If you are using a managed web hosting service to host your website, you might not be bothered to know what is the distro used in the backend. All you need to know is that your website have to run 24/7 without fail. However, if you are administering your own server, choosing the correct distro becomes an important task. Here are some of the popular and stable distros that you can use for your server.
CentOS is a community built distro based on the source code of RedHat Enterprise Linux (REHL). It is also the most popular distro for web server as of now. The benefit of using CentOS is that it is stable and seldom crashes. If you have some packages that only work with REHL, chances are you can get them to work in CentOS as well. Being the most popular distro, it also has the benefit of great support, either from their community forum, or anywhere on the Web.
Unlike most distro that has a 1 -2 years release cycle, CentOS took a (very) long time to release a new version (CentOS 5 was released in 2007, and it was only till Dec 2011 that CentOS 6 was released). The benefit of this is that once you get your server up and running, it will be in good shape for a long time without having to regularly upgrade to a newer version. In addition, it has a very long term support for all its release (CentOS-4 has 7 years of enterprise lifetime), so you know your server is in good hands for long term to come.
As for the cons, you might have difficulties running newer packages and making use of the latest technologies. If you are looking at cutting edge technology, CentOS is not for you.
If you are from a Debian background, then a Debian server would make a great alternative to CentOS. In terms of administration, both are similar, except that Debian uses “apt-get” and “.deb” while CentOS uses “yum” and “rpm”.
Debian has a long release cycle as well, though not as long as CentOS. Being a community distro, new versions of Debian are released only when the community regards them as ready for public. The benefit of this is that each stable release is indeed, stable. Debian doesn’t come with a server or desktop edition. There is only one image for you to download and install. The default will work as the server edition. Install a desktop manager and it becomes the desktop edition.
The most popular Linux distro for the desktop has recently become a favorite for many web administrators, mainly because they are very familiar with it. Yes, if you are familiar with Ubuntu, you might want to go with Ubuntu server because everything from adding package sources, installing packages to finding support is at your fingertips.
Ubuntu releases a new version every six months and its Long Term Support release (for server) is every 5 years. This gives you a good choice of using either the LTS for stability or the latest release for cutting edge technology.
Even though OpenSUSE (not SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) is relatively unknown in the server arena and few people will recommend it as the first choice for web server, there has been a good demand for it and many web hosts have already offered OpenSUSE in their library of images.
OpenSUSE is the free and community version of SUSE, which provides enterprise Linux, much like what RedHat is doing with its RHEL. OpenSUSE uses the RPM package, but that doesn’t mean it is fully compatible with RedHat or Fedora’s package, do this is something that you should take note of.
Personally, I have not used OpenSUSE as a server before, so I do not know how it performs. However, I did seen articles claiming that OpenSUSE (as a server) is faster and more stable than CentOS. I am not sure of its validity, but if you are experienced and comfortable in using OpenSUSE, you can definitely use it for you web server.
Other distros not mentioned above include Fedora, ArchLinux and Gentoo and the premium ones include RedHat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Enterprise Linux. Personally I would not recommend Fedora, ArchLinux and Gentoo. Fedora is too cutting edge for me, while Arch Linux and Gentoo require plenty of configuration, making them hard to maintain. If you can afford the cash and need professional support, RHEL and SEL are few of the best out there.
There is no absolute best or worst distro for server usage. Most of them are similar and all have their own pros and cons. If you are administering your own server, the most important factor is the ease of use and that depends on your usage experience and familiarity with the distro. The rule of thumb is, choose the distro that you are most comfortable with and have the most experience in. It will give you less trouble while administering it.
Which is your favorite Linux distro for web server?
Image credit: 3d rendering of a server room with black servers by BigStockPhoto