RedHat ES 3.0 vs. SuSE Server 8.0: Battle for the Enterprise

y company, Command Prompt, has traditionally been a Red Hat house. All our managed servers run Red Hat 7.3 or above. We do not support Debian, Gentoo, or any other “hobby” Linux. This is not to say those distributions are not worthy (I use Gentoo and SuSE at home), it’s that they are not what most customers consider “commercial” Linux distributions.

Unfortunately, Red Hat’s recent announcement that it was dropping support for all versions of Red Hat Linux and moving to a paid support model for Red Hat WS (WorkStation) and ES (Enterprise Server) left us in the lurch. Like other Linux-focused companies, we have to be able to support our customers in a cost efficient and reasonable manner. When we sell our managed services, we have to sell via a name that people recognize.

Managers know Linux?Red Hat Linux. SuSE is also a contender, but doesn’t have nearly the market share in the United States that Red Hat does. SuSE’s primary stronghold has been in Europe; however, due to its recent acquisition by Novell, SuSE is now a U.S. company, and that change may improve the brand’s support and increase deployment among other U.S. companies.

Given these new Linux marketplace dynamics I felt it was only fair to compare how the Gecko holds up against the Red Hat.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve run all variants of Red Hat, from 7.3 all the way up to Fedora Core 1 (FC1). In my home office, I run SuSE 8.2 and Gentoo. I am comfortable with both major distributions and can effectively administer either of them, although I do have many more years of experience with Red Hat than SuSE.

The machine used for testing has the following specifications:

  • Dual Athlon MP 2800 (Barton)
  • 2 GB of Registered ECC RAM
  • 3Ware IDE hardware RAID
  • (4) 80 Gig WD in a RAID 0+1 array

Red Hat Installation
When I received the Red Hat ES package, it was a simple case that contained 9 CDs, a Red Hat Network activation card, and a small installation pamphlet?which I was surprised to find was the only printed documentation in the package.

Installing Red Hat ES was almost exactly the same as installing any other Red Hat version: simple, efficient, and quickly done. I did note a few items in the installation that Red Hat really needs to modify.

  1. Red Hat still doesn’t support XFS. Red Hat has a general policy of not including support for technology in Linux unless it is a part of Linux core. Well, XFS is a part of 2.6 and a part of the latest 2.4 kernels. It seems that they should provide an updated install image.
  2. When selecting whether to set up your hard drives, Red Hat defaults to letting Disk Druid auto partition for you. That may be OK for desktop installations; but when you’re setting up a server, you don’t let a wizard auto partition your system.
  3. The installer does not install legacy software development as a package option by default. The legacy software development package contains the older libs associated with Red Hat versions such as 7.3. As many people who will be moving to ES will be migrating from older platforms with custom software, it would be a good idea to include support for their software (older libs, etc.) by default; otherwise the custom software won’t run.

Red Hat Features
After ES 3.0 was up and running I started exploring. ES 3.0 will cost you anywhere from 349 to 18,000 USD. The price varies based on the type of support, CPU’s (x86, Opteron, s/390) and options you would like. I wanted to know what makes the software worth paying for, rather than simply downloading some other Linux distribution, such as Fedora FC1. The answer is…

Nothing.

At least, it offers no real added value from a software perspective, or for people running any level of x86 hardware. Red Hat ES appears to be essentially the exact same thing as FC1, which is free. Yes, the product contains the Red Hat Enterprise version of the Linux kernel, which is specially optimized for server situations, but I can download and compile (into RPM even) the exact same version for FC1.

Of course, you also get the Red Hat Network, which automates the install of new packages, updates, and bug fixes. However, I can get that from FC1 with Apt. If FC1 becomes unsupported I can use the Fedora Legacy Project with Apt.

To be frank, if my system were to become completely unsupported I could download these source files, build them into RPMS, and deploy them to all my servers using my own Apt repository. That isn’t a complicated operation; we did something similar for legacy Red Hat 6.2 customers for some time before moving them to newer Red Hat versions.

As the president of a company that manages a good 50+ servers, I want something that helps make my life and the life of my employees easier. You can edit /etc/sysctl.conf or run chkconfig only so many times before you want a simple (preferably scriptable) interface to handle such simple tasks. In other words, I want administration tools. If I am going to pay for Linux, I want added value. I want something I can’t get from the overwhelming and dedicated open source community.

