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EDIT: This question was expanded to include other Unix-like distros such as Hurd and BSD.

Before anyone wonders, I did read related questions and answers; I think I have a sufficiently unique question to give it its own page. I'm considering using my next computer in a multi-OS way, with a very thin host operating system and multiple virtual machines (typically not running simultaneously).

Why? I'd like more flexibility for experimenting with unfamiliar distros than dual-booting offers. I heard that Windows 8 refuses to share a hard drive with anything else, and as I'm a developer I expect to be using it but don't want to give it its own machine. And sometimes I do want to have two operating systems running side-by-side.

I understand this can be a highly subjective question, but maybe I can narrow it down enough. Requirements:

  • uber-thin, in both RAM and HDD. I don't need applications other than maybe a package-manager and/or curses browser (to go grab VirtualBox and anything else I suddenly want). Depending on how much I use the host, I might install a graphical browser.
  • a graphical desktop, although booting to a CLI with commands for the virtual machines would be fine. I'm comfortable using a CLI when I know the command, but can't live in it constantly.
  • stable. I want to install it and forget it; I should barely know there's an operating system under the operating system, but it should be ready for me to use it if the guest OS breaks or I need to do something too heavy for a VM (such as use a remote desktop client).
  • healthy community. I'll have questions; I need a community to answer them. A lot of projects would be a plus, but mostly I'll be installing to the guest operating systems anyway.
  • decent usability. I like having nitty-gritty details hidden from me. deb is nice and apt-get is nicer, but I can compile from source. If it's a common task, it should be straightforward to accomplish - preferably one click or simple command. I can read manpages and build complex commands, but it's not a hobby.

I do prefer the GNOME desktop as it was circa 2009. I can use KDE or get used to any other desktop if I need to.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by jasonwryan, jimmij, Ramesh, Anthon, Braiam Nov 18 '14 at 22:00

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Is Linux mandatory or would you accept a non Linux still Unix like OS for the host ? –  jlliagre Dec 17 '11 at 6:53
Are you committed to VirtualBox? It sounds like what you're really after is a hypervisor. –  Gilles Dec 17 '11 at 23:06
@jilliagre Other nixes would be fine I suppose, I just don't want too much of a learning curve. –  Grault Apr 15 '12 at 22:49
@Gilles No, but my understanding was that VirtualBox was simply the solution. Thanks, I'll look at hypervisor. –  Grault Apr 15 '12 at 22:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It sounds like Debian is a good fit for your requirements. The installer allows you to select what you want in a modular fashion, or you can deselect everything and install anything later pretty trivially with aptitude. It has the option to install X with a graphical desktop environment (GNOME) in the installer, as one of its options. Debian is also highly stable, and as a rolling release it's easy to maintain without having to resort to large upgrades. The community for Debian is large, and has an experienced user base (lots of sysadmins and server administrators for example, although this is true of many Linux distributions). The default install options should give you good usability, and a familiar packaging interface (dpkg/aptitude).

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Yes - that would have been my answer as well. Debian has not a huge base-dependency tree like SuSE, and is smaller than RedHat (and its clones). –  Nils Dec 16 '11 at 21:21
Debian packages are usually more split-up - i.e. a foo-dev, foo-doc, foo-something etc. for component foo - where other distributions are not that ambitious and just put the whole thing into one package. –  maxschlepzig Dec 16 '11 at 22:06

Not exactly Linux based but you might be interested by SmartOS


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The poster explicitly asks for a Linux distribution. Please stick to the question and don't just post a link to a random Solaris derivative. –  maxschlepzig Dec 16 '11 at 22:02
I stated it is not a Linux distribution. It is definitely not a random distribution but something that might meet the remaining requirements and offer several useful features Linux might be missing. –  jlliagre Dec 16 '11 at 22:08
@jlliagre In the interest of keeping answers on-topic, it may have been more appropriate to first ask in a comment to the original question whether the OP would be open to accepting non-Linux suggestions, or just post your suggestion in a comment. –  jw013 Dec 17 '11 at 1:16
@jw013 Thanks, you are right. I just asked the original poster about it and will remove my answer if he confirms it is off topic. –  jlliagre Dec 17 '11 at 6:55

US Dept of Defense very kindly have produced LPS !


Lightweight distro, runs in RAM. Runs from USB stick or CD. Firefox Browser and (optionally) Open Office, encryption. Updates every few months.

No connection to your own disks, no trace left on machine used. Ultrasecure, but not expandable.

Well worth a look though

Regards, gvnmcknz

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