LTS (14.04) based distribution that’s trying to do things a little differently. This is obvious when you take a look at its home page, as it proudly lays down the gauntlet by stating it’s “A fast and open replacement for Windows and OS X.” There’s only a single mention of Linux on this page, and that’s in the small paragraph headed “Safe & Secure.”
The team has also courted controversy recently. To get to the SourceForge hosted download link, you need to navigate through a payment box that defaults to $25. If you want the download link without paying anything, you need to escape this box, choose ‘Custom’ and enter $0 manually. This is a process the developers originally described as ‘cheating’ in a part of a blog post now deleted.
One of the reasons for this is that Elementary OS is attempting to be a commercial success, using paid developers to create a custom desktop environment and user interface, complete with its own modified window manager and desktop interface. This desktop is definitely one of the best reasons to install Elementary OS because it looks beautiful. And unlike the good looks that come with something like KDE, appearances in Elementary are mostly good design choices rather than eye candy.
We installed the latest release on a low powered (Atom-based) Samsung NC-10 netbook and performance was better than running Mint on the same machine. The same applications loaded faster and were slightly more responsive.
Applications themselves are launched from a simple panel that hides itself at the bottom of the screen. The top panel is equally unobtrusive, defaulting to transparency and showing just the time, status icons and the applications launch menu. It all looks fantastic and is very easy to use.
OS X migrants in particular are going to feel at home with the grey window decoration, settings panels and task switcher. The choice of applications is also good, with Geary making a well deserved appearance for email, and the terminal emulator is one of our favourites. Everything about Freya is easy.
Thanks to its Ubuntu heritage, installation is a breeze. You can connect to your wireless network and download updates, and Freya detected our Mint installation with a warning about not overwriting it. Package repositories are also Ubuntu’s, giving plenty of choice for software and PPAs. Freya is a seriously strong contender for non-Linux users and Linux users with an appreciation for aesthetics – if you’re prepared to forgive the developers for their occasional lack of tact in getting people to pay for their work. https://elementary.io
CentOS, or the Community Enterprise Operating System, is a distribution built on the code to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). That means it’s just as secure and reliable as RHEL, and also gets updates for 10 years, but unlike RHEL, CentOS is available for free. This combination of features means it’s ideal for servers for any organisations that don’t need the level of support that Red Hat offers. In fact, we trust CentOS so much, it’s the distro we use for our Linux Voice servers. We’re not alone in this. According to w3techs.com, CentOS is the third most popular Linux distro for web servers (after Debían and Ubuntu) and 20% of all Linux webservers run CentOS.
The only real differences between CentOS and RHEL is in the branding (the Centos team have to remove all trademarks before they recompile the source of RHEL and release the binaries). The two distros behave the same in almost all technical areas, so CentOS is also an excellent choice for any aspiring sysadmin. This compatibility also means that almost all Linux server software is supported on, and packaged for, CentOS. Whether you’re running the latest-and-greatest open source code, or some closed-source proprietary server, you can guarantee that if it runs on Linux servers, there’ll be a version for RHEL and Centos. The Extra Packages For Enterprise Linux (EPEL) repositories that are provided by the Fedora project to provide additional software for RHEL are compatible with CentOS.
Tiny Core’s special feature isn’t just that it’s really small, it’s that it’s small enough to run entirely from memory. This means that the entire OS is loaded into RAM at boot time, and the result is a blazingly fast system.
Even on a slow computer, Tiny Core can start in just a few seconds, and applications open almost instantly. By keeping things really simple, Tiny Core speeds up old PCs. http://distro.ibiblio.org/tinycorelinux
Clonezilla only does two things: it makes clone images of hard drives; and it re-images hard drives. It may seem strange to build an entire distro just to do this, but that’s because to work with hard drives at this level, they have to be unmounted. By running as a live distro, Clonezilla allows its tools full access to the hardware. It’s a great example of how the flexibility of Linux pays off. http://clonezilla.org
Originally, the CentOS project ran entirely separately from Red Hat. However, in January 2014, CentOS announced that it was joining Red Hat (although it will still remain separate from RHEL). This should mean that updates continue to come in a timely manner, and it guarantees that the project will continue and not wind up leaving CentOS installs unsupported.
