Linux is often considered the operating system of choice for developers and programmers. Programming and development often happen in an advanced, command-line environment, so it only makes sense that programmers and developers would prefer the user interface that makes the most sense to them.

But among Linux systems, there are a lot of distributions. Which distributions are best for a programmer?

Person looking at computer screen

What is a Linux Distribution?

Linux itself isn’t an operating system. It’s a type of operating system, based on Unix. Linux refers to the “engine” of the operating system. Linux operating systems have a lot in common. Most developers can move seamlessly from distro to distro because all the commands will be virtually identical. 

Distributions differ in the packages included (utilities), their desktop environments (command-line or graphical), their default support for programming tools and programming languages, their customer support, their user experience, and their release cycle. You can manage utilities through the package manager, but often it is easier to start with a system that has everything you need — and not all distros will be compatible with all packages. Unlike Windows, Linux distros are often made for command-line operation, which lends itself well to programming. 

With that in mind, here are the top 14 Linux distros for programmers.

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1. Arch Linux

Arch Linux has been around since 2002, but here’s the bottom line: It’s great for advanced developers and not so great for beginners. The principal advantage of Arch Linux is that it has an extremely customized installation process. But that’s also its downfall; if you don’t know about Linux, it’s fairly easy to miss something important.

If you are a Linux power user, Arch Linux is great. With Arch Linux, you get nothing that you don’t want. It’s lightweight, free of bloatware, and easy to customize, with a robust community and user repository.

If you’re not a Linux power user, there are distros that are built on top of Arch Linux that are a little easier to use, such as Manjaro Linux.

2. CentOS

CentOS provides both a command-line interface and a GUI. Advantages to CentOS include having a lot of development packages, having excellent third-party compatibility, and being extremely lightweight. 

CentOS can be stripped down to the bare essentials for better performance, making it an ideal dev machine for resource-intensive processes. This is where the type of development you want to do will impact the system that’s best for you.

The downsides to CentOS really have to do with its pros: it’s so stable that it doesn’t include support for newer packages or anything experimental or “in development.” It’s also challenging to initially learn and isn’t intended for beginners.

3. Debian GNU/Linux

Debian is one of the most popular Linux distributions. If you have a machine with Linux installed in a school or business, it’s probably Debian. It’s easy to install but also easy to customize. It’s robust for both advanced users and beginners. It likely has the largest number of installed packages available. It can do anything.

That said, like CentOS, its stability comes at a price; it may not always have the newest, coolest, or bleeding-edge tools because it puts stability foremost. The tools installed on Debian have to be free and open-source, so you won’t see commercial products (such as Flash) on the system.

Debian is one of the best all-around Linux distributions. But for a dev setup and for programming specifically, it may be a little too heavyweight.

4. Elementary OS

Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu. It’s known for being simple, user-friendly, and direct. It has an excellent, streamlined user interface, it’s lightweight, and it’s fast. Elementary OS is one of the best solutions for programmers who are coming out of a Mac OS environment as the operating system is very simple.

Elementary OS has the advantages of the Ubuntu framework. It has a dedicated StackExchange site, and it’s perfect for programmers who just want to dive in. Not every developer wants to customize all the intricacies of their OS. The downside is that it does have a slow development cycle, there aren’t a lot of packages, and you can’t customize much of your user interface.

5. Fedora Workstation

Also known as Red Hat, Fedora is one of the few commercially-backed Linux distributions. Fedora is highly secure and frequently updated. It offers a lot of features, it’s actively developed, and it has a very large community. It has an easy-to-use GUI and is ideal for developers who want access to best-in-class functionality. It is frequently compared to an old standard, Ubuntu.

It can be difficult to set up. It’s more difficult to customize. Systems such as Arch Linux have rolling releases; Fedora is actively developed, but it doesn’t have a rolling release schedule. 

6. Kali Linux

Kali Linux is often touted as the “hacker’s Linux.” It’s used by security professionals, networking professionals, and — of course — professional white hat hackers. Kali has built-in applications for the performance of penetration tests, war-driving, and other security-focused tasks. But that’s also what makes it superb for advanced programmers.

That said, Kali Linux is terrible for general purpose work because it doesn’t include most of the tools and functionality that are needed for everyday operations. That makes Kali Linux perfect for advanced programmers but not ideal for beginning developers or developers who want a multi-purpose machine.

7. Manjaro Linux

Manjaro Linux is a distribution based on Arch Linux. You’ll find that many popular distributions are based on other distributions. That’s the Linux ethos; if you don’t like it, fix it!

It’s user-friendly. Plus, it has access to Arch Linux repositories and the Arch Linux community. Like Arch Linux, it has rolling updates and is lightweight; unlike Arch Linux, it’s easy to install and configure.

