13 Popular Linux Distros (And Which To Choose in 2020)

Linux command line

How Linux Became The Bazaar Operating System

In 1997, Eric S. Raymond, a software developer who would later become the unofficial FOSS (Free / Open Source Software) tribal bard, published an essay titled “The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary.”

The gist of the essay was that for software development, you could have the “cathedral” (a hierarchical model with a big boss in charge at the top) or the “bazaar” (an egalitarian model with a cooperating network of peers), and the bazaar model turned out to be the superior model.

This was considered big news back in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, it proved prophetic of the Linux operating system, rapidly growing to become the most popular FOSS operating system, used by giants of web hosting like Godaddy and Hostgator and lately, thanks to the install base of Google’s Android based on Linux, the most popular operating system in the world.

The GNU GPL (General Public License) proved an ironclad software license which guaranteed that software could be freely shared and modified for whatever purpose the public wanted. Linux, and most of its base tools, were released under the GPL, and then all the original developers had to do was stand back and watch.

The Linux operating system took a unique turn: the license allowed open redistribution in any form, so customized installs of a base Linux system began popping up. They were different distributions of Linux for different needs, so they became known as “distros,” and for a while, they were almost as fun as collecting Pokemon.

Here’s a brief historic breakdown of the top Linux distros that have made their mark on Linux history. By no means inclusive (total distros number into the 700s), it’s a handy overview of the top Linux distros to help you decide which one is right for you. We’ll break this into three parts: Patriarch distros, Consumer distros, and Power distros. We’ll explain what these mean…

A man with a debian tattoo

Image Source: Pixabay

Patriarch Linux distros:

We call them “Patriarchs” because they were the original distributions dating back to the 1990s. They were the seminal foundation for many derivative distros to come; however, they’re not necessarily the first choice for modern users. Patriarchs tend to be the bare-bones architecture upon which more advanced distros are built, focusing on rock-solid stability rather than the newest flashy features. They also tend to focus more on developer tools.

They are still preferred by power users (usually developers) who need tight control over their environment. They are also the better option for running on older hardware. Users who are intimidated by a command line, messing with configuration files, and compiling source code by hand are advised to steer clear.

Debian

The great grandfather of Linux. Debian was the first Linux distribution to introduce a package management system, which allowed easy installation of software applications without having to compile it all from scratch with source code. It was started by a mom-and-pop garage developer team and has remained community-maintained ever since. It focuses on rock-solid stability and a no-frills philosophy.

Debian, or a close upstream derivative, is still popular in server rooms and with dedicated sysadmins. While it has no official commercial support, you almost can’t throw a rock in a server room without hitting a Debian guru, who will usually be apt at hand-rolling Perl scripts to work deep magic.

Debian is also the ultimate core networking system to build up from, although you’d better be a Linux guru to accomplish it.

Red Hat

Red Hat started out as a community distro which eventually grew into a commercial company offering its own distro and Enterprise-level support. It also was one of the first to offer a package manager. In the early 2000s, it broke off to become Red Hat Enterprise, no longer offering a free download but with many corporate clients.

Red Hat Enterprise today is the main option for the corporate office which needs support technicians and enterprise-level security. Red Hat is the world’s largest commercial Linux organization, offering a certification program to qualified candidates who want to put “Linux guru” on their resume.

Red Hat Enterprise dominates the top ranks of corporate technology, being the kind of server setup run at dot-com businesses. Oracle software also offers its own custom Red Hat Enterprise version known as Oracle Linux.

Slackware

Slackware rounds out our major old-school distributions. It was started by one maintainer who has stayed in control of the project ever since. Slackware is the one distro notorious for not having a package manager, for not supporting large chunks of the Linux desktop environment (such as GTK-Gnome), and for being a minimalist, stripped-down system. It is an extremely conservative distro, sometimes jokingly called “snackware” for leaving the user wanting more.

Slackware today is only popular with deep hobbyists, extreme power users, security wonks, and special niches where you’d need a platform to hand-roll your own distro. Most of what Slackware was good at, later developer-centric distros are better at. However, if you want a good base to customize from, Slackware is hard to beat.

Slackware still shows up in the server room, in odd niches where you need a stable, secure backup file server and whatnot. Sysadmins regard Slackware with fond nostalgia.

Ubuntu's logo on a device

Consumer Linux distros:

Consumer distros are the great homogenous desktop distros used by most of the Linux world. They are meant to be easy to install, easy to use, and desktop-ready distros, suitable for home users who just need basic utility. They focus on device support, daily use, attractive design, and recreational usage, but are paltry when it comes to developer tools and business use.

Consumer distros are naturally the first recommendation for new users and casual needs.

Ubuntu

The great lion of Consumer distros. Derived from Debian, Ubuntu came out in the mid-2000s with the battle-cry “Linux for human beings.” It is famous for being the easiest to install and use, with an uncluttered layout. It typically has a live CD with an install option. It is by far the most popular desktop distro of all time, though users often go for a customized alternative.

Ubuntu is “Linux for grandma.” The casual home desktop user who just wants an easy way to go online and play a few games, with some modest office software on the side, will find an easy solution in Ubuntu. More advanced user will be frustrated with Ubuntu for making too many decisions for them.

There is a customized Ubuntu server option. It’s used by sysadmins who want a drop-in solution for basic server needs.

Mint

Mint is the most recent major challenger to Ubuntu’s desktop dominance. Mint is itself derived from Ubuntu, keeping the ease-of-use and user-friendly desktop experience, but adding multimedia support. While Ubuntu sticks closer to the FOSS idealism of never including third-party proprietary support, Mint is for the pragmatic user who doesn’t care what license their codex has as long as their movies still play.

