Linux servers battle for enterprise recognition

Mandrake, Red Hat, SuSE, and Turbolinux demonstrate Linux advancements

Linux is working its way into datacenters and has great penetration as a Web server. The allure of the open-source OS is clear: Administrators can take a very inexpensive distribution, add assorted server software, apply all the necessary patches, configure the system for good security, and end up with a great enterprise server platform.

For those with less Linux experience or without the resources to pull everything together, several stable, secure enterprise server releases from the major Linux vendors are available. I recently tested four: Mandrake Linux ProSuite 9.1, Red Hat Linux Enterprise Server ES 2.1, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, and Turbolinux Enterprise Server 8.

All four vendors offer substantial features in their enterprise versions — features not included in the standard distributions. The included software apps are not necessarily the latest editions; the vendors selected the most stable, bug-free versions. These servers also boast enhanced manageability and scalability. None, however, stands out as a clear winner, although each has some bragging points.

Red Hat offers the widest variety of support options and additional features, from the basic $349 version to the $2,499 Enterprise Server AS version, which adds load balancing, clustering features, and the promise of one-hour turnaround on support. SuSE supports the broadest variety of processors. Turbolinux offers most of the features of the SuSE version but adds some nice utilities of its own. And Mandrake offers a very nice suite of GUI administration tools that will appeal to those with less Linux experience.

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The Linux Landscape

The solutions I looked at share some common ground in key areas. All installed easily and without problems on a variety of systems, including two dual-processor Xeon systems. None had problems detecting dual processors, nor with any of the disk drives, HBAs (host bus adapters), NICs (network interface cards), graphics cards, and monitors. This is a big step forward from just two years ago.

Further, all the distributions provided support for various boot loaders and boot sectors, making them compatible with Windows in a dual-boot environment.

The distributions also included all the server applications necessary to set up shop, including the Apache Web server and PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) extensions, SMTP (postfix and sendmail), MySQL or Postres SQL database servers, OpenLDAP directory server, and Kerberos security, to name but a few.

Yet not all Linux servers are created equal. Support is a key differentiator between enterprise server and nonenterprise offerings. All the vendors provide premium support for their respective solutions, but deciphering the various support options, both included and optional, can give you a headache.

Security also warrants scrutiny, and each vendor says that its enterprise server code is more carefully audited for vulnerabilities.

These OSes lack management consoles; each application or server has a separate management application, or may not have one at all, thus requiring that text files be edited to change settings. Each distribution addresses this differently, providing utilities to start and stop services such as Apache, DNS, or DHCP, if not to configure them. Mandrake has a very nice set of utilities for configuring most of the servers you might want to run.

Documentation is another area where the distributions vary considerably. All of the tested products offer online documentation, which may not be of much comfort if you’re having trouble getting the system to work. SuSE and Mandrake offer extensive printed documentation. Red Hat provides a slim, 100-page installation guide. I didn’t receive Turbolinux’s printed documentation.

Another interesting area to look at is compatibility with applications. All the distributions have RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) installers that will install applications packaged in the popular format.

In addition, Red Hat and United Linux have relationships with software vendors to ensure that third-party applications will run well on their systems. Oracle is a member of United Linux, whereas Red Hat has relationships with a great many hardware and software vendors, including Oracle, Dell, IBM, and others. Mandrake is not as well-known in this arena, however it recently announced a relationship with Hewlett-Packard to provide desktop systems. 

Mandrake Linux ProSuite 9.1

Mandrake’s server platform reflects its desktop orientation, with the latest versions of the KDE (K Desktop Environment) and Gnome GUIs, and a very nice set of GUI tools for configuring Apache, DNS, DHCP, and other servers, as well as a firewall. Mandrake Linux ProSuite 9.1 is the least expensive product in the review at $199, although Mandrake also has a Corporate Server for $749 with a year of unlimited support.

The installer is very comfortable for the non-Linux administrator. It offers a security selection up front that allows you to select standard, high, higher, or paranoid; that applies a minimum security necessary for server configuration; and that allows selection of server packages, graphics packages, and GUI software from the start. This makes it easy to configure a text-based Web server or a complete file/print/Web server with GUI. The distribution also includes Webmin for remote administration via browser.

At the end of the installation, it offers an Internet update to get the most recent versions of server, drivers, etc. After the initial installation, Mandrake offers mailing lists of security and OS updates. Mandrake is also the only distribution to include the Apache 2.0 rather than the 1.3 version supplied by the others.

It also includes a complete workstation DVD packed with the most up-to-date and full-featured office and productivity software. The single DVD makes it easy to install all the workstation applications from one source, instead of managing multiple CDs.

Last but not least, the ProSuite 9.1 includes an evaluation version of IBM’s DB2 Universal Database for Linux, the DrakSec security manager, and an anti-virus tool. Advanced utilities such as RFBDrake (for a remote frame buffer configuration/

launcher tool) and URPMI (for automated installation of software packages) makes administration and configuration of services a snap.

