Photon OS: Container virtualisation by VMware

Photon OS is a minimalist container host from the US company VMware. Although the operating system is optimised for the company’s platforms, it basically also works in other environments. The distribution is lean and secure but is mainly aimed at experienced users.

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What is Photon OS?

Photon OS is a Linux server distribution developed and published by VMware. The main use of the operating system is container deployment. While Photon OS is optimised for VMware platforms, it also runs in several other environments. The system was first introduced back in 2015, and since then VMware has developed versions that have been improved upon, especially in terms of security and management. The minimalistic Linux distribution itself is lean and comes with Docker preinstalled. In addition to ARM64 and x64, Raspberry Pi is also supported. Photon OS is open source and uses the Apache License 2.0.

Who is Photon OS suitable for?

Photon OS is designed for the use of containers and is used by all VMware environments. The operating system is very lean and minimalistic, but also meets high demands in terms of speed, security, and functionality. This makes it the ideal Linux distribution for experienced users working in the areas of microservices, containers, and virtualisation. In data centres in particular, Photon OS provides excellent services.

What are the system requirements of this distribution?

Images of Photon OS are currently available for VMware vSphere, VMware Workstation Pro, VMware Fusion, Microsoft Azure, Google Compute Engine, and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and in two versions. The minimum version only requires 512 MB of memory. A minimum of 2 GB of RAM is recommended for this. For the full version, 8 GB of memory is estimated for Fusion and Workstation. vSphere requires twice that.

What does Photon OS have to offer?

Photon OS is equipped with the Docker daemon and contains a lifecycle management system called tdnf, which is YUM-compatible and package-based. In addition, there is a kernel that is optimised by VMware according to the guidelines of the Kernel Self Protection Project (KSPP). Since the Photon OS 4.0 version, there is support for OpenSSL 3.0, the pmd-nextgen management tool for working with clouds and mobile applications, as well as the most important packages for Linux Kernel, Glibc, Systemd, Python3, Openjdk, and Cloud-init. All common container formats can be processed with Photon OS. Container-based applications can be migrated with the system from development to production.

What are the pros and cons of this operating system?

Photon OS is specialised, and accordingly it is only really intended for particular purposes. For this reason, it is worth taking a closer look at the pros and cons to check if the operating system is the right one for you.

Pros

  • Size: VMware puts the focus on the minimalistic approach of Photon OS. That is understandable. The operating system is very lean and therefore works on many different machines.
  • Security: Despite the manageable size, the topic of security is capitalised on in Photon OS. The security-hardened kernel is very well protected because the recommendations of the Kernel Self Protection Project (KSPP) are used for the system. VMware regularly provides security updates for the common container packages.
  • Management: The management of Photon OS has been further adapted and optimised over the course of the different versions. Especially the Photon Management Daemon facilitates the management of network interfaces, packages, firewalls, and users. Through native Kubernetes binaries, Kubernetes containers can be created with Photon OS.
  • Open Source: Due to the open-source approach, all users have access to the source code and can freely work on and with Photon OS. The code base is open to every user.
  • Container: Even though Photon OS is closely linked to VMware and released by the company, all common containers can be used with the operating system.

Cons

  • No versatility: Photon OS performs well in container virtualisation but is not suitable for many uses beyond that. Those looking for a versatile Linux distribution will find better options.
  • Reliance on VMware: Even if Photon OS can basically run in other environments as well, many users criticise the close ties or even dependence on VMware. The operating system is clearly optimised for the different VMware platforms.
  • User friendliness: Photon OS is primarily aimed at experienced users who are already well versed in Linux and container virtualisation. The operating system, which only provides a command line interface, is unsuitable for beginners.
  • Small Community: Compared to other distributions, Photon OS only has a very small community. Users are often on their own when it comes to questions and problems.

Alternatives to Photon OS

While Photon OS only runs in virtual environments, there are lots of alternative Linux distributions for other purposes. These include the two well-known operating systems Ubuntu and Debian, or the derivative Linux Mint. For extensive security checks and ethical hacking Kali Linux has proven itself. If you are comfortable using Linux commands, you will get a minimalistic and therefore extremely flexible operating system with Arch Linux. For users who have got used to CentOS, AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux may be welcome successors.