The era of open source computing has come to nearly dominate servers that power the Web, and open source infrastructure popularity now extends from intranets to enterprise network operations centers. While pioneers like Novell once dominated enterprise network infrastructure, flavors of Linux made into commercial distributions (known as distros) are making headway as cost-efficient engines for file-and-print, Web-based applications, and communications/networking infrastructure products against strong competition from Microsoft, Novell, Sun and IBM.
We took a close look at several commercial Linux distros targeted towards stand-alone, enterprise server installations to assess whether companies selling this packaged open source code are coupling it with the tools and services necessary for enterprise server use.
Several organizations declined to participate, either because they "weren't ready yet" or because they target small server, OEM or desktop environments with their distributions.
We received retail packaged distributions from Caldera, Red Hat Software, Stormix Technologies, SuSE and TurboLinux. We also tested two other packages that are popular for servers but don't offer specific server packaging. We obtained Debian and Slackware distributions from retail sources.
Of the distros tested, we have no qualms recommending either Caldera OpenLinux eServer 2.3 or Red Hat Deluxe 6.2 to an organization that has not yet used Linux in an enterprise server context. Both products are well aware of their environments, with a slight edge to Caldera eServer's configuration sensing capabilities. Caldera eServer further gained our confidence -- and the Network World Blue Ribbon award -- by offering a lot of installation time network alternatives for Samba and NetWare. The TurboLinux Server 6.0, however, gets kudos for offering symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) kernels that no other distro tested in this review did.
SuSE Linux 6.4 had weak support practices for its retail package, but otherwise is a worthy competitor. Newcomer Storm Linux 2000 Deluxe, like SuSE, has great new-user support but wasn't quite focused toward enterprise server use.
We did not include a performance metric in this review because all of the products are based on the Linux 2.2 kernel. It's important to note that the Linux 2.4 kernel will be arriving shortly. With it, most distro makers are planning releases of their products to match the upgraded kernel.
Overall view of the field
While the Linux culture haas traditionally advocated that all things Linux be free for the downloading, the price of the retail packaged Linux distros includes support and extra software tools and applications. Linux distros are comprised of several components -- Linux usually represents the kernel, and most of the applications and system utility commands, shells and nonkernel usefulness are open source applications and utilities developed under the GNU Public License. The utilities comprise installation, administration, management and database products. The value-added applications can range from user-oriented tools, such as the inclusion of Sun's StarOffice to IBM's suite of e-business products. In only one case did we find these extras cumbersome -- wading through the daunting list of applications shipped with Red Hat's product was by no means an easy task.
Each distribution provides basic configuration choices such as how to partition disks, choices for bootstrap, Internet addressing configuration, X-windows configuration options and the ever-important root password setup.
The best installation process was offered by Caldera eServer, which appeared to have total command of each platform we installed it on, followed very closely by Red Hat 6.2 and TurboLinux Server 6.0. The other distributions seemed to be less capable of sensing the platform environment in one way or another.
Installation-time choices often represent the state a Linux system will remain in, post installation. This is dangerous, as the myriad configuration choices need to be thought out in the context of the environment in which a working distribution will operate.
A weakness that cropped up across the board was a lack of emphasis on protecting initial installations from administrative security problems. For example, only Storm Linux 2000 Deluxe, which is based on Debian/GNU, explicitly changed the user passwords from its initial values to shadow passwords, which makes the system more secure. Doing so, however, can also conflict with Network Information Service -- the "Unix" method of sharing information among groups of NIS-compatible servers.
All distros installed Samba, an application used to connect Windows and other NetBIOS users to Linux for file, print and authentication services. Several distros offered the netconf utility that can also configure Samba, but none of the distros had an application that could query a network in a method that allowed useful NetBIOS default choices to be discovered from existing network information and then be offered.
Caldera OpenLinux eServer 2.3
Caldera has a get-down-to-business attitude in this release that we found refreshing. Caldera eServer 2.3 is designed specifically for server installations. It has similar installation options and flexibilities to Red Hat Deluxe 6.2 -- and slightly better hardware and environmental network detection in our test servers. Caldera eServer 2.3 discovered where it lived on the network, including its gateway, Domain Name System (DNS)/Name server, and the name of the domain behind our firewall by querying our firewall. Although doing this saves just a few keystrokes, we found that Caldera's network configuration detection was highly evolved, matched closely only by TurboLinux.
Caldera eServer's installation application, Lizard, lets you choose four flavors of installation type: Web server, file/print server, network server or a minimum server. It is a stripped-down installation where application servers such as Web, database, mail, proxy/firewall or other shared services can be built. We installed each server type and found that all are well designed for the respective tasks, and offered us configuration choices respective to its function. X Window/KDE installation is only performed in a fifth customized option.
The Caldera eServer footprint is comparatively small, as nonserver software isn't offered on the single installation CD.
Caldera, an ally of network operating system maker Novell, has strong support for installation in Novell NetWare networks, although the support it offers isn't exclusive. Configuring the NetWare connectivity and proxy authentication into Novell's Directory Services/eDirectory is explicit and we found it easiest to use in conjunction with the lab's NetWare 5.1 server.
