Linux has long been the most popular operating system for all kinds of servers, offering security, simplicity, and an open source model. The challenge is choosing which Linux distro to use. Unlike other operating systems, being open source means that there are many different versions of Linux, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Perhaps the two leading Linux distros for servers are CentOS and Ubuntu. Which one you choose will depend on the level of support you’re likely to require, the tools you need and have experience with, and a host of other factors. Here’s the Nimbus guide to the battle of CentOS vs Ubuntu, and what developers need to know to make the right choice for their servers.
Linux vs Windows Server vs MacOS Server
For non-developers – or those who simply haven’t delved too deeply into the topic – it might come as a surprise that Linux is the dominant server operating system. After all, Microsoft’s Windows OS has dominated the PC market for decades, and Apple’s MacOS has gained huge ground with the popularity of its consumer devices. It isn’t that these computing giants didn’t pursue the server market, with both offering server-specific operating systems (at least until recently in the case of Apple).
The main advantage Linux has over other server operating systems is a familiar one for any business: it’s cheap. Very cheap, in fact. Linux is a completely free and open source operating system, meaning that not only can you install and use it for free, but you can also modify it to your heart’s content without having to get permission. Compare this to a standard licence for Windows Server 2022, which costs around £900 per 16 CPU cores. That’s one-sixth of the number of cores in AMD’s new, top-of-the-line Epyc 9004 server processor.
There aren’t too many other differences between Linux and Windows for modern servers, and indeed some businesses will opt for Windows due to its cross-compatibility with Windows desktops, and useful tools such as Active Directory. Much of Linux’s modern dominance simply comes down to the familiarity developers and engineers now have with the architecture, from the inner workings of the OS to its GUI and command line. This popularity has led to a growing number of different tools and resources for Linux servers, including some which emulate the unique features of Windows.
If you’re wondering about MacOS, it’s something of a side note, and is often not even included in figures on OS uptake. Indeed, MacOS Server – Apple’s dedicated server operating system – ended development in 2022, with support soon to be discontinued. While some of its key features persist in the desktop operating system Big Sur, its play for a substantial piece of the server market has ended. The role of MacOS for servers is now largely limited to web servers and specialist software applications.
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What is CentOS?
CentOS is a Linux distribution derived from Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), an early commercial distro of Linux. CentOS is functionally compatible with RHEL but aimed to be more public, open and transparent in its development. Somewhat confusingly, CentOS may refer to either the original CentOS or the newer CentOS Stream, as both remain in active use.
Development on the original CentOS was discontinued in 2020, with several projects spun off in a bid to replace it. The official replacement is CentOS Stream, a new distro positioned upstream of RHEL (in other words, CentOS Stream will be updated first, and RHEL will follow). Other projects building on the old version of CentOS include Rocky Linux– led by CentOS founder Gregory Kurtzer– and AlmaLinux, a spiritual successor from commercial provider CloudLinux.
While the popular CentOS 7 will continue to be supported until June 2024, CentOS 8 had already reached end-of-life by the time CentOS Stream was released at the end of 2021. Anyone interested in adopting CentOS should look to CentOS Stream, which aims to serve the same audience as CentOS, and builds on the same codebase that ensures full compatibility with RHEL and other Red Hat distros.
What is Ubuntu?
Ubuntu is a Linux distribution developed by the British company Canonical. An extremely popular fork of the classic Linux distro Debian, Ubuntu is among the most widely installed Linux installations for users of all types over the past two decades. The name is derived from the Nguni philosophy of ubuntu, meaning “humanity to others”, a nod to founder Mark Shuttleworth’s South African heritage.
Ubuntu is released in three distinct versions: desktop, server, and core (for IoT devices and robots). Naturally, it’s the server version that we’re interested in! Since its first release in 2004, Ubuntu has maintained a six-month release schedule, with long-term support (LTS) releases every two years. Like all Linux distros, the OS itself is free, but Canonical does charge for some related services.
Ubuntu Server offers a 10-year lifecycle for peace of mind, and a high level of native support for common applications and drivers. As one of the most popular distros, Ubuntu also boasts an enviable client list, with businesses including Dell, Lenovo, IBM, Intel, and AMD all on the bandwagon. In short, if you’ve used Linux before, it was probably Ubuntu. But does this make it the automatic choice for your servers? Read on to find out, as we break down the three key advantages of Ubuntu and CentOS.
