The Best Linux Distros for Experienced Developers

Renana Dar
Renana Dar / Nov 10 2021
The Best Linux Distros for Experienced Developers

Before diving into the best Linux distros, let’s review some history. As of 2021, the Linux operating system is 30 years old and has come a long way since its inception as a personal project by developer Linus Torvalds. When it was initially released, the source code was distributed for users to compile on their own. Shortly thereafter, it was distributed as a pair of floppy disk images that included both a bootable version and a set of tools used to set up and configure the file system. Given that the process was somewhat complex, different distributions were created to make it easier, and these were the early beginnings of the Linux distro universe.

Among the earliest distros was the Softlanding Linux System (SLS), which was released in 1992. Because it was not well maintained, it was superseded by the Slackware distro, which was started in 1993 at the same time as the still popular Debian distro. To date, there have been several hundred distros, and many are still being actively developed.

People familiar with IT news have probably heard of popular distros such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Ubuntu, which are commercially backed. Similarly, Debian is an oft-discussed Linux distro, and it is entirely community-driven. Some distros need to be installed on the computer, whereas other “live” distros can boot from a USB drive or other removable media.

What Makes Distros Distinct?

Given the plethora of distros, it is worthwhile to start with what makes them the same. Common to all, or at least the majority, is a Linux kernel, a windowing system, a desktop environment, and myriad software applications to tackle a variety of tasks. What makes a distro worthwhile is often the target market. One might ask questions such as:

  • What is the best Linux distro for 2021?
  • What is the best Linux distro for gaming?
  • What is the best Linux distro for programming?
  • What is the best Linux distro for Enterprises?
  • What is the best Linux distro for near-realtime?
  • What is the most popular Linux distro?

All of these are good questions and indeed, when it comes to reasons for choosing one distro over another, God is in the detail. What makes distros distinct is that each one is fine-tuned for a specific purpose. Linux distro authors typically change the GUI, add their own mix of applications that best suit the intended use, and focus on a specific set of features to best fit whatever niche they are working to satisfy. In reality, there is no single distribution that is good for everybody, but it’s safe to say that everybody has their favorite.

Why Is Choosing a Distro Important?

Linux distros vary considerably in terms of performance, stability, user experience, ease of installation and configuration, application availability and support, support for hardware, availability on specific architectures, and more. Your choice of distro, or distros for that matter, can depend largely on what you want to do, and how you want to do it. Briefly looking at two of these components, let’s consider OS stability and the availability of software.

Stability Versus Continuous Enhancement

Given that there are many hundreds of distros, as an experienced software developer, figuring out which are the best ones is a daunting task. One of the tradeoffs between distributions is having the latest features versus stability. Some distros, such as RHEL, are very much concerned with running a bulletproof OS, with updates that constantly improve security and the overall robustness. This is in contrast to others that tend to be more bleeding edge, also known as a rolling distribution, where shortly after each patch is released, you have another patch to patch the patch. You get the idea.

From a developer’s perspective, a stable distro is what they will choose for products that they intend to support for several years. Security updates are preferred to new features in cases like this because the squashing of bugs is infinitely better than the chance of introducing them. On the other hand, for developers that are looking to the future, there is a definite downside to hardcore stability. They are missing out on the latest and greatest. Developers working on products under continuous integration are more likely to use rolling distributions because the evolution is constant, and they have the infrastructure in place to keep up with it.

Availability of Software

Another important difference between distros is the available software. Setting up a browser like Chrome or Firefox is one thing but as a developer, you may want to run an IDE like Eclipse, or perhaps a simpler editor like Vim, Atom, or Sublime. Depending on the distro, software packages come pre-installed or are available in the related software repository.

Some distros are lightweight and ship with little pre-installed software, whereas others are set up such that people can jump right in and get to work on their daily tasks. In either case, installing additional software is normally not too difficult. Certain distros have package managers that make downloading and installing software quick and painless.

Why Do Some People Change Distros?

Whether somebody is comfortable with their distro or not, there are several reasons that somebody might opt to hop onto another one. Although there are users that pick a distro and stick with it, there are others who engage in distro-hopping. Some are simply bored with their distro and want to see what else is out there, whereas others have more definite plans in mind.

Referring back to our talk on stability, sometimes a distro is just too focused on new features, and consequently, one spends an overabundance of time testing and tweaking when something suddenly breaks. When you’re maintaining software long-term, it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. On the other end of the scale, if your distro has a lengthy release cycle then forget about making use of the latest GUI enhancements because you’ll be more concerned about the long-awaited security patches that everybody else is already running.

When it comes to the availability of software, it isn’t just having a large number of supported applications; the package management system counts. Some distros make it difficult to install certain packages, whereas, with others, the installation of new software is quick and easy.

