The CentOS operating system is essentially a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The CentOS people take the source RPMs for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (which are available under the GPL) and recompile them, taking out all of the branding elements of the OS and putting it together as a full distribution that for all intents and purposes acts just like the Red Hat product, but does not have support from Red Hat. Several other distributions are constructed in a similar manner, including White Box Enterprise Linux and Tao Linux. The current release is CentOS 4.2, which is equivalent to the Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 release, with a number of patches applied.
CentOS in operation is much like any Red Hat Enterprise or Fedora installation. It is easy to install, works well on most hardware, and is well-behaved. Unlike Red Hat Enterprise Linux, it is free and has free updates. It uses the Yum package manager to install updates rather than the Red Hat tools. Personally I prefer Yum to the way Red Hat packages updates. And unlike the Fedora Core releases, CentOS provides support for updates for a long period of time after release (typically five years) so that you don't have to upgrade to a new release every year to keep getting updates. CentOS 4 is scheduled to have full support through February 2008, and maintenance updates through 2012. This was the major appeal for me on my servers, and it's just as nice on a desktop OS.
CentOS contains a rich range of applications, including OpenOffice.Org 2, CD burning facilities, KDE and GNOME desktops (both looking much as they do in the Red Hat distributions), and many audio and video applications. The desktop applications are older than those in the more cutting-edge distributions, but on the other hand using CentOS on the desktop is remarkably free from the "surprises" inherent in some of the faster-developing distributions.
In some ways CentOS has some of the best features of both the Fedora Core and Red Hat Enterprise distributions, but it will be disappointing for anyone who wants the latest and greatest desktop features. Fedora Core is much more cutting edge, since it is essentially the development platform for Red Hat Enterprise, and CentOS comes out after the corresponding Red Hat Enterprise releases. CentOS has many of the same characteristics that annoy people about the other Red Hat-derived releases. It has, for example, no MP3 capabilities on its own (due to patent restrictions) and does not include any of the popular non-open-source applications. However, it is a solid base operating system that's stable and reliable. It is a good choice for a server Linux distribution, and can be good on the desktop as well if you're looking for a distro that is less cutting edge, but is stable and will not require constant upgrading.
No Linux distribution can fill everyone's needs. I still use Fedora Core on a couple of desktop machines where I really need the latest versions of software, but having CentOS available on my desktops as well gives me a common platform with my server environment, which is great for stability and development purposes.
Steve Hanson is the Principal Consultant for Cruiskeen Consulting LLC. He has been a Unix administrator for Honeywell, Collective Technologies, FERMILAB, and several other companies.
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