An Evaluation of lightweight Linux Distributions for Virtualization, Servers and low-spec PC’s:

Virtualizing is one way to evaluate an OS before installing it. It also facilitates sandboxing apps and scripts or doing Internet research that could compromise a production machine. So what’s a good lightweight distro for virtualization? To evaluate every combination of Host and Guest OS’s is more than I want to take on, so I did some informal testing of a few popular ones.

Oracle VirtualBox VM Manager (aka Hyper-visor)

Oracle VirtualBox VM Manager (aka Hyper-visor)

Goals of this test:

– Identify lightweight distros for use as a guest OS or on older hardware.
– Identify options for a server when we don’t want to waste resources on a bloated interface.
– Identify distros that are ready to use without needing excessive configuration.

Test parameters:

– Linux Mint is the host OS
– Hardware is a modest dual-core AMD with 4GB of RAM and plenty of hard disk space
– Host and Guest OS are all 64-bit versions and fully updated.
– Desktop animations, decorations and enhancements have been disabled to maximize performance
– Using VirtualBox 4.3.28 and Guest Additions (This significantly improves guest OS performance)
– A fixed size VDI (Virtual Disk Image) of 20GB was used for all tests
– 1024MB of RAM and 64MB of video memory allocated to each machine
– 1 CPU allocated for guest OS
– 3D video, VT-x/AMD-V, Nested Paging, I/O APIC and Host I/O cache enabled.


– An evaluation of the installation and use.
– Check that commonly used applications and plugins function. (eg Firefox, Gimp, Shotwell, Office, bleachbit)
– Load time of OS, Firefox and a subjective description of window resizing responsiveness.
– Hardinfo Benchmarks.


Distributions Tested:

Debian 8.1 with Xfce desktop: The text based installation of debian works well. I like the option to create seperate partitions for home and other folders. I started with the net install .iso which relies heavily on downloading additional components, so installation was a bit time consuming. If you plan to experiment and do multiple installations, it might be worth downloading the full .iso. This implementation of the Xfce desktop works well. Applications and utilities are cleanly and logically arranged and there’s a handy menu bar along the bottom. If OS’s were vehicles, Debian would be your base pickup truck with A/C. Just what you need and not a lot of bling. I had issues with the VirtualBox guest additions, but the desktop is resizing properly so I’ll mess with that later. It’s probably the quickest of all distros/desktops tested.

Apps test: Pass. Comes with iceweasel as the default browser, which is a fork of firefox and supports most of the usual firefox plugins. Firefox is not in the repositories by default but can be installed manually. Bleachbit operates a bit differently but seems to work. Otherwise everything performed as expected. Uses Synaptic Package Manager.

Load Times: ~40s, ~4s, Fast

Hardinfo Benchmarks:
– Blowfish = 21.98
– Cryptohash = 66.26
– Fibonacci = 6.86
– N-Queens = 14.45
– FPU FFT = 19.66
– FPU Raytracing = 14.07

Disk Space: 3.8GB used

RAM: 432MB used

Debian 8.1 with Xfce Desktop

Debian 8.1 with Xfce Desktop

Debian 8.1 with LXDE desktop: I ran the graphical installer on this one and found it to go just as smoothly as the text installation. The same options are presented. As with Xfce, LXDE is Debian takes a minimalist approach, not to be confused with stripped down. And that works for what we’re trying to accomplish here. VirtualBox Guest Additions needed to be installed manually.

Apps test: Pass. Comes with iceweasel as the default browser, which is a fork of firefox and supports most of the usual firefox plugins. Firefox is not in the repositories by default, so you’d need to install that manually. Otherwise everything performed as expected. Uses Synaptic package Manager.

Load Times: ~45s, ~15s, fast

Hardinfo Benchmarks:
– Blowfish = 21.63
– Cryptohash = 65.62
– Fibonacci = 6.78
– N-Queens = 13.85
– FPU FFT = 19.62
– FPU Raytracing = 13.93

Disk Space: 3.8GB used

RAM: 250MB used

Debian 8.1 LXDE

Debian 8.1 with LXDE Desktop

Debian 8.1 with Mate desktop: Installation went exactly as it did with other desktop-version of Debian. This classic implementation of Mate is very clean and greatly resembles the good old days of gnome 2. It’s my personal favorite desktop.

Apps test: Pass. Uses Iceweasel and Synaptic package manager. No issues to reports.

Load Times: ~40s, ~10s,

Hardinfo Benchmarks:
– Blowfish = 20.98
– Cryptohash = 65.55
– Fibonacci = 6.04
– N-Queens = 13.75
– FPU FFT = 19.14
– FPU Raytracing = 13.91

Disk Space: 3.3GB used

RAM: 251MB used

Debian 8.1 with Mate Desktop

Debian 8.1 with Mate Desktop

LinuxLite 2.6: based on Debian/Ubuntu using the Xfce desktop, the bootup, live desktop and installation procedures look nice and are well refined. The implementation of Xfce is good. The Linux Lite Control Center puts everything to do with system settings, preferences and software in one place with a very logical and intuitive layout. VirtualBox guest additions installed automatically. If this team keeps doing work like this, I suspect they will rise quickly in popularity. It could become my favorite.

Apps test: Uses the Synaptic package manager. Comes with Firefox and Gimp. No surprises or problems to report.

