January 29, 2001

Review: WhatifLinux package updater

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

Nearly every Linux Distribution now has some way to automatically find and install updates. However, these only matter if you choose to run them yourself, perhaps daily if the system has an important role that needs the latest security update. These services only tell you what needs to be updated and do the update for you. They do not, however, tell you why you should install the update, or what possible effects these updates will have on your system. These are some the main functions WhatifLinux provides.

Personal Edition
WhatifLinux is a service that, for $49 a year for the personal editions, will use its agent to scan the user's computer to see what packages are installed, and then reports which packages are out of date, and which packages might have security issues. Using the console provided with the service, the user can manage packages, getting reports on the packages installed on his or her system and the proposed updates.

Is WhatifLinux worth the $49 per year for the personal edition? That is debatable. The average Linux user is going to fall into two categories -- those that know how to update packages, and those that don't know packages exist. Users who aren't aware of package won't be helped by the additional information given by WhatifLinux because they really won't know what they're doing. The service doesn't make updating any easier, it merely gives more information than other package updating programs. Most distributions provide adequete enough package management tools that more advanced users will have no trouble updating their packages, and some (Mandrake, for example) provide ones that even relatively new users will get the hang of. WhatifLinux Personal Edition doesn't seem to be where WhatifLinux is focused. That is why there is also a Workgroup Edition, intended for use on networks.

Workgroup Edition
The Workgroup Edition, on the other hand, does have some some features that may make it worthwhile to system administrators. The Workgroup version allows administrators to manage the packages installed on machines on their network for $495 per server per year. This allows for such features as remote installation of packages across the network on multiple machines, something which can certainly save a lot of time. While remote installation is certainly possible under Linux, doing so on many machines can be troublesome, especially when different machines have different configurations.

WhatifLinux takes care of all this, allowing you to manage these different machines from one central place, and allowing you to keep your systems up to date with minimal trouble. This service can really be useful, and though it is $495 a server per year, for large networks where package/installation management becomes an issue, that might be a real bargain compared to the amount of time spent managing packages and installations on each individual machine.

About WhatifLinux
WhatifLinux is a service provided by Acrylis, a Massachusetts-based Web developer. Acrylis was founded in 1998 and is currently focused on the operation of WhatifLinux.

WhatifLinux Personal provides a service that for the most part is duplicated by the package managers and update services included with most distributions. However, if you really feel you must be completely up to date and know everything about the packages you are installing, WhatifLinux may be the service that is right for you. For the most part, however, I can't recommend WhatifLinux for personal use, unless the package management feature it offers are significantly better than those offered in whichever distribution you use.

For networks, I can definately recommend WhatifLinux, because it can greatly reduce the amount of time spent managing packages and installations across multiple machines. However, there are other ways to do this, though they may not be as elegant. For the system administrator who is looking for an easy way to maintain many Linux based systems, this just might be the right way to go.

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