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Linux Up Close: Time To Switch

Commercial Linux releases are ready for your server business.

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols & Eric Carr, Sm@rt Reseller

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Forget Linux's hype. Forget Microsoft Corp.'s server market share. The bottom line, according to our hands-on analysis, is that commercial Linux releases can do much more with far less than Windows NT Server can.

Yes, Linux has its problems as a desktop operating system. Yes, NT and NetWare have staggering brand recognition. But Linux is a worthy contender--both in features and performance--for your customers' file and Internet server jobs.

Not all Linux systems, however, are created equal. While Linux is an open-source operating system that anyone can download from the Internet and then compile, our testing clearly shows that there are significant differences among the three commercial Linux releases: Caldera Systems Inc.'s OpenLinux 1.3, Red Hat Software Inc.'s Red Hat Linux 5.2 and SuSE Inc.'s SuSE Linux 5.3.

Those three Linux offerings are based on the open-source Linux source code. So almost any given Linux program--along with most Santa Cruz Operation Inc. Unix apps--will run on any version of Linux. A program's performance, however, can vary from Linux release to Linux release, depending on how an app was compiled.

How We Tested Our test platform was a pair of identically configured and outfitted 266MHz PCs. Each had 64MB of memory and a 4GB IDE disk drive. An Intel Corp. EtherExpress Pro 100B network interface card connected the server to our client network, which is driven by a pair of Synoptics (now Nortel Networks) 28115 Fast Ethernet switches. All tests ran at a network speed of 100Mbps. In each instance, we performed a fresh install of the operating system. We let the operating system decide the default disk configuration in each case. In other words, we didn't try to tweak any settings. (Our guess is that results would have been even more embarrassing if we had.)

We measured the throughput of up to 30 clients for each server. The clients were a mix of 166MHz, 200MHz and 233MHz machines running Windows 95. Each of the clients ran the WebBench 2.0 static test workload to measure http server performance and NetBench 5.01 for Server Message Block (SMB), or file service, testing. Both benchmarks are available free from www.zdbop.com.

We configured each of the Linux boxes to run Samba (the SMB server) and Apache (the Web server)--but that's it. We weren't running DNS or Sendmail. Since they were being evaluated as servers, the Linux boxes were not running the X display system. The NT box was running Internet Information Server 4.0 under NT 4.0 with Service Pack 4. Again, no additional services were running.

According to ZDLabs' results (see test charts), each of the commercial Linux releases ate NT's lunch. Our tests also revealed that Apache for OpenLinux is superior to Apache for Red Hat and SuSE. Moreover, Samba for Red Hat scales better than its counterparts.

Look Under The Hood Every commercial Linux comes with a mind-boggling assortment of open-source programs. If you want file servers, you get your choice of Network File System- or Wintel-compliant Samba. If you want the Internet, you got it. Need a graphical user interface? Start with X-Windows and then add the window manager of your customers' choice.

Can't find the program you want on the provided CD-ROMs? Download it from the Internet, compile it and run it. For our tests, we downloaded the GNU Mailman mailing-list manager--a Python programming language application--and compiled and ran it successfully on all three Linux platforms.

While Python isn't included in the commercial distributions, a host of other language tools and compilers are. These include C, C++ and Perl. For custom development right out of the box, you can't beat Linux.

Of course, open-source programs and development tools aren't the only thing Linux has going for it. When your customers crave database-management systems, they can take their pick among offerings from Software AG, Informix Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc.. In short, you name a server application type, and it's in there.

Unlike NT or NetWare, however, getting the application up and running--because apps often must be compiled--can be more difficult. It's a trade-off. With NT or NetWare, you receive an easier-to-install binary. With Linux, you get a tougher install but considerably more control over the application.

Linux system administrators need not be programmers, though. The Redhat Package Manager (RPM) has become a de facto standard for application installation.

That said, you will need to be aware of such issues as what C library is supported in which distribution. Red Hat, for example, has moved its programs to Glibc 2, the latest version of the GNU C library, while OpenLinux and SuSE binaries, as of version 5.3, still depend on the libc5 runtime library. Translation: Some RPM binaries will fail on OpenLinux and SuSE systems.

The further evolution of Linux--a new base version of the code, 2.2, will debut shortly--will help remove such problems. For now, though, Linux resellers need to be aware of program-compatibility issues.

One undeniable advantage of NT, however, is that ISVs are far more likely to produce programs for it. That said, unless a customer wants a specific brand name, there's little functionality available in commercial software that's not available in a Linux program.

