By Jeffrey Carl
Boardwatch Magazine was the place to go for Internet Service Provider industry news, opinions and gossip for much of the 1990s. It was founded by the iconoclastic and opinionated Jack Rickard in the commercial Internet’s early days, and by the time I joined it had a niche following but an influential among ISPs, particularly for its annual ranking of Tier 1 ISPs and through the ISPcon tradeshow. Writing and speaking for Boardwatch was one of my fondest memories of the first dot-com age.
Red Hat Linux is the unquestioned leader in the U.S. for Linux market share. According to research firm IDC, Red Hat shipped 48 percent of the copies of Linux that were purchased in 1999. Many smaller distributions are based on its components, and it’s often used as the “target” distro that third-party (especially commercial) software is developed for. Still, the company has found it difficult sometimes to reconcile its place in the Linux community with its place as the Linux standard-bearer on Wall Street. With the release of Red Hat Linux 7.0, is the company still on top?
Under the Hat
Red Hat has been around since the days when Linux distributions were loose, volunteer-driven projects with users numbering in the thousands. Red Hat gradually reached a position of great popularity, based on several factors. First, they put a significant amount of effort into creating ease of use for inexperienced admins, with semi-graphical installation/configuration programs and the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) software installation system. Second, Red Hat shipped a solid distribution that tended to include the “latest and greatest” features. Lastly, Red Hat showed a genius for building and marketing a brand name, and getting a shrink-wrapped, user-friendly product into stores.
Once Linux began to appear on the radar scopes of investors, Red Hat became the high-profile “star” of the Linux world. Red Hat went public on August 11, 1999 and soared immediately – making paper fortunes overnight for of some of the Linux world’s luminaries. The stock reached a dizzying high of 151, but later became a victim of the hype as Wall Street’s love affair with Linux cooled; as of October 1, RHAT was trading near its 52-week low of 15.
The company has also faced the very difficult problem of maintaining its standing in the open source world (which is often distrustful of corporations and for-profit ventures) while pleasing its investors and shareholders. Like Robin Hood becoming the new Sheriff of Nottingham, they have found that it’s sometimes impossible to please all of your constituencies at once. Red Hat has made some occasionally unpopular moves, and faced criticism from the more evangelical Linux enthusiasts that it was trying to “co-opt” Linux standards as its own; however, the company has overall done a good job of pleasing the majority of its disparate audiences.
Introducing Red Hat Linux 7.0
As of this writing, Red Hat Linux 7.0 has been out for only a few days, but seems to be well-received. There appear to be some viable reasons to upgrade (even beyond the fact that RH 7 is supposed to be ready out of the box for a 2.4 kernel when it’s released).
Red Hat 7 is more of an evolutionary upgrade than a revolutionary one, and this will please some users and disappoint others. Still, this is generally a positive step as far as ISP/server users are concerned – when compatibility with hardware and a stable system are your prime requirements, “conservative” is never a bad approach.
As Red Hat itself is quick to point out, the value of a distribution is in meshing functionality with the expertise and testing to make sure that all of its included parts “play nicely with each other” as much as possible. In the past, Red Hat has been (depending on your viewpoint) applauded or derided for being an “early adopter” (the company brushes aside this characterization in the interview below) of new versions of libraries and applications.
An example of the tack they’ve taken with Red Hat 7 is that because of stability concerns about KDE 2’s prerelease versions by Red Hat testers, version 1.1 was included with the final release. On the other hand, some users (rightly or not) questioned the use of a non-“stable release” version of the GNU C Compiler (gcc 2.96 20000731) as the default compiler. Again, whether these are steps forward or backward is a matter of personal preference; you can’t please everybody. Still, it appears that Red Hat has worked hard to avoid a “buggy x.0 release” that some have complained about in the past.
The big differences in Red Hat 7 for desktop users are built-in USB support and the default inclusion of XFree86 4.0, with its (in my opinion, much-needed) major overhaul and modularization of the X server. Also, Sawfish is now used as the default window manager with GNOME rather than Enlightenment.
Overall, administration is roughly the same as with the 6.2 distro, with a few bugfixes and improvements here and there. The basic US package still includes two CDs (other geographical versions will include more); while this won’t please SuSE users who love the extra CDs full of applications, the included software still represents a pretty good sampler of the software you’d want (with the possible exception of “office suite” software). For more information on the included software, read the interview below.
Q & A with Red Hat
The following is from an e-mail interview with Paul McNamara, VP, Products and Platforms for Red Hat.
Q: Could you give me a brief history of Red Hat?
A: Founded in 1994, Red Hat (Nasdaq:RHAT), is the leader in development, deployment and management of Linux and open source solutions for Internet infrastructure ranging from small embedded devices to high availability clusters and secure web servers. In addition to the award-winning Red Hat Linux server operating system, Red Hat is the principal provider of GNU-based developer tools and support solutions for a wide variety of embedded processors. Red Hat provides run-time solutions, developer tools, Linux kernel expertise and offers support and engineering services to organizations in all embedded and Linux markets.
Red Hat is based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. and has offices worldwide. Please visit Red Hat on the Web at www.redhat.com.
Q: What platforms does Red Hat support? What are the minimum requirements for Red Hat?
