Lightweight GNU/Linux Distributions for Containers

The Docker revolution has spawned a new class of lightweight GNU/Linux distributions designed to host containers. Wondering which options are available? Here’s a comparison of RancherOS, Alpine Linux and more.

To be clear, lightweight Linux distributions certainly existed before Docker came along. One of GNU/Linux’s big selling points has always been that the platform’s open-source nature makes it easy to create stripped-down operating systems that include only the bare necessities for performing a certain task. It’s not as if Docker created this trend.

Yet, as containers become more popular, having a lightweight GNU/Linux system that is brewed for the express purpose of containers comes in handy. It gives you a turnkey platform for hosting Docker, without all of the overhead that would come with a full-blown desktop or server GNU/Linux distribution.

Lightweight Linux for Docker

Here’s a look at the lightweight, Linux-based operating systems that have sprung up recently to cater to Docker:

  • Atomic Host. Built using components from the Red Hat side of the Linux universe, this operating system was one of the earlier lightweight GNU/Linux distributions to appear with a focus on containers. Because it’s tied to Red Hat, it supports Red Hat-friendly container components of the container stack, such as Kubernetes.
  • Alpine Linux. This is the lightweight Linux distribution that Docker chose as the basis for packaging the Docker platform with a virtual machine so Windows users can easily start using Docker. Alpine, which dates back to 2005, is way, way older than Docker, however, and it is designed with more than Docker in mind.
  • CoreOS. Introduced in October 2013, when Docker was still in its infancy, CoreOS was designed from the beginning as a lightweight GNU/Linux distribution that could automate cluster workloads. That made it a good match for containerized environments when they began developing. Today, CoreOS is the operating system at the heart of the set of open-source container projects that CoreOS the company supports.
  • RancherOS. This is Rancher’s solution for setting up a lightweight container server. Rancher itself is a holistic platform for building a container service, and RancherOS is not a requirement for running Rancher. But RancherOS is cool because it runs inside containers, making setup as simple as running a Docker container.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, so don’t shoot me if I have left off your favorite lightweight GNU/Linux operating system. But you’re welcome to mention it civilly in the comments …

Christopher Tozzi

Christopher Tozzi has covered technology and business news for nearly a decade, specializing in open source, containers, big data, networking and security. He is currently Senior Editor and DevOps Analyst with and

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