CTO and co-founder of Signal Sciences. Author and speaker on software engineering, devops, and security.

Comparison of Linux Distributions on AWS EC2

How do various Linux distributions implement a operating system for use in virtualized or cloud environments? One proxy for size and complexity is the number of packages installed. While not a perfect comparison, in general, less is more. In Amazon’s US-WEST-1 region, I fired up the a number of Linux distributions and counted the number of packages installed.

OS Distribution AMI Packages
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 12 `ami-b95b4ffc` 724
Ubuntu 14.10 Utopic `ami-b7515af2` 461
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS Precise `ami-076e6542` 450
Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Trusty `ami-b7515af2` 396
Amazon Linux AMI 2014.09.1 `ami-4b6f650e` 361
Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.0 `ami-33cdd876` 347
Debian 8.0 (experimental) `ami-17899452` 271
CentOS 7 `ami-33c1ca76` 246
Fedora-Cloud-Base-20141203-21 `ami-970310d2` 226
Debian 7.7 `ami-b12e39f4` 194


  • Unsurprisingly, commercial-based distributions had more packages installed than more-community driven ones. I’ll let you decide if they add value or not.
  • To be fair to SUSE, it specifically said it came with everything. With 724 packages installed by default, it better.
  • Ubuntu 12 is filled with stuff that doesn’t belong on a (cloud) server: bluetooth drivers, wireless drivers, NFS, etc.
  • Ubuntu 12 and 14 package up various X (the windows system) libraries, apparently for a graphic boot system. Probably not so useful in a cloud environment.
  • Even after removing fluff from Ubuntu 12 and 14, it’s still over 150 more packages than its matching Debian counterparts.
  • Debian 8 added around 50 packages compared to Debian 7. It also uses the notorious systemd but I think the increase in the number of packages is due to other structural changes to Debian 8 (see below).
  • Debian 8 and Ubuntu 14 are a bit odd. They provide two pythons and two libc versions that are essential for cloudinit, but not sure why it is so complicated.
  • Fedora has a cloud-based version? Apparently, I’m not the only one confused by it

Not-Linux and Not-Quite Linux

  • Of course, one doesn’t have to run Linux either. I launched a FreeBSD ami, and according to pkg version only 22 packages were added to the base install to make it run on Amazon’s services (mostly around python and cloudinit which are optional). I’m not an expert in FreeBSD but I certainly like the holistic approach they use.
  • Docker. Sure, but Docker still needs a host system, and a guest OS (or some type). CoreOS is likely the first of many minimal OSs coming out in 2015. One could argue that CoreOS plus a single docker container such phusion/baseimage-docker is “better” than regular Ubuntu.

Obviously there is more to deciding what OS to use than how small the base install is, but it is a useful reflection of the goals and designs of the distribution.

© 2018 Nick Galbreath