Operating systems for penetration testing

Almost every new hacker has probably wondered which operating system is best for hacking. And, as always, to such questions, unfortunately, there is only one general answer: it depends...

There are various specialized Linux-based operating systems that are suitable for this task. This article presents the most important of them and will help you decide on your favorite.

It is essentially a matter of personal taste which platform a hacker or penetration tester uses for their hacking activities. However, there are differences that may play a role in the decision-making process. While there is a lot to be said for one of the dedicated Linux distributions, it is by no means the only option.

Alternatives to Linux Platforms

Many hackers grew up on Windows. So what could be better than using a system that the hacker has already become familiar with? Another argument for the relevance of Windows as a hacking system is its wide distribution, so such a system is available almost everywhere.

There are also a huge number of hacking tools written exclusively for Windows, although most tools now have corresponding Linux alternatives - though often not with a GUI and therefore less user-friendly. Windows should at least be used as a complementary platform in cases where Windows-based hacking tools produce better results than their Linux counterparts (if they exist).

Other hackers use Apple's macOS as their main platform. Apple computers, for example, are widely used in the creative and design industries, but are also often used by developers. Both industries overlap with hacking activities. For historical reasons, the Linux and Apple operating systems are largely compatible, allowing hackers to, for example, work with the shell on a Mac, as well as use many of the programs available under Linux.

Hacker Linux distributions

Many hackers and penetration testers choose Linux as their primary platform for most common hacking activities. Basically, almost all Linux-based hacking tools can be used with almost any distribution. However, custom distributions make life easier since most common hacking software is already compiled and optimized accordingly.

There is a wider selection of Linux distributions that specialize in hacking and IT security. The best hacking distributions have a large and active community, as well as simple and detailed documentation. But what makes Linux a particularly suitable platform for hacking in general is the core idea of "free and open source software" (F/OSS). The operating system and most of the included software are freely available or open source.

This gives every user the opportunity to learn how a computer system works. In theory, it is possible to read every function of a program in the source code. It is through a deeper understanding of the computer system that certain technical techniques can be developed and understood by other users.

But even beginners and those moving to Linux can easily use the Linux system as almost every distribution comes with a GUI that is largely intuitive to use and hence makes getting started much easier. In no case is it necessary to analyze the source code of programs in order to work with them.

Linux Command Line

However, this brings us to the first problem that Linux newbies have to face: unlike Windows, Linux plays music primarily on the command line. Thus, most hacking scenarios will require the user to open one (or more) terminal windows and enter command line commands. Many hacking tools are command line based and do not have a GUI.

Instead, the program is configured accordingly using various switches (called options) and parameters to achieve the desired goal. This makes it difficult to become familiar with using the tool, but on the other hand it provides performance that a GUI often cannot replicate.

Moreover, the shell, that is, the command line based Linux environment, is also very powerful and not only supports a large number of commands for efficient system administration, but also, thanks to its own scripting language, provides the ability to automate routine tasks in Linux. This helps you more efficiently handle complex, repetitive work and workflows for optimization.

Moreover, common distributions natively support various scripting languages such as Python, Ruby, Perl, etc. The above reasons, coupled with the ability to tailor a Linux system to your own requirements down to the last detail, make Linux extremely useful as a hacking platform.

Kali Linux

Kali Linux is perhaps the most used operating system in the field of hacking and IT security. The developers of Offensive Security, the company behind Kali Linux, are clearly targeting their distribution at penetration testers and IT security researchers.

The distribution is based on Debian GNU/Linux and can be downloaded from the official page. There are different options, and pre-built virtual machine images for VMware and VirtualBox are also available for download.

Originally known as BackTrack, Kali Linux has a relatively long history. The developers are suitably experienced and the community around Kali is suitably large, which is a strong argument in favor of this distribution. Kali comes with a large number (over 600) of security analysis programs - another argument in favor of this distribution for hacking tools.

There are also countless guides, documentation, forum posts, and blog posts. Offensive Security itself also provides various tutorials and introductory materials on its website, including the free and highly recommended Metasploit Unleashed online course. These are very important and useful sources of information, especially for those new to hacking and pentesting, as well as for expert questions.

Every quarter a new version is released and functionality is developed. Various modes are provided, such as forensic mode for analyzing security incidents. Secret Mode was added in Kali 2019.4 and disguises the desktop interface as a Windows system to work more discreetly in busy environments.

With Kali 2020.1, Offensive Security switched the default desktop environment from GNOME to Xfce, making Kali more compact and resource-efficient and thereby refuting one of the main criticisms. If you rely on the best, you certainly can't go wrong, and this distro is especially recommended for beginners as it is mature, reliable, very well supported and probably has the largest community of any hacker distro.

Parrot Security

Parrot Security is a very young, but nonetheless strong contender in the race for the best hacker distribution. There is also an active user community that has already resolved many of the initial issues. Like Kali, Parrot is based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, is free and open source, and receives regular updates.

The clear and modern website is full of tips and guides to help you get started quickly and easily. Parrot is also available in different versions. The basic choices are Home Edition (without special security programs) and Security Edition (including hacking and forensics tools).

Hackers and penetration testers download the program in one of the offered versions. In addition to various user interfaces such as MATE and KDE, it offers not only installable ISO files, but, as with Kali, ready-made VirtualBox OVA files. They can be easily imported into VirtualBox and are good for initial tests.

Parrot is a relatively lightweight operating system that does not consume a lot of hardware resources. In addition to the normal installation, which can also be encrypted if necessary, it can be booted as a live system or installed permanently, for example on a USB drive. Admittedly, all of this is also offered by Kali and is not a unique benefit.

Parrot offers a nice and neat interface without hiding too much from the user. The desktop is unusually colorful for a distribution that specializes in pentesting, which is probably due to the name (Parrot).

