Linux rivalry heats up

Because operating system upgrades can cut so much buying power out of an enterprise's IT budget, many companies are continuing to adopt Linux and its promise of a more-economical, yet full-featured computing platform.

To that end, two major Linux distributors -- Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG -- have recently issued new versions of their server and desktop operating systems that cost on average two-thirds less than the price of upgrading or buying other OSes, such as Windows XP.

But the new distributions aren't all about saving money: The two companies are also offering plenty of appealing features for enterprises. Red Hat's newest release, Version 7.2, brings several updates to the core functionality of the product, including built-in journaling file system support, and improved virtual memory management. Likewise, SuSE 7.3 offers greatly enhanced usability and a smooth migration path for shops that haven't yet fully committed to Linux.

The new products scored well in our tests; each earning a Deploy rating. So impressive are the new OSes, in fact, that they could even persuade dyed-in-the-wool Windows disciples to make the switch. Imagine that.

Red Hat 7.2 curbs downtime

If your business relies on Linux servers to perform important tasks and you're concerned about minimizing downtime (who isn't?), then Red Hat Linux 7.2 may be just what you've been looking for. The new release contains a plethora of new features designed to provide faster performance, greater reliability, and less downtime.

Among the most noteworthy improvements in the new version is built-in support for the ext3 journaling file system. The ext3 tool treats every write to the file system as a transaction, in much the same way as databases do. So writes can be logged, easily monitored, and even backed out if a problem should occur.

We tested the new journaling file-system feature by unplugging a Red Hat 7.2 test server that was in the middle of copying several small files. The system booted back up and was running within a minute. By comparison, a similarly configured Red Hat 7.1 system without ext3 support took a full 4 minutes to boot up, due to the file-system verification process. (With Version 7.2, that verification step is optional.) Bottom line: If a power outage causes your server to go down, you can trust Red Hat 7.2 to revive it as quickly as possible.

Another important enhancement to the product comes as the result of a change to the Linux kernel's virtual memory subsystem, which greatly enhances the performance and reliability in high-use scenarios. It's a welcome change, as the virtual memory in previous incarnations of Red Hat caused performance bottlenecks when too many users connected to the server. Granted, the new feature may not be noticeable on desktop systems, because those machines typically do not support large user loads. But enterprises running Version 7.2 on server-class machines clearly stand to gain.

One enhancement that may not be immediately apparent is the shift in boot loaders, from LILO (Linux Loader) to GRUB (Grand Unified Boot Loader). GRUB allows for easier configuration and modification of boot parameters and doesn't require the extra step of running the LILO updater after a system kernel upgrade. Furthermore, GRUB works well on desktops in situations that require users to boot into either Linux or Windows. GRUB's graphical interface is also more intuitive than that of the older LILO's (although if you just can't live without LILO, it's still included as an option).

Finally, Red Hat 7.2 offers some minor enhancements to the installation and administration interfaces, but not so much as to confuse users familiar with older versions of the product. All the well-known configuration tools that come with other versions of Red Hat and other Linux variants are still available, but the overall look and feel of the system has been refined as part of Red Hat's ongoing effort to make its distribution easy to work with.

SuSE 7.3: Linux the easy way

Meanwhile, SuSE's developers have clearly been focusing most of their energies on making their latest distribution, Version 7.3, easier to use than previous versions. It shows.

We tested the OS on several different kinds of servers and desktops, and each time, SuSE successfully auto-detected the underlying hardware and video configuration needed to power the graphical interface. We did not have to perform any low-level configuration tasks, such as disk partitioning, to set up SuSE (although the company does provide options for power users or administrators who want to customize their systems).

We also tried installing SuSE 7.3 on machines that had been running other operating systems, including Windows. SuSE successfully detected the existing operating systems and automatically provided default recommendations that we could review and accept or deny before letting the OS complete its installation alongside our existing OSes.

Moreover, for companies that have already invested in SuSE 7.2, migrating to Version 7.3 is a snap. In our tests, the new OS's installer automatically detected the previous release and gave us the option to either perform a wholesale update of our existing installation or add or remove specific applications.

Other ease-of-use features include simplified access to Windows drives from within the SuSE environment -- an attractive feature for companies that want to gradually transition to Linux without interrupting their business operations.

