Which one should you choose?


When it comes to digital security, you can either trust everything is secure or you can certify it yourself. You might even be the person other people go to confirm their safety for them. Either way, a Linux distribution that focuses on penetration testing has the tools you need for the job.

Kali Linux, BackBox, and Parrot OS are three of the most popular options for ethical hacking and security testing. Do you need decision support? Let’s dive in.


The goal of Kali Linux is to be the most advanced distribution for penetration testing. The project is supported and financed by the US-based international company Offensive Security. The first release was in 2013, but the origins go back to BackTrack Linux and even further to a project called Whoppix (short for WhiteHat Knoppix) back in 2004.

What software comes with Kali Linux?

Kali Linux is a rolling release distribution based on Debian. The standard setup offers the Xfce desktop a custom design and app menu, the categories of which reflect the needs of security professionals. Categories include Web Application Assessment, Password Attacks, and Sniffing & Spoofing.

Kali Linux has around 600 penetration test programs, making it the most comprehensive Linux distribution for the job. But you don’t have to preinstall that much code if you don’t want to.

The standard installer provides “metapackages” that bundle together similar types of software. So, if you only need the core components that are required to run the Kali Linux desktop, this is the route to be taken. Or if a graphical user interface is too much for your work, you can also go for the headless option.

The metapackages cover the type of tests you want to run. You can only install tools that target Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth devices, Radio-Frequency Identification Tools (RFID), Voice over IP (VoIP), and more. Likewise, you can get metapackages that provide tools that benefit from accessing GPU hardware or hardware hacking.

Download Kali Linux

When you go to the Kali Linux website download page, it seems like you can run Kali almost anywhere. The standard version known as “Bare Metal” that you can install on your PC is around 500MB to 3GB, depending on whether you choose the network-attached installer or the offline installer.

There are also OVA downloads for VirtualBox and VMWare. There is an ARM version with links to popular brands like Raspberry Pi and Pine64. You can also run Kali on a large number of Android devices.

If you want to launch Kali on a cloud server, in a container or simply on a USB drive, there are options for everyone. You can even access Kali through the Windows Subsystem for Linux.

Download: Kali Linux


BackBox Linux is a community-supported distribution for penetration testing and security assessments. The aim of the project is to promote the security culture in IT environments and this exclusively with free and open source tools. BackBox Linux has been around since 2010.

What software comes with BackBox Linux?

BackBox Linux comes with fewer than a hundred tools, far from the number available in Kali Linux. The BackBox team offers this as part of the appeal of the distribution and offers a curated selection that excludes tools with similar functionality. This is supposed to make BackBox Linux easier to use, especially if you don’t have any favorite tools to turn to.

If you want to add more tools, the BackBox Launchpad repository has more and more recent software versions. You can also customize BackBox for your specific use case by creating your own Launchpad Personal Package Archive (PPA).

The documentation for BackBox Linux is not up to date compared to the other options. The official wiki is relatively spartan and contains some dead links. Fortunately, there is a forum and Telegram group that you can turn to for help.

Download BackBox Linux

BackBox Linux feels like a traditional Linux distribution. When you hit the website’s download page, there is only one option. The resulting ISO is around 3 GB.

Download: BackBox Linux


Parrot OS is another community supported option, a few years younger than BackBox Linux. Parrot OS expands its audience a little and appeals not only to security professionals, but also to privacy-conscious people in general. The same focus is on penetration testing, but the distro also points out tools to help protect your privacy while surfing the internet.

What software comes with Parrot OS?

Parrot OS derives its roots from Debian Testing and uses the MATE desktop environment by default. There are two versions of Parrot OS to choose from, which affect which desktop environment you can use.

The Home Edition is aimed at computer users who are looking for a light but private operating system for their computer. It comes with programs like the Tor Browser for private internet surfing and Element for secure communication. But there’s nothing stopping a security professional from installing the additional tools necessary to do their job.

This version is set to MATE by default, but you can choose KDE Plasma or Xfce instead. Parrot OS isn’t as private as Tails, but it’s better usable as an everyday desktop.

The Security Edition includes the kind of tools you would expect from a distribution dedicated to attack defense and vulnerability assessment, and saves you the hassle of installing many of them yourself. The Security Edition limits your selection to MATE and Plasma.

Download Parrot OS

There are several versions of Parrot OS to choose from. For starters, there are the Home Edition and the Security Edition designed to run on your PC. Then there are OVA versions of each designed for use in VirtualBox and VMWare. You can also run Parrot OS as a Docker image or run the distribution in your web browser via Pwnbox.

Download: Parrot OS

Which distribution is right for you?

It depends on your level of experience and what you are trying to do. If you want maximum functionality and can take advantage of the support of a company, Kali Linux is an easy recommendation.

If you don’t want to be a for-profit influence and you like what Launchpad has to offer, BackBox might be for you. If you are looking for a distribution that you can use for work as well as for your everyday personal computer, Parrot OS can be a comfortable home.

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