Best Linux distros for small businesses in 2020

Linux has become increasingly friendly for use by individuals and businesses, partly as an attempt to lure users away from Windows, but also because Linux has come to power not just the wider internet but also most cloud services.

This means while Linux may seem like an intimidating option at first, it could actually be helpful in the longer run for those who need to develop their wider IT skills without proving so much of a challenge as initially feared.

As Linux is free it means you don't have to worry about licensing fees, and there are a number of virtual machine software platforms that will allow you to install different Linux (or other operating systems) on your existing computer. In fact, Windows 10 now famously ships with Linux as a virtual machine environment.

However, if you would prefer to avoid virtual machines you could instead use an older desktop PC and simply install a Linux distro as the main operating system. Most Linux distros have low resource needs, but do watch out that hardware drivers you need are supported.

So what's the best choice for your small business? We've approached this selection with a few criteria in mind. Stability must come first: if you're putting a distro to work, uptime is critical. Solid support provision comes a close second.

Here therefore are the Linux distros we think are best for small business users.

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Best Linux distros for small businesses – at a glance

  1. Ubuntu
  2. CentOS
  3. ClearOS
  4. OpenSUSE
  5. Manjaro

As the most popular desktop distribution of Linux, Ubuntu’s reputation might lead you to think that it’s best suited to home users. While Ubuntu's stability and flexibility for end users is very solid, there's also a free-to-use Ubuntu Server version to handle your backend tasks. This is based on Debian Linux, and can make use of Debian’s packages through the Apt package management system (to supplement its own offerings). This means you'll be able to get the software you need quickly and easily.

One of Ubuntu's strongest features is the level of support it benefits from. The vast user base means there's a raft of technical documentation available, and its generous community has answered just about every question you might have.

Ubuntu is released twice a year in April and October. The April releases are tagged LTS which stands for Long Term Support, and unlike the versions released in the autumn, these are maintained for five years. With Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, you're covered until 2021, which is a great advantage for long-term stability.

For those times when you need a little more help, the Ubuntu Advantage program is a reasonably priced support offering, starting from $75 (£57, AU$106) per year for virtual servers and $225 (£173, AU$318) for physical nodes.

Built on the solid foundation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) – and, indeed, officially funded by Red Hat since 2014 – CentOS is undoubtedly a distro with strong credentials. Its default Gnome desktop is pleasant and reasonably familiar to most computer users, the RPM package management system is widely supported, and it's equally at home on workstations and servers.

CentOS harnesses the open source components of its parent OS, which actually make up the majority of RHEL. Only Red Hat's trademarks and a few proprietary components are omitted. Thanks to this unique partnership, updates tend to flow to CentOS only a day or two after they hit RHEL. In other words, this is enterprise-class Linux that anyone can use.

CentOS is now one of the world's most popular server distros, and is perfect if you want to build serious hardware appliances without paying for a Red Hat subscription. While the CentOS community can provide some useful advice free of charge, professional support is the key reason for using RHEL. 

ClearOS and CentOS are pretty close cousins. Both run many of the same packages inherited from RHEL, and can benefit from the swift Red Hat release cycle. 

But while CentOS is a functional desktop OS, ClearOS is designed primarily as a server platform and an alternative to commercial options like Red Hat Enterprise Server or Windows Small Business Server. The OS is administered entirely from a web interface, so you won't need a keyboard, mouse, or even a monitor connected to the machine once ClearOS is installed. 

Because of its tight focus, ClearOS is actually easier to use than most server operating systems. That web interface makes installing this operating system's various components a breeze, so you can easily set up a firewall for your business, manage an email server, install a file server or more – all safe in the knowledge that each of these components will (most likely) work perfectly together.

While CentOS is an open source OS based on a paid-for release, OpenSUSE works in reverse. This community-developed operating system is used as the basis for the commercially-supported SUSE Linux Enterprise. SUSE actually borrows a lot from Red Hat, including its RPM package management system, but isn't a direct clone.

OpenSUSE is one of the few distros to use the graphically-heavy KDE window manager by default, though you can also install Mate, LXDE and others. This means it can run on older hardware. In fact, if you're looking to run small web appliances, the latest version will run on a Raspberry Pi and includes a huge number of packages. 

OpenSUSE now follows a rolling release model, which means updates are regularly available without you having to manually upgrade every 18 months as before. This makes for a much more secure and stable operating system.

Manjaro is built on top of Arch Linux- which is traditionally one of the more complex and obtuse Linux distros out there. Manjaro does away with that complexity, while sharing Arch's streamlined and fast environment, its latest 'bleeding edge' software, and its rolling release schedule.

This means you should never have to install a later version of the software – you'll get the updates as they're released, and your Manjaro machines will upgrade over time rather than being taken out of service.

Manjaro has made other improvements over Arch – a better installer, improved hardware detection and repositories full of stable software make it a solid choice for end-user systems. With some work you could probably build a server from Manjaro's Minimal Net edition, but other distros handle that aspect a lot better.

While Manjaro is a flavor rather than unique distro, it has fast become one of the most widely used Linux platforms for home and small business users looking for a reliable and easy to use Linux install.

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