A: Red Hat supports Intel, Alpha, and SPARC processors. Minimum requirements for the Intel product are 386 or better (Pentium recommended) 32MB RAM and 500MB free disk space.
Q: What is included with the newest release of Red Hat? (i.e., kernel version, version of Apache, Perl, Sendmail, etc. for other software packages you feel are important, plus what other third-party software do you add?)
A: A significant new feature of Red Hat Linux 7 is Red Hat Network. Red Hat Network is a breakthrough technology that gives customers access to a continuous stream of managed innovation. This facility will dramatically improve customers abilities to extract maximum value from Red Hat Linux.
We ship the following: 2.2.16 kernel, Apache 1.3.12, openssl 0.9.5, [ed: openssh 2.1.1p4 is also included] sendmail 8.11.0. Complete package description can be found at www.redhat.com/products/software/linux/pl_rhl7.html.
Third party apps can be found at www.redhat.com/products/software/linux/pl_rhl7_workstation.html and www.redhat.com/products/software/linux/pl_rhl7_server.html.
Q: What are some configurations that Red Hat would recommend, or it really excels with?
A: While Red Hat Linux is a superior general purpose OS supporting a wide range of application segments, the most popular configurations are: web servers, secure web servers, database servers, internet core services (DNS, mail, chat, etc), and technical workstations.
Q: What is Red Hat’s ‘Rawhide’ development tree? Who is it suitable for?
A: The Rawhide development tree represents our latest development code drop. It is our next release, in progress. In the traditional software development model, the developing company provides the latest engineering build to its internal developers to use to drive the development effort forward. Since Red Hat uses the collaborative development style, our ‘internal’ development release is made available to the community. This release is intended for community OS developers and is not intended to be used by customers for production environments.
Q: When Linux is united by a common kernel, what is it that keeps Red Hat as the “number one” distribution? What would you say differentiates Red Hat from other Linux distros.
A: Your question is a lot like asking since all car makers use a four cycle internal combustion engine as the primary component, what differentiates Lexus from other cars? Note that all cars are essentially compatible (can be driven on the same roads, use the same fuel, and a driver trained to drive one brand of car can easily drive another brand). What sets our brand apart is the mix of features and the quality of the finished product. We process “raw materials” (the various packages) and turn them into a finished product. Our selection of the packages, the engineering we do to create an integrated product, and our ability to deliver a quality result make the difference.
Q: Red Hat has often been cited as an “early adopter,” moving to new library versions, etc. in its releases before other distributions do. Is this a fair characterization? What advantages and/or disadvantages does this have?
A: I’ve only heard us described in this way by a competitor. I don’t know what this means. We clearly drive an agenda, and others tend to follow.
Q: Red Hat obviously has many strengths. What users, if any, should *not* choose Red Hat? For what reasons?
A: We generally discourage people interested in a legacy desktop OS from purchasing Red Hat. Red Hat is designed for servers, technical workstations, and post-PC embedded devices. It is either (1) intended for internet and IT professionals who need a high performance, internet-ready OS, or (2) is designed to be built into post-PC consumer information appliances where the device manufacturer has integrated our product into the consumer product.
Q: What advice would you give for ISP administrators about when/when not to upgrade their servers running Red Hat?
A: Red Hat Linux is a different kind of OS. Customers can choose, on a feature by feature basis, which packages to upgrade and when. Through a subscription to the Red Hat Network, customers can receive proactive notifications when new features become available and can receive a continuous stream of managed innovation to give them strategic advantage.
Q: What is the Red Hat Certification program? What benefits does it offer to Internet server administrators?
A: The Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) program is the leading training and certification program on Linux. RHCE is a performance-based certification that tests actual skills and competency at installing, configuring, and maintaining Internet servers on Red Hat Linux. Complete details can be found at www.redhat.com/training/rhce/courses/ and www.redhat.com/training.
RHCE program courses and the RHCE Exam are regularly scheduled at Red Hat, Inc. facilities in Durham, NC, San Francisco CA, and Santa Clara, CA. Global Knowledge and IBM Global Services are Red Hat Certified Training Partners for the RHCE Program, offering RHCE courses and the RHCE Exam in over 40 locations in North America. Red Hat can also run Red Hat training on-site for 12 students or more.
Red Hat offers the most comprehensive Developer Training for systems programmers and application developers on Linux, as well as training on Advanced Systems and Advanced Solutions, including the only regularly scheduled training on Linux on IA-64 architecture.
Q: What plans does Red Hat have for the IA-64 platform?
A: Red Hat is a leading participant in the IA-64 consortium, and we intend to aggressively support this new platform by delivering Red Hat Linux concurrently with the availability of IA-64 hardware.
Q: What advantages would you cite for someone choosing Red Hat Linux over another server OS, like Windows 2000, Solaris or FreeBSD?
A: Red Hat offers a superior mix of reliability, performance, flexibility, total cost of ownership and application availability. We believe it is simply the best choice for deploying Internet infrastructure.
Q: Where could someone running an Internet server go for help and tips on Red Hat? Do you specifically recommend any advice?
A: There is a huge volume of information available for Red Hat Linux. Sources include a large selection of books available at leading book stores, on-line information from news groups and mailing lists, a worldwide network of Linux Users Groups (LUGs), on-line help in the form of man and info pages, and support offerings available directly from Red Hat and from www.redhat.com.