SecurityTrails Blog · Oct 10 2019 · by Sara Jelen

Top Linux Distros for Ethical Hacking and Penetration Testing

Reading time: 14 minutes

Every superhero needs the right weapons and tools, and security professionals are no different. The right toolkit is one of the most important things you’ll need to help you perform cyber investigations, digital forensics and penetration testing more efficiently and quickly.

An operating system that is more security-focused will be your best asset for discovering and testing vulnerabilities in systems and networks. And when it comes to ethical hacking and penetration testing, Linux operating systems are one of the best and most used open source OS’s. Because it’s an open source operating system, anyone, even a beginner, is able to get into cybersecurity and penetration testing and get all the tools and features they need, and for free.

With so many Linux distributions out there it’s vital that you find the one that suits your cybersecurity needs. To help you, we’ll take a look at the 5 best Linux distros for ethical hackers and penetration testers.

Linux distros in cybersecurity

Linux, as we mentioned, is an open source software made and distributed by different organizations and individuals. This means you could take source codes for different open source Linux programs and assemble your own OS—which would take a lot of time and effort. That’s why we have Linux distributions.

Linux distros combine the source codes from open source projects and create a single, unified OS, made up of the Linux kernel, the GNU components, a window system, window manager, desktop environment and more. There are almost 600 Linux distros and they all feature a number of capabilities, features, tools and system requirements, and are intended for use on different types of devices including desktop computers, servers, laptops and mobile phones.

There are some commercial distributions such as Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux from Red Hat, Ubuntu from Canonical Ltd., openSUSE from SUSE and Oracle Linux from Oracle. In contrast, there are others that are entirely community-developed and -maintained such as Debian, Slackware, Gentoo and others.

Generally, Linux is always recommended because of its stability, support and scalability; major pluses for any security professional performing network analysis, digital forensics, security auditing, ethical hacking, penetration testing and more.

So let’s get to it, and examine the features, tools and hardware requirements that come along with the best Linux distros for security researchers.

5 best Linux distros for hacking, forensics and pen testing

Kali Linux

Kali Linux is a favorite among many security professionals. We here at SecurityTrails are big fans of Kali Linux ourselves, and have written time and time again about its amazing features, penetration testing tools and even how to install Kali Linux in the cloud.

This Debian-based, open source distro is created and maintained by the Offensive Security group. It’s known as the reincarnation of BackTrack, another Linux distro that’s made its way onto this list.

Kali Linux comes with over 600 pre-installed flexible tools that are frequently updated and specifically crafted for penetration testing, data forensics, security research and reverse engineering. It comes with live build so it’s completely customizable: you can play with every part of the Kali image, including the kernel.

It also comes with a forensic mode which you can enable from the boot menu, and will allow you to avoid any data changes in the system by disabling such network services. This is very helpful for pen testing and locating any weak points a company might have.

It’s easy to install, as the hardware requirements for Kali Linux are a minimum of 20GB disk space for the install, RAM of i386 and amd64 architectures and CD-DVD Drive / USB boot support/ VirtualBox. Note that these are the minimum requirements—it’s always recommended that you have a stronger machine to run it smoothly.

We’ve shared in the past about the 25 best Kali Linux penetration testing tools available, so for a more detailed look into the pen testing capabilities of Kali, please check out that blog post. For now, let’s do a quick review of the best three:

  1. Nmap is the most famous network mapping and vulnerability scanning tool out there, even making its appearance in couple of movies. It was written in C++ but has been extended with Python, C and Perl. Many security professionals use it to identify open ports, detect security risks, spot all devices on a network, perform OS fingerprinting, automate it for detecting certain vulnerabilities and perform a security audit of their networks. Nmap is also completely free and it receives updates constantly, from a passionate community that will help you master it in no time. There are many ways you can use Nmap, so we suggest you check out our top 15 Nmap commands.
  2. Nikto is every ethical hacker’s staple. It’s a vulnerability scanner written in Perl and it helps ethical hackers and penetration testers discover security vulnerabilities by detecting insecure files, programs, software and server misconfigurations, outdated server software and more. Nikto offers scanning of multiple ports, attack encoding, IDS evasion techniques, CGI directory scanning, support for proxies, SSL and host authentication, Apache and cgiwrap username enumeration and more.
  3. Metasploit Framework is the most frequently used platform for penetration testers and security experts as it offers a number of valuable tools for detection, validation and exploitation of security flaws and vulnerabilities. Different tasks you can perform with Metasploit include network enumeration, security assessment, exploiting known vulnerabilities, collecting valuable data, avoiding detection on remote hosts and creating the perfect vulnerability testing environment for your pen testing needs. It’s available as both an open source and commercial edition, so you might not find all the features available for free. In both cases, however, it’s an invaluable tool for ethical hackers and penetration testers.


