Best Linux Server Distros for 2020

Buyers of IT software, services and hardware should know that there are so many versions of the Linux OS from which to choose, that they should look at distributions that exactly fit the use cases the enterprise deems important.


This article offers a 2019 update on several of the world’s top Linux server vendors, a very important but often mysterious section of the IT world that many people know little or nothing about. This is because Linux and its various flavors, called “distros” (for distributions), are underlying operating systems that run applications on servers and PCs and aren’t adjusted or changed by users as a matter of routine.

For public internet servers, Linux is dominant, powering about twice the number of hosts as Windows Server, which is trailed by many smaller players, including traditional mainframe OSes. The supercomputer field is completely dominated by Linux, with 100% of the TOP500 now running on various versions.

Internet-based servers' market share can be measured with statistical surveys of publicly accessible servers, such as web servers, mail servers or DNS servers on the Internet: the operating systems powering such servers are found by inspecting raw response messages. This method gives insight only into market share of operating systems that are publicly accessible on the Internet.

The Linux OS started out as being exclusive to regular x86 desktop PCs, but it has since found its way into everything from Android phones to Google Chromebooks to those powerful super-servers mentioned above. IT decision-makers in the market for Linux servers should know that the very best Linux distros are tailored to specific types of users. Ubuntu, for instance, is very easy to use, because it’s designed for newbies. On the other hand, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, openSUSE, CentOS and others designed for the data center require a lot more expertise.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Raleigh, N.C.

Value proposition for potential buyers:  Red Hat, acquired by IBM in 2018 for $34 billion, is a company dedicated to free and open source software, and has long been a major Linux distribution vendor. It is by far the largest commercial company built on open source software. The company is known for its enterprise operating system Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and more recently through the acquisition of open source enterprise middleware vendor JBoss. Red Hat provides operating system platforms along with middleware, applications, and management solutions, as well as support, training and consulting services.

Key values/differentiators:

  • Versatility: Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a versatile distribution originally developed more than 20 years ago. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is released in server versions for x86-64, Power ISA, ARM64, and IBM Z, and in a desktop version for x86-64. It can be used for virtually any mission-critical business application.
  • Support: All of Red Hat's official support and training, together with the Red Hat Certification Program, focuses on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux platform. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is often abbreviated to RHEL.
  • Source code: Red Hat utilizes strict trademark rules to restrict free redistribution of its officially supported versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but it still freely provides its source code through GitHub and SourceForge. Third-party derivatives can be built and redistributed by stripping away non-free components, such as Red Hat's trademarks. Examples include community-supported distributions, such as CentOS and Scientific Linux, and commercial forks, such as Oracle Linux.
  • Plasma no longer supported:In October 2018, Red Hat declared that KDE Plasma was no longer supported in future updates of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The announcement came shortly after the announcement of the business acquisition of Red Hat by IBM.

Who uses it: Midrange to large enterprises
How it works: cloud services and on-premises options
eWEEK score:  4.9/5.0

Read user reviews of Red Hat Enterprise Linux


Nurnberg, Germany

Value proposition for potential buyers: Known for years as SUSE Linux and later as SuSE Linux Professional, openSUSE is aimed primarily at developers and system administrators. It has long been known for its tight security attributes. The operating system is divided into two main distributions: openSUSE Leap and openSUSE Tumbleweed. Leap uses the source code from SUSE Linux Enterprise, which adds better stability. New versions are released about once a year and are supported for three years, making Leap perfect for business applications.

Key values/differentiators:

  • Creativity enabled: As one of the more mature and reliable Linux distros now available, openSUSE is consistently ranked in the top five distributions on server sites. In addition, the SUSE Studio Express website allows users to create their own version of openSUSE, complete with tailored preinstalled software packages, desktop and system settings.
  • Agile release cycle: Tumbleweed is based on Factory, openSUSE's main development code base. It follows an agile, rolling-release model, meaning packages are made available for download as soon as they've been tested in Factory. Thus Tumbleweed contains the latest stable applications and is good for day-to-day use.

Who uses it: Primarily targeted at devs and sysadmins at midsize to larger enterprises
How it works: subscription cloud service and on-premises options
eWEEK score:  4.7/5.0

Read user reviews of openSuSE

CentOS 7

Raleigh, N.C.

Value proposition for potential buyers: Red Hat has enabled several Linux spinoffs. CentOS 7, a freely available, community-edition offshoot of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is one of the most popular. Its best attribute is stability, and it eschews constant updates. It is free and open source software (FOSS). Similar to Red Hat, security and maintenance updates for CentOS are pushed out up to 10 years from the initial release of each version. CentOS also manages the CentOS Project, a community-driven free software effort with  the goal of providing a rich base platform for open-source communities upon which to build. It offers a development framework for cloud providers, the hosting community, and scientific data processing.

