choosing a linux distribution

Linux Distributions Optimized for Hosting Docker



You can run Docker containers on any modern Linux distribution. But some specialized Linux-based operating systems are designed specifically for running Docker. If you want to host containers, these Linux platforms may be a better fit than an all-purpose Linux distribution.

Choosing a Linux Distribution for Docker

When you’re choosing a Linux distribution to host Docker, you should keep these considerations in mind:

  • Easy Docker support. You want your distribution to be able to support Docker, of course. You also want that support to come easily. You don’t want to have to install Docker manually—You want to be able to use a package manager that will keep it up-to-date for you.
  • Extensibility and customizability. Part of the appeal of containers is that they provide a framework for building agile environments. Being agile means being able to use whichever tools or processes you like, rather than being constrained by hardware or software limitations. For this reason, look for a distribution that is easy to extend or customize according to your needs. Distributions with few core dependencies and extensive package repositories fit this bill.
  • Efficiency. Another part of the appeal of containers is that they consume resources more efficiently than virtual machines. To make sure you’re getting the most out of your investment in efficient infrastructure, you should look for a Linux distribution that is efficient from the perspective of resource consumption. It should be able to do what you need while consuming as few resources as possible.
  • Security. You want to be sure your Linux distribution is secure by design. This is true no matter what type of workload you’re hosting, but it’s so important that it’s worth emphasizing on this list.
  • Startup time. Depending on your goals, fast startup time may be a priority for you. This is less important if you plan to boot your Docker host system only once and let it run. Conversely, if you will be spinning up virtual machines constantly to host Docker, you’ll want them to be able to boot quickly.

Linux Distributions Designed for Docker

If you’re looking for a Linux distribution that meets the criteria outlined above, you’re in luck. Several distributions have appeared over the past several years that are designed with these priorities in mind. Some were created specifically for hosting Docker, while others just happen to align well with Docker hosting needs.

Docker-friendly Linux distributions include:

  • Alpine Linux. This is the distribution that Docker uses by default to build its packages. Alpine wasn’t designed specifically for hosting containers, but its small footprint and focus on security make it a good fit.
  • Container Linux. Container Linux is the new name for the operating system formerly known as CoreOS (which is still a project). As the name implies, Container Linux is designed very much with containers in mind.
  • RancherOS. A Linux distribution from Rancher that is tailored to host containers. One of RancherOS’s main features is that it runs as a container itself to make deployment simple and fast.
  • Atomic Host. One of the earliest container-centric Linux distributions. Okay—Technically, Atomic Host is not itself a Linux distribution; it’s a project that builds the foundation for Linux distributions like Fedora Atomic Host and RHEL Atomic Host.
  • Boot2Docker. This lightweight Linux distribution does what its name promises: It boots your computer into a Docker environment. It does this in about five seconds, while consuming minimal resources and running only in memory. The big catch is that Boot2Docker is designed to run from a Windows or macOS machine. It’s a way to test Docker from a developer’s workstation, rather than host Docker workloads in the data center.
  • Ubuntu Core. A lightweight variant of Ubuntu Linux, Ubuntu Core can be a good solution for hosting container workloads when you want to leave a small footprint.

Don’t like any of these Linux distributions for running Docker? You can always make your own. Freedom is what Linux is all about, after all.

Chris Tozzi has worked as a journalist and Linux systems administrator. He has particular interests in open source, agile infrastructure and networking. He is Senior Editor of content and a DevOps Analyst at Fixate IO.


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