Enterprise features – for free!
The most recent version (7) only supports 64-bit x86 processors, but anyone still running 32-bit servers can continue to run CentOS 6, as support will continue until 2020. There are plans to support ARM processors as well (both 32-bit and 64-bit), but at the time of writing, there were no official version for this architecture.
While CentOS is often seen as a server OS, it can also be used as a desktop. The long, slow release cycle means that you won’t have the latest software (including drivers for newer hardware), but once it’s installed, you don’t need to worry about upgrading the distro for a long time. Leaving a desktop operating system installed for over five years might seem anathema for most geeks, but for ordinary desktop users, this isn’t unusual. We wouldn’t recommend CentOS for everyone, but it certainly has a place. www.centos.org
Between 1992 and 1995 Yggdrasil was one of the most popular Linux distros, but there hasn’t been a release in 20 years. Back then, Linux was a bit rougher around the edges, and supported less hardware, but the brave soles who ran Yggdrasil despite its many limitations, fixing bugs as they came up against them, are the pioneers of the Linux systems we have today. No website
Linux is about choice, right? Not according to this distro. The Kaos developers have selected what they view as the best applications available for each task and only packaged them. For example, KDE is the only desktop. This means that the repositories contain much less software than most distros, but it’s all the best of Its type, leading to a very focused distro. http://kaosx.us
Bodhi Linux is a distro for the Enlightenment desktop. Or at least it was until 28 April 2015, when the developers decided to switch to the Moksha desktop. This isn’t really much of a change, as Moksha is a fork of the El 7 Enlightenment desktop. Moksha is born out of a frustration with a deterioration in the stability in more recent version of the Enlightenment desktop, so it aims to go back to simpler, more stable times and provide users with what they really want: a desktop that looks incredibly pretty and that just works.
The great feature of Enlightenment (and we hope Moksha) is that it provides a good-looking interface without overly taxing the CPU. The amount of eye candy Bodhi manages to pack in while barely taxing the CPU is truly impressive, especially on older computers that struggle to run KDE with any form of effects enabled.
It goes to show that clever coding, not more graphical processing power, is the best way to get a great desktop experience. While other distros have Enlightenment in their libraries, Bodhi is built specially for it. www.bodhilinux.com
Android is the most popular Linux distribution, but like all popular Linux distributions, it has derivatives. The best known of these is CyanogenMod. This is built from the source code from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), which contains the code to the core of Android. Not everything in the commercial version of Android is in the AOSP; many of the default apps such as the mail reader and the camera are proprietary, so new versions of these have been written for CyanogenMod, and in most cases they’re more powerful than the default Android ones.
There are community builds of CyanogeMod for a huge variety of devices (see http://wiki.cyanogenmod.org/w/Devices for details). There is often support for more recent version of Android than the device manufacturers provide, so it can be a great way of getting the latest-and-greatest features on older phones. It’s also a good way of getting a version of Android that doesn’t have all of Google’s services syphoning off data for their advertising engine (although you can install Google services if you wish). www.cyanogenmod.org
Rosa is developed by the Russian company Rosa Labs as a cutting-edge KDE distribution. Its best feature is that it has a really good-looking desktop right out of the box, including a large number of customisations to the default KDE look. It’s a great option if you like the idea of KDE, but struggle to find a setup that you like. www.rosalab.com
The future of the data centre is in containers – at least it is if you believe the hype. Core OS is a distro built from the ground up for this new world of Docker (or Docker-like) applications running in isolation from each other (see the tutorial on Docker on page 96). CoreOS is designed to run in large groups of containers all intercommunicating to make the cloud run smoothly. https://coreos.com
OPEN MEDIA VAULT
A Network Attached Storage unit (NAS) is a device that you plug into your house’s network, sharing some hard disk space with all the other computers that are connected. This makes it easy to back up and share files between all the computers in the building. Open Media Vault (OMV) is a distro that converts a regular PC into a NAS with an easy-to-use web interface. www.openmediavault.org
Most Linux distros are designed to run on a variety of computers, but not Raspbian: this distro is carefully crafted for just one device, the Raspberry Pi. Actually, that’s five devices (the Raspberry Pi models A, B, A+, B+ and version 2 model B), but they all share a lot of common hardware. Some other manufacturers have managed to persuade Raspbian to run on their hardware, but the distro is so closely tied to the Raspberry Pi that this is never going to be a good idea.
