OpenLinux EServer Not Yet a Contender

SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - Attracting Linux converts in the corporate world is a tricky business. While Linux die-hards want all the free software and options they can get, corporate IT managers demand reliable servers that require minimal effort to install and manage. IT administrators want their Linux distributions to ask only those questions it must ask during installation, and they don't like being forced to do a lot of manual configuration just to get on the air after the installation.

In response, Caldera Systems Inc. is aiming OpenLinux eServer 2.3 squarely at the no-nonsense, corporate IT market, trying to win over the e-business server market. OpenLinux eServer is tuned for thin, high-performance operation and easy remote administration. The graphical installer gathers the minimum necessary facts, sniffs out your server hardware, and installs one of five predefined configurations.

Caldera is on the right track and OpenLinux eServer 2.3 is a good effort, but installer glitches and the absence of a nontrialware secure Web server leave this release at the mercy of the less costly Red Hat Professional 6.1.

When defending OpenLinux eServer's $199 price tag, Caldera points primarily to three value-adding enhancements in the new eServer edition: Linux tuned for optimal server performance, Web-based administration, and IBM's contributed commercial software.

RAID support, disk quotas, raw database I/O, large memory (as much as 4GB), and tightened security are compiled into the OpenLinux eServer kernel. Most of the code is compiled with Pentium Pro optimization, which can save you the tune-and-recompile that usually follows a Linux install.

Taking it for a spin

I tested OpenLinux eServer on a server with two 400-MHz Pentium II CPUs and a desktop with a 500-MHz Pentium III CPU. I equipped both machines with 27GB Maxtor Ultra DMA/33 hard drives and supported video cards. The server's Tyan motherboard has 192MB of RAM, and the desktop's Intel motherboard has 256MB.

Both systems have the latest available BIOS installed.

Caldera dressed OpenLinux eServer well. You'll see only one text screen while booting from the installation CD (you can create a boot floppy disk). This release is almost wholly graphical, a wise move for any Linux vendor trying to grab server business away from Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.

The installer, an open-source project called Lizard (Linux wizard), configures your mouse first. It correctly sensed my PS/2 Microsoft Intellimouse, but when I chose "Intellimouse" from the pull-down list of mouse types, the installation went awry. My desktop system froze, and on the server the mouse pointer got stuck. After rebooting both machines, I chose the standard PS/2 mouse and was able to move forward.

Video card configuration is simple when you use a supported card. I tested with an unsupported card (a Creative Labs Annihilator Pro) and manually chose the "standard VGA" display card as advised by the on-screen help. Lizard then presented a list of supported display resolutions, including several that the standard VGA driver would not support. When I used the "test this configuration" button, the tests failed, but Lizard displayed no message to this effect.

Additionally, Lizard's point-and-click disk partitioning interface will leave you longing for DOS's Fdisk. Lizard sizes partitions using block ranges, leaving you to do the sizing math. When I let Lizard choose a partition layout for me, it created a 2GB root partition, a 25GB unassigned partition, and a 117MB swap area, which was insufficient for both machines. Accepting boot manager defaults also resulted in unbootable installations on both test systems. On-screen help text advised that I override the default, which rendered both systems bootable. You can't afford to ignore Lizard's advice.

OpenLinux eServer contains five standard package selections: Web, file/print, network, minimum, and all. You may only choose one of these, and there is no "custom" option. Everything but the "all" package installs only the minimum required software for the server's chosen role.

The result is a very small footprint of 250MB or less. This is a great idea, but the package choices are too limiting. Red Hat's installer groups package selections by functionality, as well, but it permits multiple selections.

After you choose your package, Caldera's installer begins copying files in the background while you continue answering configuration questions. This is more appealing in concept than execution -- on both test machines, the file copy process left little room for anything else. Mouse and keyboard actions were sometimes delayed by several seconds. I found it best to wait until the copying was done.

My most serious problem with the installer struck when I came to the network configuration page. As soon as I started entering the IP network mask, the installer provoked the system's network card to transmit a constant flood of packets that overloaded my network.

This odd behavior occurred on both systems with different network cards, and the packet flood persisted even after I left Lizard's network configuration page. If the file copy process is running in the background when the packet flood starts, copying ceases and the system must be rebooted. I was able to install only by configuring the Ethernet adapters after installation.

Adding value

Once you begin using it, you'll find that OpenLinux eServer's crown jewel is Webmin. This Web-based administrative tool makes COAS (Caldera Open Administration System), Linuxconf, and other graphical administration utilities obsolete. Webmin, an independent project that Caldera helped fund, delivers a nearly complete set of administrative interfaces via any Web browser.

Webmin goes beyond other Linux graphical administration utilities by including a file manager, a process viewer, and even a Telnet terminal emulator written in Java. I found its simple, smart interface a workable substitute for a seat at the server's console, and I used Webmin in place of other text and graphical administration utilities, even for local administration. Webmin runs with most Linux distributions and some versions of Unix. It is a free download from www.webmin.com.

In addition, IBM contributed VisualAge for Java and the WebSphere Application Server to this bundle. Caldera's VisualAge for Java is the Entry Edition version, limited to 500 classes. WebSphere is trialware that expires in 90 days.

Installing WebSphere removes the standard Apache Web server and any JDK (Java Development Kit) you have installed, replacing these with IBM software. The WebSphere trialware is the only secure Web server supplied with OpenLinux eServer. That it expires in 90 days hands Red Hat a clear advantage because Red Hat Professional 6.1 includes an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer)-enhanced Apache Web server.

OpenLinux eServer 2.3 exhibits great promise. The small footprint and remotely manageable server is a good niche for Caldera. If Caldera adds a secure Web server (such as the Netscape FastTrack server bundled with prior Caldera up-market releases) and tightens up its installer, a future OpenLinux eServer release may make trouble for Red Hat. But for now, Red Hat Professional 6.1 is the best value for a corporate IT department.

Tom Yager (tyager@maxx.net) frequently covers operating systems for InfoWorld.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

Caldera OpenLinux eServer 2.3

Summary: Caldera's latest server bundle is an easy-to-install Linux tuned for server use, but it doesn't yet have what it takes to be a real e-business contender.

Business Case: The Webmin Web-based administrative interface steals the show, but other touted advantages don't fare well against Red Hat Professional 6.1.

Lacking a nontrialware secure Web server, this release adds insufficient value to justify its $199 price tag. Red Hat Professional 6.1 is a better bundle, and it costs $50 less.

Pros:

+ Web administrative interface

+ Automatic graphical installation

+ Small footprint

+ Bundled IBM commercial software

Cons:

- Limited installation options

- Secure IBM Web server expires in 90 daysCost: $199Platform(s): IBM-compatible PCsCaldera Systems Inc., Orem, Utah; (801) 765-4999; www.calderasystems.com.

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