November 9, 2004

Review: White Box fills niche between Fedora and RHEL

Author: Aditya Nag

White Box Enterprise Linux (WBEL) is an attempt to fill the void left by Red Hat's decision to become a purely commercial product. It's not without problems, but it does a bridge the functionality gap between the Fedora Project and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

WBEL was born when the Beauregard Parish (La.) Public Library faced the difficult choice of moving all its servers to RHEL and paying large sums in licensing fees, or moving to a different distro. It chose to sponsor the creation of White Box Linux. What exactly is White Box? According to its site, the goal was

To provide an unencumbered RPM-based Linux distribution that retains enough compatibility with Red Hat Linux to allow easy upgrades, and to retain compatibility with their Errata srpms. Being based off of RHEL3 means that a machine should be able to avoid the upgrade treadmill until Oct 2008 since RHEL promises Errata availability for five years from date of initial release and RHEL3 shipped in Oct 2003.

I downloaded the WBEL 3.0 Respin 1 to see whether it could act as a replacement for RHEL. This is version is not intended for home use. As the name says, this is a version for the enterprise, which translates to "a few versions behind the latest, but very stable software included." It still runs kernel 2.4.21, for example. However, Red Hat back-ported many features of the 2.6 series kernel into its own kernel, and these features are all present in WBEL.

I installed WBEL on a server-class machine, the components of which are fully supported by Red Hat and therefore WBEL. I used an 800MHz Pentium III-based HCL Infinity server with 512MB of ECC SDRAM and an Intel Server Board. All the components were certified to work on Linux, so there were no hardware issues. The server formerly ran Red Hat 9.

Software installation is the familiar Anaconda-based install. White Box has removed all Red Hat branding and replaced it with its own. Aside from that, it is exactly the same as any RH/Fedora install. I chose the server installation, and installed it without any problems in a little over 20 minutes. After installing, the first thing I did was run up2date. White Box has used yum from Fedora and modified the up2date agent to work seamlessly with it. In my case, it connected to the White Box servers and told me that 121 updates were available. I downloaded all of them. Samba and OpenSSL were two essentials that needed to be updated, and WBEL is very much up-to-date with both. White Box has done a good job with the updates, and this in itself is a killer feature for those looking to upgrade from earlier versions of Red Hat.

Using White Box was easy. All the previous config files were usable, and our software worked without any hitches. Since White Box uses the exact same GUI and command-line management tools as Red Hat, our administrators did not face any problems working with the system.

At my university, we run custom-developed software to provide Internet access to more than 400 clients. The server acts as a proxy server, gateway, and file server. It provides Samba shared folders where we store the latest Norton virus definitions, service packs, and other common files. It gets its maximum usage as a proxy server, though the file sharing gets hit pretty hard when there's a new virus update available.

The White Box server stood up to the load very well. Even at peak usage hours the memory load never went above 77%. Under Red Hat 9, we used to see 80-85% memory usage at peak hours, so this was a good improvement. Samba performance showed no difference; it was at fast as it used to be under RH9.

All other server-related tasks worked as well as they did under RH9. In fact, most of the time we forgot that we were using a different OS; it just seemed exactly like Red Hat.

It is easy to find packages for WBEL, since almost all Red Hat packages work. The Web has an abundance of Red Hat-related riches, in the form of how-tos, guides, software, etc., all of which apply to WBEL, with very minor changes at most. Yum is provided and set up, so installing new software is easy. Books written for Red Hat are also applicable to WBEL.

As far as support is concerned, WBEL has active mailing lists with many users offering solutions. While this cannot compare to professional help from Red Hat or a similar company, you can't beat the price. I browsed through a few hundred messages to get the feel of the lists, and they are surprisingly polite.

WBEL does have a few problems. Updating was a bit of a problem sometimes, because the servers kept timing out and saying they were busy. WBEL obviously does not have the bandwidth that Red Hat or SUSE have. It is also possible that WBEL might disappear someday, and you will have to roll your own security updates. There seems to enough momentum that this will not happen, but I wouldn't want to bet a company on it.

I did not try any commercial database or ERP applications on WBEL. WBEL might be able to run these, but I wouldn't recommend it. If your organization can afford these kinds of applications, you're probably already running RHEL.


White Box Enterprise Linux is best suited to smaller businesses or educational institutes, which may find the cost of a RHEL license prohibitive but would not want to switch to a different distro because of the learning curve involved. Red Hat 9 is getting a little long in the tooth now, and Red Hat no longer provides free updates for it. White Box does updates rather well.

I would not recommend WBEL for a mission-critical server because of the support issues. If you need 99.99% uptime, you should be willing to pay for quality support. While community mailing lists may help, there is no substitute for a trained engineer fixing your problem. However, if your needs are simple, and you are used to Red Hat, then WBEL is a good upgrade.

Aditya Nag is currently studying law in order to better understand the GPL, and has been a Linux user since 1997.


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