Linux has an extensive range of open-source distributions that pentesters, ethical hackers and network defenders can use in their work, whether for pentesting, digital forensics or other cybersecurity uses.
Also known as “distros,” these distributions are variations of Linux that include the Linux kernel and usually a specific package manager.
For example, Kali Linux, one of the most popular pentesting OSs, is Debian-based, which means it’s based on the Debian Project. Ubuntu, a famous Linux distro you may already know, is also Debian-derived.
Here are eight of the best Linux distros for cybersecurity use cases, for beginners through advanced users, along with some issues to consider as you select a Linux security distro.
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Some Experience Required
Common operations like enumerating services, cracking passwords, intercepting HTTP requests, or even analyzing malware do not necessarily require a pentesting OS. Popular tools such as the Burp Suite, OWASP ZAP, Nikto, or BeEF are available as standalone apps and packages.
If you’re an absolute beginner, I would not recommend using a pentesting distro. Most pentesting distros have two major drawbacks: they can be overwhelming, and they require advanced knowledge.
You get hundreds of packages, scripts, wordlists, and other software, but it usually requires solid knowledge and experience to master each tool, prevent misuses and rabbit holes, and conduct tests in safe conditions.
You can totally use a classic distro like Ubuntu with a few packages and the right configurations and you’ll be able to achieve most tasks. Besides, if you’re new to Linux, it’s probably better to start with generic systems.
In any case, it is strongly recommended to use VMs (virtual machines). Do not install the following distros as your primary system unless you know what you are doing.
For example, if you need to test for ransomware, it’s better to have it on a VM that can be compromised without affecting your personal files. Besides, you can take snapshots to quickly restore a working environment at will.
The idea is to isolate your testing environment.
Kali vs. Parrot: Debian-based Distros
Both Kali Linux and Parrot OS are Debian-based distros that are often used for pentesting. The two systems can be employed by intermediate and experienced security professionals, with a pretty fast learning curve, but their approach is not the same.
It’s important to note that these OSs have specific variations, so make sure you pick the right one. You can leverage lite editions if you prefer minimal installations, but such versions might not contain the pentesting resources you’re looking for, and you’ll probably have to install them manually.
Kali Linux is by far the most widely used and recommended by security experts of the distros in the list. It’s the reference for security tests.
- The distro is easy to install.
- Kali Linux provides a high level of safety (e.g., custom kernel) and is actively maintained by Offensive Security.
- There are hundreds of pre-packaged tools for pentesting, security research, forensics, web app testing, and reverse engineering.
- Support is available for various architectures and platforms, such as x86, ARM, Cloud, Mobile Android.
- Support is available for various modes of installation like bare metal, VM, live boot, containers, WSL.
- Kali Linux is not beginner-friendly despite notable enhancements in the recent versions.
- It can be slower than other distros like Parrot OS for some tasks, especially on low-end systems (expect some lags).
Parrot OS is in some ways the mirror image of Kali: It’s user-friendly and manageable for beginners, and is less resource-intensive on hardware. There are five editions to choose from depending on your needs.
- Parrot OS is easy to install, user-friendly, and beginner-friendly.
- The distro is privacy-focused, with features like anonymization services, telemetry, logs, and trackers disabled by default.
- Parrot OS contains pre-packaged IDEs for programming.
- It is significantly lighter than Kali and requires less memory, free space, and RAM (also GPU is not required).
- Parrot OS is secure with features like sandboxes and regular updates.
- Parrot OS adds its own commands for generic operations like upgrading packages so that requires a learning curve.
Arch-Based Security Distros
Arch Linux standards are the reference for many professionals. While Arch requires a good amount of patience because of its complexity, users can learn a lot about GNU/Linux, an important thing for ethical hackers and pentesters to know.
Black Arch is a pen-test distro based on Arch Linux. It can be challenging to learn but boasts a number of advantages for those who make the effort.
- While it is minimalist, users will find lots of packages to install.
- An existing Arch Linux install can be upgraded to Black Arch.
- Black Arch leverages continuous updates, which is part of its philosophy.
- There is no bloat or unnecessary services.
- Black Arch is perfect to install and test bleeding-edge resources, offering a better package manager and release system.
- Black Arch may be difficult to install and use and is not beginner-friendly.
- It functions more like a hacker OS than a pen-test OS.
ArchStrike is an Arch Linux repository containing interesting tools for professionals. Another one with a learning curve, but it was developed specifically with hackers in mind.
- ArchStrike can be installed on existing Arch installations to turn them into hacking environments.
- It is easy to install and remove (see the new ISO installer).
- ArchStrike is made by hackers for hackers.
- There are dedicated modules for investigations.
- A hardware detection facility is available.
- It is not beginner-friendly.
- ArchStrike is technically not a Linux distro.
Distros for Computer Forensics
Computer forensics can be particularly challenging, as retrieving meaningful information among tons of data can take many hours. CAINE (Computer Aided INvestigative Environment) is particularly helpful for the task.
- It is user-friendly and easy to install.
- CAINE provides a complete investigative environment, including Autopsy and Sleuth Kit.
- It eases forensics significantly, especially memory analysis.
- All block devices are set to read-only mode by default.
- The live environment can be used to analyze running Windows installations.
- CAINE lacks documentation, which limits the kind of support users can receive.
DEFT is a distro employed by military, government officers, law enforcement, investigators, universities, and individuals. The original project site is down and it appears to have been discontinued, but downloads can still be found in a few places – including on Archive.org.
- It is user-friendly and easy to install.
- DEFT can help recover broken drives.
- Enhanced hardware detection is available.
- DEFT is especially good for advanced integrity checking, computer forensics, and incident response.
- It includes specific guides to learn how to use the environment.
- Despite the guides, DEFT is not beginner-friendly and requires advanced knowledge to use it.
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Other Pentesting OSs
These last two distros may be lesser known, but they have some desirable features in their own right.
Pentoo is based on Gentoo Linux, a bare-bones minimalist distro for advanced Linux users.
- Pentoo is great for Wi-Fi hacking and hardware-accelerated cracking.
- It’s a relatively light distro.
- Pentoo is actively maintained, even if the project may look dead when you browse the website.
- It uses Portage as package manager, which compiles programs from sources instead of downloading binaries.
- Pentoo is worth installing on a live USB key as a complementary set of tools.
- It is not beginner-friendly.
- Pentoo may be difficult to install and use, but it is still easier than Black Arch.
SamuraiWTF aims to be “a complete Linux desktop for use in application security training.”
- SamuraiWTF is maintained by OWASP.
- It is easy to install, with various prebuilt images for virtual machines like Kali.
- Quick setup is possible with the CLI (command-line interface), which utilizes custom “katana” commands.
- SamuraiWTF is perfect for web pentesting, with a focus on training users.
- It offers great documentation.
SamuraiWTF is only helpful as an add-on tool.