At times, somebody is forced to move on because their distro doesn’t support the architecture that they are moving to for the next big project, or perhaps it uses closed-source drivers for the purely open-source application that you’re putting together. On that note, maybe it doesn’t support your hardware at all, which can be a non-starter if it’s compatible elsewhere.

Finally, it may simply be that your distro has no support. Whether support is commercially available or relies heavily on the community, certain distros are better than others. If you can’t get the support that you need, then questions you have might stall development, and this can cost you in more ways than one.

Regardless of the reason, people do switch distros and in fact, many people run multiple distros on the same box, for any of the above reasons. For additional information on the differences between distros,  distrowatch.com has details that include everything from news to reviews to statistics.

Our List of Best Linux Distros

Of the hundreds of Linux distributions in use today, our list includes the ones that we found best for both general use and in particular, for developers. Whether you choose one and stick with it, switch it up, or even choose to play the field with many at once, is entirely up to you. The best we can do is point you to what we think is most relevant.

Ubuntu

best linux distros - Ubuntu

History and Description

Ubuntu Linux is a complete Linux system that was initially released in 2004 and is made up primarily of free and open-source software. It is based on Debian and is commercially backed by Canonical Ltd, providing on top of the free Ubuntu distribution, additional commercial support, and advanced software packages. Ubuntu has a modern look and feel and is often described as the most user-friendly distro, as well as one of the best for getting started with Linux.

Ubuntu has three official editions including Desktop, Server, and Core. The Core edition is generally used for IoT devices.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Ubuntu is a stable distro that is being actively developed and supported. There are stable, long-term (LTS) releases every two years, with update releases every six months.

Why is it recommended for developers?

Ubunto is good for developers for several reasons but primarily because of the various libraries, examples, and tutorials that are included. It also provides a consistent look and feel, across platforms, and has good support for machine learning and artificial intelligence platforms. Ubuntu is the first choice for popular frameworks such as TensorFlow.

Ubuntu has a variety of programming languages, IDEs, editors, and development tools available. The Snapcraft tool, for example, simplifies the packaging process.

Finally, Ubuntu features the Snap Store, which is an important tool for developers to release either free or paid apps.

Advantages

Ubuntu uses the GNOME desktop and provides a lightweight user experience. It has a large and active community, and it’s a good choice if you really don’t know or don’t care about individual distros but rather, are just trying to get away from Windows or macOS.

There are lots of preinstalled applications and the Ubuntu app store has enough software available to accommodate basic to advanced users.

It is noteworthy that many other distros are built on Ubunto.

Arch Linux

Arch Linux

History and Description

Arch Linux is one of the favored distros for Linux power users that want full control over their OS. It was initially released in 2002 and is intended for computers with x86-64 processors. It is a more advanced distro, in part because the installation is difficult for beginners. In fact, if you’re new to Linux and are trying to choose a distro, then Arch is probably not the choice for you. That said, it is still a good distro for developers.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Arch Linux made our list because of its appeal to diehard Linux enthusiasts. Its extensive, albeit complex, configuration options offer full control over the operating system. From installation to management, the user is in charge of it all. This includes choosing the desktop, components, and what services you’ll need in your day-to-day tasks.

Why is it recommended for developers?

Arch Linux is a good choice for programming because of the control that it offers. It releases kernel updates in a rolling fashion and is always up to date. The same is true for software repositories. This means that it consistently offers the latest in features and tools, including IDEs, editors, languages, and compilers.

Advantages

Arch Linux only needs to be installed once. Beyond that, everything is kept up to date in the rolling release, and the pacman package manager helps with maintenance. It facilitates package management, whether applications originate from the official repositories or the user’s personal builds.

Manjaro

Manjaro

History and Description

Manjaro is based on Arch Linux and bills itself as a professionally-made operating system that is a suitable replacement for both Windows and macOS. It was originally released in 2011.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Majara is the #1 Arch distribution if you’re just starting with Linux. It is cutting-edge, yet stable, and offers users an accessible and friendly interface. Users describe it as a good distro to use if you’re coming from Windows 10.

Why is it recommended for developers?

We recommend this for developers because it is simple to use and has many programmer-friendly features. Of the Arch Linux-based distros, Manjaro is one of the easiest to customize and use, allowing you to set up your dev environment the way you want.

The package manager makes it easy to install developer tools such as IDEs and editors, and the settings manager allows you to install any Linux kernel.

Manjaro offers full control over your hardware, making it ideal for development environments.

