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2/15/2005
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Linux is Linux, right?

This week's LinuxWorld conference has brought with it the obligatory storm of new announcements from the most prominent providers of the Linux operating system: Novell and Red Hat. Both companies are making a serious play to grab desktop operating-system market share from Microsoft. Both have identified security as a major concern among their customers. And both have become chummy with the tech industry's biggest players. If open-source is all about mitigating vendor influence on IT innovation,

This week's LinuxWorld conference has brought with it the obligatory storm of new announcements from the most prominent providers of the Linux operating system: Novell and Red Hat. Both companies are making a serious play to grab desktop operating-system market share from Microsoft. Both have identified security as a major concern among their customers. And both have become chummy with the tech industry's biggest players. If open-source is all about mitigating vendor influence on IT innovation, what's the difference between Red Hat Linux and Novell's SuSE Linux? Plenty, when you consider their approaches to the market.As Novell chairman and CEO Jack Messman pointed out in a LinuxWorld press conference on Tuesday, his company's similarity to Red Hat begins and ends with basic Linux kernel. Novell's approach to the Linux market is to leverage nearly 25 years of software development experience and brand recognition to ensure IT executives that they're not entrusting their precious data center resources to just any company.

Red Hat, meanwhile, emerged just as the dot.com bubble was building in the late 1990s and charged ahead while other tech startups foundered. Although Red Hat does hold software patents, the company has positioned itself as committed to delivering a truer measure of open-source to its customers. The company's name has for many businesses become synonymous with Linux. Red Hat has used this identity to its advantage; having never competed with the ISVs it now calls allies.

Luckily, the companies haven't let philosophy stand in the way of delivering a number of product enhancements this week. Red Hat Tuesday released the first version of its operating system based on the 2.6 Linux kernel. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 includes a number of security, scalability, desktop, and management features the company is hoping will make the operating system an appealing alternative to Unix and Windows, not to mention SuSE Linux.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 includes logical volume management capabilities that the company acquired in late 2003 along with Sistina Software. Prior to this version of the operating system, Red Hat users had to turn to third-party providers such as Veritas for this capability. With logical volume management integrated into the operating system, users can expect a greater degree of flexibility when configuring, and re-configuring, storage.

Although a lot of focus in the Linux market has been providing users with all of the capabilities they'd become accustomed to over the past few decades with Unix, Red Hat insists that it is looking to outdo that predecessor technology on several levels. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, for example, includes SE Linux security features that provide a level of security previously available only in specialized "trusted" versions of Unix. The latest version of Red Hat is a move to marry high-level security features with the basic operating system. Such features include mandatory access control capabilities to lock down user permissions and improved buffer management.

The packaging of Linux in such a way that it's easy to use even for less technical operators will enable Red Hat to grow more rapidly into the mid-size and enterprise-size companies as well as the desktop, says Donald Fischer, senior product manager for Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Not to be outdone, Novell came to LinuxWorld with a number of announcements, having already introduced its support for the 2.6 kernel last year. Novell announced Tuesday that it's working with Unisys, PolyServe, and SGI to appeal to companies interested in running Linux in highly available and clustered data center environments. The company's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 has achieved a security certification of EAL4+. This Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level (they go up to 7) is used to evaluate the security of IT products and systems. Novell also introduced its Hula project to create an open-source collaboration server that will coexist with the company's existing GroupWise product.

In the end, customers will decide which model prevails. Novell would do well to match the level of Red Hat's ISV support, IDC research director Al Gillen told me Tuesday at LinuxWorld. Still, the purity of an open-source solution is not as much of a motivation for business customers as Red Hat might think. "People want products that are supported and feature stabilized," Gillen said.

Has your company had to choose between Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SuSE Enterprise Linux? If so, I'd like to hear how you made the decision.

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