Best Open-Source Distributions for Pentesting and Forensics
Linux has an extensive range of open-source distributions that pentesters, ethical hackers, and network defenders can use in their work, be it for pentesting, digital forensics, or other cybersecurity purposes.
Also known as “distributions,” these distributions are variations 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, from beginner to advanced, along with some aspects to consider when choosing a Linux security distro.
See the Best tools for penetration testing
Some experience required
Common operations like enumerating services, cracking passwords, intercepting HTTP requests, or even analyzing malware don’t necessarily require a pentesting operating system. Popular tools like the Burp Suite, OWASP ZAP, Nikto or BeEF are available as standalone apps and packages.
If you are a complete beginner I would not recommend using a pentesting distribution. Most pentesting distributions have two major drawbacks: they can be overwhelming and they require advanced knowledge.
You get hundreds of packages, scripts, word lists, and other software, but it usually requires solid knowledge and experience to master each tool, prevent abuse and rabbit holes, and run tests in safe conditions.
You can fully use a classic distro like Ubuntu with a few packages and the right configurations and do most things. Also, if you’re new to Linux, it’s probably better to start with generic systems.
In any case, it is strongly recommended to use VMs (virtual machines). Do not install the following distributions as your primary system unless you know what you are doing.
For example, if you need to test for ransomware, it’s better to have it on a VM that can be compromised without affecting your personal files. Also, you can take snapshots to quickly restore a working environment at will.
The idea is to isolate your test environment.
Kali vs. Parrot: Debian-based distributions
Both Kali Linux and Parrot OS are Debian-based distributions that are commonly used for pentesting. The two systems can be used by advanced and experienced security professionals with a fairly quick learning curve, but their approach is not the same.
It’s important to note that these operating systems have specific variations, so make sure you pick the right one. You can use Lite editions if you prefer minimal installs, but such versions may not include the pentesting resources you are looking for and you will likely have to install them manually.
See the The best vulnerability scanning tools
Kali Linux is by far the most widely used and recommended by security experts of the distributions in the list. It is the reference for security testing.
- The distribution is easy to install.
- Kali Linux offers a high level of security (e.g. custom kernel) and is actively maintained by Offensive Security.
- There are hundreds of pre-built tools for pentesting, security research, forensics, web app testing, and reverse engineering.
- Support is available for different architectures and platforms such as x86, ARM, Cloud, Mobile Android.
- Support is available for different installation modes like bare metal, VM, live boot, container, WSL.
- Despite notable improvements in recent versions, Kali Linux is not beginner-friendly.
- It can be slower than other distros like Parrot OS for some tasks, especially on low-end systems (expect some lag).
Parrot operating system
In a way, Parrot OS is Kali’s mirror image: it’s user-friendly and manageable for beginners, and requires fewer hardware resources. Depending on your needs, there are five editions to choose from.
- Parrot OS is easy to install, user-friendly and beginner-friendly.
- The distro is privacy-focused, with features like anonymization services, telemetry, logs, and trackers disabled by default.
- Parrot OS includes ready-made IDEs for programming.
- It is significantly lighter than Kali and requires less memory, free disk 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 like updating packages, which requires a learning curve.
Arch-based security distributions
Arch Linux standards are the reference for many professionals. While Arch requires a lot of patience due to its complexity, users can learn a lot about GNU/Linux, which is important for ethical hackers and pentesters.
Black Arch is a pentest distribution based on Arch Linux. It can be difficult to learn, but offers a number of benefits for those who make the effort.
- Despite being minimalistic, users will find plenty of packages to install.
- An existing Arch Linux installation can be upgraded to Black Arch.
- Black Arch uses continuous updates, which is part of its philosophy.
- There is no bloating or unnecessary services.
- Perfect for installing and testing cutting-edge resources, Black Arch offers a better package manager and sharing system.
- Black Arch can be difficult to install and use, and is not beginner-friendly.
- It works more like a hacker OS than a pen test OS.
ArchStrike is an Arch Linux repository with interesting tools for professionals. Another with a learning curve but designed specifically for hackers.
- ArchStrike can be installed on existing Arch installations to turn them into hacking environments.
- It’s easy to install and remove (see the new ISO installer).
- ArchStrike was built by hackers for hackers.
- There are special modules for investigations.
- A hardware detection facility is available.
- It’s not beginner friendly.
- ArchStrike is not technically a Linux distribution.
Computer forensics distributions
Computer forensics can be particularly challenging as retrieving meaningful information from tons of data can take many hours. CAINE (Computer Aided INvestigative Environment) is particularly helpful.
- It is user friendly and easy to install.
- CAINE offers a full investigation environment including autopsy and sniffer dog kit.
- It greatly facilitates forensics, 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 get.
DEFT is a distribution used by military, government officials, law enforcement, investigators, universities and individuals. The original project page is down and 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 defective drives.
- Advanced hardware detection is available.
- DEFT is particularly well suited for advanced integrity checking, computer forensics, and incident response.
- It contains specific guides to learn how to use the environment.
- Despite the guides, DEFT is not beginner-friendly and requires advanced knowledge to use it.
See more from Best Digital Forensic Tools
Other pentest operating systems
These last two distros may be lesser known, but they have some desirable features of their own.
Pentoo is based on Gentoo Linux, a minimalist distribution for advanced Linux users.
- Pentoo is great for Wi-Fi hacking and hardware accelerated cracking.
- It’s a relatively lightweight distro.
- Pentoo is actively maintained, although browsing the site may make the project look dead.
- It uses Portage as a package manager that compiles programs from source instead of downloading binaries.
- It is worth installing Pentoo on a live USB stick as a complementary set of tools.
- It’s not beginner friendly.
- Pentoo might be difficult to install and use, but it’s still easier than Black Arch.
SamuraiWTF aims to be “a full Linux desktop for use in application security training”.
- SamuraiWTF is maintained by OWASP.
- It’s easy to install, with various ready-made images for virtual machines like Kali.
- Quick setup is possible with the CLI (command line interface) using custom “Katana” commands.
- SamuraiWTF is perfect for web pentesting with a focus on user training.
- It offers great documentation.
SamuraiWTF is only helpful as an additional tool.