Parrot sometimes offers categories of programs that are intelligently coordinated with each other, some of which cannot be found in other hacking distributions. For example, there is a "Privacy" category that provides some tools for anonymously browsing the Internet.

This also includes Anon Surf as an alternative or complement to the Tor network. Enabling this feature disables programs that may compromise your privacy. From now on, all Internet traffic will be routed through the Tor network.

So, if you are looking for a similar Kali Linux alternative, you should definitely give Parrot Security a chance. Although the system is still quite young, and this is also reflected in the maturity level in some places, the distribution is still very promising and, thanks to its user-friendly nature, may even be more suitable for some beginners than Kali Linux.

BlackArch Linux

While Kali Linux and Parrot are also suitable for everyday desktop work (and Parrot Home is even designed for this purpose), BlackArch Linux is an option purely for use as a hacking and pentesting platform. BlackArch is based on Arch Linux and can be configured on it as an unofficial repository or, conversely, supplemented with corresponding applications from the Arch Linux repository.

Anyone impressed by the 600-plus tools integrated into Kali will be impressed by the 2,400-plus programs included with BlackArch. BlackArch is playing in a league of its own here. Tools can be installed individually or sorted into groups. The distribution emphasizes text-based work, so graphics usually don't play a big role.

BlackArch Linux can be downloaded from the official page in various flavors, some of which require an unusually large amount of disk space. On the one hand, there is a regular 15GB live ISO image. As an alternative, the website offers a live ISO of NetInstall that is just under 500MB in size. Both options optionally allow permanent installation on the system after startup.

On the other hand, if you just want to “quickly” test the distribution one time using the provided OVA image for VirtualBox, keep in mind: the image size is 35 GB and includes the entire set of available software!

Unlike Debian-based distributions, BlackArch Linux always uses the latest software packages available. This includes the kernel, system components and libraries, as well as applications such as browsers and other software. However, the distribution is well tested and generally runs reliably and stable when released.

BlackArch Linux does not offer a full desktop environment. As a result, visually everything becomes more minimalistic, which, however, looks quite stylish and matches the hacker distribution. However, this is where BlackArch's biggest stumbling block becomes apparent: the distribution is not suitable for beginners, and users of other Linux distributions should also get to grips with Arch Linux first before switching to BlackArch.

However, if you don't mind the learning curve and poor user experience, you can look forward to a comprehensive professional platform that is entirely focused on hacking and penetration testing and has very few hardware requirements.

Other hacker distributions

In addition to the ones presented above, there are a number of other Linux distributions that specialize in hacking, forensics and security analysis. Below is an overview with a brief introduction:


One of the most mature security distributions is Backbox. It is based on Ubuntu as well as Debian GNU/Linux. While other distributions focus on hacking, Backbox tries to cover as many relevant related subject areas as possible and provides the most common tools for this purpose.

Like Parrot Security, the Backbox app menu doesn't immediately and exclusively focus on security, although the Audit menu item does provide an extensive collection of security auditing and hacking tools sorted by category.

There are other similarities to Parrot: Backbox also has an Anonymous menu item, which is used to achieve a high degree of anonymity when communicating with the Internet through the Tor network. Moreover, Backbox is also designed for easy user navigation and is therefore suitable for beginners.

Although Backbox specializes in security auditing tasks, it is also suitable for everyday desktop use, even on older hardware, due to its low resource requirements. As a derivative of Ubuntu, Backbox is designed for ease of use and allows you to install full Ubuntu software from official repositories.


As the name suggests, Pentoo is based on Gentoo Linux and is a security-focused option. Gentoo is a Linux distribution designed for advanced users and offering a wide range of customization options. The price for this is the willingness to work with extensive documentation.

While Gentoo typically needs to be compiled and configured first, requiring a lot of manual work, Pentoo is offered as a live CD that can be easily run to provide Pentoo.

Pentoo can also be used as an add-on to an existing Gentoo installation. The Pentoo Applications menu contains the most common security auditing tools in their respective submenus. Due to its inaccessibility, Pentoo will primarily appeal to users who are already working with Gentoo.


A project focused exclusively on forensic analysis is CAINE, a live distribution developed and maintained in Italy. CAINE stands for Computer Investigation Environment and is based on Ubuntu.

The distribution was created in 2008 after Russian hackers carried out a large-scale attack on numerous Italian servers, and the events that occurred and the damage caused had to be documented in court through forensic analysis.

The ISO image is available for free download on the official page. Unlike other forensic tools, CAINE has a user-friendly interface and thus makes it easy to access so that even ambitious private users can use it.

The desktop is based on MATE, and the application menu contains a large number of forensic tools under the Forensic Tools section. By default, existing hard drives are mounted in read-only mode to prevent accidental write access. Permanent installation is also possible if you need to check a large number of mobile storage media with CAINE, as this is not practical for a Live DVD or USB stick.

CAINE offers a very good platform for forensic analysis, but is therefore not a hacker distribution in the true sense of the word, but is only used for subsequent analysis of hacker attacks. But it is, of course, also an interesting field for hackers, not least because they can, by changing their perspective, learn what tools and techniques are used for forensic analysis and what information can be obtained from them.


Linux is undoubtedly the most popular platform for hackers, and for good reason. With Kali, Parrot & Co, hackers and penetration testers can take full advantage and get specialized Linux distributions with countless hacking and security auditing tools in one package.

Even though Kali Linux is the most popular distribution, there are a number of interesting alternatives from which hackers and penetration testers can choose their favorite distribution. However, it is fundamentally important not to limit yourself to one operating system and one platform, but to remain flexible and able to cope with different environments. The hacker does not follow a predetermined path, but uses what is available and works in the appropriate situation.

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