10 Best Linux Distros for Hacking and Penetration Testing (2023)
Are you an expert in cyber security, an ethical hacker, or a system security analyst looking for the best operating system for your job? The list of Linux distributions in this article should help you choose the best Linux distribution for your needs.
- Kali Linux — Best Overall for Hacking and Penetration Testing
- BackBox — One of the Fastest Linux Distro for Hacking
- ArchStrike — An Arch-Based Linux Distro for Hacking and Penetration Testing
- Cyborg Hawk — Linux Distro with the Most Recent Linux Kernel
- Network Security Toolkit (NST) — Best for Network Security and Penetration Testing
Best Linux Distros for Hacking and Penetration Testing
As regards ethical hacking and penetration testing, Linux operating systems are undeniably the best to use. Whether you plan to work in information security or are currently a security expert, having a good Linux distribution that is appropriate for your needs is a huge plus. Linux, as we know, is an open-source operating system that gives you the option to select your own operating system.
As such, there are several Linux distributions for different use cases. While some are made with particular tasks in mind, others work better with specific interfaces. However, today we will look at a list of some of the best Linux distros for hacking and penetration testing. Besides, a hacker's best tool is a security-focused operating system because it helps discover vulnerabilities in computer networks or systems.
But before we go through the list, let's look at some of the characteristics that make these the top Linux distributions for hackers.
What Makes a Linux Distro Good for Hacking and Penetration Testing
As we already know, Linux operating systems with a focus on security are not just for everyday use but also for high-end computing. However, while not all Linux distributions are recommended for hacking, some are uniquely designed for this purpose. As such, one of the reasons some of these operating systems are the best for penetration testing and hacking is that they come with many custom-made tools.
These are tools that can be used in various aspects of information security and other research tasks. Be it a network mapping and vulnerability scanning tool, a network protocol analyzer, or an anonymously distributed network. These tools ensure the privacy, security, and anonymity of ethical hackers as they do system testing.
That being said, let's get into the list of these secure Linux distributions for you as a budding or expert security professional.
Best Linux Distros for Hacking Penetration Testing
Keep in mind that these Linux distros are built with very close attention to the dynamics of both computer and internet security. Some are more worried about virus attacks on your personal files, while others are focused on a user's online anonymity. Okay, enough blathering; let's get started.
Kali Linux — Best Overall for Hacking and Penetration Testing
- Min. Processor: 2 GHz dual core processor or more
- Min. RAM: at least 2 GB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 20 GB of free drive space
Kali Linux is at the top of our list. It is a Debian-based, open-source Linux system designed for various information security activities like reverse engineering, computer forensics, and penetration testing. For penetration testing and ethical hacking, this Linux distribution continues to be the most often used. It comes with more than 600 pre-installed digital forensics and penetration testing tools and applications, enhancing the capabilities of your security arsenal.
Kali Linux enables security and IT experts to evaluate the security of their systems from data collection to final reporting. Kali Linux supports a wide range of devices, including ARM platforms. Kali Linux has also developed the first open-source Android penetration testing platform, “Kali Linux NetHunter,” for Nexus devices. Hence, this distribution has tons of features to take advantage of. Besides, its GNOME, XFCE, and KDE Plasma desktop environments can make it simple and easy to use.
Pros & Cons of Kali Linux
- It is loaded with tools made especially for hackers and penetration testers.
- Live USB installs are supported.
- Without downloading a new version, Kali Linux can be updated.
- It can be slow sometimes.
- It is not recommended for beginners.
BackBox — One of the Fastest Linux Distro for Hacking
- Min. Processor: 64-bit processor
- Min. RAM: 1 GB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 20 GB of disk space for installation
Another popular Linux distro for cybersecurity is BackBox. It is an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution that offers a toolkit for network and information systems analysis and is targeted at penetration testing and security assessments. In order to assist you in simulating an attack on your network or application, it also provides a full variety of penetration testing and ethical hacking services.
BackBox Linux is unique in that it was created with the objective of achieving optimum performance with the least amount of resource use. As a result, BackBox is a highly fast distro that can run on outdated hardware. The strength and potential of its community are other assets of this Linux distribution. This means that BackBox is a community effort that is free and open-source rather than just an operating system. The community's goal is to advance the IT environment's security culture and contribute to making it better and safer.
