Linux rallies with low-cost, common OS architecture

After years of relative obscurity, Linux, as well as open-source software in general, has hit the market in a big way in 1999. Enterprise users are waking up to the value of software developed by - and for - the people who use it. And vendors are realizing that even when they give away source code, they can make money by offering users companion tools and support services.

Linux, a version of Unix, offers a robust, stable, inexpensive and constantly evolving platform for developing, deploying and managing applications. As we tested the products in this comparison, we saw something we hadn't seen in quite a while: an operating system market not dominated by one vendor. The benefits are staggering.

The great thing about the Linux market is that there are many flavors of Linux, each with its own benefits and target market. As a consumer, you can select the one that best fits your needs, whether you want a simple setup process, powerful administration tools, strong development tools or network interoperability.

Because the Linux foundation is common across the products in this comparison, you probably can download the pieces you like that aren't included in a particular product. And those pieces generally are free.

The upshot is that Linux offers a common operating system architecture that works across many hardware platforms, and you're not wedded to the whims of a monolithic operating system vendor.

Choosing the Right Linux

We set out to evaluate Linux offerings from the perspective of a typical information technology person faced with choosing the right product to use as a platform for a World Wide Web, e-mail, and file and print server. We assumed that Web development would be done with Perl, C and Hypertext Markup Language. We also assumed that the administrator has little or no Unix experience. Such assumptions meant that we placed high value on a smooth installation, friendly administration, a strong user interface, useful documentation and solid technical support.

If we learned one thing in this comparison, it is that not all Linux offerings are created equal. That's a good thing because not all Linux users have the same requirements. For our comparison, the race came down to Red Hat Software Inc.'s Linux 6.0 and Caldera Systems Inc.'s OpenLinux 2.2.

SuSE Linux 6.0 and Pacific HiTech Inc.'s TurboLinux 3.6 are solid Linux offerings, but they are perhaps not the right choices under our scenario.

Ultimately, Red Hat's smooth installation, excellent graphical user interface (GUI) and world-class administrative tools won out. Red Hat Linux 6.0

Red Hat is a powerful force in the Linux market. Its products are among the most popular commercial versions of Linux. In fact, many companies that distribute Linux simply repackage Red Hat Linux. Red Hat Linux 6.0 won our comparison with a final score of 8.45.

Version 6.0 of Red Hat Linux includes many new features and improvements, including the Linux 2.2 kernel (see sidebar, below right) and the exciting new GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME) GUI.

Red Hat lets you choose your desktop environment from among most of the ones available for Linux, including GNOME, the K Development Environment (KDE) and the classic fvwm. There should be something for everyone in these choices.

GNOME offers an object-based GUI through the cool Enlightenment window manager, and we spent quite some time tweaking the look and feel of our desktop. KDE provides a robust window manager that emulates Windows, Macintosh or Unix desktops, thus making just about any user feel at home. Fvwm offers a solid, basic window manager for the comfort of Linux veterans.

Red Hat's installation isn't the sexiest one around (that would be Caldera's), but it worked as well as any we examined. The text-based interface walks the user through a straightforward process, and the auto-detection identifies most of the hardware.

Red Hat gives you the choice of a server, workstation or custom installation. The first two choices partition and format the hard disk automatically and then install selected software. The custom installation offers two methods for partitioning the hard disk: the more intuitive Disk Druid and fdisk.

Disk Druid offers an interface that lists partitions and enables you to create, delete or edit them. A typical user probably can configure a disk correctly using Disk Druid. If you want to know what installing Linux was like in the early days, spend some time playing with fdisk. Fdisk is completely command-line-driven and provides a primitive interface for doing the same tasks that Disk Druid performs. Unless you're familiar with fdisk, stick with Disk Druid.

Network configuration, which has always been a little tricky in Linux, also benefits from an auto-detection feature. But we threw a curveball at the Linux offerings in this comparison by installing a new 3Com Corp.

OfficeConnect 100 megabits/sec Ethernet adapter in our PC. While Linux has drivers for an enormous amount of hardware, it sometimes takes a while before a driver is available for a new device. Red Hat, like all the other products in this comparison, failed to detect the new 3Com network interface card.

When we switched to a more common 3C905 NIC from 3Com, Red Hat detected and configured it successfully. The moral of the story: Check out hardware compatibility before you're halfway through the operating system installation.

It looks like the Linux community finally has its act together when it comes to video configuration. Red Hat properly identified our system's ATI Technologies Inc. Mach 64 video card. However, although Red Hat Linux 6.0 included settings for several CTX International Inc. monitors, it didn't include settings for our monitor. We had to configure it manually.

For Linux administration, you can't beat the combination of the GNOME GUI and linuxconf. Linuxconf, which is one of the most complete system administration tools found in any operating system, provides one-stop shopping for everything from basic network and disk configuration to settings for the Apache public domain Web server.

Red Hat's venerable RPM package manager has been given a GNOME makeover, providing a good environment for installing and removing software on the system.

Red Hat ships with two paper manuals: an installation guide, which is quite complete if not completely well-organized, and a new getting-started guide, which provides an introduction to GNOME as well as to Linux in general. With these two printed documents and plenty of online documentation, even a Unix novice could get up and running with Red Hat Linux.

