Getting a new PC or dedicated server always comes with selecting what kind of OS you will be running? Hopefully you won't choose Windows ... so the obvious choice is Linux! However, picking a Linux Distro is like going to Baskin Robbins 31 and trying to choose that perfect flavor.
While there will always be something for everyone, for the newcomer switching to Linux can be a daunting task, with so many different distributions to choose from, how do you decide? This guide doesn't go into desktop environments and we are assuming you will stick with the default environment. Below is a summary Linux distro guide comparison chart for reference.
Apart from the 5 above, there are literally hundreds of Linux Distros ranging from Puppy and Damn Small to Voyager or Alpine. You can even choose the infamous Linux OS that Edward Snowden used called Tails that offers complete privacy.
Head over to DistroWatch to browse flavors until your heart is content. For this guide we will just be focusing on the Big 4, Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Fedora.
Debian sets itself apart by being the largest and most comprehensive Linux distribution ever created having well-over 1,000 volunteers working on the project since 1993. Because of this many derivatives of Linux distros are based off of Debian, and it has become the Granddaddy of a large family of Linux distributions. It also has a well known Social Contract which guarantees the OS to remain 100% open and free.
Debian offers both 'stable' and 'unstable' distribution downloads for users with stable being the most secure and well-tested release. Unstable is the version in current development with the latest and greatest software, but you will often times find an occasional bug. For new users or for those looking for security and stability go with the stable version, otherwise you can go with unstable.
For server admins, Debian makes a solid server distribution choice, despite being free, it is also one of the most secure OS with community support behind it. Debian can be upgraded forever without reinstallation which makes it very attractive. One thing you want in a dedicated server is stability, Debian's long history and thorough testing environment before making it to 'stable' will give your bare metal server the stability it needs.
Ubuntu is a South African philosophy which means "humanity towards others" & is by some estimates the most popular Linux desktop distribution. Ubuntu is essentially a 'fork' or an extension of Debian that shares much of the same codebase so you will have similar security and stability with Ubuntu. What sets Ubuntu apart is the adding of extra features for the newcomer, a slicker graphical UI, as well as easier installation. It tried to take away as much pain as possible to get a Debian-based OS up and running.
One major difference between Ubuntu vs. Debian is that Debian is 100% free and open source and community driven, on the other hand, Ubuntu is owned privately by Canonical, a UK company that will charge extra for customer support or training. Because of this it has received criticism for not abiding by the spirit of truly open source and freedom. That being said, Ubuntu has really broken critical mass due to its ease of use and newbie friendly approach. Just view the 2 homepages of Debian vs. Ubuntu and you will see the difference.
Ubuntu server is built for speed and simplicity and is great for scaling your hosting infrastructure. One of Ubuntu Server's main drawing points is its popularity as the #1 platform with Openstack. That combined with its streamlined cloud integration and Juju and MAAS bare metal deployment make it ideal for plug-n-play server setup. Learn more about setting up your dedicated or virtual server with Ubuntu here.
Linux Mint takes Ubuntu one step further to become a super user-friendly ready to use operating system. Based off of Ubuntu & created in 2006, the developers main objective is to create a powerful yet elegant and modern OS that is easy to use. In the Ubuntu vs. Mint battle you will find many Linux beginners will lean towards Mint.
Linux Mint's basic interface, called Cinnamon, is similar in feel to Windows with a taskbar at the bottom of the desktop along with a pop-up menu. Ubuntu, on the other hand, feels more like a Mac OSX. A big advantage of Linux Mint is the default media applications that come installed such as Adobe Flash, VLC, GIMP, and other media codecs unlike Ubuntu. Mint has 2 timed releases each year, usually s short while after Ubuntu releases their new version.
Mint also has a variety of in-house developed software called MintTools. Some of these are mintInstall, mintUpdate, mintMenu, mintBackup, mintUpload, mintNanny, etc ... For server needs, Linux mint has yet to develop a server-based edition. Mainly because at its core Linux Mint is Ubuntu which has Ubuntu Server, and Mint's main differences are at the desktop level which is unrelated to servers in general.
Last but certainly not least we want to look at Fedora. Fedora is the brain child of Red Hat that focuses on innovation and the integration of bleeding edge technologies. Because of this support is only offered for 13 months for each release so developers can focus ahead and not on past releases or issues. On the flip side, vendors will tend to shy away from product development in this distro because of the lack of long-term support.
One of the main differences between Fedora and the Debian-based distros is the package management, where Fedora uses the RPM package manager and yum dependency resolver. Fedora also has a single global repository for free software applications, Debian contains both free and paid repos. Fedora users usually fall into the category of experienced in Linux or developers and is not as user-friendly as Ubuntu or Mint.
One area where Fedora leads is security, thanks to the integration of Security-Enhanced Linux or SELinux for short. On the server side, unfortunately, using Fedora to build a web server is not the optimal choice, due to the short life cycles of each new release. Although it is great in working with cutting edge software, you may want a distro with more long-term support such as CentOS or Red Hat Enterprise Linux to manage dedicated, virtual, or cloud servers. Some would disagree, especially in the area of virtualization and in launching cloud based virtual private servers.