You can do more than browse the web with a Linux distribution. You’ll find Linux distros configured for almost any use, including some aimed at programmers.
Because Linux distributions are open-source, functional, and packed with useful tools, Linux offers a thriving environment for developers. Linux maintains compatibility with virtually all major (and minor) programming languages, so it’s the perfect platform for you to start coding.
Here are some of the best Linux distros for programmers.
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions. It’s popular with every kind of Linux user, from beginners to seasoned Linux pros. For developers and programmers, Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support) provides additional stability.
Like Debian, Ubuntu uses the DEB package manager, while later versions of Ubuntu also include Snap packages so that installing new software is a simple, straightforward process.
This helps to explain why it’s such a popular platform for Linux newbies. It’s also specifically useful for programmers, as Snap packages provide an easier way to package up and distribute new software, while also providing large software repositories of software suitable for developers to use themselves.
Its massive user base means you can take advantage of its highly active community forum for any support issues. There’s plenty of scope for customizing the user experience with various Ubuntu derivatives like Lubuntu and Xubuntu, making it a strong contender to be the best Linux distro for programming.
From Linux PC manufacturer System76 comes Pop!_OS, a Linux operating system tailored to developers, programmers, and makers. It’s based around Ubuntu and uses the GNOME desktop environment, so should be a familiar Linux experience for most users.
It’s one of the best Linux OS for programmers, thanks to its expanded use of keyboard shortcuts, tailored selection of software, and the inclusion of specialist repositories like TensorFlow (for scientific programmers).
Pop!_OS is a good choice for System76 hardware users or for those who simply enjoy its aesthetics. It’s why Pop!_OS ranks as one of the best Linux distributions on the market overall, not just for programming.
Debian is the grandparent of hundreds of Linux distributions, which means not only is it a familiar distro for programmers to use, it also has a vast amount of support around it.
The ultra-popular Ubuntu is based on Debian, so if you’re coming from that OS, you won’t find it’s that different. Debian’s stable release offers rock-solid performance for a production environment, while its testing branch features the most up-to-date software and packages.
Debian’s repositories are top tier and there’s a thriving community supporting the distro, making it a friendly option for beginners who get stuck with other flavors of Linux.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a Linux operating system developed by tech giant Red Hat. CentOS is an RHEL alternative, taking all the best parts of RHEL and packaging it in a free “community” release. Most commercial RHEL software runs with ease on CentOS with the use of YUM package management.
CentOS also boasts an impressive repository of software, as well as Red Hat Software Collections (RHSCL) for dynamic languages and open-source databases. It offers the ideal environment for programmers focused on enterprise development and programming in general.
CentOS is also one of the best free Linux distributions for servers, making it a good platform for web development and testing.
Like CentOS, Fedora is another community edition variant of RHEL. This Red Hat distro is perfect for programmers looking for bleeding edge software releases, as it tends to have the most up-to-date packages, as well as a system of providing automatic updates.
With Fedora, there’s a six-month release cycle, and upgrades are (typically) painless. Linux creator Linus Torvalds opts for Fedora over other major distros like Ubuntu or Debian. If it’s good enough for Linus, it might be good enough for you, too.
6. Kali Linux
Another Debian-based Linux operating system, Kali Linux hones in on the security niche. Since Kali targets penetration testing, it’s packed with security testing tools. You’ll find the password cracker John the Ripper, pen testing suite Aircrack-ng, and web app security scanner OWASP ZAP installed by default.
That’s what makes Kali Linux a top choice for programmers, developers, and security researchers, especially if you’re a web developer. It’s also a good OS for low-powered devices, as Kali Linux runs well on devices like the Raspberry Pi.
Since programming resources are popular for the Pi, Kali OS makes for a great Raspbian alternative.
Download: Kali Linux
7. Arch Linux
For a lightweight yet robust OS, try Arch Linux. It’s one of the best Linux OS for developers with an adaptable and customizable foundation that puts the user in complete control.
Since it’s a minimalist distro, Arch comes with the bare essentials—the Linux kernel and a package manager, Pacman. Arch doesn’t come with a graphical user interface (GUI) initially, so a developer looking for a minimalist programming environment would feel right at home using it.
Considering its complex installation, Arch is recommended for advanced Linux users. It’s the perfect Linux distro for programmers, but only if you’re willing to slog through the ultimately rewarding but admittedly lengthy roll-your-own distro process. It’s a great choice for programmers who want to customize their Linux installation from the start. For more reasons to consider Arch Linux, take a look at our helpful article.
Download: Arch Linux
Like Arch, Gentoo provides a means to take complete control of your Linux installation from the beginning. Only the package manager and a Linux kernel are provided. Virtually every element of the OS installation is left up to you—including compiling the source code for the distro.
Because you’re forced to compile Gentoo, you get a Linux distro which is tailored exactly to your needs, from customized hardware settings to specific software repositories. This choice can benefit programmers with specific software or hardware requirements.
NuTyX is a highly-flexible (although much less well known) alternative Linux distro for developers to try out.
It affords complete control to the user, adopting the Linux from scratch mentality. Like Arch, NuTyX ships with a package manager and kernel and lets its users create a customized experience, from choosing a desktop environment to applications and more.
Programmers looking for customization will find what they’re looking for in NuTyX, as long as they’re armed with the patience to complete the lengthy, involved installation process.
Though Ubuntu and Debian derivatives tend to dominate, OpenSUSE is a good alternative. There’s an LTS release (like other major distros), as well as Tumbleweed, a bleeding-edge iteration.
OpenSUSE yields an enterprise environment with an excellent package manager in YaST. It’s stable and provides plenty of installers on its website, including options for hypervisor installations and various desktop environments.
OpenSUSE also offers fixed and rolling release options, a varied selection of desktop environments, and intuitive app installation making it one of the best Linux distros for programmers.
11. elementary OS
Although Linux operating systems including Ubuntu are pretty user-friendly, elementary OS takes ease of use to a whole new level.
This newbie-friendly Linux OS sports an understandable vision with its own desktop environment in Pantheon, which looks a lot like macOS. Because of its simplicity, elementary OS is a strong option for programmers new to the Linux space, especially if they’re coming from an Apple environment.
On first boot, you’ll find all the usual apps you’d expect, including a mail app, photos app, and music app. Software for developers is easily installed using the software center or with the apt package manager in a terminal window.
Download: elementary OS
The Best Linux Operating Systems for Programmers
Linux distros provide a superb environment for programming and development. Thanks to the wide selection of tools and support for programming languages, Linux distros are great for developers.
There’s a wide variety of choice, whether you’re just learning to code or you’re a programmer in a production environment. Beginners might want to install Ubuntu or Debian, while advanced users might prefer Arch or Gentoo.
Have you decided on the best Linux OS for programming for your needs? Be sure to take a look at this list of the best Linux software and apps and whether you should head to Flathub or Snap Store for your Linux apps.