Is the Leader of the Linux Pack Also the Best of Breed?
Red Hat 9: The most popular Linux distribution
An early complaint about the ever-changing world of Linux was the sheer variety of distributions available to users. Reviewers periodically bandied the word "fragmentation," ominously alluding to the state of the proprietary Unix market in the 1980s.
In the past few years, the Linux market has undergone some settling. These days, when most organizations talk about "Linux," they're talking about Red Hat. The distribution has risen to the top of the U.S. enterprise market, and it's done so on the strength of its recognizable brand, ease of installation, and numerous deals with companies like Oracle and IBM.
Red Hat's latest release, Red Hat 9, continues the company's tradition of producing solid offerings that are workmanlike, if not inspired. As with the past several releases, a key part of the package is the Red Hat Network, a services offering that makes maintaining errata for large installations a snap.
Red Hat Linux 9 comes in two versions: Professional and plain old Red Hat Linux. The key difference between the two is support: "Pro" purchasers get 60 days of phone support (for the installation only) plus a two-month basic subscription to the Red Hat Network (more on that later). There's also an extra CD of applications, many of which are nothing more than demos. The basic version of Red Hat Linux is $39.95, and the Professional version is $149.95.
We don't particularly recommend the Professional edition for anyone with even a modicum of experience with Linux installations: On more exotic hardware, installation support might come in handy, but for anything else, the Internet generally yields plenty of help in the form of mailing list archives and tutorials. We also found the installation of Red Hat to be dead simple, even for most Linux novices. In any case, the Professional version doesn't bring anything more to the table in terms of basic functionality than the less-expensive edition.
As we noted, installation is simple. Booting from a CD brings up a graphical installer that steps users through the basics of partitioning a hard drive, and selecting the type of packages they want on the system. Red Hat offers "desktop," "developer," and "server" installations meant to keep users from installing a lot of unnecessary packages. A "custom" option allows for maximum optimization of those choices, too. A relative novice can select any of the three basic categories and be reasonably assured of an installation that will do most of what she wishes.
During the installation process, network devices are detected and configured, as is X Window, the graphical user interface Red Hat and other versions of Linux use. In our experience with several server machines based on Intel and AMD, plus a slightly older laptop we used to build a wireless access point, Red Hat 9 installed with few problems. However, a commodity 10/100 NIC we tried out in one of the machines created problems later down the line.
Another early criticism of Linux distributions was the lack of simple configuration options. The several attempts to straighten this problem out spanned the entire Linux community, but vendors have, by and large, settled into offering their own tools. Red Hat's configuration tools are fairly solid for the basics, and turn up, thanks to their Open Source licensing, in several other distributions: Network configuration, hardware management, printer configuration, and activataion/deactivation of running services (such as sendmail or Apache) are available through these simple but usable tools. In all, Red Hat's GUI is polished and usable for any professional system administrator. Red Hat has put a reasonable amount of effort into its own approach to the Linux GUI, which it codenamed "Blue Curve," and for day-to-day management we have no complaints.
For command line enthusiasts, a few less obvious choices (such as Red Hat's chkconfig utility) allow for non-GUI system management, too.
For managing errata, Red Hat includes the program up2date, a GUI tool that periodically polls Red Hat servers and reports on available updates, providing for a painless way to install them in a single session. We like up2date, a lot, compared to the comparable offering in Windows XP: As with most Linux distributions, only kernel updates require a system reboot under Red Hat, but a collection of patches to services require only a restart of the services affected, and they're always handled in one shot instead of requiring a download/reboot/download/reboot cycle for a new Windows installation. Like Windows, up2date provides a small graphical utility that runs on the desktop panel and provides a reminder when updates are available.
Another key to management is the Red Hat Network (RHN). Introduced a few years ago, RHN represents an effort to track large installations of systems, providing ways to schedule updates and omit automated updates to mission-critical services in case more personalized attention by an administrator is required.
RHN, like Red Hat Linux itself, comes with several levels of offerings. A demo account contains the least amount of features, offering access only to single system updates. The Basic package, at $60 per system per year, offers priority access to Red Hat's servers during periods of high demand, automatic download/update of multiple systems, and errata notification for multiple systems. The Enterprise package, at $96 per system per year, offers all the functionality of the Basic package, plus the ability to create groups of machines to which specific policies for upgrading can be applied and the ability to compare profiles of installed packages from machine to machine.
Though it's entirely possible to run Red Hat 9 without all this, we believe any professional deployment demands at least an examination of what RHN has to offer: It does simplify management, and it beats downloading and installing errata "by hand," especially this late in the product's release cycle.
While we generally think very highly of Red Hat Linux 9, we did run into a few snags. Its hardware autodetection software, kudzu, occasionally gets things wrong, and it took some probing (and expert help on some occasions) to straighten it out. Be particularly careful where motherboards with built-in devices, such as NICs and video cards, are concerned, and make sure your BIOS settings disable these devices if you are using your own PCI-based devices.
Also, the configuration tools we enjoyed on a system that "just worked" when we installed it had a bad tendency to crash when presented with a contradictory situation in a system that didn't handle hardware autodetection correctly.
Finally, be prepared to be herded up-market fairly quickly in the coming months. Red Hat Linux 9 represents the company's last big retail release, and enterprise customers are being gently guided away from the next general release (which is being put out with less emphasis on the professional market and more emphasis on enthusiasts/hobbyists), toward the "Enterprise" series, which starts at $149 for a desktop/workstation system and goes up to $2,499 for the premium Advanced Server edition.
Pros: Easy installation with flexible choices; Decent management tools; Red Hat Network provides a good service for large installations; Solid errata management
Cons: Hardware autodetection is sometimes problematic, effecting the configuration tools; The basic Red Hat Linux line is going to receive less developer attention in terms of polish as the company shifts to its "Enterprise" line for revenue
Reviewed by: Michael Hall
Original Review Date: 9/10/2003
Original Review Version: 9.0