CentOS Discontinued: 5 Alternative OS’s

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Back in December 2020, Red Hat controversially announced changes to the development and release cycles of CentOS. Rather than supporting CentOS 8 for the original 10 year lifespan, the OS would instead be discontinued, and replaced with another distro named ‘CentOS Stream’. CentOS stream saw its initial release back in late 2019, alongside CentOS, but due to the perceived success of the release, would now become the sole CentOS distribution.

Now, for those that are not aware, CentOS is based on the commercial Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). RHEL is a commercial Linux distribution, including several RHEL-specific, closed source applications. For the most part, however, the system is a fairly standard Linux-based OS. The software licences require Red Hat to release the source code for the system (minus the closed source applications), which forms the basis for CentOS.

Excluding the RHEL-specific applications, CentOS and RHEL are therefore exactly the same – one costing money, the other free. RHEL does include commercial support for the cost, and comes out before the corresponding CentOS release, but for many businesses the cost simply isn’t worth it.

The new CentOS Stream flips things around. CentOS Stream now releases ahead of the next RHEL release, being based on RHEL development code.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all, this is very similar to the relationship between Debian and Ubuntu. Ubuntu has regular releases, based on the current ‘unstable’ version of Debian, with Debian itself content with longer release and support windows.

One of the big draws to CentOS, however, was the very long 10 year support window, which was made possible due to the 10 year support window of RHEL itself. Patches produced for RHEL would quickly find there way to CentOS. This gave a solid, stable, and more importantly, supported platform for the long term, ideal for businesses reliant on their server platform without high maintenance overheads. For these people, the new Centos Stream model is unlikely to suit their needs, reducing reducing stability and forcing more regular maintenance on the user.

In fact, Red Hat themselves describe CentOS Stream as a natural, inevitable next step’, rather than a CentOS replacement.

So, for those looking to switch, what are the alternatives?

1. Rocky Linux

For many, Rocky Linux is the obvious choice of OS to switch to. Created by one of the two original CentOS developers (the other has sadly passed away since, the OS is named in his memory), Rocky Linux picks up the baton dropped by CentOS.

Continuing the CentOS model, Rocky Linux aims to deliver a free OS that closely tracks the latest RHEL release. The latest release, for example, came out just 6 days after the corresponding RHEL release. For CentOS users, the difference should be minimal.

ProsCons
+ 10 years of support– New OS, so not yet established
+ Essentially CentOS rebranded, so familiar to CentOS users

Given the similarity with CentOS, there’s not a huge amount else to say. If maintaining what is essentially the status-quo is what you’re looking for, you can download a Rocky Linux install image here.

If you’re using this as an opportunity to consider other options, take a look below.

2. Debian

With a first release in 1993, and first stable release in 1996, Debian is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Linux distribution in existence. With a focus on stability and 5 years of support, Debian is an ideal candidate for replacing CentOS.

In addition, Debian offers a few advantages over CentOS.

Debian offers a wider range of software applications in their repository, making it more likely you will find the application you are looking for. It supports a wide variety of hardware architectures, so you can be sure that there will definitely be a build to support your current server.

A key advantage Debian holds, which helps to negate the shorter support window,

There is no specific server image for Debian; the option to install a desktop environment (or otherwise) is presented during setup.

A downside to Debian (for a former CentOS user) is the package manager utilised by the OS. While CentOS uses yum/dnf with .rpm packages, Debian uses apt/dpkg and .deb packages. While they both perform the same function, the commands and syntax are completely different, and will require learning for someone new to the system.

In addition, the final 2 years of support are handled by a separate ‘LTS’ team. Not all packages will see security/bug fixes during this time.

ProsCons
+ 5 years of support (for most of the system)– Uses apt/dpkg, might be unfamiliar to CentOS users
+ Large software archive– Not all packages see 5 years of support
+ Supports upgrades to newer releases– Packages can often end up out of date

Debian can be downloaded from the official website here.

3. Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu is an immensely popular OS. First released in 2004, Ubuntu aimed to make Linux more accessible, and became the de-facto entry OS for people wanting to try Linux for the first time.

Being based on Debian, Ubuntu has a large software library. In fact, Ubuntu is actually based on the development version of Debian. This means packages in Ubuntu are often newer versions than the stable Debian counterpart.

As with Debian, Ubuntu uses apt/dpkg and .deb packages, as opposed to yum/dnf and .rpm for CentOS. While they both perform the same function, the commands and syntax are completely different, and will require learning for someone new to the system.

Ubuntu releases come every six months, with LTS releases every 2 years. It would generally be advisable to stick to LTS releases, as the non-LTS releases only have a short 9 month support window, meaning regular upgrades are required.

ProsCons
+ 5 years of support (LTS only)– Uses apt/dpkg, might be unfamiliar to CentOS users
+ Commercial support available if required, for up to 10 years (LTS only)– Short non-LTS support window – stick to the LTS releases
+ Large software archive
+ Supports upgrades to newer releases

One thing to note is that Ubuntu offers separate install images for desktop, servers, IoT etc. Ubuntu server can be downloaded from the official website here.

4. OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE is another free OS, designed for stability. It is based on the enterprise SUSE Linux Enterprise, in a similar arrangement to that of Red Hat/CentOS.

Like Ubuntu, OpenSUSE offers separate downloads for the desktop and the server. On top of this, there are two different versions to choose from. OpenSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling development version, while OpenSUSE Leap is an LTS version. Naturally, it is advisable to use the LTS edition.

In terms of software, OpenSUSE uses the .rpm package format, like OpenSUSE. However, the package management system is based on ZYpp, which will come with a learning curve for those used to yum/dnf.

Major releases of the LTS version have at least 3 years of support – not as long as the alternatives, but more than you will find with many Linux distributions.

ProsCons
+ Supports upgrades to newer releases– 3 years of support is shorter than other distros (though this is a minimum, not a fixed window)
+ Good sized software archive– Uses ZYpp, might be unfamiliar to CentOS users

OpenSUSE is available for download from the official website here.

5. Slackware

A little left field for the final entry. Slackware has declined in popularity in recent years, but can still offer a good base on which to run a server.

What is unique about Slackware is its use of ‘vanilla’ packages. That is, Slackware developers do little to customise packages, they remain as the developers intended. This does have the potential to lead to compatibility issues, with OS maintainers would work around. There is also no official software repository – you’ll have to grab the applications you want to install yourself.

While there is no official support schedule, Slackware has at least 5 years of support for each release, with some previous releases lasting over 10 years before being made obsolete.

When completing a full install, Slackware requires little configuration out of the box – it is designed to just work.

ProsCons
+ At least 5 years of support– Support window not fixed, EOL announcements made at relatively short notice
+ Requires little config out of the box– Current stable version released in 2016
– No software archive
– Uses slackpkg, might be unfamiliar to CentOS users

Ok, so this one is probably not as appealing as the others. But if you’re interested in taking a look at Slackware, you can find it on the official website here.

Conclusion

There are many other Linux-based operating systems that could have made this list, but these 5 look to be among the best choices for disillusioned CentOS users.

Ultimately, the main differences between them come down to the level of software support, and the package management systems they use.

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