Linux Grows Up
Linux is the rebel's intranet operating system--and it looks like the rebels are storming the corporate gates. Linux (a free, mini-version of Unix) has become the intranet OS of choice for companies large and small. How come?
Linux's charms are many. It's free, fast, stable, and flexible, supports more platforms than NT, and can be run on far more modest server hardware. The downsides are that most Linux implementations lack essentials, like Web and email servers, and you typically get little or no tech support.
But those days may be over, as my look at the near-release version of Red Hat Linux 5.0 shows. I recently set up two simple 10-user test intranets for a fictional insurance company. One was built with Red Hat Linux 5.0 and the other was set up with Windows NT Server 4.0. With Red Hat, not only did I get the base OS, but also a Web server, email server, database program, and more. The total cost was $49.95. The cost of a similar NT setup is over $4,600 (see the table "Red Hat Linux Versus NT"). Now you can see why Linux is making strong inroads in the corporate world.
Linux had its beginnings in the academic world when its developer, Linus Torvalds, created an operating system inspired by Minix, an instructional version of Unix. He posted his Linux source code on the Internet and was soon joined by others who were interested in the flexible operating system. Since then, Linux has grown by leaps and bounds, and has been supported and customized by several different groups and companies. Red Hat is just one of its supporters.
Although thousands of network administrators have embraced Linux, some businesses have been a little reluctant, being used to products that come with manuals and an 800 number for technical support. Companies like Red Hat aim to bring Linux more in line with corporate America.
With Red Hat Linux 5.0, you get the entire package on CD-ROM, along with manuals and 30 days of installation support. You can buy standard help-desk-style service contracts for about $1,000 per year from local Red Hat "support partners." These service contracts cover everything from the OS to the email server, and include a free program update and bug fixes.
A gold service contract (price to be determined) adds open-ended technical phone support.
And look what you get for the money. Your $49.95 buys you the OS, a Web server, the Sendmail mail server, a newsgroup server, the capable (if decidedly ungraphical) PostgreSQL database server, plus Perl and C++ development tools. Red Hat even throws in Metro-X for those who prefer a graphical front end to Linux's command-line interface. Like other Linux setups, Red Hat can run on lightweight hardware: a 386 with 8MB of RAM and around 40MB of hard disk space (100MB if you are using the graphical mode). The NT Server requires, at a bare minimum, a 486/33MHz machine with 16MB of RAM and at least 125MB of disk space. While NT is confined to Intel and Alpha platforms, Red Hat also runs on SPARC systems. (Other variants of Linux also run on PowerPC and Power Mac systems.)
Red Hat Up Close
Most people stick with NT because it's easy to install and can run a lot of applications. Microsoft also provides tech support. But as Red Hat illustrates, Linux is quickly maturing. Installation can be easier than NT, and along with a swarm of available applications (from databases to Netscape Communicator), commercial-style product support is an option.
My Linux test intranet was surprisingly easy to set up. It took less than two hours. I especially liked Red Hat's Disk Druid tool, which lets you customize how your hard disk is partitioned for the OS and applications. My Windows NT intranet with equivalent Web and email support required nearly four hours to install. Too much time was spent configuring the operating system and add-on software and rebooting the system.
I created some static Web pages for each server using some gripping insurance policy information. I used the Internet Information Server (IIS) that comes with NT and the Apache Web Server bundled with Red Hat Linux 5.0 to post my pages. Both server's setup procedures were equally straightforward.
Using the SQL database and the Perl and C++ tools that come with Red Hat, I quickly created input/output forms and a custom Web application to get at my customer database. NT had none of these tools. The cost of a 10-user license for Microsoft's SQL Server is a mere $1,999. The price of Visual C++ is only $499. What a deal! (However, to be fair, you could use the cheaper Microsoft Access 97, which can also generate Web pages for IIS.)
Of course, you get what you pay for. Microsoft's database and development tools are more powerful, graphical, and nicely integrated. But for many company intranets, these tools would be technical--and financial--overkill.
Setting up email was the same story. Red Hat Linux includes everything you need to get email up and running. To get the equivalent from Microsoft on an NT setup, you'd have to buy Exchange Server for $1,329. (There are, of course, cheaper NT-compatible mail solutions, but you get the idea.)
NT = Not Today
Some people will prefer the comfort of Windows NT and the mainstream support of Microsoft. NT's graphical interface is a big selling point, especially to organizations with minimal IS staff. But if you have some intranet smarts--and you're tired of the crashes, hassles, and configuration headaches that come with NT--Red Hat demonstrates that Linux is a very attractive alternative. It also proves that software created outside the sacred halls of Redmond can do the job, and then some.
© 1997 Maggie Biggs. All rights reserved.
Red Hat Linux 5.0 (Intel version)
Introduction, Technical Information
Linux Journal magazine