We had no problem getting our installation questions answered using Red Hat's e-mail-based support. Replies were prompt, even though the official registration and support for Version 6.0 hadn't started when we did our tests. Red Hat offers telephone support for a fee.

Red Hat's combination of installation ease, GUI bliss and administrative wizardry earned this product the top score in this comparison. Red Hat Linux 6.0 is a great all-around choice for any number of enterprise problems.

**

Caldera OpenLinux 2.2

Caldera fielded an impressive product in OpenLinux 2.2. Looks aren't everything, but OpenLinux 2.2 looks great. The GUI-based installer removes much of the intimidation of installing Linux. The KDE desktop environment provides a flexible environment that should make most users feel comfortable. OpenLinux 2.2 took second place in our comparison with a final score of 7.05.

OpenLinux features what appears to be the most advanced and well-thought-out installer of any of the products in our comparison. It probed and detected all our hardware, except the new 3Com NIC that none of the products could find. OpenLinux even provides a Tetris-like game to distract you while the installation runs.

Once you start down the automatic configuration path, the installer offers only limited choices for how to configure disks and select software to install, but those choices should be fine for the typical user.

We liked the fact that the configuration section of the installation routine continues while files are copied in the background. It is a multitasking operating system, after all. Video configuration was a snap because OpenLinux included an entry for our CTX monitor, making it easy to select the best possible display resolution for our needs.

Network configuration went fine once we installed a 3C905 NIC in the machine. All in all, the OpenLinux installation was the most pleasant of any of the products we reviewed.

For administrative tools, OpenLinux features the Caldera Open Administration System. COAS aims to bring together a number of typical administrative tasks in one interface, but it does not do as good a job as Red Hat's linuxconf.

We didn't like the fact that COAS didn't allow us to administer Apache or SAMBA, which is software that provides Microsoft Corp. Windows networking support on OpenLinux. In addition, managing software packages with kpackage, another tool included with OpenLinux, didn't seem as intuitive as RPM, even though it is based on the same technology. Our suggestion: Download linuxconf.

The only choice for a GUI that we had under OpenLinux was KDE. You can download and install one of the other choices, but it would be better to have them come with the basic package. KDE is fine, however, because of its flexible configuration. The KDE control panel provides an excellent environment for changing GUI settings.

Caldera provided excellent installation support, quickly and correctly answering our questions. Otherwise, technical support was something of a mixed bag. Caldera's e-mail support was the best of any in this comparison. But we were a little disappointed that the support is for 90 days or five incidents: We could see a new Linux user burning through five incidents pretty quickly.

Our e-mail inquiries were answered within 30 minutes or so, and the answers included enough detail to fix our problem (or to acknowledge that our problem couldn't be fixed, in the case of the drivers for the 3Com OfficeConnect NIC).

**

TurboLinux Workstation 3.6

TurboLinux Workstation 3.6 from Pacific HiTech is somewhere between Caldera or Red Hat and SuSE in terms of complexity. It is definitely more for the Linux enthusiast than for the enterprise customer, although Pacific HiTech is a Linux vendor to watch. The company is putting together versions of Linux targeted at enterprise customers, and those versions will feature technology such as clustering and load balancing. TurboLinux Workstation 3.6 took third place with a final score of 6.25.

The 3.6 version includes the 2.2 kernel as well as a slew of desktop packages and development tools. We were disappointed that we couldn't find any database software in the package; you'll have to download and configure it yourself.

The TurboLinux installer is similar to Red Hat's, although the official Red Hat installer appears to have evolved a bit further. The choices for configuring the disk under TurboLinux are fairly limited: basically fdisk and a slightly friendlier form of fdisk.

The network configuration in Turbo-Linux found the 3C905 adapter with no problem. Configuring network information was as simple as with the other solutions.

Like SuSE, TurboLinux failed to automatically configure our X server, which provides the GUI desktop for Linux, and it left us with an odd-looking video display. This should not happen if TurboLinux aims to be a commercially viable operating system.

The TurboLinux documentation was as complete as that from any of the other products reviewed here. We liked the informal way that the documentation walked us through the installation process. As with the other Linux distributions, there is a great deal of documentation online.

We were impressed with Pacific HiTech's prompt respose to our support request. As with SuSE, it wasn't clear that Pacific HiTech offered much support past the installation period. The company seems to be relying on Linux support offerings from vendors such as IBM Corp. for customers who demand around-the-clock telephone support.

**

SuSE Linux 6.0

SuSE Linux 6.0 is a very complete release of Linux. It includes five CDs of software and documentation and a thorough printed manual. However, it is more for the hard-core Linux enthusiast than for the enterprise user unaccustomed to the intricacies of Linux. SuSE Linux 6.0 took last place with a score of 6.00.

By the time you read this, SuSE Linux 6.1 will be shipping. It will include GNOME as well as the Linux 2.2 kernel and many other updates. In all likelihood, however, it will retain that rough-around-the-edges feel that can intimidate users unfamiliar with Linux.