Advantages

The advantages include high performance, as it runs well on both desktops and laptops. It features power management software that makes it best-in-class for power. It has a flexible layout and is well-supported by a good community. The Arch repositories have a very large collection of software available, including equivalents to popular Windows applications.

Debian GNU

Debian GNU

History and Description

Debian Linux is the base of literally hundreds of Linux distributions, not the least of which is Ubuntu. The popularity of Debian implies that you’re working with a stable and high-performing operating system, with a large community, and plenty of applications. One of the oldest still active distributions, it was released in 1993.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Debian is a well-tested and mature distribution that is used by many people, including developers, in their day-to-day tasks. No list of programmer-friendly distros would be complete without it.

Why is it recommended for developers?

Debian is sometimes referred to as a developer’s operating system because of the extensive set of available tools. It is not as easy to use for beginner programmers, who may be more comfortable with Ubuntu, but it is highly recommended for intermediate and advanced developers.

Advantages

Debian is an extremely popular distro with a very large and active community. It is suitable for a production environment and there is no shortage of applications or support available. This is a distro that is comfortable for users from beginners to advanced.

openSUSE

openSUSE

History and Description

openSUSE is a stable and multipurpose Linux distro that ships with a variety of tools. Initially released in 2005, it is a community-driven project that has a rolling release period of approximately one year.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

This distro is an example of where the community is in full control. It has excellent package management capabilities with many good applications and tools available for a variety of tasks.

Why is it recommended for developers?

openSUSE has a great many tools available to assist developers with programming in C, C++, Java, Python, and other languages. It is a distro that is fine-tuned for developers has an active community for those who need help.

Advantages

One of the main advantages of openSUSE it’s the package management system, YaST. It is quick and easy to install packages from the large repository, and with its rolling release schedule, users can choose between stability and bleeding-edge as they see fit.

Red Hat

Red Hat

History and Description

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a stable, Enterprise-grade operating system that is developed by Red Hat for commercial distribution. Red Hat is an active contributor to the Linux kernel, as well as for related tools in the open-source community. Initially released in 2000, it powers servers, mainframes, supercomputers, and workstations.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

RHEL is a secure operating system that counts on robustness as a pillar. Indeed, Red Hat lists “boring” as a feature in part because of its rock-solid stability. It is also particularly developer-friendly.

Why is it recommended for developers?

Developers have a special place when it comes to RHEL. The no-charge Red Had Developer membership gives developers access to RHEL at no cost, and there are plenty of tools to help get the job of programming done. Developers also get access to the Red Hat Customer Portal, which has plenty of information and documentation to best support your efforts.

Advantages

As a commercial product relied upon by Enterprises, RHEL maybe not sport the latest features teetering on the bleeding edge, but without question it is stable. When your clients are large organizations that rely on stability in their projects, RHEL is the distro of choice.

Fedora

Fedora

History and Description

Fedora is the Linux distro that is used by the creator, Linus Torvalds. Initially released in 2003, it was created for developers and hobbyists, and thus is a developer-centric distro. That said, it is powerful, user-friendly, and is suitable for use by students as well as those in a corporate environment.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Not only was this distro originally for developers, but certainly worthy of mention given that this is the distro that the creator has been known to use on his workstation.

Why is it recommended for developers?

The Fedora Developer Portal states that it is easy to develop software for mobile devices and desktops, from mobile applications to GUIs and CLI tools. It has support for many programming languages including development tools for .NET, C, Elixir, Go, Haskell, Java, Node.js, OCaml, Perl, PHP, Python, R, Ruby, and Rust.

There is also support for a variety of databases, and there is access to myriad tools and utilities. It has virtualization support, which allows developers to test the applications on a variety of platforms. Finally, it has built-in support for the Open Container Initiative (OCI), making deploying containerized applications a straightforward process.

Advantages

Fedora uses the GNOME 3 desktop, which is simple to use and minimizes distractions. The simplicity of the user interface makes it usable by beginners and advanced users alike. The developers are receptive to suggestions made by the community, making it easy to report issues that you encounter.

Fedora is bleeding edge and is often the first distro to present you with the next best features and tools. It also has fantastic support for hardware including printers, scanners, and cameras, meaning that users don’t have to spend time searching the internet for vendor-specific drivers.

Elementary OS

Elementary OS

History and Description

Elementary OS is sometimes referred to as a distro for Windows and macOS users. It is based on Ubuntu and it runs well on hardware with limited resources, including Chromebooks. Originally released in 2011, it was a theme and application set for Ubuntu. However, it has evolved into its own distro, inheriting Ubunto’s software center for package management.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

This distro is arguably one of the best looking around. However, it should not be lost that it is based on Ubuntu, which is one of the best distros for software development. Elementary OS makes our list because of its fine balance between programmer-friendliness and a fancy, macOS-like interface.

