Best open-source distros for pentesting and forensics
Linux offers a wide range of open source distributions that pentesters, ethical hackers, and network defenders can use in their work, whether for pentesting, digital forensics, or other cybersecurity uses.
Also known as “distros”, these distros are variants of Linux that include the Linux kernel and usually a specific package manager.
For example, Kali Linux, one of the most popular pentesting operating systems, is Debian-based, which means it is based on the Debian project. Ubuntu, a famous Linux distribution that you may already know, is also derived from Debian.
Here are eight of the best Linux distros for cybersecurity use cases, for beginners to advanced users, along with some issues to consider when selecting a Linux security distro.
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Some experience required
Common operations such as enumerating services, cracking passwords, intercepting HTTP requests, or even scanning for malware do not necessarily require a pentesting operating system. Popular tools such as Burp Suite, OWASP ZAP, Nikto or BeEF are available as standalone apps and packages.
If you’re an absolute beginner, I wouldn’t recommend using a pentesting distro. Most pentesting distributions have two major drawbacks: they can be overwhelming and they require advanced knowledge.
You get hundreds of packages, scripts, wordlists, and other software, but it usually requires solid knowledge and experience to master each tool, avoid abuse and rabbit holes, and test under safe conditions.
You can totally use a classic distro like Ubuntu with a few packages and the right configurations and you’ll be able to accomplish most tasks. Also, if you’re new to Linux, it’s probably best to start with generic systems.
In any case, it is strongly recommended to use VMs (virtual machines). Do not install the following distros as your main system unless you know what you are doing.
For example, if you need to test ransomware, it’s best to have it on a virtual machine that can be compromised without affecting your personal files. Additionally, you can take snapshots to quickly restore a working environment at will.
The idea is to isolate your test environment.
Kali versus Parrot: Debian-based distributions
Kali Linux and Parrot OS are Debian-based distributions that are often used for pentesting. Both systems can be used by intermediate and experienced security professionals, with a fairly steep learning curve, but their approach is not the same.
It is important to note that these operating systems have specific variations, so be sure to choose the correct one. You can take advantage of the Lite editions if you prefer minimal installs, but those versions may not contain the pentesting resources you’re looking for, and you’ll likely have to install them manually.
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Kali Linux is by far the most widely used and recommended by security experts of the distros on the list. This is the benchmark for security testing.
- The distro is easy to install.
- Kali Linux offers a high level of security (eg a custom kernel) and is actively maintained by Offensive Security.
- There are hundreds of pre-packaged tools for pentesting, security research, forensics, web application testing, and reverse engineering.
- Support is available for various architectures and platforms, such as x86, ARM, Cloud, Mobile Android.
- Support is available for different installation modes such as bare metal, virtual machine, live boot, containers, WSL.
- Kali Linux is not suitable for beginners despite noticeable improvements in recent versions.
- It may be slower than other distros like Parrot OS for some tasks, especially on low-end systems (expect some lag).
Parrot operating system
Parrot OS is in some ways the mirror image of Kali: it’s user-friendly and manageable for beginners, and requires fewer hardware resources. There are five editions to choose from depending on your needs.
- Parrot OS is easy to install, user-friendly and suitable for beginners.
- The distro is privacy-focused, with features like anonymization services, telemetry, logs, and trackers disabled by default.
- Parrot OS contains pre-packaged IDEs for programming.
- It is significantly lighter than Kali and requires less memory, free space and RAM (GPU is also not required).
- Parrot OS is secure with features like sandboxes and regular updates.
- Parrot OS adds its own commands for generic operations such as upgrading packages, which requires a learning curve.
Arch-based security distributions
Arch Linux standards are the benchmark for many professionals. Although Arch requires a fair amount of patience due to its complexity, users can learn a lot about GNU/Linux, an important thing for ethical hackers and pentesters to know.
Black Arch is a pen testing distribution based on Arch Linux. It can be difficult to learn, but has a number of benefits for those who put in the effort.
- Although it is minimalist, users will find many packages to install.
- An existing Arch Linux installation can be upgraded to Black Arch.
- Black Arch relies on continuous updates, which is part of its philosophy.
- There is no bloat or unnecessary services.
- Black Arch is perfect for installing and testing cutting-edge resources, offering a better package manager and release system.
- Black Arch can be difficult to set up and use and is not suitable for beginners.
- It functions more like a hacker operating system than a penetration testing operating system.
ArchStrike is an Arch Linux repository containing interesting tools for professionals. Another with a learning curve, but it was developed specifically for hackers.
- ArchStrike can be installed over existing Arch installations to turn them into hacking environments.
- It is easy to install and remove (see the new ISO installer).
- ArchStrike is made by hackers for hackers.
- There are modules dedicated to surveys.
- A hardware detection facility is available.
- It is not suitable for beginners.
- ArchStrike is technically not a Linux distribution.
Distros for computer forensics
Computer forensics can be particularly challenging, as retrieving meaningful information from tons of data can take hours. CAINE (Computer Aided INvestigative Environment) is particularly useful for the task.
- It is user-friendly and easy to install.
- CAINE provides a complete forensic environment, including Autopsy and Sleuth Kit.
- It greatly facilitates forensic science, especially memory analysis.
- All block devices are set to read-only mode by default.
- The live environment can be used to analyze running Windows installations.
- CAINE lacks documentation, which limits the type of support users can receive.
DEFT is a distro employed by military, government agents, law enforcement, investigators, universities, and individuals. The original project site is down and it appears to have been discontinued, but downloads can still be found in a few places, including Archive.org.
- It is user-friendly and easy to install.
- DEFT can help recover broken discs.
- Improved hardware detection is available.
- DEFT is particularly useful for advanced integrity verification, computer forensics, and incident response.
- It includes specific guides to learn how to use the environment.
- Despite the guides, DEFT is not suitable for beginners and requires advanced knowledge to use it.
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Other Operating Systems Pentesting
These last two distros may be lesser known, but they themselves have some desirable features.
Pentoo is based on Gentoo Linux, a minimalist minimalist distribution for advanced Linux users.
- Pentoo is great for Wi-Fi hacking and hardware accelerated cracking.
- It is a relatively lightweight distro.
- Pentoo is actively maintained, although the project may seem dead when browsing the website.
- It uses Portage as its package manager, which compiles programs from source instead of downloading binaries.
- Pentoo is worth installing on a live USB stick as an add-on toolset.
- It is not suitable for beginners.
- Pentoo can be tricky to install and use, but it’s still easier than Black Arch.
SamuraiWTF aims to be “a complete Linux desktop for use in application security training”.
- SamuraiWTF is maintained by OWASP.
- It’s easy to install, with various predefined images for virtual machines like Kali.
- Quick setup is possible with the CLI (Command Line Interface), which uses custom “katana” commands.
- SamuraiWTF is perfect for web pentesting, with a focus on user training.
- It offers excellent documentation.
SamuraiWTF is useful only as a complementary tool.