Top 5 Free and Open-Source Linux Distros for Embedded System

If you have worked on deploying IoT solutions for your organization then you would have a better idea about how setting up a standard desktop system and developing an embedded system are two very contrasting tasks. Linux has become the number one selection for IoT manufacturers because of its lightweight software, stability, open-source code, cost-effectiveness, security, and continuous improvement. Linux has gained users’ respect and earned their trust by providing budget-friendly embedded development alternatives to the proprietary kernels that would cost a fortune. Linux also provides flexibility to the developers to work on the designated distros for embedded systems instead of working on the virtual machines which are a bit weird to work on. There are a few other factors involved in the popularity of Linux apart from the affordability such as the provision of a stable kernel, multiple software suppliers, support and development, and most importantly, the ease to read, alter, and redistribute the source code. The choice of distros for business desktops or embedded systems is very different. For enterprise-grade desktops, distros like Ubuntu are a great option but when embedded systems are under consideration then distros must compose the software image for the device, libraries, drivers, kernel, bootloader, and software.

These features have helped Linux gain popularity among users and we have carefully analyzed, selected, and described the top 5, free, open-source, and most popular Linux distros.


Yocto is a free, and open-source collaboration project that allows you to design your distro to your liking. For the developers working on the embedded system, Yocto provides space, flexibility, and software stacks so that the best-customized result can be achieved. Yocto has a huge following among open-source users, tech enthusiasts, and manufacturers of boards and semiconductors. It can be used for building wraps, target SDK, package feed, and target run-time binaries. You can also enhance the functionality and features by addition of layers. The provision of flexibility, layer priority, and override capacity of Yocto is made possible because of the modular architecture. You get bug fixes and new releases semiannually, and the documentation provided is quite in-depth which provides ease of understanding. The only downfall is for the new users because the distro requires time and energy to get the full hang of the functionality.

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It is a lighter version of Yocto which is free and open-source for the users. It is also a tool like Yocto which incorporates cross-compilation to simplify and automate the process of embedded Linux distro generation. A root file system, bootloader, cross-compilation toolchain, and a Linux kernel image can easily be built using Buildroot. Apart from supporting many processors, this software also supports off-the-shelf boards majorly SheevaPlug, Cubieboard, and Raspberry Pi. It enables you to generate lightweight distros and is very easy to use. If you are a newbie, then you do not have to worry about the complexity of this tool because it is very easy to learn and master. The only drawback users have to face is the minimalistic approach that does not provide many options for customizability.

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Ubuntu Core

Since most of the users, developers, and manufacturers already have know-how about Ubuntu, that makes Ubuntu Core a popular choice for the embedded Linux distro. It is based on Debian and empowers users to optimize their IoT devices by allowing the inclusion of only those binaries and packages that are important for the proper functionality of single-purpose IoT devices. The usage of Ubuntu Core provides an immutable container-based OS, modulation, and security. To counter the issues like faulty updates filled with bugs or an interrupted update, deltas are used. The purpose of deltas is to send updates several times a day so that these issues can be avoided. Orchestrators and container runtimes like AWS, LXD, Azure IoT Edge, Docker, Greenhouse, and Kubernetes are supported by the Ubuntu Core. The minimum requirements of the distro installation are 512MB storage, 256MB RAM, and a 500Mhz single-core processor. These requirements make the distro a nonviable option for low-spec devices.

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Raspberry Pi OS

It is free, open-source, Debian-based, and official software of Raspberry Pi devices. Initially, the purpose of introducing the Raspberry Pi was to make computer science easily accessible to every user with cost-effectiveness. Other features like single-board, modulation, open-source, and low-cost made it popular in the IoT market too. It was used to support many of the Raspberry Pi-based projects that became very helpful and successful during Covid-19 like cameras and ventilators. It is slowly getting its way into industrial and home-based IoT projects. The only drawback is the usage limitation on different hardware other than Raspberry. For this reason, it has not been able to grab much attention in the IoT device market.

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It is another great, open-source Linux project targeting embedded systems. Users are provided with the writable filesystem and package management instead of the single, static firmware. This allows users to customize the device as per the requirement instead of working on the configuration provided by the manufacturer. It works as a replacement for the original framework of the devices. Other features that make the openWRT a viable option for users are the DNS server, Client functionality, PPP protocol, availability of full configuration, and wifi access point.

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Closing Remarks

If you are searching for the environment to install for your embedded system then Linux is undoubtedly the best option that provides distribution, the right tools, solutions, and multiple work platforms. Although, the possibility of one single distro meeting the requirements of every embedded system is nill. A different approach is required for the successful functionality of every project and it requires a distro that matches the approach. Instead of distro hopping, you must analyze your requirements and then select one suitable distro. We have gathered the list of 5 top, free, and open-source Linux distros that are compatible with the embedded systems. We hope that this summary would help you out in your search for the perfect distro that is perfectly compatible with your embedded system.

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