February 18, 2004

Red Hat Professional Workstation: More expensive, fewer features

Author: Jason Prince

Red Hat Professional Workstation was designed to allow former users of the
company's consumer product line to continue to use a supported
platform without having to migrate to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
Unfortunately, it fails to live up to its predecessors in key areas,
and is considerably more expensive in some usage scenarios. Home
users should look to the Fedora Project if they wish to continue
using Red Hat technology, or consider migrating to another Linux
distribution. Small businesses should analyse their current
expenditure and consider migrating to another vendor.

Late last year, Red Hat announced that it was discontinuing its consumer
product line and replacing it with an unsupported, community-oriented
developer platform, the Fedora Project. The announcement of the
Fedora Project was taken by many in the wider community to mean that
Red Hat was simply abandoning the home users and small businesses
that had been its staple long before the existence of the Enterprise
Linux platform.

However, shortly after the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 3, Red
Hat quietly made Red Hat Professional Workstation available.
Initially buried deep within the Red Hat Web site, the company is only
now putting greater emphasis on the product. When contacted, Red Hat
made much the fact that they were not abandoning home users after
all. "Professional Workstation is a derivative of Red Hat
Enterprise Linux designed for the individual user," explained
Michelle Chaperon, a spokesperson for Red Hat. "It is based on
a year long release cycle that is ideal for those who do not wish to
keep up with the rapid release cycle of Fedora."

Retailing at around $100, Professional Workstation comes with 30 days of phone
and Web-based installation support, and access to Red Hat Network's
Update module for one year. Although the product originally lacked a
clear upgrade path, Red Hat announced earlier this month that users
will be able to renew their subscriptions each year. However,
considering the fact that Red Hat initially refused to disclose how
it intended to proceed with users who deployed Professional
Workstation, and given that the company has been gradually moving
towards enterprise products for the last few years, how long this
hybrid solution will be available for is unclear.

"It seems as if this is almost an orphaned offering," comments Stephen
O'Grady, senior analyst at RedMonk. "Without a clear
upgrade path and guaranteed support, it's difficult to say why
anyone would choose this direction instead of Fedora -- after all,
there's nothing to say that Fedora users have to keep pace with every
single release."

Long-term viability aside, Professional Workstation is considerably more
expensive than the consumer product line it replaced. Most former
users of the consumer product line would have paid around $40 every
12 months as older products reached their end-of-life dates.
However, Professional Workstation does include access to Red Hat
Network's Update module, which would have cost $60
each year, so the actual difference in cost may therefore not be
quite as pronounced as might be thought at first glance.

Inside Professional Workstation

Professional Workstation includes nine CDs and a printed installation guide, all
labeled as "Red Hat Linux Enterprise 3 WS" -- as
becomes even clearer once the installation is under way, describing
the product as a "derivative" of Red Hat Enterprise Linux
3 WS is something of an exaggeration.

Desktop productivity users may hardly
notice the difference between the two products. Generally, only minor
package updates have been included over those that were available in
Red Hat Linux 9. Although Ximian Evolution has been updated to
1.4.5, OpenOffice.org remains at an aged 1.0.2. A number of
productivity applications, including GnuCash, have actually been
removed altogether.

By contrast, small businesses that ran Red Hat Linux 9 on their
servers certainly will notice what they're missing. A lot of the functionality that was
available in Red Hat Linux 9 has been stripped out of Enterprise
Linux WS, undoubtedly to force subscribers to the Enterprise Linux
product line to move to the more expensive ES and AS platforms. This
has naturally filtered down to Professional Workstation, which is
missing server components such as BIND, OpenLDAP, DHCP, inews, and
Kerberos 5. Professional Workstation does still include Apache, Samba,
and NFS, and may therefore still be adequate for basic server needs,
but small business users that had previously utilised services such
as DHCP server will be forced to look at alternatives.

Support services are also lacking in Professional Workstation, again as the
result of a deliberate decision on the part of Red Hat. While the
functionality of Red Hat Network remains similar, Red Hat's
Support on Demand service is no longer available at all, removing an
important surety for small businesses.

Professional Workstation includes one year's access to Red Hat Network's
Update module, to allow users to receive updates from Red Hat quickly
and efficiently. The tools included with the Update module
subscription are virtually unchanged from the old Basic subscription
level, although access to ISO images is not available. Red Hat
Network would be the one truly unique feature of Red Hat Professional
Workstation were it not for the fact that the add-on services that
would make the service distinctive, the Management and Provisioning
modules, are only available to Enterprise Linux subscribers. As it
is, Red Hat Network is just an update service, albeit one with a
Service Level Agreement.

Beyond the initial 30 days of installation support, the support offerings
available to users of Professional Workstation are poor. Prior to the
discontinuation of the consumer product line, home users and small
businesses were able to purchase basic support from Red Hat for
$39.95 per incident. The Support on Demand service covered basic
installation, configuration, and bug reporting, and represented an
important safety net for small businesses using Red Hat Linux 9 in
production environments. Professional Workstation's product
description, on both the Red Hat Web site and the box itself, is at
pains to point out that post-installation support is not available --
but is "standard in Red Hat Enterprise Linux." Small
businesses that deploy Professional Workstation and require support
will need to look to third parties for assistance.

Beyond Professional Workstation

For many users, the time has come to move away from Red Hat. There is no
compelling reason to deploy Red Hat Professional Workstation; it is a
good deal more expensive than former Red Hat Linux consumer products,
and at the same time offers few useful enhancements and, in some
cases, comes with reduced functionality. Both home users and small
businesses will be better served by investigating other solutions.

For home users, there are numerous options. The Fedora Project offers an
attractive Red Hat-based desktop environment, with newer packages and
a Red Hat Network-like update service, although without any support
or Service Level Agreements. If you want to move away from Red Hat,
or are looking for a supported solution, there are an impressive
range of well-supported Linux distributions available, including
general-purpose products such as SUSE Linux and Mandrake Linux, and
desktop-oriented products such as Xandros Desktop, LindowsOS, and
Lycoris Desktop/LX.

Small businesses with requirements that go beyond the basic features
offered by Professional Workstation need to carefully evaluate the
costs associated with either migrating to Red Hat Enterprise Linux or
moving away from Red Hat products entirely. "While Fedora
certainly enjoys relatively strong support in terms of development
and supporting packages," comments O'Grady, "it's
clearly not intended for the enterprise nor is it billed as such."

The costs associated with Red Hat Enterprise Linux are substantial. A
subscription to Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS costs at least $179 per
year, and a fully supported subscription costs $299 -- three
times the price of Professional Workstation. Red Hat Linux Enterprise
ES, which includes the missing server software, costs at least $349
per year, with a fully supported subscription costing $799.

Moving away from Red Hat is the better of the two options, says Rob Enderle,
principal analyst for the Enderle Group. "Red Hat Enterprise
Linux reflects a much higher level of aggressiveness on Red Hat's
part," he says. "Their pricing may not stabilise for
some time to come, as margins are still a problem for them."

Enderle argues that Linux is becoming more like Unix as it moves into the
enterprise, and says that small businesses should seriously evaluate
vendors with Unix experience. "Linux is only going to get more
expensive going forward," he predicts. "Companies with a
history in Unix understand the need for stability in pricing."

Novell and Hewlett-Packard are the best bets, according to Enderle. "Novell
clearly has a lot of history, while HP the safest for a vendor with a
hardware capability," he says.

Jason Prince is studying Computer Science at Australia's Macquarie University. His areas of interest include Linux in small businesses and education, as well as Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

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