By focussing on just a single hardware platform, the distro can take full advantage of it. Since the Pi has, by modern standards, quite a low-power processor, Raspbian is adept at squeezing as much power out of it as possible, and runs more efficiently than most distros. It contains drivers for the VideoCore graphics processor; much of the software contains platform-specific optimisations; and the repositories contain utilities for controlling the GPIO pins.
Raspbian’s web browser is a perfect example of how targeting just a single hardware platform benefits the distro. Raspbian comes with a fork of the Epiphany browser (aka Gnome Web) that’s been modified run far better on the Raspberry Pi’s unique hardware. This means it is optimised for ARM v6 and v7 processors, while also offloading graphical processing to the VideoCore. The result is a far nicer web experience than you should really expect given the rather limited hardware.
The Raspberry Pi is designed for education, and Raspbian comes with some software that’s custom-made for this. There’s a special Raspberry Pi build of Minecraft that enables users to interact with the world through Python (and other languages). This is particularly appealing to children starting programming.
Another child of Debian
Raspbian also comes with a special build of Wolfram’s Mathematics (a mathematical programming system). This is widely used in schools because of its ease of use, and the amount of data included as well as mathematical functions.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation continue to push more optimisations into Raspbian, so more recent versions run faster than older ones even when running on the same hardware. Raspbian isn’t built from scratch. As the name suggests, it’s based on Debian, so as well as all the additional Raspberry Pi software, there’s also the full set of Debian software. You should find whatever you need in the repositories.
There are other distros available for the Raspberry Pi, but for most users, most of the time, Raspbian is the best option. In fact, it’s so good, it’s arguably the best reason to choose the Raspberry Pi over other small ARM-based computers. www.raspbian.org
We’re being spied on. Our internet providers are keeping detailed records of what websites we visit. Our governments are monitoring who we’re contacting. Advertising companies know more about us than our closest friends. It’s time to fight back. Tails is a distro built around Tor to make it easy to browse the web without being tracked. We like to keep a copy of the latest Tails ISO in a virtual machine when we want a private web browsing session.
Tails includes software for encryption and private instant messaging, so it’s got a full suite of privacy tools to keep any communications secure. Download Tails and protect yourself from prying eyes. https://tails.boum.org
Most distros include some non-free software, often for device drivers or media players. Trisquel is different. It includes only 100% free software, and doesn’t have any non-free repositories. This does mean it works with less hardware than other distros, but you’re fully in control of your computer. http://trisquel.info
Zorin is a distro built to ease the journey into Linux from Windows. It focuses on providing a familiar interface so that new users aren’t put off, and using the Zorin Look Changer application, you can customise the distro to1 match different versions of Windows. http://zorin-os.com
Computer security is possibly one of the most important issues facing the digital world. Governments are attacking each other; companies are attacking each other; and bands of digital bandits are attacking regular web users. If you work in computing in any way, it’s important that you understand the issues in computer security, and to do that, you need a distro built for IT security professionals. That distro is Kali Linux. Kali’s main function is to help penetration testers – the people who try to break into an organisation’s computer systems in order check the defences.
Kali includes the Metasploit Framework (which we looked at last issue) for attacking servers, the Social Engineer’s Toolkit (SET) for attacking personnel, tools for making malicious hardware, and dozens of other pieces of security software, all set up and ready to go. Most useful tools come installed by default so you just need to browse the menus to find the best tool for the job and you’re ready to start attacking.
In fact, browsing the menus of Kali is a great way of seeing all the open source security tools that are available.
Since it’s so widely used, most books and other resources on penetration testing use Kali (or BackTrack as it used to be known) in their examples, so it’s the easiest penetration testing distro to get started with.
There are builds of Kali for quite a lot of different platforms, including small ARM-based computers such as the Raspberry Pi, the Odroid U2 and the Beaglebone Black. These small devices are particularly interesting from an attacker’s point of view because they’re small enough to be hidden inside an office and will run for a considerable amount of time on battery power alone. Using Kali in this way enables penetration testers to make devices that will capture information about wireless traffic, or attempt to break in from inside a building with no one physically present. There have even been some projects that have performed penetration tests by putting these small computers inside remote control planes, and launching them from a distance.