Why is it recommended for developers?

As it is based on Ubuntu, Elementary OS is a good platform for development. At a minimum, it is as good as any other Linux distro on this branch. However, as it provides an improved user experience for Windows and macOS users, in our opinion, the same extends to the programming experience.

Elementary OS has many tools available for developers but one that is worthy of mention is the editor, simply named Code. It is somewhat similar to GNOME’s Gedit, albeit better maintained. Code is not highly customizable by default but can be expanded using its plugin system. While Code doesn’t satisfy every programmer and their needs, Elementary OS nevertheless makes a good development platform.

Advantages

Elementary OS is known for having a simple user interface with nice themes and wallpaper. It is one of the easiest distros for newcomers to Linux and notably one of the easiest for macOS users to adapt to. It is quite similar to macOS Mavericks. Little customization is possible compared to other distros but this is one of the things that makes it elementary.

This OS can be tried without having to install it, meaning no changes have to be made to the computer to test it out.

Pop!_OS

Pop!_OS

History and Description

Pop!_OS was developed by System76 and was initially released in 2017. It is described as an easy distro to set up for gaming but is well-recognized as being a favorite among programmers. It is based on Ubuntu and ships with its own desktop theme, build on the GNOME desktop.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

This distro is known for being developer-friendly and although it is not community-driven, programmers are allowed to view the source code and make contributions to the project.

Why is it recommended for developers?

As it is based on Ubuntu, Pop!_OS has a solid foundation for developers. It offers a range of tools and libraries, even including support for deep learning technologies such as TensorFlow with CUDA.

Advantages

System76 describes Pop!_OS as an operating system for STEM and creative professionals. It offers development toolkits and has support for several deep learning, engineering, media production, and bioinformatics platforms. It is secure, well maintained, and unquestionably worth having a look at.

Kali Linux

Kali Linux

History and Description

Kali Linux was created by Offensive Security in 2013 and is one of the tools used by ethical hackers for penetration testing. A Debian-based distro that is focused on the security industry, Offensive Security describes it as a robust, enterprise-ready penetration testing distro, and they suggest downloading it to test the security of your networks.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

Kali Linux is not for Linux newbies and while it wasn’t specifically designed for developers, it installs with a multitude of security testing tools, which makes it good for programming. Some web developers, for example, do their work with Kali Linux because it has the testing tools built in.

Why is it recommended for developers?

As Kali Linux is based on Debian, all of the helpful IDEs and other development tools can also be used. It is not for the beginner but comes with a variety of tools that are helpful for both development and testing.

Advantages

Kali Linux runs well on low-powered devices, such as the Raspberry Pi.

Raspbian

Raspbian

History and Description

Raspbian is a Linux distro that is based on Debian; it is optimized to run on the Raspberry Pi hardware. Originally released in 2012, it is still under active development with aims to improve the stability and performance of extant Debian packages.

Why did it make our list of best Linux distros?

This distribution is worthy of mention primarily because of the hardware that it runs on. It is lightweight and portable and is great for students, as well as others on the go.

Why is it recommended for developers?

We recommend this for developers, in particular students, because of its portability. Essentially, you can have a full programming environment in your pocket, and it has plenty of development tools available to support you.

One example of a good development tool for Raspbian is Thonny, which is a self-proclaimed Python IDE for beginners. This Python IDE is easy to install and the default interface is extremely simple. That said,  with some configuration and tweaking, it supports many modern-day programming and debugging features.

Advantages

While this distro is not the most commonly used for software development, it is indeed often used as a teaching tool. It is lightweight and stable, while also under active development. Apps can be installed easily from the built-in app store and these include plenty of development tools to get you started.

Summing It Up

There are many hundreds of Linux distributions on the market today. Depending on what you’re doing, different distros will be more or less helpful to you. If you have spare time on your hands, perhaps you want to know what the best Linux distro is for gaming is. If you’re new to Linux then perhaps you want to find the best Linux distro for 2021 or the most popular Linux distro on the market. However, as an experienced developer, you’re probably most interested to know what the best Linux distro for programming is.

Without question, there are some good choices! At the top of our list is Ubuntu, which also gets credit because of the number of good distros that are based on it. That said, if a particular interface or look and feel is more what you’re after, or a miniature form factor like the Raspberry Pi, then there are good programming distros for you, too!

As a final word, it’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with trying a distro and judging for yourself. In fact, why not try several? You’re the developer, and you’re in control.

 

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Renana Dar

Renana, Incredibuild’s content marketing manager, is a data-oriented marketing professional, with over 12 years of experience in high tech, marketing, and communications. Renana specializes in building content operations from the ground up.