When it comes to clothes, I'm a normal guy. I just want to walk into a store, grab something that fits, buy it (What, try it on? Are you kidding!?), and head home. Well, that's what I want to do. I've learned over the years that just because something should fit doesn't mean that it will fit. It's the same with Linux servers. Sure, they're all built on the same code base and can run the same applications, but one may fit you perfectly while another may make you look like a clown.
So, how can you tell which is which? Well, let's start with that basic question you should bring to any computing decision: "What is it that you really want to do?"
Corporate business use
Let's say you have a company with several hundred to several tens of thousands of users. What do you want? This one is actually a pretty easy call. Your first choice should be Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
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Red Hat has big business support down to a fine art, and it's easy to find certified technicians, administrators, and engineers who know their way around RHEL. It's also supported on a wide variety of hardware. Whether you're running x86 servers on racks, blade servers, IBM POWER systems, or mainframes, there's a RHEL for you. In short, Red Hat is the gold standard of business Linux.
Is RHEL is too expensive for your taste? Well, you get what you pay for, but there are two other worthy business Linux distributions that deserve corporate attention. These are Oracle Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES).
Oracle Linux is essentially a copycat version of RHEL. While I know a few people who prefer it to its parent distribution, most of the folks I know who've tried it find little to recommend it over RHEL. SLES, on the other hand, has a handy setup and administration tool, YaST, that I find very useful for setting up branch office-sized deployments.
Let's say you already have a real team of Linux experts on staff who aren't wedded to RHEL, Oracle, or SLES. In that case, you might want to consider Debian. This is a community Linux, but, for those who know its ins and outs, it works extremely well. Debian is not, however, a Linux for non-experts.
Small business use
OK, let's say you have only a few hundred people in your organization. Or a few dozen. Heck, maybe it's just you and the dog. What do you do now? Well, all the choices above are still valid. Here, though, I see it as being more of a dead heat between RHEL and SLES for your IT dollars. In my experience, RHEL is easier to manage on numerous servers scattered across multiple locations, but SLES has always done well for me in small offices. I recommend trying them both and making up your own mind.
At this point, if you already have some strong Linux administrators at hand and you want to save some money, I'd recommend looking into Red Hat and SUSE's community distributions as well: Fedora and openSUSE (http://www.opensuse.org/en/), respectively. What you won't get with either is support from their sponsoring companies. In other words, you're on your own with these distributions. But, if your IT staff know Linux well, you may not need help for the demands of a small business. For my own small office -- twenty desktops and four servers -- openSUSE works just fine.
What about Ubuntu, the brand of what may be the most popular of the desktop Linux distributions? There's Ubuntu Linux Server as well. You could use Ubuntu Server for bigger businesses, but for enterprise-sized loads I prefer knowing that I have a company behind me, like Oracle, Red Hat, or SUSE, that has lots of experience in dealing with data-center sized installations. For a rack or two of servers (at most), Ubuntu should do just fine.
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Indeed, if all you're asking from your small office/home office (SOHO) servers is basic file and printer sharing, then any modern server Linux will do the job. Indeed, in the smallest of offices, you may already be using Linux without even knowing it. Many Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices that double as USB print servers, such as the Buffalo LinkStation Pro line, use Linux to provide file and print services. For a small office, this may all the Linux you need.
But what if you need something in between? You know you need more than basic file and print services, but you don't want to pay someone to be a server administrator. You could fill that role, but you'd rather spend your time working on your business instead of your server. Is there a Linux for you?
You betcha. Over the years, there have been many turnkey Linux distributions. With these, you install the Linux on your server -- maybe just an old desktop PC that's a little too creaky for regular use anymore -- or buy an appliance and use a single interface to run the whole show. Some of the best of the current generation of install-and-forget Linux servers are ClearOS (which we looked at a few years back) and Zentyal.
Let's say that you don't need a general-purpose server. You have just one job, besides file and print, that needs to be done. You don't want the trouble of maintaining a full server just for that one task, whether it be providing an e-mail server, a content management system, or a Domain Name System (DNS) server. Can you still use Linux? Yep.
Over the years there have been many "do one job and do it well" Linux server distributions. Of these, the ones that are still around that I like best are TurnKey Linux, which is based on Ubuntu server; rPath, which was created by some of Red Hat's founders; and the SUSE Appliance Program.
TurnKey Linux uses an older Ubuntu Linux, 8.04, for its foundation. Don't let the age fool you; for most business purposes, that will work just fine. TurnKey Linux offers over 45 single-purpose applications. These include a variety of content management systems, such as Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress; communication systems, including Zimbra e-mail and ejabberd instant messaging; and basic office servers such as a file server and a primary domain controller for Windows networks. You can deploy these on standalone servers, as virtual machines, or on the Amazon cloud.
rPath is for companies that already have their own in-house enterprise applications and want to move them to the cloud. Instead of simply offering you common, ready-to-go Linux applications, rPath specializes in taking what you already have in-house and pushing it from a server-centric model to an often more affordable cloud model.
The SUSE Appliance Program offers a plan similar to what you get with TurnKey Linux. But, instead of simply offering a set of common server applications, it uses SUSE Studio, the core, online Linux application builder and SUSE Linux Enterprise JeOS (Just Enough Operating System) to enable you or an independent software vendors (ISV) to pick and choose the components you want in a Linux server.
Unlike TurnKey though, SUSE's Applications also offers vendor enterprise applications with their full support. These include Adobe LiveCycle Enterprise Suite software, an integrated J2EE server solution; multiple IBM plug and play appliances for small and medium businesses; and Messaging Architects' M+Guardian, a policy-based e-mail security solution. As with TurnKey, though, you can deploy these applications in many ways: on virtual machines, on the Amazon cloud, and on dedicated hardware platforms.
Perhaps the most popular kind of server is one running the Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP/Python/Perl combo known as LAMP. These servers power most of the world's Web servers, and they also provide most of the world's e-mail and other Internet services. If you're using a Web hosting company for your Web site, chances are you're using CentOS Linux. This is a low-cost RHEL clone.
CentOS works well -- if you know what you're doing. While I run it myself on my own Web servers, and it's fine if you just want to run it with the defaults, it can be hard to handle if you're not a Linux expert. Easy to use tools like Webmin make day-to-day jobs like setting up users easy, but if you need to do more, it can require an expert hand.
Linux as a server
That last point is an important one when it comes to any server use. I've heard many people complain about how hard it is to run a Linux server. For most ordinary use, Linux isn't hard to use. Neither is its chief rival inside offices, Windows Server 2008 R2, or its rivals in data centers like AIX and Solaris. But no server operating system is as easy to use as a desktop system -- and the more you push it, the more you ask from it outside of the ordinary, the more likely you are to run into situations that require an expert's hand.
Never forget this. Even a plain old file server -- again, regardless of operating system -- can have trouble delivering its services at all times to all clients. By their very nature, servers are an order of magnitude harder to manage than a desktop.
That said, Linux provides a low-cost way to deliver any and every network service you may ever require. For any network need -- whether it's just you and your significant other sharing files and a single printer in your home office, or Facebook or Wall Street delivering real-time data to millions of simultaneous users -- Linux is the server operating system of choice.
This article, "What's the best Linux server for you?," was originally published at ITworld. Read more Linux coverage and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.