Mint is also an ideal choice for the new user, who wants more bells and whistles with their desktop. It’s the Ubuntu for those who might want to play games, support a wide range of multimedia capabilities, and need support for various peripheral devices. It is an ideal distro for “plug and play” users, and a contender for the hardiest trouble-free distro out there.

Knoppix

Before we leave the realm of Debian-derived desktop systems, it’s worth mentioning Knoppix. At one time, Knoppix was a popular newbie-friendly distro before Ubuntu came along. It was the very first live CD offering, derived from Debian also.

There’s not much reason to run Knoppix these days, and its user base is slowly dwindling. It’s only notable for being a founder of the concept of the live CD. It still makes a decent recovery disk or something to pop into an older computer just to have a temporary workstation.

Fedora

Fedora is the FOSS fork of Red Hat. While Red Hat Enterprise goes on being a commercial distro, Fedora is the development and testing ground for new ideas to incorporate into Red Hat later. It keeps much of Red Hat’s old-school power use option while still being relatively suitable for the desktop.

Fedora is a mid-range distro, being a jack of all trades but master of none. It is not recommended for older hardware, as it tends to be demanding of resources, and it’s also the unstable cousin to Red Hat, prone to break under strain. However, for midrange users, it’s still a viable option for its flexibility.

CentOS

CentOS is the desktop fork of Fedora. It could be seen as the “return to Red Hat” since Red Hat went Enterprise-only. It focuses on being a stable, well-tested version of Fedora which is much more conservative than Fedora’s shotgun laboratory approach. However, it’s almost a ghost when it comes to updates and support.

CentOS is an option for the desktop user with slightly older hardware who needs a more secure, server-like environment. However, its user base has dwindled in recent years with so many competitors.

CentOS is still popular in the server room, as a stable, reliable, security-focused system. For a long time it was the FOSS go-to for standard server usage.

Mandriva

Mandriva is, simply put, the “Ubuntu” to Red Hat’s “Debian.” It’s focused on being easy to install and use, running a live CD with an install option, and being a one-stop desktop user station which is flexible enough to be a basic desktop playpen or an office workstation.

Mandriva, again, is seeing dwindling numbers these days as the Red Hat ecosystem retreats from the casual home user. However, there’s almost no reason you can’t run Mandriva in Ubuntu’s place; the pros are virtually the same and Mandriva has a bit more flexibility than Ubuntu’s tunnel-vision approach.

A recent fork of Mandriva, known as Mageia, is a fledgling system showing some promise of reviving the Red Hat family of distros, with some server use as well, but is still too new to have proven itself.

Zenwalk

Zenwalk is barely worth mentioning as the attempt at a user-friendly Slackware. It is aimed squarely at the casual desktop user, basically taking the Slackware ecosystem and knitting the most desktop-ready system they could.

Unless you need a user-friendly environment for incredibly ancient hardware, there’s almost no reason to run Zenwalk. Old school Slackware users sometimes run it as a hipster workstation.

Power Linux distros:

The Power distros are for the hackers, plain and simple. They aren’t considered “power” for their out-of-the-box support, but rather for their high-level capabilities as an advanced development environment. You can run the other distros and just be a Linux user; when you run a Power distro, you are a Linux geek.

If you mumble code in various programming languages in your sleep, a Power distro is right for you – and you won’t be able to stand running anything else. Power distros are also the brew of choice for advanced desktop setups, customized niche purposes, and those who need support for a wide range of hardware.

Arch

Arch has risen to stellar popularity with the do-it-yourself crowd. It is, simply put, the power tools workbench for building out any kind of custom setup you need, with a lightweight base. It comes with a highly sophisticated manual and a thriving documentation community. It is the “cool” distro for hackers, with an almost cult-like status.

Arch is also known for being a great intermediate step for budding developers who want an introduction to power-user land. One thing is certain, if you have a problem, you will be able to solve it, because Arch puts the tools in your hand for any job. The only downside is a conservative release cycle and the sometimes fragility of a cutting-edge toolset.

Arch, like all Power distros, is hugely popular with the server room and sysadmin crowd.

Gentoo

Gentoo predated Arch as the prior power-user distro of choice. Like Arch, Gentoo is for the dedicated do-it-yourself fanatic who wants a box of power tools and a workbench environment. Gentoo also has special capabilities when it comes to network users, being a kind of sysadmin’s complement to Arch.

Gentoo is still preferred by sysadmins who need a power server system. It focuses on being a stable, secure environment that recovers well from mishaps, with a robust set of testing tools. Of all the Linux distros, it also is the most comfortable for those who come to Linux from BSD and other Unix-like systems.

SUSE

SUSE is the oldest and least favored of Power distros. It, too, is directed at being a flexible, customizable environment with a build-it-yourself philosophy. It is also one of the few Linux distros to partner with a company, Novell, with an Enterprise option. There is a controversy in the Linux community given its mixture of open source and proprietary philosophy.

SUSE is a commercial-grade solution for power users in the server, having some support and extensive networking capabilities. OpenSUSE is the “Fedora” to SUSE’s “Red Hat Enterprise,” even adopting the Red Hat package management system for an option. It’s also a dandy desktop system while not compromising power development utilities.

SUSE Enterprise is second only to Red Hat Enterprise in terms of corporate office and server usage. Since Microsoft partners with Novell, it’s also a slightly Microsoft-friendly environment for those Linux boxes that have to interact with Microsoft boxes a lot.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining us on this tour of the most popular Linux distros. We’ve kept our selections here to the current, most proven and long-term Linux distros. There’s plenty more to explore, and hobbyists frequently “distro-hop,” but in the long run you want a solid desktop system with good community support behind it, as opposed to the Linux fad-of-the-week.

2 thoughts on “13 Popular Linux Distros (And Which To Choose in 2020)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *