Once you’ve chosen your server’s operating system – usually between Windows and Linux – you’ll need to decide what version you want to use. For Linux, each version comes in the form of distributions (or distros).
If you’re already familiar with one Linux distro, you’re likely going to keep using it. But if you’re just getting started in the world of Linux, there are some key differences between the Linux distros (Debian, Ubuntu, and CentOS).
What is Debian?
Available since 1993, Debian was one of the first Linux distributions and had a 17% market share of Linux web servers in April 2020.
Stable Debian releases are unscheduled but tend to be about once every two years. As a result of this large gap between releases, Debian can be seen as being quite slow to introduce new technology. This means that out of the box, a Debian Linux distro might not include some of the latest software releases and technologies.
The Debian Project offers security support for stable releases until one year after the next stable release. Debian 9 was released in June 2017, which meant that security support for Debian 8 ended in June 2018. And Debian 8 was released in April 2015, so effectively it’s about three years.
On top of the security support, long-term support (LTS) is offered for five years after the initial release date for newer releases.
One benefit of these longer release schedules is that it gives extra time for testing before release. As such, Debian is considered to be a more stable Linux distro than many others. This makes it a good choice for enterprises because there is less overhead caused by bugs in the release. It also gives time to patch security vulnerabilities, so the releases tend to be more secure than those from other Linux distributions.
Debian 10 comes with around 59,000 software packages, so there is plenty to get going with. However, you can configure it to add some extra software packages if you need. Unlike some other Linux distros, Debian doesn’t offer a paid marketplace for packages – almost all of the available software packages are free. Independent vendors are able to create paid packages, though.
Although it’s been around longer, the Debian community is smaller than Ubuntu’s. However, it's made up of more technical users due to Debian’s relative complexity. Debian has a number of active user forums, a resource centre, and a large number of volunteers that help support its commitment to free software.
The Debian Linux distro is generally considered to be more suitable for Linux experts than beginners. It assumes a level of knowledge of Linux development from the get-go, with the installer giving the user a higher degree of control and customisation over its configuration.
This is great for more knowledgeable users as it gives them a more customised experience. This does mean that it can leave newer users feeling overwhelmed which is why the Linux Debian user base is more technical.
How to install Debian
Before you can start using Debian, you’ll need to correctly install it. This can be achieved by:
- First, downloading the Debian file to a USB.
- Boot the file from your USB. An options display should appear, with the option ‘Graphical Debian Installer’ – click this.
- Confirm language, keyboard, and location settings to suit your preferences.
- Give your Debian operating software a name to make identification simpler.
- Create a user and password account and follow the on-screen instructions.
- In the next step you are asked whether you want to be guided through disk partitioning. This is recommended if you’re a beginner – simply follow the on-screen instructions. If you feel confident enough to partition manually, feel free to select this option instead.
- If your system is connected to the internet, you can configure the package manager. Select ‘Yes’ when asked if you want to use a network mirror.
- You’ve successfully installed Debian!
What is Ubuntu?
The first version of Ubuntu, Ubuntu 4.04, was released in October 2004 as a fork of Debian. With a 39.6% market share in April 2020, it has overtaken Debian as the world’s most popular Linux distribution. The latest version is 18.04, and version 20.04 is just around the corner. There are three official editions of Ubuntu:
- Desktop: this can be installed on a normal desktop computer to act as a typical operating system. It contains a graphical user interface (GUI) and comes packaged with common programs such as word processing and video playing software.
- Server: this is a stripped-down version of Ubuntu for use on small or enterprise-scale servers. This version uses only a command-line interface and comes with applications for email and web servers.
- Core: this is a security-focused version of Ubuntu made specifically for IoT (Internet of Things) devices.
For the benefit of this blog, we’ll be focussing on Ubuntu desktop.
New versions of Ubuntu are released every six months – almost always in April and October. The version numbers represent the year (20) and the month (i.e. April = 04) of release. This release period being a quarter of Debian’s means that Ubuntu gets new and updated software quicker than Debian does. But it does mean it misses out on the long test period that Debian benefits from.
Starting with Ubuntu 6.06, every fourth version of Ubuntu is a designated long-term support (LTS) release. LTS releases are fully supported for five years, whereas non-LTS releases are only supported for around nine months. The latest LTS release, Ubuntu 16.04 will be supported until 2021.
Because of the shorter release cycles, when compared to Debian and CentOS, Ubuntu releases are less stable. The sacrifice on stability for quicker releases makes Ubuntu less suited to enterprises who value low-risk releases, but more suited to individual users who want more up-to-date packages.
Because Ubuntu is based on Debian, most software packages are usable on both distros, but sometimes a little bit of work is required to make them fully compatible. Unlike Debian however, Ubuntu offers free and proprietary software. According to this list, there are over 75,000 software packages available on the latest release of Ubuntu.
As Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution, it’s also the one with the most community support. The Ubuntu community is very active and provides help, support and tutorials on forums, in community hubs, and within smaller teams. This helps to make Ubuntu suitable for beginners with its large community willing to offer support and help solve problems.
The default Ubuntu installation is easier and better for beginners compared to other Linux distros. The graphical installation interface is more intuitive than a command-line interface and can be installed using pre-existing settings for straightforward setup. But Ubuntu does also offer an ‘Expert Mode’ installation, which is similar to Debian’s, and allows for more customisation and configuration if required.
How to install Ubuntu
Before you get to grips with how to use Ubuntu, you’ll need to go through installation. We’ve outlined a basic step-by-step detailing how to install Ubuntu:
- The first step is to actually download the Ubuntu software. It will be roughly 2GB and you should extract the download onto a USB.
- You’ll need to create what’s called a ‘live USB’. This allows you to boot Ubuntu from your memory stick. There are several free tools online to help you execute this process i.e. Etcher, Rufus, UNetbootin.
- Once you’ve created your ‘live USB’, you should plug it into your computer. Restart your system and press F2, F10, or F12 when the manufacturer’s logo appears to access the BIOS settings.
- Change the boot order and put USB at the top. Save the changes and exit.
- Boot up the Ubuntu setting and follow the on-screen instructions to install distro.
Installation is only the first step and it’s important that you also know how to update Ubuntu. The simplest option is to update via the command line, which involves logging into your Ubuntu terminal.
Then, enter the command 'sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade -y'. When prompted, enter your password and the update will then happen automatically.
How to uninstall Ubuntu
Uninstalling Ubuntu is far simpler than the installation process. It only requires you to boot your Windows display and enter your device’s control panel. From here, select 'programs and features' and click uninstall. It should be as straightforward as that.
What is CentOS?
Similar to how Ubuntu is forked from Debian, CentOS is based on the open source code of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), and provides an enterprise-grade operating system for free. The first version of CentOS, CentOS 2 (named as such because it’s based on RHEL 2.0) was released in 2004.
We’ve outlined a comparison between CentOS and the other two major distros Debian and Ubuntu in terms of release scheduling:
Debian vs CentOS: CentOS releases are more sporadic than those of Debian.
Ubuntu vs CentOS: CentOS releases are far less frequent than Ubuntu.
The last five major releases were 2019, 2014, 2011, 2007 and 2005, so there isn’t a pattern to them beyond every 2-5 years. There are, however, more frequent minor version releases.
All major versions since CentOS 5 receive maintenance updates for 10 years and full updates for (about) six years. These updates follow the Red Hat Enterprise Linux support life cycle.
Only truly stable versions of CentOS are released, which is partly why they sometimes take so long – some versions require more testing than others to get to a stable state. The years between releases ensure plenty of time for thorough testing. Plus any security fixes are backported into older versions of CentOS for any vulnerabilities discovered when building the new version. This makes CentOS another good choice for enterprises.
With a 16.8% market share, the CentOS user base is smaller than Ubuntu’s. And as it’s aimed at enterprises, there’s less scope for entry-level users to pick it up. There are existing and active community forums, but these are not official and exist separately. It’s therefore more difficult to find online tutorials and support.
The lack of community support and its slightly harder installation makes CentOS tricky to pick up for Linux beginners. Instead, because it’s based on the enterprise-grade RHEL, CentOS is usually preferred by businesses and web agencies who are already familiar with Linux distros.
Debian vs Ubuntu vs CentOS
Although there are differences between the Linux distros, it mainly comes down to personal preference. There is not an overall ‘best Linux distro’. It’s all just opinion and circumstances:
- Ubuntu is probably better for Linux beginners because it’s easier to set up and use.
- Debian is probably better for experienced users who want full control.
- CentOS is probably better for businesses who want a more stable and secure Linux distro.
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