This article will explore the five best Linux distributions that do not use systemd on which you can rely in your daily job.
Systemd has long divided the Linux community, polarizing it at both extremes – from widespread acceptance to complete denial. While both sides have valid arguments for their pros and cons, this article will look at five Linux distributions whose developers have chosen a side of not using systemd.
But, before we get into the article’s meat, let’s briefly explain what systemd is and what it is used for.
In Linux, there is a special process known as ID 1. It is the init process essentially in charge of starting and stopping the system. It got this ID due to being the first process to run on the system when it booted up.
The systemd service is the process with process ID 1. It is started directly by the kernel, whereas all other services are started by systemd or one of its child processes. In short, systemd is responsible for the fundamental task of properly running your Linux system.
Now that we’ve explained systemd and what it’s in charge of, let’s look at why it’s so controversial in the Linux community. First, we clarify that the topic is rather broad and that covering it in depth will necessitate a separate article, which we promise to deliver to our readers soon.
So, the reasons for some people’s dislike of systemd can be divided into ideological and technical.
The ideological ones include that the systemd is contrary to UNIX’s fundamental concept of “Do one thing, and do it well.” The technical ones are that systemd adds unnecessary complexity to the init system by trying to be a “one-man-show” and sometimes not doing things correctly.
However, as is fortunately always the case in open source software, users always have a choice. And some of them are used by the systemd-free Linux distributions listed below, namely alternative init systems like SysVinit, runit, and OpenRC.
Before we proceed with our list, a necessary clarification is required: systemd is not among the fastest init systems due to its versatility. However, each of the three options outlined above provides lightning-fast OS booting and a significantly simpler functionality for managing services – something to consider.
1. Slackware Linux
Slackware is a Linux distribution that requires no introduction. Created in 1992 by Patrick Volkerding, Slackware is the world’s oldest surviving Linux distribution. Its design philosophy is focused on simplicity and software purity.
Slackware, like Debian, is a full-fledged general-purpose Linux distribution. This means that in addition to being a great desktop system, Slackware performs well on the server front, delivering stability and reliability.
One of the distribution’s distinguishing characteristics is the lack of systemd. Instead, Slackware uses the BSD-style file layout for its system initialization files. Or, more precisely, Slackware Linux uses the modified SysV/BSD style init system.
The distribution’s next defining feature is the lack of support for package dependencies. This is probably the best-known difference between Slackware and other popular Linux distros.
slackpkg in Slackware doesn’t do a dependency check. And before you say, “How does it even work without package dependency?” let me add that this is not by accident, but the lack of such support is purposeful.
One of the key reasons Slackware avoids automatic dependency management is that it does not need to. That is, by design, to allow administrators to control what gets installed. In short, you must undertake your dependency resolution.
But Slackwarer’s commitment to stability comes at a cost. You won’t find the most recent versions of software applications here (if you’re used to using them). Instead, similar to Debian, the software offered here are older versions that have stood the test of time, ensuring stability.
In addition, when it comes to the distro’s focus on the simplicity of use, sometimes things go to extremes. For example, Slackware continues to use the Lilo bootloader, familiar to old-school Linux system administrators, rather than the established standard GRUB.
Lastly, please remember that if you want to try Slackware, you won’t find the well-known and handy graphical installers here. Instead, installation is done terminal-oriented, similar to Arch Linux.
But, of course, that shouldn’t stop you from trying out this great systemd-free Linux distribution that has become legendary. Our excellent “How to Install Slackware Linux 15: A Full Step-by-Step Guide” guide will be of great use to you.
2. Void Linux
Void is a fully systemd-free Linux distribution that has removed systemd from its arsenal. Instead, it uses runit as its init system. As a result, few distributions can compete with Void Linux’s speed.
Runit is a cross-platform lightning-fast UNIX initialization service, a replacement for SysVinit that is easy to configure and more in line with the classic daemon tools. It is a unique feature of Void that makes it more BSD-like in its init system and design philosophy.
In addition, Void, like Slackware, is an original Linux distribution. This means that it is not based on anything that came before it, is not a derivative of any other existing Linux distribution, and was developed from scratch.
Another key point to note is that Void adheres to the rolling-release approach. This means, first and foremost, that it can be upgraded continuously without requiring re-installation. Second, you get the most recent software packages as soon as they are released.
The distribution is perfect for your daily tasks as a desktop workstation. It is remarkably stable, and the wide variety of recent software packages is a solid argument to support this claim. However, the distribution’s affiliation with the rolling release model makes it an unpopular server choice.
Void uses its package format for installing software and its package manager, XBPS. This is another characteristic that adds uniqueness and differentiates Void from the rest.
Void’s installation approach will surely appeal to Linux users with deep experience. Here you have a minimal installation of a basic operating system, on top of which you can build to your heart’s content until you have a Linux system that satisfies all your needs and expectations.
However, as with Slackware, installation can be challenging for some Linux users due to Void’s text-based installation approach. So, of course, this is where our “How to Install Void Linux: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide” guide will come in handy as you begin your journey in Void Linux.
3. MX Linux
MX Linux is a desktop-oriented Debian-based Linux distribution that uses a heavily modified Xfce desktop environment by default. As a result, the desktop is a perfect mixture of simplicity, ease of use, and appeal to more seasoned users.
As an entirely desktop-oriented distribution, MX Linux strives to be as user-friendly as possible while being compatible with older hardware. As a result, the distro skyrocketed after 2020, and today, as controversial as DistroWatch’s rankings are, it is placed top in popularity.
But now, let’s move on to the reason the distribution is included in this list: systemd. This case is intriguing because MX Linux takes a somewhat different approach here.