Caldera's LinuxSlim Code Just for kicks, we successfully loaded and ran all three commercial Linuxes on 33MHz 486 and 66MHz 486DX2 systems with 500MB hard drives and 16MB of memory. For customers with limited hardware budgets, Linux can be a godsend.

Where Linux does fall behind, however, is driver support and hardware discovery. Although Linux hardware support is improving, you must check each version's supported hardware list to be certain that all of your customers' components will function properly.

In our tests, we found, for example, that OpenLinux couldn't find our Intel EtherExpress Pro/100B network interface card and none of the three could locate our EtherExpress Pro/10+ cards.

Difficult Installation OpenLinux, with its Linux Installation and System Administration, had the roughest install. Red Hat took the honors for the smoothest install. For network administrators, though, SuSE is the more compelling choice. SuSE wins because of its Yet another Setup Tool (YaST). This administration and installation tool centralizes many administration and network services into an easy-to-use interface. It's the best all-in-one Linux management tool by a long shot.

Documentation remains a problem with all these distributions. Administrators familiar with the Unix online manual will find themselves at home. Others will want to pick up a Linux book at the local bookstore or from Amazon.com.

Once installed, all the Linux platforms performed like champs. We never encountered a single crash over the course of several weeks of testing. Network operating system stability has a new name--Linux.

Linux Lessons So which Linux will work for your customers? From a business standpoint, the nod goes to Caldera. Its reseller program is heads and shoulders above the others (more on that in a moment). In addition, its superior NetWare compatibility--with the use of Caldera's NetWare for Linux package--makes it a compelling choice for converting existing NetWare networks.

Alas, Caldera's distribution has a few kinks in it. While OpenLinux is the best Web server platform, Red Hat holds the lead in straightforward file serving, and both SuSE and Red Hat are easier to install and manage.

Keep in mind that SuSE Linux 6.0 should be released in English by the time you read this. And since the base Linux code will be updated shortly, your best move is to download and evaluate each system for yourself.

Reseller's Linux Technical superiority is all well and good, but can you make money with Linux? The answer is yes, but you can't do it by relying on box-sales margins. With Linux, there is none worth speaking of. Instead, your path to profitability must be through consulting, installation and support services.

Support is job one for would-be Linux resellers. While Linux is more stable than NT, it, and many of its most common open-source applications, is in constant evolution. Customers that want to get the most from their networks will need hands-on system and application administrators.

Linux support, as is often trumpeted, is widely available from the Linux online community. A customer fuming at a RAID controller that's out of control, however, isn't going to wait for a helpful answer from the Usenet newsgroup comp.os.linux.hardware. That customer will want an answer immediately, and that's where you come in.

Where do you get that information? Ask your employees, who should be experienced Linux users. If you don't have a Linux guru on staff, comb the local college campuses for a potential hire. Linux is hot in academia. And don't forget to lean on the Linux vendors for support. Vendor support used to be limited to a less than sterling 30 to 90 days after registration. Now, both Caldera and Red Hat offer per-incident and annual subscription support packages.

Turn To Caldera The reseller leader is Caldera. Besides the usual price breaks and marketing help, Caldera's long reseller history is sprinkled with comprehensive reseller training courses, an open discussion reseller-only mailing list and an online bimonthly publication. In addition, Caldera was the first vendor to offer Linux technical training, available at a 50 percent discount for resellers, and a certification program, the Certified Linux Engineer. Finally, Caldera offers two reseller levels: the Authorized Partner tier for entry-level resellers and the Business Partner for resellers that know Unix and NetWare.

Red Hat is close behind Caldera. It has disclosed plans for co-marketing, co-branding, training and vendor certification. To date, however, only the marketing and branding plans are in place. Red Hat offers two reseller paths. The first, Authorized System Builders, is for white-box resellers interested in building Red Hat Linux boxes. The other, Authorized Value Added Resellers, is for resellers focused on consulting and custom IT solutions.

Following the others is Germany's SuSE. The company is actively building up its reseller program, but for the most part you'll be on your own. SuSE, while dominant in Europe, is still feeling out its way in North America and doesn't have training or certification in place yet. What it does have, however, is phone technical support via LinuxCare Inc., a major Linux help-desk operation.

Can any of those offerings compete with Microsoft's 800-pound gorilla of a reseller organization? Of course not. That's not important. What is important is that there's finally enough of a channel infrastructure in place to make Linux a viable choice for any network reseller willing to make a commitment to the maverick operating system.

Talkback Articles
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