Key values/differentiators:

  • Reliability: CentOS is extremely reliable, which is why it’s a great option to use in a server. It's not quite as good for someone looking for a new OS to use in a laptop.
  • Nice option: Packages compiled for the commercial version of Red Hat Linux are fully compatible with CentOS, so you can use them free of charge. 
  • Governance: CentOS is planning to provide a clear governance model, increased transparency and access.
  • Active community: CentOS is developed by a growing team of core developers supported by an active user community, including system administrators, enterprise users, core Linux contributors and other Linux enthusiasts from around the world.

Who uses it: Small to midsize enterprises
How it works: subscription cloud service and on-premises options
eWEEK score:  4.6/5.0

Read user reviews of CentOS 7

Linux Mint

Portland, Ore.

Value proposition for potential buyers:  Linux Mint is another community-driven Linux distribution based on a combination of Debian Linux and Ubuntu Linux that provides what users describe as a "modern, elegant and comfortable operating system which is both powerful and easy to use." Linux Mint provides full multimedia support by including some proprietary software and comes bundled with a variety of free and open-source applications. The project was conceived by Clément Lefèbvre and continues to be actively developed by the Linux Mint Team and community.

Key values/differentiators:

  • Numerous apps: Linux Mint installed software includes LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, HexChat, Pidgin, Transmission, VLC media player and GIMP. Additional software that is not installed by default can be downloaded using the package manager. The default Linux Mint desktop environments, Cinnamon and MATE, support many languages. Linux Mint allows networking ports to be closed using its firewall, with customized port selection available.
  • Can run Win apps: Linux Mint can also run programs designed for Microsoft Windows (such as Microsoft Office), using the Wine Windows compatibility layer software for Linux, or virtualization software. That includes VMware Workstation and VirtualBox, or the KVM (Kernel based Virtual Machine, built into the Linux kernel) hypervisor using Virtual Machine Manager.
  • Choice of desktops: Linux Mint is available with a number of selective desktop environments, including the default Cinnamon desktop, MATE, KDE and Xfce. Other desktop environments can be installed via APT, Synaptic, or via the custom Mint Software Manager.
  • Active developer: Linux Mint actively develops software for its operating system.
  • Releases come "when ready": Linux Mint does not communicate specific release dates because new versions are published "when ready," meaning that they can be released early when the distribution is ahead of schedule or late when critical bugs are found. New releases are announced, with much other material, on the Linux Mint blog.

Who uses it: Small and midsize enterprises
How it works: on-premises and cloud service options
eWEEK score:  4.5/5.0

Ubuntu by Canonical

Isle of Wight, U.K.

Value proposition for potential buyers:  Ubuntu is a FOSS (free and open source) Linux distribution based on Debian Linux. It is officially released in three editions: Desktop, Server and Core (for internet of things devices and robots). Ubuntu has long been a popular server operating system for cloud computing and was an early supporter of OpenStack. Ubuntu's agile release cycle is set for a new or updated version every six months, with long-term support releases set for every two years. The latest release is Ubuntu 19.04 ("Disco Dingo"), and the most recent long-term support release is 18.04 LTS ("Bionic Beaver"), which is supported until 2028.

Ubuntu is developed by Canonical and the community under a meritocratic governance model. Canonical provides security updates and support for each Ubuntu release, starting from the release date and until the release reaches its designated end-of-life (EOL) date. Canonical earns revenue through the sale of premium enterprise services that optimize the operating system. It is named after the African philosophy of ubuntu, which Canonical translates as "humanity to others" or "I am what I am because of who we all are."

Key values/differentiators:

  • Software choices: The default FOSS installation of Ubuntu contains a wide range of software that includes LibreOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird (email) and Transmission.
  • Optional management tools: Additional software packages are made available from the built-in Ubuntu Software (previously Ubuntu Software Center) in addition to other APT-based package management tools.
  • Older apps will available: Many additional software packages that are no longer installed by default, such as Evolution, GIMP, Pidgin and Synaptic, are still accessible in the repositories enabled by the main tool or by any other APT-based package management tool.

Who uses it: Midsize to large enterprises
How it works: subscription cloud service and on-premises options
eWEEK score: 4.8/5.0

Read user reviews of Ubuntu by Canonical

Cray Linux Environment (formerly UNICOS)

Seattle, Wash.

Value proposition for potential buyers:  Cray Linux Environment is the name of a range of Unix-like operating system variants developed by Cray for its supercomputers. UNICOS was the successor of the Cray Operating System (COS). It provides network clustering and source code compatibility layers for some other Unixes. UNICOS was originally introduced in 1985 with the Cray-2 system and later ported to other Cray models. The original UNICOS was based on UNIX System V Release 2, and had numerous BSD features (e.g., networking and file system enhancements) added to it. The name was change to Cray Linux Environment  from release 2.1 onward.

Key values/differentiators:

  • High-speed and scale, always: Known strictly as a powerful operating system for supercomputers that operate at high speed and scale in performing bid-data-type production duties, such as human genomics, space travel and oil/gas exploration use cases.

Who uses it: Large enterprises, scientific applications
How it works: on-premises servers only
eWEEK score: 4.9/5.0

Other distros big in the market: Slackware,  Arch Linux, Mageia, Oracle Linux, Fedora, Debian Stable

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...