How to choose the right Linux distro

CentOS 6, CentOS 7, Fedora or Ubuntu?

GoDaddy offers four Linux distros (distributions) for hosted and virtual private server plans: CentOS 6, CentOS 7, Fedora and Ubuntu. There are also three ways to deploy Linux on those servers: Self Managed, Managed and Fully Managed. Picking the right server configuration and the right Linux distro is not a trivial task because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. To make a good choice, look at what’s required from the server, as well as the Linux expertise available to you to manage that server.

If the application requires only a simple Linux server, with Apache, MySQL, PHP/PERL/Python (LAMP) stack server for light use — such as hosting a low-volume and fairly simple website — a Virtual Private Server (VPS) might be all that is required. If, on the other hand, the goal is to run sophisticated business software in the cloud, you’ll want to explore a Dedicated Server with all the RAM, storage and broadband trimmings.

Linux distro considerations

How are you going to deploy the Linux server: Self Managed, Managed or Fully Managed? (Here’s a grid that lays out the three options.) Let’s break it down.

Fully Managed

The easiest way to deploy Linux is to select the Fully Managed option and let GoDaddy worry about the details. You will be asked to specify only a few parameters, and GoDaddy will take care of the rest. With this option, CentOS 6 will be the Linux distro, and GoDaddy provides cPanel, a browser-based control panel for most day-to-day administration. You won’t need to use Linux shell commands and the like though very often, if ever.

Managed

By contrast, if you like Linux and have some experience administering it, the Managed option is probably best. With this, it’s your responsibility to keep your server up and running. This plan is also based on CentOS 6 and uses cPanel for most of the administrative work.

Self Managed

Administrators who have extensive Linux experience or wish to customize the server should choose the Self-Managed selection. Unlike with Fully Managed and Managed server plans, for Self Managed servers GoDaddy offers a choice of Linux distros. With a Self Managed server, you will do all the configuration and management yourself with shell and a secure network connection such as Secure Shell (ssh). GoDaddy advises, “Command-line only for hardcore server pros.” They’ve got that right.

Nailing down the Linux choices

CentOS 6 vs. CentOS 7

If you know or prefer Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) or CentOS, then CentOS is the best choice. Unlike the full-fledged RHEL — which is meant for companies that need high-level technical support for Linux professionals, as well as device and staff certification — CentOS is a RHEL-like distro for smaller businesses. CentOS 6 is based on RHEL 6, while CentOS 7 is based, as you might guess, on RHEL 7.

Between the two varieties of CentOS there are five significant differences. Here’s what CentOS 7 adds:

  • Docker support, for using containers
  • systemd, the controversial init replacement
  • Performance Co-Pilot, a set of real-time frameworks and services for recording and monitoring system performance
  • OpenLMI, a standard remote application programming interface (API)
  • XFS as the default file system

Note: Docker has specific kernel requirements – please check to make sure your particular server platform meets the Docker requirements.

If you’re moving from a CentOS 6 server to CentOS 7, be aware that there’s no easy way to migrate to XFS from other Linux file systems, such as ext4 or btrfs. Instead, the best path is to back up and restore the server.

Unless you need one of CentOS 7’s new features, stick with CentOS 6. It has a long, proven track record.

Fedora

What about Fedora? Choose it for access to the fastest and newest tools. Fedora is only for Linux experts who feel comfortable using cutting-edge software. Unlike CentOS or Ubuntu, which are both as stable as bedrock, Fedora is designed by programmers for programmers, which makes it both more flexible and less stable.

Ubuntu

Say your Linux experience isn’t with the RHEL family, which includes both CentOS and Fedora, but with the Debian/Ubuntu linage instead. Ubuntu should be your first choice to leverage your Ubuntu expertise.

All summed up

  • New to Linux or wanting to spend minimal time on server administration: Fully Managed CentOS 6
  • Some Linux expertise or on a budget: Managed CentOS 6
  • Experience with the RHEL family: Self-Managed CentOS 6
  • Require containers or OpenLMI: Self-Managed CentOS 7
  • Experience with Debian or Ubuntu: Self-Managed Ubuntu
  • Really, really, really savvy Linux expert who wants to live on the edge: Self-Managed Fedora

Image by: jaci XIII via Compfight cc

Steven Vaughan-Nichols
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (aka sjvn) has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system, 300bps was a fast Internet connection, WordStar was the state of the art word processor, and we liked it. His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications (IEEE Computer, ACM NetWorker, Byte) to business publications (eWEEK, InformationWeek, ZDNet) to popular technology (Computer Shopper, PC Magazine, PC World) to the mainstream press (Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, BusinessWeek).