Kali also runs on mobile devices such as tablets and Chromebooks. These give attackers the power of a full pen testing environment while maintaining the appearance of performing some mundane task. After all, who would suspect that someone tapping away at a tablet has access to a range of sophisticated pen testing tools?
Kali Linux is a distro that every security-minded Linux user should try out – if only so they can see the range of tools available to attackers www.kali.org
Openlndiana is a distribution of lllumos, which is itself a fork of Open Solaris. This means it’s a Unix OS that’s from a separate lineage to Linux and the BSDs. Perhaps the two best reasons for using Openlndiana (aside from academic interest) are that it’s Solaris that gave us the ZFS filesystem and Solaris Jails (a sandboxing environment). Other free Unixes are catching up in this area now, but Solaris and derivatives were for a long time significantly more advanced than their cousins. All these technical differences aren’t immediately apparent as Openlndiana boots up to a Gnome 2 environment that will be familiar to many Linux users, so it’s easy to get started. http://openindiana.org
When GNU first launched its project to re-implement UNIX in the 80s, it needed a kernel. At this point the Linux kernel didn’t yet exist and the BSD kernels were legally uncertain, so GNU set out on a new project: Hurd. It’s taken a long time to become useable, but version 0.5 (released in April 2015) brought in more stability.
Hurd isn’t the kernel itself, but a set of servers and protocols that sit on top of the Mach microkernel. This microkernel model is often cited as the cause for delays in the kernel’s release, since it has led to more complexity than the monolithic architecture of Linux. However, you can now try the Hurd in a port of Debían. www.gnu.org/software/hurd
Originally, Mlnlx was a purely academic distro created by Andrew Tanenbaum to help teach students about OS kernel design. However, in recent versions (starting with Minix 3 in 2005) the aim has shifted to creating a real-world OS. The main advantage of Minix over other Unix Kernels is that it’s designed using the microkernel, model which should, theoretically, lead to a far more stable and self-healing OS.
The code is now available under the BSD licence, and version 3.3 (released in September 2014) came with support for the ARM architecture as well as x86. www.minix3.org
If you like the idea of Gentoo, but don’t want to install everything from scratch, Sabayon is for you. It sticks close to the bleeding edge of software development, but also tries to be stable. The team pride themselves on how good the distro looks out-of-the-box, so just install and go. www.sabayon.org
Deepin isn’t well known in the English-speaking world, but it’s popular in China. As well as a customised desktop, it features the Deepin Software Centre, which enables users to rate and comment software. Most of the comments are written in Chinese. http://planet.linuxdeepin.com
Virtually everyone has heard of Debían, and most Linux users have tried it at least once, but what makes it so successful? It’s not backed by a big company, it’s rarely the starting point for new Linux users, and it lacks the snazz and pizazz that many other distributions have.
Well, we’d say this: Debían is the closest thing we have to a “standard” among distributions. It’s one of the longest-running distros out there, it’s incredibly well respected, and along with CentOS it’s the go-to distro when you want to put Linux on a box and then forget about it for the next five years – updates included.
Debían is conservative and slow moving, but you know that it has been extremely well tested and won’t break with the next round of updates. A Debían release will stay the same across its lifespan: patches are provided to plug security holes and fix critical (ie data-loss) bugs, but you won’t have to deal with software versions changing under your feet.
Debían also prides itself on being a “universal” operating system. In other words, it’s designed for everyone, and not just a niche of users. This manifests itself in multiple ways: Debían puts great effort into supporting users with disabilities, so that people with vision problems, for instance, can still Install it. Similarly, Debían has goals beyond merely providing a Linux distro, and tries to be a framework for other operating system projects, such as Debían GNU/kFreeBSD (the Debian and GNU userland combined with the FreeBSD kernel). Many pundits have criticised Debian for putting time and effort into these niche projects, but we think they’re important.