Pros & Cons of BackBox
- It is carefully designed with the aim of minimizing redundancy.
- This hacking operating system offers a user-friendly desktop environment (XFCE).
- It provides a fast and reliable environment for penetration testing and hacking tasks.
- For new Linux users, it is a user-friendly distro.
- Compared to other Linux distro for hacking, it has fewer tools. It just contains the necessary toolkit needed for ethical hacking.
ArchStrike — An Arch-Based Linux Distro for Hacking and Penetration Testing
- Min. Processor: 32-bit, and x86_64 64-bit CPUs
- Min. RAM: 1 GB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 8 GB USB stick or larger
ArchStrike is a security-related Linux distro based on Arch Linux. Cybersecurity experts can play a big part in keeping companies and their data safe by using this Linux distro for ethical hacking and pen testing. For ethical hackers and pen testers who desire lots of options in the tools they use, ArchStrike is a great choice. This is because there are so many tools available and this distribution strictly adheres to Arch Linux principles to keep its packages neat, proper, and simple to manage.
It offers all of Arch Linux's top features as well as extra tools for penetration testing and cyber security. This operating system has been tailored to work best with the i686, x86-64, ARMv6, ARMv7, and ARMv8 architectures. Also, it has an up-to-date stable repository of ArchStrike packages that have undergone testing and review.
Pros & Cons of ArchStrike
- Its base in Arch Linux gives hackers excellent options and control.
- For packages related to ArchStrike, it has a stable repository.
- On existing Arch systems, ArchStrike can be added to convert it into a hacking environment.
- Installing and uninstalling it is simple.
- Open-source investigational apps are present in this context.
- It is not a distribution recommended for a beginner in hacking.
Parrot OS — Best Linux Distro Alternative to Kali Linux
- Min. Processor: 1 GHz dual-core CPU
- Min. RAM: 320 MB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 20 GB of hard drive space
Another Debian-based Linux distribution made exclusively for hackers and security experts is Parrot OS. It is a top choice for penetration testing and digital forensics due to its pre-installed security tools and anonymity features. Its Parrot Security Edition is a specialized operating system made for the red team and penetration testing activities. Scapy, Powersploit, Rizin, and a host of other pre-installed pen-testing tools, utilities, and libraries are all included in the toolkit.
For hackers, Parrot OS’s Hack the Box Edition gives you access to Pwnbox. This is a customized hacking cloud box based on ParrotOS Security Edition that you can have on your computer or try online at Hack The Box Academy. Hence, it is one of the best distributions for people starting their ethical hacking journey. However, it can be challenging for beginners. Another great thing about this distro is that Parrot Security OS is a lightweight OS that uses MATE as its desktop environment.
Pros & Cons of Parrot OS
- Its pre-installed security tools and anonymity capabilities make it a suitable OS for digital forensics, penetration testing, and hacking.
- It is offered as a lightweight OS with minimal resource consumption.
- It has a steep learning curve.
BlackArch Linux — Best Alternative to Archstrike
- Min. Processor: 2Ghz Quad-Core Processor
- Min. RAM: 6GB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 50GB of hard drive space
BlackArch is the second Arch-based Linux distro for hackers, penetration testers, and security researchers on our list. BlackArch has its own repository containing over 2,500 hacking and pen-testing tools organized into several groups. Even though BlackArch Linux is frequently recommended for cybersecurity experts, it's not the ideal option for a novice.
For installation, it is available in three separate ISO images: Full ISO, Slim ISO, and Netinstall ISO. The Full ISO includes a fully operational BlackArch Linux system with all the tools present in the repository at build time. The Slim ISO, on the other hand, has a functioning BlackArch Linux system; however, it only comes with a few standard tools and system utilities for hacking and pentesting. Lastly, the Netinstall ISO is a lightweight image for setting up machines with just the essential packages. The Slim ISO features the XFCE Desktop Environment with web security and assessment apps including Openbox, Awesome, Fluxbox, and WMII, whereas the BlackArch Full ISO includes multiple window managers.
Pros & Cons of BlackArch Linux
- This operating system can be run with limited resources.
- It offers live ISO with multiple window managers.
- It has over 2500 tools and utilities in its repository for hacking and pen-testing tasks.
- It is not an ideal Linux distro for a beginner hacker.
- It can consume system resources sometimes, ultimately slowing down the system's performance.