Administrators will find SuSE 7.3 very easy to configure and maintain, thanks largely to the YaST2 (Yet Another Setup Tool) Control Center, which offers graphical configuration options for typical server administration tasks, such as setting up SuSE's built-in firewall. The OS's graphical tools are ideal for administrators who are transitioning to Linux from other network operating systems, whereas more experienced Linux administrators can use the graphical tools to rapidly perform tasks while retaining access to the command line for custom-configuring parameters as needed.

End-users should also benefit from SuSE's efforts to make the OS friendlier. The desktop graphical interface offers a very comfortable look and feel, with support for the latest versions of both KDE and GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment), as well as several other window managers. Hence, users could deploy suites like KDE's KOffice or Sun's StarOffice, both of which offer metaphors very similar to those of Microsoft's Office suite. StarOffice users can also exchange business documents with users of other office suites, because StarOffice supports a wide variety of formats, including Microsoft Office formats (such as .doc and .xls). SuSE 7.3 offers end-users a variety of Web browsers, including Opera, Galeon, and Netscape, as well as several e-mail clients.

A few enhancements have been made to the product's core functionality. The previous release of the SuSE operating system included support for Namesys' ReiserFS journaling file system, but, as does the new Red Hat distribution, Version 7.3 now offers support for ext3 journaling. When we tested the feature by unplugging a server running SuSE 7.3 and ext3, we found the recovery times to be significantly faster than previous versions and roughly equivalent to the times clocked by Red Hat 7.2.

SuSE's new network-install option should appeal to corporate administrators. This feature could be used to perform tasks such as enabling IT staff to define a standard Linux desktop with end-user applications (such as Web browser, e-mail, office suite, or fax software). In turn, default desktop images could be deployed using SuSE's network install option or system management tools.

Where stability, speed, and security are concerned, no huge leaps have been made in Version 7.3; the good news is that the new version maintains the high standards established in earlier distributions. But SuSE's usability improvements make it a worthy alternative to more-established OSes such as Windows XP. Linux may have earned its reputation as a mysterious, arcane OS reserved only for technical masterminds, but if SuSE 7.3 is any indication, the penguin is quickly becoming housebroken.

Kevin Railsback (kevin_railsback@infoworld.com) is the operations manager for the InfoWorld Test Center. Contributing Editor Maggie Biggs (maggie@biggs.com) is a software developer who has been using and covering Linux for the past five years.

THE BOTTOM LINE: DEPLOY

SuSE 7.3

Business Case: This Linux distribution builds upon the impressive performance standards established in earlier generations of the product, but it's far easier to deploy, administer, and use than previous versions.

Technology Case: New ext3 journaling support means faster recovery times, and access to Windows drives offers a clear migration path for Microsoft shops.

Pros:

+ Easy to install, configure, and use

+ Support for the latest hardware, including touch-screen devices+ Graphical access to configuration tasksCons:

- None significant

Cost: Free download; Professional Edition, $79.95Platform(s): Intel-compatible PCsCompany: SuSE; www.suse.comSCORE (Rated 1-10)Ease of use (10)Implementation (10)Innovation (10)Interoperability (10)Scalability (9)Security (10)Suitability (10)Support (9)Training (9)Value (10)Score Summary:

"Deploy" (9)

THE BOTTOM LINE: DEPLOY

Red Hat Linux 7.2

Business Case: This distribution of the Linux OS improves both overall performance and manageability. It is especially well-suited for enterprise settings, in which servers are commonly accessed by several users.

Technology Case: Red Hat Linux now boasts support for the ext3 journaling file system, enhanced virtual memory management, and the GRUB boot loader.

Pros:

+ Improved performance via enhanced virtual memory system+ Enhanced data integrity due to new journaling file systemCons:

- Inclusion of nonstandard kernel patches can complicate custom kernel buildingCost: Free download; Standard Edition, $59.95; Professional Edition, $199.95Platform(s): Intel-compatible PCsCompany: Red Hat Inc.; www.redhat.comSCORE (Rated 1-10)Ease of use (7)Implementation (9)Innovation (8)Interoperability (10)Scalability (8)Security (7)Suitability (7)Support (7)Training (8)Value (10)Score Summary:

"Deploy" (8)

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