November 3, 2016

Enterprise Linux Showdown: Red Hat Enterprise Linux

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Red Hat Linux
In this series, we will contrast and compare Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Canonical's Ubuntu Linux, and SUSE Enterprise Linux. This article focuses on RHEL, which promises super-reliability and long support cycles.

In our amazing Linux world, we have not one, not two, but three, count 'em, three major-league enterprise Linux distributions: Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Canonical's Ubuntu Linux, and SUSE Enterprise Linux. In this series, we will contrast and compare all three. Each one is so large it would take a book to thoroughly cover them, so we'll hit the high points of major products, services, important partnerships, and support.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux Background

Red Hat, like SUSE, is one of the oldest Linux distributions, founded in 1993. As a foundational distribution, it spawned a large family of derivatives, including Caldera, Mandrake, Turbolinux, Yellow Dog, and Red Flag.

In 2003, Red Hat Linux split into Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora Linux, making a clear distinction between the commercial enterprise version and the free community version. Fedora is 100% free and open source software (FOSS); it showcases new technologies while providing a good usable system.

RHEL promises super-reliability and long support cycles. Each release is supported for 10 years, and RHEL 5 customers can purchase extended support beyond ten years.

Red Hat's code is open, and anyone can take it for free and clone it or build competitive derivatives. CentOS and Scientific Linux are popular clones, and competitor Oracle maintains its own Oracle Unbreakable Linux clone. This exactly the same as RHEL, with one difference: customers have the option of using Oracle's customized kernel in place of the RHEL kernel. Even so, RHEL is one of the big open source success stories and was the first open source business to reach $1 billion in revenues, and in 2016 cracked the $2 billion mark.

Getting RHEL For Free

Linux users are used to getting great software free of cost, even though that is not a requirement of most FOSS licenses. Users who want RHEL for free can build it from source RPMs (which is not a trivial task) or use one of the clones. A third option is to get the official binaries from their Get Started download page, which has images for bare metal and virtual machines. This is a self-supported, free of cost version that is the same as the paid version, and it uses all the same tools including Subscription Manager and the Red Hat Customer Portal. You have to register and join the Red Hat Developer Program, and you may not use it as a production server -- only for testing and development. Read all about it at FAQ: no-cost Red Hat Enterprise Linux Developer Suite.

Many individual products have live online demos and free 30-day downloads.

Buying Red Hat

You can talk to the nice Red Hat salespeople, who really are nice and knowledgeable, and you also have the option of purchasing online.

Product Line

RHEL includes almost everything under the sun: the Linux operating system, JBoss Middleware, KVM-based hypervisor, cloud, storage, mobile development and management platforms, desktop, workstation, Internet of Things, and of course all of the major servers and productivity applications that are included in most Linux distributions. It runs on everything from embedded devices to mainframes and supercomputers.

As containers are all the rage now, check out Red Hat's Atomic Host. This is a specialized RHEL 7 scaled-down and optimized to run in containers in Docker format. Atomic Host simplifies the complexity of developing and running containers by providing a central management console for creating and managing your containers; it incorporates Docker, Kubernetes, SELinux, Systemd, and other standard components. See the Product Documentation for Red Hat Enterprise Linux Atomic Host for a complete walk-through of installation and configuration. This is a good starting point if you're new to container technologies.

We hear so much hype about containers and Internet of Things that it fades into background noise. To get a good perspective on the amazing possibilities of these technologies, watch "Microservices and Smart Networks Will Save the Internet," which brings it all into the real world.

Red Hat has partnerships with many major tech vendors, including Dell, SAP, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Amazon, and, yes, Microsoft. Like most FOSS projects you get interoperability rather than lock-in.

What about the desktop? Red Hat has a desktop and a workstation edition, but they've always been quiet about them. I've never understood why so many businesses stick with Microsoft Windows on the desktop when it's such an overpriced hassle. Linux on the enterprise desktop makes perfect sense: way more secure, stable, lightweight, easy to customize, and easy to manage centrally. Just one of life's mysteries, I suppose.

Management tools are the #1 most important tools in the datacenter, in my needlessly humble opinion. Red Hat's Satellite provides a central console for full management of the entire Red Hat stack: provisioning, configuration, license tracking, configuration, and auditing.

Visit the ecosystem catalog to look up certified hardware, software, and service providers.

Support

Red Hat's customer and product support generally gets high marks. They also offer a full complement of training and certification courses. These are tailored for Red Hat software, but Linux and FOSS are pretty much the same everywhere so everything you learn is transferable to other Linux distributions and open source software.

Red Hat's documentation is famous for being excellent and thorough, with manuals for everything, plus videos and knowledge base.

Cons

So far, this probably sounds like a gooey love letter. In a way it is, because Red Hat is a fine company that has been a major supporter and funder of FOSS development from its inception. Their products and support are first-rate. Of course, everyone has their quirks and flaws. These are some that I have experienced:

The Mystery of the Broken Download. When RHEL 6 was released, I tried to download a 30-day evaluation. I could not get a full download, so I filed a bug ticket. I received many nice replies but not one helpful reply. So then I requested the DVD. At the time, the evaluation disk cost $25, and as a tech journalist I figured I should receive a free review copy. Again, my request was met with abundant niceness, but nobody could just pop a disk in the mail. I gave up and found a friend who gave me access to his RHEL server to check it out.

Ancient Software. Many businesses hate to upgrade anything ever. They think computers are like staplers: when you buy a stapler, you have a stapler for life. Who upgrades staplers? Nobody, that's who, so why upgrade computers? This causes problems when you want to run applications that have newer dependencies. For example, LAMP stacks are moving targets, and wise admins keep them updated religiously. But RHEL 6 ships with PHP 5.3.3 and RHEL 7 ships with PHP 5.4, both of which are so old and unsafe they've been deprecated and are unsupported by the PHP team. Red Hat keeps them patched, but most apps and servers require newer PHP versions. Getting newer versions was quite a hassle until Red Hat created the Software Collections, which is both a software repository and a toolset to build your own packages. Not all SCL packages are supported; see Red Hat Software Collections for a supported list.

Up Next: Ubuntu Linux

See our next installment, in which we explore Canonical's Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu is the easiest of the enterprise Linuxes to obtain; simply download it without jumping through any hoops. Ubuntu is the youngest major enterprise Linux, and they are making their mark in a number of interesting ways.

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