Freedom is strength
Sure, very few people are going to use Debian GNU/Hurd or the FreeBSD variant. But consider the IBM vs SCO lawsuit back in the 2000s, when the latter company insisted that proprietary Unix code had somehow found its way into the Linux source tree. SCO effectively tried to own Linux and get users to pay licence fees. Those were bad times, but IBM came out on top.
Now imagine such a scenario happens again, with a much bigger company trying to assert ownership of Linux, or even have Linux declared as a copyright-infringing work. This is very unlikely, but crazier things have been known to happen…
If the Linux kernel somehow gets tangled up in these legal wranglings, and they take years to sort out, thanks to the other Debian offerings well still be able to enjoy the benefits of a free operating system. The FreeBSD kernel is very well regarded, and combined with the GNU userland you have an extremely impressive OS. Bring on more projects like that, we say! www.debian.org
Many Arch fans claim that the distro is easy to install, thanks to its extensive and superb documentation, and there’s some truth in that. But you still need a good grounding in Linux and related technologies, and if you just want to set up a box with a rolling release distro in 10 minutes, the process is somewhat long-winded.
Manjaro is one of many Arch forks that aim to preserve the best aspects of the distro, but make them more accessible to new and intermediate Linux users. So Manjaro has a graphical installer, hardware detection tools, and other features that simplify and accelerate the process of getting the distro installed.
Although Manjaro hasn’t hit version 1.0 yet, it’s already a very polished and usable linux distribution, and well worth a try if you’re tempted by Arch Linux but want something easier. https://manjaro.github.io
Back in the early 2000s, Gentoo was the absolute darling of power users – and for good reason. It was immensely configurable, as you were encouraged to build everything from scratch. You could change CFLAGS to compile packages with specific optimisations for your CPU, and you could enable or disable custom features for your setup. On top of this, it was one of the earliest rolling-release distros: you got new software as it came down the pipeline from upstream developers, instead of waiting for another big distro upgrade in six months.
So what happened? Why isn’t Gentoo dominating today? Well, a big chunk of its userbase moved over to Arch Linux. While playing around with CFLAGS was fun, many of the optimisations made very little difference, and the most passionate Gentooers were mocked as “deers” – in other words, the Linux eguivalent of car modders who add go-faster stripes. Still, Gentoo lives on and is one of the few distros that hasn’t adopted Systemd by default, so we’re sure it’ll be around for a while. www.gentoo.org
This isn’t Linux-based, but it’s a project with bags of potential nonetheless. Haiku is an open source reimplementation of BeOS, a desktop OS that gained mild popularity in the late 90s. BeOS was strikingly fast and multimedia-friendly back in the day, and while Haiku is still undergoing heavy development, it could prove to be a great lightweight OS one day. www.haiku-os.org
Debian’s switch to Systemd wasn’t received well by the whole distro community. A few disgruntled developers left the Debian project to start Devuan, a distro for “init freedom lovers”. Whether this will turn out to be a serious project – or just a knee-jerk reaction that leads to nothing – remains to be seen, but there has certainly been plenty of chatter on the mailing lists. https://devuan.org
Before the KDE and Gnome dektop environments took off in the late 90s, Enlightenment was the top-tier window manager in Linux, with impressive effects such as window translucency and gorgeous themes. Enlightenment is still going today, and Elive uses it on top of a Debían base to create a distro that’s good looking, featureful and relatively low on system requirements. www.elivecd.org
Chromebooks are increasingly popular among non-technical users, offering a stripped-down operating system that provides most of its functionality via web apps. Peppermint does a similar job as a “web centric operating system”, except you don’t have to submit to Google’s giant data collection machine. It’s based on Ubuntu’s Long Term Support releases. www.peppermintos.com
Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants. LXLE is based on Lubuntu, which is based on Ubuntu, which is based on Debían. It might seem crazy to have so many spin-offs in the distro world, and we’d agree that some distros offer little more than wallpaper changes, but LXLE is well worth looking at. The developers have put great effort into a consistent theme and layout for the LXDE desktop, while the default app selection has been carefully chosen.
Most importantly, LXLE is great for reviving older machines that have limited RAM: it will run pretty well in just 512MB. So if you have an old netbook lying around doing nothing especially useful, pop LXLE on it and bring it back to life.