The SuSE installation system is powerful but crude. It is completely text-based and at times not intuitive. The CD boots into a screen that offers several options for loading device drivers and configuring your system. We found that we didn't need to do any of these steps; instead, we just started the installation. The installer first configures the disk, offering automatic or manual configuration. We went down the automatic path and then had to select software. Again, the process is somewhat unintuitive compared with what we encountered with Red Hat and Caldera, but the amount of software from which you can choose is staggering.

Network configuration was totally manual. We had to select the driver we wanted to use. Then SuSE went through several kernel configuration steps that are completely unnecessary for the typical user. SuSE and TurboLinux had trouble configuring themselves to work with our ATI Mach 64 video card. This definitely gave us bad vibes. For Linux to be wildly successful, it has to have video support that works and that doesn't require chip-level knowledge about the graphics adapter.

System administration under SuSE takes place in YAST (short for Yet Another System Tool), which provides a simple, text-based interface for performing basic administrative tasks. Again, get linuxconf.

SuSE includes the KDE desktop environment. As noted above, it's a great desktop for most users because it provides several options for appearance. SuSE Linux 6.0 includes an early-release version of GNOME; Version 6.1 will include the production release.

The SuSE documentation is quite complete. Because it explains the workings of many of the tools included in many offerings, the SuSE manual would be valuable for many versions of Linux.

Conclusion

Not all Linux products are created equal. You can't go wrong with Red Hat or Caldera, while the others may prove to be more involved than you need. In any case, you are certain to benefit from the wide-open Linux market.

-- Hammond is a free-lance writer based in Denver. He can be reached at ehammond@earthlink.net.

*****

PRODUCTS TESTED

* Red Hat Software Inc.Ret Hat Linux 6.0Available on the open market.Score: 8.45

* Caldera Systems Inc.OpenLinux 2.2Available on the open market.Score: 7.05

* Pacific HiTech Inc.TurboLinux Workstation 3.6Available on the open market.Score: 6.25

* SuSE Inc.SuSE Linux 6.0Available on the open market.Score: 6.00

*****

2.2 kernel promises speed, SMP scalability

Red Hat Linux 6.0, Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 and TurboLinux Workstation 3.6 support the Linux 2.2 kernel, which is a vast improvement over the 2.0 kernel. The 2.2 kernel will be included in the 6.1 release of SuSE Linux.

The 2.2 kernel includes support for many different Intel Corp. processors as well as support for chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Cyrix Corp. This makes it easier for the kernel to deal with the quirks (and bugs) found in the various Pentium or Pentium clone chips.

The 2.2 kernel solidifies the 2.0 kernel's support for symmetric multiprocessing. The 2.2 kernel provides support for up to 16 processors and promises to greatly improve the performance of SMP Linux boxes.

The new kernel also provides increased support for sound and video devices on Linux, including TV tuning. This additional support will help bolster the case for Linux as a desktop operating system.

Finally, Linux includes support for a number of other file systems, including NTFile System and FAT32, as well as the file systems of other Unix variants.

- Eric Hammond

*****

How we tested Linux software

Linux provides valuable tools for solving enterprise problems, including file and print management, network management and software development. What differentiates the flavors of Linux available today are features such as installation, administrative tools, user interfaces, documentation and technical support.

Pricing is less important in our evaluation because the price for commercial Linux releases tends to hover around $50. Bundled software differs slightly between products, although much of the open-source software that makes up a typical Linux system easily can be found on and downloaded from the Web.

After installing numerous copies of Linux, we've come to realize that there are three places to trip up during a Linux installation: disk partitioning, video configuration and network setup. In scoring installation, we looked at each product's ability to smoothly navigate these steps.

We also looked for flexibility in selecting software, the ability to create an emergency boot disk and a choice of desktop environments to start up with.

For system administration, we looked for centralized, complete administrative suites with a consistent interface across all tools. These features make it easier for people unfamiliar with Unix to quickly master Linux system administration.

In the past, Linux graphical user interfaces kept the product from widespread acceptance on the corporate desktop. With several initiatives under way to bolster the Linux desktop, we looked at each product's user interface offerings. Although we assumed that each Linux system would be used as a server, a good interface makes administration easier and makes the system less intimidating for anyone using it.

Good documentation is critical for any administrator. We looked at online as well as printed documentation, and we looked for guides to quickly and successfully get the Unix novice up and running. We also expected the documentation to provide the technical depth needed for successful enterprise system administration.

Technical support has been another, albeit unjustified, criticism of Linux. We looked at vendors' support policies and placed support requests to measure the strength of each solution's technical support responses.

With support through nontraditional paths such as Internet newsgroups and mailing lists, Linux has always enjoyed world-class technical support.

But most vendors have been providing support only through e-mail. Prompt responses by the vendors make this a viable option for setup support but not necessarily for long-term technical support. If you want telephone support for Linux, even during normal business hours, plan on paying for it. This weakness is reflected in the scores we gave.

For Linux to take hold in the enterprise, support through more traditional channels is a must.

Pricing and bundled software also played a role, though less important than the aforementioned criteria, because these packages cost so little.

- Eric Hammond

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