Load Times: ~1 minute, ~6s, fast

Hardinfo Benchmarks:
– Blowfish = 19.34
– Cryptohash = 66.05
– Fibonacci = 5.40
– N-Queens = 13.94
– FPU FFT = 20.05
– FPU raytracing = 20.05

Hard Disk: 4.4GB used

RAM: 249mb used

Linux Lite 2.6

Linux Lite 2.6 with Xfce Desktop

LXLE: This one caught my attention because it’s focused on older hardware, based on debian/lubuntu and still made the top ten list at Installation is pretty smooth, implementation of the LXDE desktop is pretty good with a nice selection of apps & tools. It has a sensible layout and isn’t difficult for a first time user to navigate.

Apps test: Pass. SeaMonkey is the default browser. It works well and accepts many firefox plugins. Firefox and chromium install and operate properly. Uses Synaptic package manager.

Load Times: ~80s, ~10s, Fast

Hardinfo Benchmarks:
– Blowfish = 20.77
– Cryptohash = 61.37
– Fibonacci = 4.93
– N-Queens = 14.87
– FPU FFT = 22.18
– FPU Raytracing = 15.19

Disk Space: 5.4GB

RAM: 229MB used

LXLE 14.04 with LXDE Desktop

LXLE 14.04 with LXDE Desktop

Mint 17 with Mate Desktop: This is my preferred host OS of choice, so I figured why not give it a try as a guest OS? Installation, configuration and usage of Mint with the Mate desktop is smooth, refined and intuitive. It’s a joy to use and puts the fun back in computing. It might be one of the heavier of the bunch, but not by much. Unfortunately some changes were made in the release of v17.2 that have triggered a number of issues on a range of hardware. v17.0 is still very solid and 17.1 isn’t bad. All desktop-versions of Mint tend to load slow, but Xfce and Mate are good once loaded. I would avoid 17.2 due to bugs and excessive desktop animations and effects.

Apps Test: Pass. Uses Firefox and Synaptic Package Manager.

Load Times: ~95s, ~8s, Fast/some delay

Hardinfo Benchmarks –
– Blowfish = 19.34
– Cryptohash = 65.84
– Fibonacci = 4.08
– N-Queens = 14.00
– FPU FFT = 20.17
– FPU Raytracing = 13.71

Disk Space: 5.8GB

RAM: 312MB used

Mint 17.0 with Mate Desktop

Mint 17.0 with Mate Desktop

Mint 17.2 with Xfce desktop: Mint still provides the fastest and cleanest installation of any distribution. They’ve implemented Xfce in a way that makes it very usable and refined right out of the box. However, a number of Windows effects, animations and decorations are enabled by default and this slows it down when resources are limited. I disabled everything Compiz and all desktop effects and compositing, which brought performance back up to a usable level. You can shave a little load time off by selecting the GTK login screen instead of a theme and also by disabling some unneeded services, but you’ll only save maybe 10 seconds. Vbox additions installed automatically. This is the only distro tested that I would say to avoid or use version 17.0 or 17.1.

Apps Test: Pass. Has FireFox and Synaptic Package Manager

Load Times: ~90s, ~10s, Some Delay

Hardinfo Benchmarks –
– Blowfish = 19.34
– Cryptohash = 66.01
– Fibonacci = 4.08
– N-Queens = 13.90
– FPU FFT = 20.16
– FPU Raytracing = 13.87

Disk Space: 5.6GB

RAM: 290MB

Mint 17.2 with Xfce Desktop

Mint 17.2 with Xfce Desktop

OpenSUSE 13.2 with LXDE desktop: OpenSUSE has a very attractive installation process and a good implementation of the LXDE desktop. No complaints.

Apps Test: Pass. Has FireFox, uses the YaST Package Manager.

Load Times: ~65s, ~10s, Fast

Hardinfo Benchmarks –
– Blowfish = 21.49
– Cryptohash = 59.55
– Fibonacci = 7.21
– N-Queens = 14.16
– FPU FFT = 22.35
– FPU Raytracing = 16.81

Disk Space: 4.7GB used

RAM: 186MB used

OpenSUSE 13.2 with LXDE Desktop

OpenSUSE 13.2 with LXDE Desktop

OpenSUSE 13.2 with Xfce desktop: OpenSUSE has a very smooth installation procedure no matter which desktop you choose and this is a a nice implementation of the Xfce desktop.

Apps test: Pass. Has Firefox, uses the YaST package manager.

hardinfo Benchmarks –
– Blowfish = 16.93
– Cryptohash = 79.52
– Fibonacci = 5.69
– N-Queens = 11.02
– FPU FFT = 16.95
– FPU Raytracing = 10.90

Disk Space: 5.2GB used

RAM: 312mb used

Open Suse 13.2 with Xfce Desktop

Open Suse 13.2 with Xfce Desktop

Conclusions: To answer the main question that started this odyssey, which is the best performing linux distro to use as a guest OS? What about an older PC or a server where we don’t want the GUI to sap resources? The short answer is any distro that appeals to you using the Xfce, LXDE or Mate desktop.

Although OS load times can vary a fair amount, application load times are about the same throughout all distros tested. Hardinfo benchmarks don’t show a significant difference and all the OS’s feel about the same in general responsiveness. They’re all pretty easy on disk space and RAM used.

All the above distros were also tested with the KDE, Gnome and Cinnamon desktops. Performance was sluggish, load times were measured in minutes and benchmarks were notably slower. Rather than post the findings of each, suffice to say those desktops are best suited for high-spec hardware.

I’m partial to distributions based on Debian. It’s popular because it works and there’s a lot of apps and support available. For an overview of what’s available¬† is an excellent source of info. It provides an inventory of the top 277 linux, BSD, Solaris and open source windows projects. They’ve ranked them in order of popularity and I’ve found a strong correlation between distrowatch ranking and refinement.


  • Kenn Ranous
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