BackBox is an Ubuntu-based OS best suited for penetration testing and assessing your computer’s security. It’s one of the best out there and a predecessor to Kali Linux; it’s no surprise they’re so close on this list.

BackBox is the most famous Linux distro in the hacking community that isn’t based on Debian. With a passionate community that’s also very active on forums, you can get help in no time. It’s completely free and the entire project is dedicated to promoting security culture.

Its complete XCFE desktop environment is designed for very low memory. The repository is hosted on Launchpad and all its applications are regularly updated to to provide you with the most stable versions of the software.

With BackBox you can easily create an environment to perform security testing and simulate attacks. It’s also one of the fastest Linux distros out there, and the tools offered include network analysis, application analysis, forensic analysis, exploitation and stress testing tools as well as vulnerability assessment, documentation and reporting.

BackBox minimum hardware requirements are a 32-bit or 64-bit processor, 512MB of RAM, 4.4GB of disk space for the install, 800x600 graphic card and a DVD-ROM drive/USB port. Although it comes with significantly fewer pre-installed tools than Kali Linux, BackBox does have some amazing tools to help with pen testing:

  1. Wireshark Wireshark is essential for any security professional and system administrator. It’s a network protocol analyzer that allows you to analyze any network traffic and troubleshoot any network issues, malicious activity on the network and is a standard in educational institutions. Its many features include a deep look into network protocols, live capture and analysis of data from a network connection, an amazing capture filter for the data, VoIP analysis, capturing of raw USB traffic, decryption for plenty of protocols and more. This project began in 1998 but stays relevant to this day with its capabilities and ongoing development from the open source community.
  2. Tcpdump Tcpdump is a command line utility for capturing and analyzing network traffic and packets. It’s also quite useful for sys admins and troubleshooting network issues. Tcpdump is written in the C programming language. You can use this versatile tool to read content of network packets, intercept communications from another computer, filter and show traffic by IP, port, protocol, application-layer, TCP flags, port ranges and save all those captures.
  3. Sqlmap Sqlmap is another open source tool available in BackBox that helps you with automatization of detecting and exploiting SQL injection flaws and, in its primary role, with taking over databases. This Python-based tool can extract data from said databases, update tables and even access the underlying file system and execute commands on the OS. Sqlmap features automatic recognition of password hash formats, can execute arbitrary commands and return the output, and much more.

Other tools in this distro include Armitage, W3af, John the Ripper, Ettercap and the Social Engineering Toolking among others.

Parrot Security OS

Parrot Security OS is another OS based on Debian, this time created and maintained by Frozenbox. It’s very lightweight, provides great anonymity for hacking, and is excellent for pen testing, forensics, cryptography tasks and even software development.

While others on this list are designed strictly for pen testing and ethical hacking, Parrot OS Security is also a good choice if you merely want to surf the Internet while maintaining your privacy. Parrot Security OS has a cloud-friendly environment and features an encrypted system.

With its highly customizable capabilities, you can definitely feel the Kali Linux influence this OS. Like BackBox, if offers strong community support on many different forums.

Its MATE desktop environment arrives preinstalled, it’s frequently updated and, of course, free. All the popular pen testing tools are available with Parrot OS Security, as well as a few exclusive tools.

Hardware requirements for Parrot OS Security are a minimum of 320MB RAM, 1GHZ dual-core CPU, that it can boot in legacy and UEFI modes, and at least 16GB of disk space for install. Now, let’s look at Parrot’s most popular tools:

  1. TOR (The Onion Routers) We can’t mention the best Parrot Security OS tools without including the famous TOR. This an anonymously distributed network is frequently used by Hacktivists, ethical hackers, black hats and other individuals who want to make their online activity private. TOR directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide volunteer network so it can hide the user’s location and conceal them from any surveillance and traffic analysis. It’s often been cited in many famous publications as the dark side of the Internet, having been used by numerous cyber criminals and customers of the Silk Road.
  2. Aircrack-ng Aircrack-ng is a suite of tools designed for assessing and cracking WiFi security. It can be used for capturing packets and exporting data, replaying attacks, deauthentication, faking access points and other attacks using packet injection, testing WiFi cards, cracking different wireless security protocols such as WEP and WPA PSK, and many other actions.
  3. OpenVAS OpenVAS is another handy vulnerability scanner and vulnerability manager software framework. All the plugins for OpenVAS are written in NASL. It features authenticated and unauthenticated testing, high and low level Internet protocols and it can be implemented in any type of vulnerability test. The scanner is updated daily and is developed and maintained by Greenbone Community Feed.