Advantages of CentOS Stream
Let’s start with CentOS. For the purposes of this piece, we’ll be discussing CentOS Stream, which is being actively developed and improved. Many of the same advantages may apply to CentOS 7, but with the obvious caveat that its end-of-life is approaching, and that no new features will be added. This makes it a less-than-ideal choice for anyone currently looking for a server operating system.
The advantages of CentOS vs Ubuntu include:
Compared to the biannual release schedule of Ubuntu, CentOS Stream aims for an LTS-only model, with updates only pushed after extensive testing. Although Ubuntu also offers LTS versions every two years for environments requiring a stable platform – with security updates guaranteed for five years – CentOS aims for a 10-year lifecycle. CentOS 8 adopters may feel this is a hollow promise (CentOS 8 support was dropped after a year in the switch to CentOS Stream), but it is designed with long-term support and stability as primary features.
- Commercial familiarity
CentOS is based on the RHEL distro, which has been in widespread commercial use since the turn of the millennium. While far from the most popular version of Linux – there are comparatively few Red Hat distros compared to Debian, which Ubuntu is based on – a lot of specialist knowledge is tied up in the unique language of Red Hat.
By adopting CentOS, you may be making life easier for any staff or service providers who are familiar with RHEL. CentOS also benefits greatly from its support for cPanel, a popular server and site management platform that most web developers are likely familiar with.
By virtue of being built for servers from the ground up – right back to its original codebase – as well as heavy testing and security patching, CentOS Stream is highly secure right out of the box. While Ubuntu can certainly be made secure, it often requires extensive configuration, and can suffer from its more frequent update cycle. This can make CentOS Stream a more common-sense pick for servers with particularly sensitive security requirements.
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Advantages of Ubuntu
Ubuntu benefits from its established popularity and name recognition, and this brings with it a range of advantages. While you’re getting a flexible and well-optimised OS with Ubuntu, you’re also benefiting from an enormous amount of support and expertise, both in terms of its feature set and the knowledge of staff and stakeholders.
The advantages of Ubuntu vs CentOS include:
Part of the reason Ubuntu is so widely used is that it’s user-friendly by nature. The GUI is extremely intuitive, sharing many features and design elements with MacOS and Windows. Linux novices might be a bit lost using it, at least out of the box, but it’s extremely easy to learn even if you come from a Red Hat background. The same cannot be said for CentOS, which has a somewhat steep learning curve.
- Technical support
As a more widely used distro, Ubuntu has significantly more coverage when it comes to resolving technical issues. Both communities are highly active, but Ubuntu’s is far larger, with more articles and support threads solving common problems. More IT companies also offer support for Ubuntu, including its developers Canonical, who provide a paid service. Ubuntu’s technical documentation is also more comprehensive than that of CentOS.
Ubuntu’s popularity also stems from the number of applications it supports, and the many different ways it can be used. As well as offering a library of 40,000 applications, Ubuntu is available as cloud images for easy deployment on AWS, Azure, and GCP servers. It’s also suitable for a wide range of devices. Ubuntu supports native and vGPU Nvidia drivers, Open SSL 3.0 cryptography, and almost every modern system architecture, from c86-64 to ARM to RISC-V and s390x .
CentOS vs Ubuntu: which is right for me?
There is one obvious purpose for which you might want to use CentOS: web hosting. CentOS supports cPanel, Webmin, DirectAdmin, and other management panels, and also offers the robust security features that web servers demand. The only caveat to this is the long wait for updates, which may prevent you from being as reactive as you’d like. The stability provided by the LTS model is also ideal for businesses that aren’t particularly keen on change.
Conversely, Ubuntu has an obvious home in cloud applications. Its dedicated images for popular public cloud solutions make it easy to deploy, and its containers allow for simple and efficient virtualisation. Cloud servers are often used to apply and take advantage of new technologies, such as new applications and frameworks, and this is something Ubuntu excels at. Such is its suitability for cloud computing that Ubuntu is the basis for Kubernetes, the Google-authored orchestration system and reference for all major public clouds.
Ultimately, which Linux distro you choose will depend on your personal requirements, and which aspects of the points above most resonate with you. Medium and large-sized businesses often favour CentOS due to its robustness, stability, and the availability of personnel with appropriate technical knowledge. Smaller businesses may find it easier to operate Ubuntu servers and benefit more from its ability to be reactive to changes in technology.