I'm working for a startup and we are using a Virtual Private Server to host the web application and have been given a plethora of Linux flavors to choose from.
Which flavors are better for which kinds of web applications and why?
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That's like asking if there's a preferred type of car for driving across country. It's all about your preference (I like gentoo personally). Pick the one you know best. If you don't know any of them, I might go with Ubuntu for its large support base.
I would add that you should read up on securing the server because with an entire VPS, you have a large attack surface that you're responsible for keeping closed.
There's definitely a preferred flavor. It's the distro you know best, so that your maintenance costs will be as low as possible.
Do not listen to people that will tell you "Distro X is the best". They just happen to know this distro best, therefor they are probably using a lot of the convenience tools that come with the distro to manage it.
So use the distro you have the most knowledge of, don't listen to anyone else giving you advice that Distro X is better than Distro Y.
Go with FreeBSD, OpenSolaris, Plan9, LFS or whatever you know, just don't go with something someone else knows
Most answers are going to say: Whatever you feel most comfortable with.
But here's a few real answers:
Why these distros? Active communities. Server focused. Free.
Patches and stability need to come before features. Especially if your next meal is coming from the money you hope to be making from this application/server.
Next you can begin to look at other factors:
Then after a few years, you can be comfortable with one you've chosen.
"The one you're most comfortable with." arguement pushes new admins away from linux. Too much choice can be as harmful as too little. IMHO.
My criteria are:
I use Mandriva on my Desktop, but because of 3. and 4., I use CentOS for my servers (uses RPM like Mandriva)
In addition to the information given in other comments, you might check out DistroWatch. It has some useful information that might help you compare distros.
Some things you will want to consider:
Now, if you do want a list:
Debian is another distribution popular for servers, but I haven't tried the latest version so I can't comment on it.
If your planning to install purchased software, make sure to check what distributions it supports.
Shameless plug, I link to my answer to a similar question on StackOverflow:
One thing that isn't being mentioned but probably should be is which approach scales best. You may be a small startup now (and thus you have no money and a free distro is best), but if the company is really successful, you probably need to scale your system up rather rapidly and at that point you will likely want paid support for your server farm.
For this reason, I would select CentOS since it is a rock solid distro and your application will seamlessly transition over to Red Hat Enterprise Linux if and when the time comes.