Support includes 90 days of Web support with a 48-hour response window and phone support for five incidents, also good for 90 days.

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Red Hat Linux Enterprise Server ES 2.1

Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES 2.1, priced at $799, is one of two enterprise-oriented Linux distributions from Red Hat. The other, Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS 2.1, is priced from $1,499 and includes SMP (Symmetric Multiprocessing) support for more than two CPUs, support for more than 4GB of RAM, clustering capabilities, Web farm load-balancing capability, and Itanium compatibility.

The ES installer provides a choice of three levels of security during setup. You can select a server installation that installs all the server packages, or a custom package selection that allows you to select which servers you want to enable.

When the system is started, Red Hat provides the Kpackage Manager to see what packages are installed. After the software is registered, the Red Hat Network provides access to updates of both system software and applications. One odd quirk: The standard installation of the Mozilla browser will not work on the Red Hat site to access the registration area. You have to force a reinstall of the browser to add all the necessary SSL capabilities.

Red Hat includes old versions of KDE and Gnome; in fact, it’s the only distribution that still features Gnome 1.4, which is much buggier than the 2.0 release. It is also the only distribution that defaults to Gnome as the GUI.

Both also support asynchronous I/O so that applications don’t need to pause after issuing read I/Os, increased SMP granularity (especially in the SCSI I/O subsystem for better disk performance), SMP scheduler enhancements, enhanced support for more than one gigabyte of memory, and enhancements to improve database performance.

The Standard Edition provides a full year of support and a one year subscription to Red Hat Enterprise Network for updates and security patches. It also includes a full boxed set of CDs and printed documentation. The AS version includes a one-day response time on Web support and one hour on phone support. A full year of updates is also included.

SuSE Linux  Enterprise  Server

SuSE provided much of the installer base code for all the United Linux variations, and the installer works well. It automatically detected all the hardware in our systems, with the exception of one Samsung LCD monitor.

The YaST2 installer, shared with the Turbolinux distribution, doesn’t provide as many choices for preconfiguring security or selecting which servers will be installed as do the other two distributions. But it certainly does an adequate job, and the YaST2 configuration manager provides a nice monolithic program for determining which products are installed, for adding additional services, and for updating products.

After installation, only basic services run by default; this is to keep the system secure. The Services control utility makes it easy to start and stop servers and to determine whether they start upon booting or are started manually.

SuSE offers a number of extensions to its Enterprise Server platform, including a collaboration suite, OpenExchange, Lotus Domino server, and a telecom-oriented release. SuSE also provides the widest base of support for systems other than the Intel x86, including Itanium; Opteron; IBM iSeries, pSeries, and zSeries; and IBM S/390. It also supports as many as 32 processors with support for the Unisys 7000 system.

SuSE and Turbolinux both include journaling file systems, POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface for Unix) support, IP load balancing via LVS (Linux Virtual Server), support for Intel Hyper-Threading, MXT (Memory eXpansion Technology) and PCI hot-plug IBM and Compaq controllers. They also have support for asynchronous I/O so that applications don’t need to pause after issuing read I/Os, SMP scheduler enhancements, enhanced support for more than 1GB of memory, and enhancements to improve database performance.

SuSE Linux Enterprise Server is priced at $749 and uses the United Linux code base. Support includes one year of maintenance and updates, around-the-clock

e-mail and phone support with a two-hour turnaround time for premium support, or around-the-clock e-mail and phone support with a four-hour turnaround time for standard support.

TurbolinuxEnterprise Server 8

Turbolinux is a member of the Asia-based United Linux consortium, with offices in Japan, Korea, and China. It offers some specialized language support for those areas. In most other ways, it is very similar to the SuSE Enterprise Server, with the same YaST2 installer, support for the same platforms and most of the same utilities and application versions. One minor ding: The YaST2 installer was not available through the menus after the install; I had to start it from a console window.

The Turbolinux Mongoose installer includes software RAID support via LVM (Linux Virtual Machine) or evms (enterprise volume management system), support of installing on a machine with more than 4GB of memory and a hyper-threading CPU, and TFDisk — a graphical partitioning tool. Turbolinux also includes Webmin, a browser-based remote administration tool.

Like SuSE’s offering, Turbolinux Enterprise Server 8.0 is priced at $749, uses the United Linux code base, and has the same kernel and base OS. SCO Linux, also a United Linux member, is not included because the company recently discontinued its distribution and support for Linux in the wake of its suit against IBM.

Sixty-day, five-incident OS installation support, and a year of updates are included.

All four products offer a stable release, a good set of features and server applications, and extended functionality. Although Mandrake scored highest in our test, any of the products reviewed will offer everything that administrators are looking for. Your decision will likely be based on familiarity or support available in your area.
InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Scalability (15.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Documentation (15.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Red Hat Linux Enterprise Server ES 2.1 8.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 7.9
SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 7.8
Mandrake Linux ProSuite 9.1 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.4
Turbolinux Enterprise Server 8 9.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 7.0 8.0 7.6