Because Manjaro Linux is built on top of Arch Linux, it builds its stability by holding back additions to Arch Linux by a week or two. This does provide stability. But ultimately, Manjaro Linux is a distribution for those having issues installing Arch Linux.

8. openSUSE

openSUSE is well-known for being one of the easiest Linux distributions to install, configure, and maintain. It’s extremely user-friendly. It has a command-line interface and a graphic interface. Its GUI is very similar to Windows or similar operating systems. It’s well-supported and well-documented.

openSUSE is one of the oldest Linux distributions, and there are many distros influenced by it. But what it gains in stability and documentation, it potentially loses in other aspects. It no longer has a very active community, and it’s not very experimental or bleeding-edge.

9. Pop!_OS

Pop OS is an operating system that’s built on Ubuntu. As an Ubuntu-based operating system, it shares a lot with Ubuntu, both in terms of pros and cons. 

First, it’s attractive and user-friendly. If you’re a front-end programmer or developer, you’ll enjoy its architecture. It’s optimized, and it’s gamer-friendly. So, that’s an added bonus for game developers. It’s only 64-bit, but that will not hold most people back.

It is not minimalist; it does include bloatware, so it can’t be considered a lightweight installation. It has less community support and documentation than vanilla Ubuntu, but the major issue may be that it’s not as easy to customize.

10. Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux is an operating system that runs entirely on RAM. It’s hard to get more lightweight than that. This portable system has very low requirements. It’s designed so that it can run on a USB or a CD, making for a portable development environment.

Understandably, the applications for Puppy Linux are very specific. If a developer needs a portable, lightweight system, however, they aren’t going to be able to find much better. Puppy Linux is stable and well-supported, but its cons are obvious. It’s not a fully-featured operating system, nor is it designed to be. It’s not very attractive, has a small library, and does one thing (be portable) very well.

11. Raspberry Pi OS

And now for something different. If you’re a developer interested in gadgets and circuitry, the Raspberry Pi OS is something you should look into. The Raspberry Pi OS is a very lightweight distribution solely designed around interfacing with Raspberry Pi devices, which are mini-computers that can be used as controllers for everything from clocks to robots.

Raspberry Pi OS isn’t going to be used as the main development distribution. But it is important for what it does. Many developers are going to need to use Raspberry Pi OS at some point or another.

Raspberry Pi OS was previously known as Raspbian, but this is the same solution. Today, a lot of programming is focused on either mobile devices or Internet of Things devices. Raspbian can help robotics developers, machinery developers, and Internet of Things developers. Raspbian comes with over 35,000 packages, making it exceptionally well-supported. 

12. Sabayon Linux

Sabayon Linux is designed as a user-friendly distribution built in Gentoo, another popular Linux distro. Sabayon is designed for beginners to Linux, so programmers who are transitioning to Sabayon may find it alluring. It has a rolling release, stability, and a great package manager.

On the downside, it can’t be readily customized, it’s not very polished, and it isn’t always stable if you start to mess around with it. Install some apps, and you may find those apps are corrupted. Sabayon generally isn’t as well-supported as Gentoo.

13. Solus OS

A stable, frequently updated operating system, Solus OS can be used for those who want a no-fuss, no-muss system. It’s well-documented and well-supported. It’s meant primarily for those who want a clean interface for programming and development, not those who want to really dig into the configuration of their operating systems. 

That said, it isn’t as well-supported as many other Linux distributions because it isn’t as popular, and its operating system does leave a little to be desired in terms of cosmetics. Quite a few people have left the Solus OS projects, which has left it a little more of a “self-starter” in terms of those who use it.

14. Ubuntu

You can’t go wrong with the classics. A lot of the systems on this list are based on Ubuntu because Ubuntu is one of the oldest, most stable versions of Linux. It’s very easy to find packages for Ubuntu, as well as community support. If you want something that is very well-supported and well-documented, you have three major choices: Ubuntu, openSUSE, and Debian.

That said, Ubuntu isn’t particularly good for programmers any more than any other Linux distribution might be; it’s an all-around distro. So, if you want a distro that’s going to be good for everything, Ubuntu is a good choice. If you want a distro specifically good for programming, Arch Linux or Kali might be better.

Finding the right Linux distribution for you

As with many things, the Linux distro will come down to preference. There are popular Linux distros and bleeding-edge distros, but it doesn’t matter unless they’re comfortable to use. 

The right Linux distro for developers will vary depending on what you’re programming, what language you’re programming in, and what tools you’re familiar with. 

Consider:

Luckily, since most of them are open-source products, you can try them all. And if you’re still wondering whether Linux or Windows is best for programming, check out our guide.

Page Last Updated: December 2021

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