Cyborg Hawk — Linux Distro with the Most Recent Linux Kernel
- Min. Processor: 64-bit Processor
- Min. RAM: 4 GB of RAM
- Min. Storage: 20 GB of hard drive space
For cyber security experts, Cyborg Hawk is an Ubuntu-based distribution with the most recent kernel. Based on an Ubuntu subsystem, Cyborg Linux contains a sizable number of modifications and its own customized PPA repository. It was created as a pen-testing Linux distribution and is designed for ethical hackers and penetration testers. In addition to digital forensics, Cyborg Hawk can be used to evaluate network security. It is also fully functional as a live OS and has access to more than 750 penetration testing tools. It definitely isn't as fast, sophisticated, or polished as other Linux hacking distros like Kali Linux, ArchStrike, or Parrot OS, but it still performs a great job.
It also has several tools for mobile security, wireless testing, and malware analysis. Given that it contains important tools for penetration testing and cyber security, it is advised not to be used by individuals who are not familiar with Linux.
Pros & Cons of Cyborg Hawk
- It comes with its own software repository.
- It can be used as a live OS with full capabilities.
- It comes with more than 750 penetration testing tools pre-installed.
- It is a stable and reliable OS.
- It is not a high-performance Linux distro.
- It is not for beginner hackers.
- It doesn't perform very well on older systems.
- Not really managed and maintained.
Pentoo — Great Lightweight OS for Hacking and Penetration Testing
- Min. Processor: i686 or ARM Processor
- Min. RAM: 512 MB of RAM required
- Min. Storage: 20 GB of free space is required
Based on Gentoo Linux, Pentoo is a Linux distribution that emphasizes security. It is an operating system designed for security analysis, penetration testing, and hackers. It consists essentially of a Gentoo installation with a wide range of customized penetration testing tools, a customized kernel (with grsecurity and PAX protection as well as additional fixes), and other features. You can, however, install Pentoo as an overlay on Gentoo if you already use that operating system. If you want to carry out ethical hacking and penetration testing in a modified Gentoo environment, it's definitely a solid alternative.
As such, some of its tools are classified into categories such as cracker, exploit, scanner, database, forensics, etc. It is accessible as a live CD that supports persistence. Meaning any changes made in the live environment will be available on the next boot if you use a USB stick. Pentoo is however made available as both a 32- and 64-bit installable live CD. Like BackBox, this distribution uses the XFCE desktop environment.
Pros & Cons of Pentoo
- It is a live CD and live USB designed for intrusion testing and security assessment.
- Its Live CD and USB come with persistence support that enables you to save all the changes you make before running off.
- It is integrateable with Gentoo Linux.
- It offers its users the opportunity for customization based on their needs.
- It is a bit outdated.
Network Security Toolkit (NST) — Best Linux Distro for Network Security and Penetration Testing
- Min. Processor: i686 or x86_64 compatible CPU (Core 2 series or later)
- Min. RAM: 512MB of RAM required
- Min. Storage: 16 GB of disk space if you install to your hard disk or a 2GB USB flash drive for live version
Network Security Toolkit (NST) is a Linux distribution built on Fedora that is intended for network security and penetration testing. It has a toolkit that offers best-of-breed open-source network security software that is easily accessible. In other words, a full collection of open-source network security tools will be made available to hackers, security experts, and network administrators. The bootable ISO live USB flash drive version of NST (NST Live) is similar to Pentoo Linux's. Most x86-64 systems can support it. Making it a user-friendly hacking distribution that transforms x86-64 systems into an ethical hacking tool. Ultimately, it will be useful for intrusion detection, network traffic sniffing, network/host scanning, network packet creation, etc.
Additionally, an advanced Web User Interface (WUI) is available for system and network administration, network monitoring, network analysis, and the setup of numerous network and security applications available in the NST distribution.
Pros & Cons of Network Security ToolKit (NST)
- Network Security Toolkit (NST) can be used for network security analysis and validation.
- It has an easy-to-use WUI (Web User Interface).
- It has over 125 security tools in its repository.
- It runs very well on x86_64-bit systems.
- NST has package management capabilities similar to Fedora.
- It's a really complex Linux distro for a beginner.