File and print services are easy to configure for either NetWare or NetBIOS use -- although such as other editions, Windows 2000 Active Directory proxy authentication is unavailable from Caldera.
As for applications that could be valuable in an enterprise network, Caldera ships with File and Print for Linux, Unix and Microsoft and a mail server that supports Post Office Protocol 3 and Internet Message Access Protocol 4. Additionally, Caldera supplies an FTP server, a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, a DNS server, a Network News Transfer Protocol server, a mailing list server, a Point to Point Protocol dial-in server and a squid cache/proxy server. Caldera's Webmin does DNS, Samba, Network File System (NFS), local/remote file systems; Pluggable Authentication Modules, MySQL Database, a cron-based jobs manager, a Java-based file manager, OpenLDAP support and an SNMP management tool. EServer certainly is ready for business as a server.
Support for this edition is available for 90 days; 30 days of initial phone support is also offered. Our test of Caldera's technical support in two calls was good; we experienced a few minutes wait on the first call, and none on the second.
Caldera eServer's documentation is largely installed online and accessed through Netscape, which requires custom installation. There is also a print system administration guide, which provides a good overview of administrative tasks and the applications needed to support them but isn't exhaustive in terms of outlining your options or their implications. Missing in the guide is a troubleshooting section, although there's a good section on system security.
Caldera's Web site contains a knowledge base and a wealth of information and resources. Although it is not as extensive as Red Hat's, it was better organized and easier to search. Many Web site-based technical guides and how-to's make up for the lack of depth in the accompanying system administration guide.
Red Hat 6.2 Deluxe
Red Hat has a long history in the short life of Linux. Several flavors of the Red Hat distribution of Linux are available, and these are largely distinguished by the amount of support given to a licensee. The Deluxe version we tested comes with 30 days of toll-free technical support, and 90 days of both e-mail/fax support and priority Web site access.
Red Hat 6.2 Deluxe contains five CDs and a floppy-based installation diskette. Two of the CDs represent the basic operating system and its source; two CDs contain applications, the fifth CD contains documentation.
The Application CD set contains hundreds of programs. An estimated 90% are plainly useless within the context of an enterprise file-and-print or Web server. The cornucopia of engineering, graphics, entertainment and utility applications might be useful for users of Linux or compatible Berkeley Software Distribution-based workstations connecting to a Red Hat server on a network, or for Windows users that employ Linux access via X Window, telnet or another access method that would allow server-based execution of these applications. We felt like we were wading across a 4-mile long,4-foot deep pond, looking for applications that would suit the model of enterprise server/Web server use. These applications don't diminish Red Hat, but rather distract from enterprise server use.
We successfully installed Red Hat 6.2 Deluxe on all our platforms without resorting to third-party drivers. Installation-time options include the ability to choose workstation (GNOME or KDE desktop-based), server or custom options. Dual booting wasn't allowed under any installation option other than custom, as workstation options overwrite any existing boot-loaders. Automatic hard drive partitioning and X Window configuration was simple, and hardware detection correctly identified the components of our test system.
We found that installing the "server" selection (rather than a workstation selection) is more efficient in terms of resources -- it's stripped of unneeded workgroup X Window-based GUIs and daemons. Installing X Window after a server installation is time-consuming, but there are many Unix/Xenix/Linux-savvy installers that don't need a GUI for post-installation configuration.
The first GNOME screen that greeted us after installation was a GNOME/Red Hat help screen, but the installer doesn't install the Red Hat help files. Clicking the Red Hat help links spawned missing file errors. A subsequent installation from the documentation CD that was enclosed in the Deluxe Version allowed us to add these files and read them at this time.
Red Hat comes with tools that let an administrator perform the basics of system and user/group administration. User connection methods are plentiful, and Red Hat comes with Samba, a connectivity tool for computers and other devices that connect via Microsoft-oriented/NetBIOS authentication methods. Samba in the Red Hat release can also emulate a Windows NT authentication server, or connect to others, but appears as an NT server peer to a Windows 2000 server. We could not find a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol proxy method for peerage to Microsoft's Active Directory.
Red Hat's phone technical support answered one easy tech support question quickly and professionally. A much tougher and contrived scenario posed as a question took a bit more time and was also answered professionally, even though the toughness obviously jolted the support person.
Red Hat's Web site uses the Mozilla Bugzilla engine for bug tracking. The site is somewhat daunting as it lacks some basic query tools. Nonetheless, we found the site had answers to our first bug, and keys to the second one. The Red Hat site was judged to be most useful, even if it was crammed.
Red Hat's printed documentation consisted of a "getting started" guide and an installation guide. The installation guide was useful to us, but we found items weren't fully explained. Important concepts, such as implications of Disk Druid, the installer's disk partitioning tool, weren't explained to our satisfaction.
The getting started guide is just that. Its index isn't entirely useful, and the guide presumes that a successful installation has been made as the guide is for customizing a working existing installation.
Missing from the guides are troubleshooting information and detail -- these must be obtained from Red Hat, online Linux sources or books on the subject.
Production Red Hat 7.0 was released in late September but was not available in time for our testing.
TurboLinux Server 6.0