Unlike other systemd-free Linux distributions that entirely avoid systemd, MX Linux ships with systemd; however, SysVinit is still the primary init system. As a result, users can boot installed systems in whatever way they want, thanks to the systemd-shim system.
When the GRUB screen appears at the beginning of the boot process, you must select the “Advanced” options and pick the systemd.
On one side, this approach may be somewhat confusing for users. But on the other, we can’t help but appreciate MX Linux developers’ liberal attitude toward providing users with choices.
And, speaking of choices, there are many of them here. In addition, MX Linux has various internally developed graphical and command-line tools that make working with the distribution a breeze even for inexperienced Linux users.
MX Linux offers variants with KDE and Fluxbox in addition to its flagship Xfce edition. Finally, we should also highlight that MX Linux is one of the few remaining Linux distributions that provide a 32-bit installation option to support users with older hardware.
4. Nitrux Linux
Nitrux is a Linux distribution with a unique approach to the desktop user experience that sets it apart from others. Despite being entirely desktop-oriented, the average Linux user would be confused at first. But let’s explain what this is about.
Nitrux is based on Debian’s unstable branch, with a strong emphasis on the KDE Plasma desktop. But don’t get too excited because we’re not discussing a typical Plasma desktop here. Instead, it has been heavily modified to fit the developers’ concept, providing a unique user experience. The result of all of this is known as NX Desktop.
On top of that, Nitrux Linux comes with a set of applications that are not typical KDE apps. Instead, a large number of these are MauiKit-based apps. So, as a result, it is a very different type of desktop Linux distribution.
Another noteworthy aspect of the distribution is the availability of the XanMod kernel. For our readers who are unaware of it, the XanMod kernel is widely used in Linux gaming, streaming, live productions, and ultra-low latency enthusiasts. It has new features and custom settings and is designed to give a responsive and smooth desktop experience, especially for new hardware.
Continuing with the innovative approach the Nitrux developers took, Nitrux comes standard with AppImage and Flatpak support by default. In fact, many apps that come with the system are AppImages rather than native DEB packages installed by the APT package manager.
And finally, at the end of the presentation, let’s focus on the crucial reason why Nitrux Linux is on our list. It is a systemd-free Linux distribution that relies on OpenRC as its init system.
OpenRC is a dependency-based service manager created by Roy Marples, a NetBSD developer who was also active in the Gentoo project. This is another example of the MX Linux developers’ unusual approach to building the distro. Unfortunately, OpenRC, compared to SysVinit and runit, is a rather unpopular solution in Linux circles, primarily utilized in Gentoo.
To summarize, Nitrux is a beautiful desktop-oriented Linux distribution that provides the user with a new angle and approach to using the desktop environment. Furthermore, because it lacks systemd, it is pretty fast, and we are confident that if you decide to try it, you will not be disappointed.
You can learn more about Nitrux by visiting the project’s website.
And now we come to the last Linux distro on our list, where things get extreme. This is because we’re not just discussing another systemd-free Linux distribution, but one on a mission against systemd. But first, let me explain what this is all about.
Devuan emerged in 2014 due to Debian’s transition to systemd following a long technical and widely publicized dispute. Following the move, some Debian developers described themselves as “Veteran UNIX Admins” and collaborated to build Devuan by removing all traces of systemd and instead sticking to the well-known SysVinit init system.
Additionally, Devuan’s claim to fame is that it supports multiple non-systemd init systems. The most recent version allows users to choose SysVinit, OpenRC, and runit.
The name Devuan was chosen as a combination of two other words – “Debian” and “VUA (Veteran UNIX Admins).” To put it simply, in other words, Devuan is Debian without systemd.
Support for a wide range of hardware architectures is one of the things Devuan gets from Debian. In addition, Devuan is one of the few distributions that still support 32-bit architecture in addition to the popular 64-bit platform.
Like Debian, Devuan strives to be a general-purpose Linux distribution with desktop and server capabilities. The distro provides separate ISO images to install desktop and server versions in this regard. Unfortunately, its widespread adoption is hampered by several factors.
First, due to the distribution’s establishment by a group of old-school Linux administrators, many of its features are reminiscent of Linux distributions from 15 or more years ago.
For example, the installer is not something that an average Linux user could manage easily. It requires some knowledge of partitioning and how the boot loader works to be utilized. Something that used to be a standard part of Linux installation many years ago but is now nearly entirely hidden behind sleek user interfaces offered by the GUI installers.
In addition, many of the useful graphical tools that modern Linux users are used to are absent. So, what can we say in summary?
Yes, Devuan is Debian without systemd, but we should add something else. This distribution is not intended for the average Linux user, for whom UNIX philosophy and GNU values are just words.
To adhere as closely as possible to these values, the Devuan developers provide a reliable and stable Linux distro, but with a heavy dosage of retro flavor aimed at seasoned old-school Linux enthusiasts.
To use and understand Devuan, you must change your mindset and perception of the distribution’s core beliefs. Because, in my perspective, Devuan is first philosophy and secondarily a Linux distribution.
This concludes our review of the best Linux distributions without systemd. Yes, I know there’s one big one missing – Gentoo. But because Gentoo is a different, one-of-its-kind beast that competes only against itself, we have omitted it from the list above.
Systemd will undoubtedly continue to divide opinions and attitudes in the Linux community. As previously stated, the topic is rather broad, necessitating a thorough analysis and deserving its article.
In this article, we have introduced you to the best Linux distributions that have made the unpopular decision not to use systemd as its init system. We hope you found the article helpful and appreciate your taking the time to read it!
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.