DEFT Linux — Best Linux Distro for Computer Forensics
- Min. Processor: 200Mhz Processor (X86 CPU)
- Min. RAM: 128 MB of RAM required
- Min. Storage: 4 GB USB stick
Another Linux distribution designed specifically for computer forensics is Digital Evidence and Forensics Toolkit (DEFT). By using DEFT, a person can operate a live system without compromising other devices or corrupting files. The Windows-based forensics system DART (Digital Advanced Response Toolkit) has an equivalent in DEFT. Hence, DEFT Linux is a user-friendly platform with top-notch hardware detection and some of the greatest open-source applications for both incident response and forensics.
To run Windows tools on Linux, DEFT pairs WINE with the LXDE desktop environment. In addition to law enforcement organizations and the military, ethical hackers, penetration testers, security auditors, and universities all frequently use the DEFT distribution. Hash filtering, data and file recovery, STIX computer scanning, data carving, and other functions are just a few of its capabilities. Unfortunately, the first project website is no longer accessible, and it seems to have been abandoned. Yet, a few websites still offer downloads.
Pros & Cons of DEFT Linux
- It is easy to install and use.
- DEFT is very good for advanced computer forensics, incident response, and integrity testing.
- It comes with enhanced hardware detection.
- It’s a lightweight Linux distro that can run on old hardware.
- Even with its documentation, it is not a beginner-friendly operating system.
Bugtraq — Best Alternative to DEFT Linux
- Min. Processor: 1GHz x86 processor
- Min. RAM: 512 MB of RAM is required
- Min. Storage: 15 GB of disk space for installation
Bugtraq boasts of offering the most comprehensive Linux distribution that is optimal and stable with an automated services manager in real-time. It is a Linux distro for hacking with a strong emphasis on GSM forensics, malware labs, and digital forensics. This distro has more than 500 ethical security hacker tools that have been installed and configured, and they are available in 11 different languages. The packs of Bugtraq penetration testing tools include IPv6-specific tools, GSM, Bluetooth, and wireless audit tools, malware testing labs, integrated Windows tools, and tools for testing malware on mobile devices.
The live system of Bugtraq comes with the XFCE, GNOME, and KDE desktop environments in Ubuntu, Debian, and OpenSUSE versions. However, depending on the desktop environment, features vary. It is no doubt an arsenal of tools for ethical hacking and penetration testing.
Pros & Cons of Bugtraq
- Bugtaq comes with community-designed tools such as mobile forensic tools and malware testing laboratories.
- As a Linux distro for hacking, it is reliable and stable.
- It has a user-friendly user interface.
- Like many other distributions, it is not beginner-friendly.
Q. Which is the best Linux distro to choose for ethical hacking?
There are several Linux distributions out there, and each has its own unique set of features. As such, your choice of the best Linux distribution for hacking will entirely depend on your objectives for the operating system. Some are excellent for forensics, while others work well for penetration testing. While some are user- and beginner-friendly, others are not. Again, your needs will play a big role in your decision on the best Linux distribution. However, if we must make a recommendation, Kali Linux is a wonderful operating system to handle all your hacking and penetration testing tasks.
Q. Are Linux distros illegal for hacking?
Linux distributions like Kali Linux, ArchStrike, or DEFT Linux are not illegal operating systems on their own. These are merely pieces of open-source software that feature tools for forensics, security analysis, penetration testing, and hacking, to name a few. For instance, ethical hacking helps in identifying weaknesses in a system and improving security by fixing them. Also, it protects systems from hackers who might steal important data. In contrast, it is the other way around in the hands of these malicious users. This is what is considered illegal—the purpose for which the distro is used.
Q. Which Linux distribution is best for a beginner hacker?
Although hacking is a high-end computing endeavor, it has a good learning curve for people wishing to gain expertise in computer security programming. So, for a beginner hacker, we do recommend Kali Linux as a user-friendly operating system with a very good learning curve. It comes in GNOME Shell, XFCE, and the KDE Plasma Desktop Environment, which can make the experience seamless for new users. It also has tons of tools pre-installed, so you don’t have to bother looking for extra tools, at least as a beginner.
As we've seen, several of these Linux distros for penetration testing and hacking aren't the best for new users. As a result, selecting the best operating system for hacking and penetration testing is a wise decision for anyone just starting out in these fields or trying to improve their knowledge of them.
The list of Linux distributions for hacking and pen testing that we have described above, we believe and hope, will help you in your search for the best one that meets your requirements.