With so many Linux distributions available, choosing one for your home computer isn’t easy. Choosing a Linux distribution for a server is even tougher. A server runs 24 hours a day, often performing complex tasks, so picking a distribution you can trust is key.
Ubuntu is one of the more popular options due to its sheer ubiquity, but it’s far from the only option. CentOS is another great option thanks to its reputation for being solid and stable as can be.
Ubuntu is the best choice for most people, but there are some cases where you’ll want to consider CentOS.
What Is CentOS?
If you’ve ever even just read about Linux, you probably know a little about Ubuntu. It’s an easy to use distribution based on Debian and it’s one of the more widely used versions of Linux out there.
CentOS, on the other hand, may be more of a mystery. This distribution is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which is a paid product. CentOS is freely available and open source but makes use of the work that goes into Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
You don’t get the same support you would get with Red Hat’s offering since you’re not paying for support. That said, CentOS is community supported, so you’re not alone if you run into an issue.
CentOS vs. Ubuntu Server
In addition to the widely-used desktop version of Ubuntu, there’s another version meant for use on a server. This distribution is aptly named Ubuntu Server. One of the key differences between the two versions is that Ubuntu Server has no graphical user interface by default. If you’re looking to know more, we have a rundown of the further differences between Ubuntu and Ubuntu Server.
Due to the wide use of its upstream source, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS has developed a reputation for being secure and stable. Both of these are major factors when it comes to choosing a distribution for your server. CentOS is also highly customizable, which is handy for stripping out services you don’t need.
Ubuntu receives updates more frequently than CentOS and generally has newer packages available. This is both good and bad. It means Ubuntu will receive new features sooner, but may also see new bugs introduced. The slower update cycle used by CentOS helps maintain stability but can mean you won’t get critical security updates quite as fast.
Winner: CentOS wins over Ubuntu by just a hair thanks to its rock-solid stability.
CentOS vs. Ubuntu: Installation and Configuration
Both CentOS and Ubuntu offer streamlined installation processes, but each has different strengths. With Ubuntu Server, you don’t get the graphical interface, but it’s still easy for almost anyone. While Ubuntu’s installer aims to be easy for anyone, CentOS aims to make the process quick and easy for system administrators.
If you’re using the desktop version of Ubuntu for your server, configuration is fairly easy. Installing software, tweaking settings, and enabling and disabling services is relatively easy. CentOS also provides a robust set of configuration options, though it is using some different applications on the back end.
Configuring CentOS or Ubuntu via the command line is different. You’ll find some configuration files in different places, the big difference is the package manager used by each distribution. Ubuntu uses Apt while CentOS uses Yum. Using each is fairly easy, but there are some major differences between the two.
For a brief look at the differences between Apt and Yum, see our overview of Linux package managers.
Winner: Ubuntu wins here thanks to its ease of use and the amount of documentation you’ll find for it online.
CentOS vs. Ubuntu: Performance
If you’re running resource-intensive apps or services on your server, operating system performance matters. While Linux distributions will be roughly similar in performance compared to other operating systems, some still have their advantages.
Ubuntu Server is more slimmed down by default, which gives it an advantage. That said, you can tweak CentOS to squeeze more performance out of it should you want or need to. Looking at a report from Phoronix, Ubuntu sometimes leads CentOS, while other times it’s the other way around.
Winner: This one is a Draw. This category is simply too close to call.
CentOS vs. Ubuntu: Laptop Use
While the main purpose of this article is examining CentOS vs. Ubuntu for server use, both are also desktop operating systems. If you’re frequently using one of these on a server or servers, you might be more comfortable running it on your laptop as well.
Here is where you’ll see some more dramatic differences between the two. CentOS 7 uses the Linux 3.10 kernel, while Ubuntu 18.04 uses the Linux 4.18 kernel. The newer kernel brings support for newer hardware.
If you’re using a relatively new laptop, you might find CentOS doesn’t recognize certain hardware. In some cases, you can find and install drivers for that hardware yourself, but this can be tricky. Ubuntu will have much better support for newer laptops in general.
On the other hand, if you’re installing it on a ThinkPad that is a few years old, CentOS might work perfectly. Chances are good that if it works well at first, it will continue to work well even after updates. This is one area where the stability of CentOS provides is especially useful.
Winner: Ubuntu wins this category thanks to the sheer amount of hardware it supports.
Other Aspects to Consider
If you’re using a Virtual Private Server from a company like Linode or DigitalOcean, installation is as easy as provisioning a new server. You don’t need to worry about the installation process at all, nor will you have to worry about whether certain hardware is supported.
The size of the community around each distribution is also something to keep in mind. Because of its popularity, Ubuntu has more community repositories available. It also has more users who may have run into the problems you’re having that can share how they overcame those problems.
CentOS has less market share than Ubuntu, but the documentation provided by Red Hat Enterprise Linux can help somewhat here.
Which Server Distribution Is Right for You?
If you’re still having trouble making a choice after reading the comparisons above, think about which distribution you’re more comfortable with. You’re going to be using this distribution a lot, so if it comes down to a coin toss, go with the one you’ve used more. That familiarity will make everyday maintenance tasks much easier.
What if you don’t have much experience with either CentOS or Ubuntu? Ubuntu is a great choice for less experienced or first-time Linux users. Even better, we’ve got a walkthrough that shows you how to try out Ubuntu on your Windows 10 computer.