Or if you know someone still running XP on an older box, you could install LXLE for them and bring them up to date. There are plenty of other lightweight distros out there, but LXLE is one of the most polished we’ve come across, and as it’s based on the LTS releases of Lubuntu (for long term support), you know it will receive security patches for many years to come. www.lxle.net
Ask database giant Oracle what the best OS is for running its products, and you’ll be told: Solaris, of course! But Oracle has had to accept that its proprietary Unix isn’t the be-all and end-all on servers, and many people want to run Oracle’s DB on Linux. So the company forked Red Hat Enterprise Linux (see opposite page) and added kernel tweaks to handle huge workloads. www.oracle.com/linux
It’s not Linux, but it’s a free and open source Unixy operating system – very much like Linux. In FreeBSD, the whole operating system is developed inside a single source code tree, in contrast to Linux where the kernel, C library and base utilities are from separate projects. FreeBSD sees plenty of use on servers, and it’s fairly good on the desktop with the right hardware. www.freebsd.org
Mah-jee-a? Ma-gay-a? Mah-gaia? There’s no official way to pronounce this distro’s name, which we regard as something of a marketing fail, but well let that minor grumble pass. Mageia is one of the most prominent forks in Linux distro history, and unlike many projects, it didn’t just happen because of a squabble between developers.
No, Mageia came about from necessity.
In the 2000s, one of the most popular distributions among new users was Mandriva, formerly known as Mandrake Linux. This was a long-running distro originally based on Red Hat Linux, and was noted for its slick desktop, excellent hardware detection and newbie-friendly Windows Control Panel-esque setup tool. Also, it was one of the few distros to offer snazzy boxed sets with CDs, printed manuals and customer support.
We were big fans of Mandriva back in the day, but unfortunately the company wrestled with financial problems for many years and ended up laying off most of its distro developers. A bunch of them wanted to carry on with their work, however, and Mageia was formed. Initially, many observers suspected that the Mageia project would go nowhere, but time has proven them wrong and it’s a very fine distro today.
Like its predecessor, Mageia excels with its Mageia Control Center configuration tool and novice-friendly installer. Users can choose between KDE, Gnome and Xfce desktops, all of which are given Mageia-specific theming, and the development team has done a good job pumping out regular releases over the last few years. In a fascinating turn of events, the Mandriva company, which still exists (albeit in a much smaller form than in the past), is now using chunks of Mageia in its own Business Server product. Who knows – maybe the projects could join together again one day…
Mandriva lives on!
There’s another spin-off of Mandriva called, innovatively enough, OpenMandriva. Initially the goals of that distro and Mageia were so well aligned that it seemed crazy to have two distros doing exactly the same job. Sure,
forks happen in the free software world, and often for good reason, but is it ever possible for two projects to merge?
We asked the Mageia team about this at the FOSDEM conference in February, and yes, there had been talks in the past about merging the projects, but today their goals are increasingly diverging. Mageia is largely focused on being the spiritual successor to Mandriva, targeting new and intermediate desktop users, while OpenMandriva is doing much more experimental work by switching to the LLVM/Clang compiler and targeting ARM devices. Don’t expect a merge any time soon, but both projects are doing great work. www.mageia.org
“Your Linux, always fresh, never frozen.” That’s the motto for Antergos, and reflects that It’s a rolling-release distro based on Arch Linux. But unlike Arch, it tries hard to attract new and intermedite Linux users, with an attrative website and polished desktop environment configurations. Antergos has its own installer, Cnchi, and could be a big player over the next few years. http://antergos.com
There are a million and one KDE-based distros out there, but Netrunner distinguishes itself by actively supporting KDE with financial help – a rarity in Free Software. There are two flavours of Netrunner: one is based on Kubuntu and has regular six-monthly releases, while the other is based on Arch and is therefore a rolling-release distro. www.netrunner.com
We have to include this here (even though it’s not based on the Linux kernel), just because we still get misty-eyed when thinking about the Amiga. Yes, this is an open source implementation of AmigaOS, running on modern PCs. It’s lacking a lot of hardware support compared to Linux, but it’s impressive and brings back great memories of the glory days of Workbench. http://aros.sf.net
Slackware is the oldest Linux distribution that’s still running, and is largely the project of one man: Pat Volkerding. This might seem like an impossible feat given the huge teams behind Debian, Fedora and other big-name distros, but Slackware is very simple under the hood.
