Choosing a Linux Distribution

It is important to begin by saying that all Linux distributions, including commercial — Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE, Xandros, etc — as well as non-commercial — Debian, Slackware, Gentoo, etc — are all good and are technically able to fulfill most real world needs. To choose amongst them is more related to personal taste of the people who already knows it than to functionality. But a company must think about other aspects — not only taste — to guarantee making the right strategic choice for long term benefits.

Support and Certification

All Linux distributors package, in one way or another, mostly the same set of Open Source softwares (the Kernel, Apache, Samba, libraries, Gnome, KDE, etc). But only the so called enterprise distributions include support services together with their product.

For a user, support really means:

  1. A partner available now and in the long term to transfer operational risks.
    This is the most important point. Companies don’t want to take risks — specially the Open Source risks — for themselves.
  2. Fast access to quality updates.
    Companies in general have limited resources to compile, test and apply OSS updates.
  3. Access to a large set of certified hardware (IHV) and software (ISV) vendors, and availability of pre-tested complex solutions.
    A critical part of any IT project is the support and certification connections between its components (hardware, storage, middleware, etc). The most important and valued function provided by a distributor, even more so than the embedded technology in the OS, is its ability to build ecosystems of certified Independent Hardware and Software Vendors.

Price for a License Versus Subscription Business Models

Companies that sell commercial software (as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, etc) allow somebody to use their products only after buying the rights to. This “buyable rights” are refered to as a commercial license.

The software provided in any Linux distribution is free of charge. The developers of these softwares have licensed their work under the GPL, BSD, Mozilla Public, IBM Public or some other Open Source licenses, which grants anyone the rights to use and redistribute the software without having to pay any money.

It is a misnomer to say that you are “buying� some Linux distribution (or a license for it to be used). You can’t buy it. It is already yours, in practical terms. It is like saying a user is buying the content of some web site. There is nothing material to acquire. On the other hand this user can subscribe to a service that provides hot line support, access to updates and access to an ecosystem of interoperable certified products and solutions – the support points outlined above.

So enterprise Linux distributors (such as Red Hat, Novell, Xandros) sell these services, and not the software, because the last is free of charge.

Choosing the Best Distribution

There are two responsible and effective ways to use a Linux distribution as part of a company’s IT operations:

  1. Acquire a global commercial Linux subscription such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.
    A subscription ties together the Open Source software and its global scale support, providing a stable environment for a certified ISV and IHV flourishing ecosystem.
  2. Use free distributors such as as Debian or Slackware and buy support services from an independent local company.
    Free distributions may introduce more risk due to non-global support operations, in addition to a loose integration between software and support, which leads to a weak ISVs and IHVs ecosystem.

In terms of technical flexibility and vendor choice — points that influence cost —, both options are equal. All the benefits of the second option are present in the first, while second lacks the ecosystem aspects.

Thus the conclusion is that it is more reasonable to directly acquire a product that directly ties the support to the software, than manually integrate them at the regional level.

RHEL versus SLES comparison

Companies should look at the following points, in this order, when choosing a Linux distribution to run their business applications:

  1. Which distribution vendor do I have closer commercial relationship?
  2. Who has best pricing model for the value provided?
  3. Which distribution does my technical staff have more experience with?
  4. Which distribution is supported and certified by my providers of hardware and software?
  5. If you are unsure, be responsible and use an enterprise distribution.

There are two enterprise Linux distributors that have a strong ecosystem and penetration in the market: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise. They have differences that every year continue to converging and diverge. See the table for a comparison.

Other Enterprise Distributions

There are several Linux distributions with business models similar to the one adopted by Red Hat and Novell. Most well known are Ubuntu (technically based on Debian), Mandriva (Conectiva and Mandrake fusion), Xandros (also based on Debian.) They are focused on building a product that can scale globally in such a way that support services can be delivered automatically or as a self-service.

There is an intrinsic market law that seeks equilibrium by providing two options in which to choose. One option may be good (there is actually no option when only one path is available), two mature options is better, and three or more options are too much for the market to handle. It appears that the market has already defined its two mature options: Novell and Red Hat.

Even if these other enterprise distributors have better products, they’ll have to spend a considerable amount of energy developing an ecosystem of ISVs and IHVs. More than that, ISVs and IHVs will have to take a break in their operations to listen to what these new distributors have to offer.

Ecosystem is everything. A product with a good ecosystem can easily become much better than an excellent product without an ecosystem. This is probably the most important aspect a company should consider when choosing a Linux distribution.

One cannot say that a certain distribution is better than all others. When searching for a distribution one should be pragmatic in striking a balance between the distribution’s functions and how well it meets the goals of the company or specific project.

8 thoughts on “Choosing a Linux Distribution”

  1. Não entendi porque mencionar o Xandros – distribuição totalmente irrelevante.

    Sobre este assunto, vale lembrar que a distribuição mais popular é o Red Hat e a segunda, o Debian (segundo o Netcraft). Apesar das tentativas da Novell, o mercado “Enterprise” continua preferindo, em peso, a Red Hat.

  2. First of all, I think that we have a reasonable mix of “Stick with what already works” and “Include last stable innovations from the Open Source world”. We shipped XGL, Xen, and many other innovations before Red Hat, but at the same time we try to only ship innovations that are ready for the enterprise.

    With regard to the “uncommon interpretation of standards” I’d like to point out that we pass LSB 3.1 or LSB 3.0 with our products. This was verified by running the LSB testsuite. I’d interpret that as adhering to the standards. 😉

    As for the claim that naming conventions on the SUSE product have some “SuSE” signature. What files are you referring to here?

    I think the statement that we don’t ship all source packages is not true for the Open Source software we are shipping. There are some cases like proprietary firmware or Novell proprietary software that is bundled mainly with the SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop where shipping the sources is not an option.

    But all those add functionality on top of the otherwise completely Open Source product that Red Hat just doesn’t have. In my humble opinion this should not speak against us in a direct comparison.

    If you are aware of any Open Source package that we don’t make sources available for and Red Hat does, please give me a note and we will fix that.

  3. Joachim, so responses to your arguments.

    First of all, I think that we have a reasonable mix of “Stick with what already works” and…

    SLES still uses XFree86 while whole community uses (and contributes to) The same for the RPM software. And more one example or another I can’t remember right now.

    With regard to the “uncommon interpretation of standards” I’d like to point…

    Thats why I said “uncommon”. It is wierd to install Gnome and KDE under /opt. BTW, /opt is in the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard but it was included for backwards compatibility and for third party SW makers (SUSE can’t be third party for their own distro). Modern software provided by the software packager (the distribution) should not use /opt or /usr/local. So yes, using /opt does not violate the standard, but is wierd for SuSE to use it.

    As for the claim that naming conventions on the SUSE product have some “SuSE” signature. What files are you referring to here?

    There is the SuSE.config file under /etc. There are some fonts named SUSE Arial, SUSE Times, etc. This is not portable.

    I think the statement that we don’t ship all source packages is not true…

    I was not talking about proprietary packages, but the open source ones. I needed several times, but could never find on SUSE’s public FTP servers the source-RPMs for packages as the kernel, libc or others for non-popular paltforms as IBM iSeries, pSeries and zSeries.

    For proprietary stuff, the no-source-RPM (source RPMs without the actual source, but only the spec file and patches written by SUSE) is expected to be freely available.

    Anyway, SLES and SLED are great products !

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