March 28, 2002

Red Hat Advanced Server: The real enterprise deal?

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

At first glance, Red Hat's announcement of "Red Hat Linux Advanced Server, the first enterprise-class Linux operating system" sounds like just another dose of public relations hype. Another day, another Linux business announcement. But first impressions can be misleading. Many industry observers think the Advanced Server is a giant leap forward for enterprise Linux.In part they think that because of the customer star power Red Hat trotted out for its press conference. AOL, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse First Boston -- these aren't the financially ailing Burlington
Coat Factory -- are top companies that will be deploying Red Hat Linux at their enterprise heart and not just in branch offices as inexpensive file/print servers. Stacey Quandt, Giga Information Group's Open Source analyst, was impressed by the turnout of top financial companies and the degree of their Linux commitment. She says, "This is not just a marketing announcement, this is a serious announcement."

On the other hand, competitors like SuSE and Caldera aren't particularly impressed with the new Red Hat offering. Caldera's CTO went as far as to say Linux doesn't scale as well as its Unix products.

It's not just the Red Hat customers and their wallet size that was impressive, though; Red Hat people claim RHLAS is a different take on Linux. Mark de Visser, Red Hat's v.p. of marketing, says that before RHLAS, almost all major Linux distributions were general purpose and meant for everyone from "college students to the enterprise. But RHLAS is for the enterprise only."

Bill Claybrook, research director for Linux and Unix at the Aberdeen Group, sees RHLAS as Red Hat's way of "telling the computing business that they're serious about getting Red Hat into the enterprise. Prior to this, they've been all over the place."

One way de Visser says that Red Hat is stabilizing RHLAS is putting it on an 18-month
life cycle. The RHLAS that will be out next month, with a year of support and a starting price of $800, will use the same code base until well into 2004.

De Visser explains the logic for this is that independent software vendors are sick and tired of trying to keep up with Linux distributions' six- to eight-month cycles and want a stable platform for their applications. In the enterprise market, where rock-solid, yet complex, applications are the rule rather than the exception, Red Hat believes this will lead more enterprise ISVs such as Oracle, SAP and Veritas to work more closely with RHLAS. Quandt agrees, saying that the move is "very smart."

Technically, RHLAS does this by adopting such enterprise-friendly features as up to eight-way clustering and asynchronous input/output from the developmental Linux 2.5 kernel. De Visser says that enterprise customers, especially those who want to deploy database applications, must have these features, and the existing 2.5 code in these areas is mature enough that Red Hat has decided to deploy them today.

Claybrook agrees that to reach enterprise customers, Red Hat had to reach into mainstream Linux's future. "Before RHLAS they didn't have serious clustering or asynchronous I/O and without that they couldn't run Oracle 9i RAC or other serious high-end DBMSes."

Of course, some argue that Linux has been enterprise ready for some time. A SuSE
representative said, "What do you expect us to say, when RH announces to be the first, although SuSE successfully introduced the product (enterprise Linux) to the market six month ago!?"

Holger Dyroff, SuSE's director of sales for North America, adds, "While other Linux companies are finally announcing their enterprise versions, SuSE Linux expands on a six-month lead into the corporate marketplace. Oracle, SAP and other major ISVs are supporting the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server while Compaq, IBM and other partners are delivering support and services."

Caldera also takes a jaundiced view of Red Hat's news. Drew Spencer, Caldera's CTO, says, "Linux and Unix are complementary technologies." While "Linux is ideal for solutions that require four-way or lower systems, for Web serving, file and print services ... Caldera's Unix [OpenServer and OpenUnix] environments are designed for low-end to high-end database solutions and can scale up to 32 processors, and systems that require extremely high workloads."

In short, Caldera "believes, and some of Red Hat's own industry partners will tell you, that Linux today cannot scale in the same way that Unix can," he says. "Red Hat has failed to demonstrate that adding special sauce to Linux will make it scale. Red Hat is asking customers to take a risk by buying into this unproven solution."

But de Visser says that replacing Unix is exactly what Red Hat Linux is doing now and will continue to do. "In the field, we've found that in 99 out of 100 cases, we're replacing an existing old line Unix vendor deployment." An IDC case study that was sponsored by Red Hat argues that Linux, due to its better total cost
of ownership, is a smarter deal for many business customers than RISC-based Unix.

Red Hat, according to de Visser, doesn't see Caldera as one of its primary competitors.
This may be because their business models -- Caldera's reseller channel aimed at small- and medium-sized business, and RHLAS's direct to enterprise customers approach -- really don't lead them to go to head to head with each other. SuSE, especially in the European market, is another matter.

All the analysts we spoke to, and de Visser, thought that in the long run Red Hat's main competition will be Sun. Claybrook thinks that "Sun will be doing what Red Hat is doing now, but they're already much bigger. Right now, Sun Linux is due late summer, if Sun makes a serious Linux-on-Intel move this could be scary for Red Hat."

For now, though, while Caldera and other Unix and Linux companies might disagree, Quandt speaks for several analysts when she says, "RHLAS narrows the gap between Linux and Unix and widens the gap between mainstream Linux and Linux for the enterprise." Now we'll see if the customers agree.

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