The Laboriousness of “Lightweight Linux”

Why do Linux users seem to be so obsessed with their distro of choice being “lightweight”? I simply don’t get it, and quite frankly, I find the whole notion of “Lightweight Linux” laborious.

Lightweight Linux is a farce

Yes, that’s right. Linux needing to be “lightweight” is a complete an utter farce. Think about the machine you’re currently using. What hardware specs does it have? I’d be willing to bet that it has at least 2GB of RAM, a multi-core CPU and a whole lot of storage. According to the recent Ubuntu Desktop Metrics, 4-8GB of RAM is most common.

The laptop I’m currently on has 8GB RAM, a 4 core i7 CPU and 256GB of SSD storage. I’m currently running UbuntuMate 18.04 with Firefox and around 10 tabs open, Thunderbird for my email, I’m typing this article in Remarkable, and I’m chatting to friends on Keybase.

If I look at my system monitor, I’m using around 25% of my RAM, and less than 10% of my CPU (albeit with tiny peaks that last for fractions of a second).

My laptop isn’t a particularly powerful machine; actually, it’s probably below average by today’s standards. But even if my laptop was half as powerful as it actually is, I still wouldn’t be taxing the machine in any meaningful way.

Why is “Lightweight Linux” a thing?

I personally believe that is harps back to days of old when machines were nowhere near as powerful as they are now, when how “light” an operating system was really did matter (hello Windows Vista). Over time, computer specs have increased exponentially, but the requirements of operating systems haven’t followed that same curve.

Browsers are pretty darn heavy on resources these days, but unless you’ve got 100 tabs open, even they will run just fine on a low-spec machine.

Ipso facto; a machine doesn’t need to be all that powerful to run ANY Linux OS.

Yes, you need a hefty machine for modern games, but that has always been the case. Plus, many people still don’t use Linux for gaming, despite Linux games being so common on the Steam Store these days. 🙁

But even if you are using your machine for gaming, why do you need a “lightweight” OS? You have a powerhouse of a machine. Is an extra 200MB of RAM usage, and a few CPU cycles really going to cause any kind of noticeable impact on your system’s performance? I seriously doubt it.

Sure there are going to be edge cases where people need a really lightweight OS so they can run Puppy Linux on an Amiga 600. But let’s be honest here, even the $35 Raspberry Pi doesn’t need a particularly light OS.

Please, Linux community, I beg you; stop with the “how light is it?” comments, as no one really needs to care.

640k of RAM ought to be enough for anybody.Bill Gates

Update 25th July: I’ve had quite a lot of feedback on this post; mostly positive, but some negative too, which is fine. I wanted to clear a couple of things up to save me repeating myself over and over.

  • This post focuses on desktop Linux only. In the server space, especially when it comes to virtualised infrastructure where hundreds (or even thousands) of servers are spun up and destroyed quickly, being “lightweight” and quick to boot is hugely important.
  • People are confusing “optimisation” and “lightweight”. I’m not against operating systems being optimised (obviously) – that’s extremely important. What I personally think when someone talks about “lightweight” is an Operating System that has features, tools and/or applications removed or deliberately selected to save system as many system resources as possible.
    • For example; UbuntuMATE is an optimised distro – it doesn’t prioritise memory footprint and system resources when choosing what’s bundled. Although this plays a part in the decision I imagine, it’s not the overriding factor. Something like Puppy Linux would be a lightweight distro for me, not UbuntuMATE.
  • I realise there are many cases where people don’t have higher spec hardware for whatever reason. My point was that the majority of hardware out there can run most distros.
    • I’m not saying lightweight distros shouldn’t exist. I just think that it should be a little less important to people when running relatively decent hardware.
  • Remember, this is an opinion piece and we’re all entitled to our opinion. I’m not trying to tell people what to think; this article was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Please take it as it was intended. 🙂