When it comes to maintaining a special focus on penetration testing, the number one Linux distro for security researchers and ethical hackers has got to be BlackArch. This distro is built on Arch Linux and you can install BlackArch components on top of it.

If 600+ tools in Kali Linux sounded impressive, then BlackArch and its more-than-2000-tool repository is definitely in a league of its own. Not to mention that the repository is ever-growing and thoroughly tested before its capabilities are made available for download over Github.

In contrast to the other entries on this list, BlackArch doesn’t provide a desktop environment but a Window Manager. The many pen testing tools can be downloaded separately or in categories such as crackers, debuggers, anti-forensics, keyloggers, proxy, backdoors, sniffers, malware, fuzzers, disassemblers, wireless and others.

The minimum hardware requirements for BlackArch are a 64-bit processor, 1GB free disk space (but 20GB is recommended for basic usage) and a USB drive with a minimum of 2BG storage. Here are some of the most popular tools BlackArch offers:

  1. Cyberscan CyberScan, one of the easiest pen testing tools available, can prevent network intrusion by showing you your network exposure and monitor open ports. Cyberscan can analyze packets, scan ports, ping and geolocate IP addresses. It can also be used to find unauthorized applications and hosts.
  2. ZMap ZMap is a collection of tools designed for scanning the network and for use in Internet-wide network surveys blackarch-scanning. And it’s fast: on a computer with a gigabit connection, ZMap can scan the entire public IPv4 address space in under 45 minutes. ZMap has been developed to scan the entire address space, providing you with speedy, reliable results.
  3. Amass We’ve never hidden our love for Amass and a noted security expert even features it in our #ProTips as his favorite tool in the subdomain takeover process. It’s designed to perform mapping and discovery of the attack surface, asset discovery by using OSINT and provides valuable assistance for your recon needs.

More tools from BlackArch include AndroBugs, APT2, crackhor, DNSRecon, dnsmap and SSLScan. For the full list of all BlackArch tools, check out their website.

DEFT Linux

DEFT stands for Digital Evidence and Forensic Toolkit—so the name itself implies the best possible use for this Linux distro. It’s built around DART and comes with many well-known forensic tools. DEFT Linux is built for running live systems without corrupting or altering the devices connected to the computer where booting occurs.

It’s widely used by penetration testers, ethical hackers, security auditors and universities and is a staple among law enforcement agencies and military. DEFT Linux can boot up to two different modes, a GUI Mode and a text mode. Depending on those modes, it can either give you a command line interface or one with 2 different usage modes; a text mode and a GUI mode.

Minimum hardware requirements for DEFT Linux are a X86 CPU 200Mhz processor and 128 MB RAM. And as for the best tools it offers, here are three:

  1. Autopsy Autopsy is an amazing digital forensics tool, loved by law enforcement, the military and corporations for digital investigations. Some of its features include hash filtering, extracting web artifacts, recovering of data and files, data carving, scanning a computer using STIX and more.
  2. Recoll Recoll is a desktop tool that allows you to find any documents based on their file names. It’s amazing for file recovery and can search most doc formats and reach any storage place, from archive to email attachment to computer files. It indexes the contents of any document type and is based on Unicode, which means it supports a number of languages and sets of characters for the most accurate file retrieval possible.
  3. RegRipper RegRipper, written in Perl, is one of the fastest and most effective tools used in forensics analysis. It’s best used for extracting and analyzing data from the Registry. An important thing to know about RegRipper is that it is not a Registry browser, it’s used for extracting and parsing the data from it, but you don’t have an option to browse through it.

These are not the only tools DEFTLink offers. Others include DumpZilla, Bulk Extractor, Pasco, Lslnk and more.


As we’ve now seen, there are many different Linux distros available, each providing different features, tools and capabilities. And when it comes to ethical hacking, forensics, penetration and the many tasks they involve, we’ve done our best to present a list covering the widest range of abilities in each distro, to help with your security research and testing.

If we had to pick favorites, Kali Linux stands out as our number one. This winner features easy installation, regularly updated repositories and a wide range of valuable tools.

Do you need a deeper dive into security intel? Well, SecurityTrails has you covered with our domain automation lists, forensic DNS tools and IP exploration that, when combined with any of these Linux distros, will make your daily security tasks a breeze. Grab your free API account today or book a demo with our sales team to check out the capabilities of all-in-one, enterprise-grade SurfaceBrowser™.

Sara Jelen Blog Author

Sara believes the human element is often at the core of all cybersecurity issues. It’s this perspective that brings a refreshing voice to the SecurityTrails team. Her ability to bridge cognitive/social motivators and how they impact the cybersecurity industry is always enlightening.