Its packages are tarballs with some metadata, its boot scripts are short and BSD-like, and the whole distro has an air of simplicity and elegance that makes it a joy to work with. It’s not easy going for newbies, but because it doesn’t make big changes to upstream code, you get a very vanilla Linux experience without distro-specific “features” causing trouble.
Indeed, one of the favourite sayings among users of this distro is: “With Red Hat you learn Red Hat. With Ubuntu you learn Ubuntu. But with Slackware, you learn Linux.” Slackware fans are noted for their eclectic taste in humour (see the Church of the Subgenius) and general apathy towards converting others. Have you ever seen a foaming Slacker trying to win over users on an internet forum? Of course not -that simply ain’t the Slackware way. www.slackware.com
If you were using Linux in the late 90s and early 2000s, you may recall the chunky boxed sets you could buy from various distro vendors, containing CDs/DVDs, books, stickers and other goodies. OpenSUSE (known back then as just SUSE) was the best distro in this respect: you’d get a shiny card wallet jammed with discs containing thousands of packages, along with three thick manuals teaching you everything you needed to know about the OS. Getting one of these boxed sets through the door was bliss, especially if you had only a dialup modem connection.
OpenSUSE is one of the longest running distros, coming to life in Germany in 1992 as “Software und System Entwicklung” (software and systems development), and originally based on Slackware. The SUSE company grew quickly, establishing itself as the main competitor to Red Hat, and was eventually bought by Novell in 2003 for a cool $21 Om. Novell itself was later snapped up by The Attachmate Group, and today SUSE operates as a subsidiary, selling enterprise Linux solutions to big business.
Amongst hobbyists, however, the OpenSUSE distro is still going strong.
Its flagship feature is Yast (Yet another Setup Tool), a graphical and command line program which handles virtually every aspect of system administration. While most distros have a disparate bundle of tools for handling such things as user management, startup services, package installation and so forth, Yast provides all of these facilities – and much more – from the same place. Yes, some would argue that such a large, monolithic program goes against the philosophy of Unix, where small tools work together, but we can see the attraction in Yast. Whenever you need to do some kind of administration work on your installation, you know exactly where to start.
Roll your own
Another ace that OpenSUSE has up its sleeve is its Open Build Service. This is an online resource where developers can upload code and build packages for OpenSUSE and other distributions including Fedora and Debian, without having to install the distros and the (often rather complicated) set of build tools manually. It’s great to see the OpenSUSE team playing such an active role in distro cross-pollination efforts – and making life easier for app developers who want to package up their work for as many distros as possible.
Along with the regular release versions of OpenSUSE, there’s also a “tumbleweed” flavour that’s a rolling release, much like Arch Linux. It’s not guaranteed to be as stable as ^ the well-tested releases, but it’s great if you want to live on the bleeding edge and get the latest and greatest applications. www.opensuse.org
RED HAT ENTERPRISE LINUX
Here’s a distro that gets relatively little coverage in Linux Voice, as we tend to focus on home users and tinkerers, but it’s the biggest flavour of Linux in the corporate world. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is based on work done in the Fedora project, and comes with support contracts that can cost a bunch of bucks.
But why pay for Linux when you can get it for free? Well, with RHEL you know there’s someone on the phone to fix any problems you may come across. Businesses need this, or at least someone they can point the finger at. Red Hat Enterprise Linux gets 10 years of support as well, so while costly, it’s a sound investment. www.redhat.com
Desktop Linux in just 35MB – is that even possible? With SliTaz, yes. You get a very trimmed-down GUI with a handful of apps such as the Midori web browser, and it all runs in RAM at lightning speed. It’s great to carry on a USB key and boot up on someone else’s PC to show Linux’s awesomeness. www.slKaz.org
LINUX FROM SCRATCH
So those are 58 distros – and now it’s time to create your own to add to the pantheon! Linux From Scratch is a guide and repository V of source code, explaining in detail how to install Linux by hand, piece by piece. Give it a go – you learn a lot… www.linuxfromscratch.org