Enterprise Unix Roundup � Sun's Quest for What Sticks

by Michael Hall

Sun claims Red Hat has stuck a 'proprietary' fork in the Linux kernel. With Red Hat reaching end of life, we test drive two new Linux distros: SUSE 9.1 and the latest from the Fedora project. We also note two support options for Red Hat 9 users left in the lurch.

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Hand it to Jonathan "Quotable" Schwartz: When the newly minted Sun Chief Operating Officer (COO) decides it's time to get quotable, he goes for it:

"There is a fork in the Linux world: Red Hat and the others," Schwartz recently asserted, "Red Hat has pretty much forked the distribution. This has given Red Hat tremendous gains for now, but ultimately it's an impediment in the growth of Linux."

We're not sure we're speaking his crazy moon language when we try to parse what he means by "the distribution," considering, if anything, at least a few of Red Hat's competitors got their start forking Red Hat's hard work in the distribution business. But if we take it to mean "the Linux kernel," then Mr. Schwartz is being both inflammatory and late to the game: SUSE and Mandrake have already tried to take that dog hunting, only to met with resounding snickers and cries of "sour grapes," as well as a gentle put-down from Linux project lead Linus Torvalds, who felt compelled to issue a similar chiding to Sun.

Sun's had its own reasons for not thinking too highly of Red Hat. Red Hat, after all, handed Sun its hat when Sun was still pushing its own Linux distro (the last time — not the mass-market version currently selling at WalMart), so perhaps the real issue is that Red Hat has a stable of kernel experts and clear leadership in the Linux market, not to mention it also provides the very product Solaris x86 doesn't need to fight in the narrow confines of the Unix market. How much does Solaris not need to fight Red Hat's distribution? Apparently enough to be discounted to death in the hopes of buying a second life for the long-neglected product on which the company's chances for a second life down at the commodity end hang.

How bad is it? One of our colleagues walked away from a recent sit-down with Sun remarking that it seems as if, "the company is desperately throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks."

Even, apparently the occasional baseless charge of proprietary forking.

In Other News

» Perhaps emboldened by SCO's recent woes, Autozone (former SCO customer and current SCO litigation target) is asking that its case with SCO be put on hold pending the outcome of all of SCO's other litigation. If it thinks the noise BayStar has been making about pulling its money back from SCO is a sign that perhaps the firm's oxygen is about to run out, we think the company is sadly mistaken. BayStar clearly sees SCO's primary value as what people refer to as an "IP company," which is a polite way of saying "a company that litigates first and laughs at your objections about prior art and barratry later." In other words, numerous lawsuits are the one thing for which SCO's biggest investor doesn't mind paying.

» HP rolled out a new RISC-based workstation this week. The c8000 can handle one or two 900 MHz or 1 GHz PA-8800 RISC processors, HP's zx1 chipset, up to four internal hard drives, and 16 GB of RAM.

» More "Apple now does enterprise Unix" info this week, as ServerWatch highlights one notable Xserve RAID deployment.

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Linux Distro Test Drive

The Roundup recently enjoyed an annual rite: The testing of the distros. We picked a few of interest and took them out for a few days worth of play. This time around we dabbled with SUSE's latest (9.1) and the latest Red Hat/Fedora release.

It's an interesting time to look at Linux distributions because the push for the 2.6 kernel, and its attendant disruptions, is now in full effect. Our test drive offered a sense of how much better (or worse) the distributors are becoming at managing the complexities involved in releasing an operating system for general consumption.

The more interesting of the two was Fedora, which involved learning a little about the SELinux extensions the project is working to integrate. SELinux, as we've mentioned before, is a project underwritten by the National Security Agency to introduce "mandatory access control" (MAC) to Linux. MAC security allows for fine-grained, role-based security for files and users on a system.

Fedora's role as a testbed for upcoming releases of the Red Hat Enterprise line is made pretty clear by this sort of functionality: It's not the sort of thing the average desktop user or commodity server admin will be interested in, but its potential for enterprise users is great. Overall, Fedora had Red Hat's trademark-smooth install and behaved pretty much how we'd expect "the next Red Hat after 9" to act.

We were left a little nonplused by SUSE's latest, but we're also awaiting the company's enterprise desktop product, just to track the differences between the two. Despite all the talk about this being SUSE's first "post-Novell-acquisition" release, we didn't sense much of a change. More to the point, it's clear we'll have to wait a release or two to see what impact, if any, SUSE's co-acquiree, Ximian, has on the distribution. Our initial impressions of the beta SUSE 9.1 were impacted by hardware autodetection that took us back to Windows 95-style behavior (wherein the frustrated user begs the operating system to acknowledge all his hardware while the operating system blithely offers to install things that clearly are not present in the box) and the bizarre tendency of a network browsing icon on the GNOME desktop to tell us it had "no associated protocol" when we clicked on it.

Overall, SUSE did a good job of enabling its distribution to handle the scut-work of configuring hardware and making the correct window pop up when the right thing is plugged into a USB port, but it also has moments of fussiness and a nagging sense that once the installation is over and you've picked a nice wallpaper, you've only just begun to fiddle.

It brought to mind a recent scuffle between uber-Mac-zealot John Gruber and uber-open-source-zealot Eric Raymond over the issue of Linux usability: Making this stuff "just work" for end users is hard work for designers and developers.

In both Fedora and SUSE's case, we liked what we saw from the new kernel's performance, but we're also glad we aren't about-to-be orphaned Red Hat 9 users shopping for a new distribution. Both of these replacement candidates still warrant a little shaking out.

For those curious about the new kernel but not quite ready to part with their tried-and-true 2.4-based distribution, there's no law against building your own.

Security Roundup

Tips of the Trade

For Red Hat 9 users, Friday is "End of Life Day" (AKA EOL Day) as the company pulls the plug on errata support for the last of its late, lamented Red Hat Linux line. The company has made clear its interest in driving customers over to its "advanced" line of enterprise products, but those are pretty pricey systems for the sort of commodity duty vanilla Red Hat have often pulled.

Red Hat's termination of errata support doesn't mean the end of the line for its products, though. The Fedora Legacy Project plans to cover EOLed Red Hat releases for at least 1.5 years after official termination. At the moment, there's errata support for Red Hat 7.2, 7.3, and 8.0. Red Hat 9 will fall under the group's coverage on May 1. The project will send out announcements of errata updates via its mailing lists.

If the thought of a community-run effort makes you uneasy and you know you'll sleep better for having spent some money on commercial support for your aging Red Hat installations, there's always the Progeny Transition Service, which offers errata support on Red Hat 7.2-9 at the rate of $5 per machine per month, or $2,500 for unlimited machines.

Both options provide a way to squeeze a little more out of those Red Hat 9 boxes chugging along that aren't quite ready for outright replacement.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Apr 29th 2004
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