So the question is: Why would you want to pay money for this product?

It depends on your needs. This is still Red Hat. It is still stable, well known, and has a large community support base. For the managers out there, it offers well-respected training, certifications, and a gamut of continual support options.

From a technical perspective, this release really doesn’t offer any compelling reason to purchase Red Hat ES over simply downloading Fedora. In fact, from a technical perspective, there’s an argument that the rapid development cycle of Fedora allows people to enjoy the continual benefits of open source in a more effective manner than Red Hat Enterprise Linux can provide.

SuSE Server 8.0
I was excited about trying SuSE Server. First, SuSE provides support for file systems other than Ext3. Ext3 is a decent file system, but it doesn’t scale well. In addition, Ext3 does not eliminate the need for fsck. It just delays the inevitable.

SuSE allows for several file system choices although I will only discuss one of them here?XFS. XFS is the venerable SGI Irix file system, open sourced and ported to Linux. It is stable, fast, and scalable, and also provides mature support for ACL (Access Control Lists).

SuSE Server ships with Cyrus IMAPd?and Cyrus is the bane of many system administrators’ lives. Although it is arguably the best IMAP server out there, it is not easy to install and not easy to configure; however, with SuSE Server you get a wonderful Web interface for managing Cyrus. This one feature alone made me consider standardizing on SuSE and moving as far away from Red Hat as I could get.

SuSE Installation
Having installed SuSE Professional on a number of occasions I am fairly comfortable with getting SuSE up and running. As expected, the server installation GUI and configuration was very simple, and made it easy to manipulate the graphical installer without a mouse. The installer uses standard bindings to any menu option, making it a bit easier to deal with than Red Hat.

After starting the install, I walked away. When you install Red Hat you can walk away from an install for about 10 minutes and when you come back the install will have ejected the first CD and will be waiting for you to install the next one.

 
Figure 1. SuSE PostFix Configuration: This figure shows the Web-based interface for configuring mail after installing SuSE Linux Server (image copyright SuSE, used by permission).

SuSE, on the other hand, is a completely different story. The first time I installed SuSE I had to switch between CDs at least 30 times. At first I thought there must be something wrong, but after switching to the details screen I noticed that SuSE was installing one or two packages from each CD, and then switching to another CD. However, during this review process, I installed SuSE four separate times, two Standard and two Basic installations, and I was unable to repeat these weird initial results.

The only other installation problem was that SuSE Server did not correctly install Grub; I had to boot manually (entering hand-typed parameters) on the first reboot. This may have been a hardware fluke, so I didn’t pay much attention to it: I’ve had to use Grub from the command line many times in the past. Again, I could not reproduce this problem in subsequent installs.

The reality is that installing Linux is pretty straightforward (unless you’re installing Gentoo or Debian). Every major distribution is easy to get up and running. However, it’s after the install completes that SuSE begins to show its true colors.

 
Figure 2. SuSE Proxy Configuration: Another example of SuSE’s convenient Web-based interface for configuring proxies (image copyright SuSE, used by permission).

SuSE Features
SuSE Server has remote administration capabilities (not just from a text console, but from an attractive Web-based interface) for all major server features (see Figure 1). This includes but is not limited to:

  • DHCP
  • Postfix (replacement for Sendmail)
  • DNS
  • IMAP
  • Samba
  • System Statistics (Uses MRTG)
  • User management
  • Proxy Server

This is what a commercial Linux is about?added value. SuSE appears to have a firm grasp on this notion. I typically don’t like to provide free PR for companies, but I was honestly impressed with the SuSE offering and was quite surprised with the completeness of the product.

I tested some of these interfaces. The proxy server was configured with a basic configuration by default (see Figure 2). The only thing I had to do was tell my FireFox browser to use the proxy server, which worked like a charm. The Cyrus IMAPd configuration presented no problems. Just add a domain and then add a user to the domain and you’re all set. If I had known that SuSE had put this much effort into making the lives of administrators easier I would have switched a long time ago.

With the pending release of SuSE Server 9 and SuSE’s new backing by Novell, I believe that Red Hat is going to have to rethink their current strategy. SuSE just blows the doors off the Red Hat implementation.

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