'); return false;">Finnish university student to a worldwide platform. The undisputed strength of Linux in the server arena has led to widespread adoption in the business arena--case in point, the ubiquitous Apache Web server, which serves roughly 65 percent of the world's Web sites.
But Linux isn't limited to just servers anymore. In the last few years, desktop-oriented Linux distributions have exploded, with increasingly simpler installation and configuration routines and a slate of productivity apps. Linux's X Window System GUI, along with rapidly maturing desktop environments such as KDE and GNOME, is beginning to offer a computing experience that approaches the relative simplicity of Windows. With the advent of high-quality, Linux-native office apps such as KDE's KOffice suite and Ximian GNOME's Evolution and Gnumeric, Linux also has the potential to become an attractive alternative for corporate desktop deployment.
Though each of these distributions has something to offer business users, some are better suited for enterprise use than others. To help you choose the most appropriate version of Linux for your enterprise, we evaluated seven major Linux distributions in search of the perfect balance between utility, productivity, and support.
Caldera OpenLinux eServer 2.3
The Linux platform can be used for a variety of server functions and is gaining recognition as a network infrastructure solution, against competition from industry heavyweights such as IBM, Microsoft, Novell, and Sun. Caldera's eServer product, based on its OpenLinux distribution, is designed specifically for network server installations. What distinguishes eServer from similar offerings by Red Hat, SuSE, Turbolinux, and others is its lean, mean, ready-for-business approach, featuring a remarkably small disk-space footprint, an extensive array of timesaving features, and a carefully chosen set of applications. Caldera eServer is an excellent choice for serving printers, files, applications, and entire networks at the enterprise level.
Installing eServer is a swift and painless procedure. Like its cousin eDesktop, eServer uses the Lizard graphical installation interface, which is arguably one of the most refined installation systems available for a Linux distribution. We installed eServer on a Pentium-II 266 with 64MB of RAM. This configuration was far from leading-edge technology, but Lizard excels at hardware detection and network configuration and had no problem identifying our vintage hardware.
eServer offers four preset installation profiles: Web server, file/print server, network server, or minimum server. You can also choose to run a complete installation of all packages or perform a custom installation. The installation profiles are meant to provide optimized software architecture for single-purpose servers; each installation option weighs in at less than 300MB. Each server-specific installation is streamlined for its task, and eServer provides configuration options specific to each server's function.
Lean, mean machine
Many Linux distributions include an oppressive amount of applications, most of which are unnecessary for network server operations. In contrast, the eServer distribution excludes most nonserver software, save for a small set of client-side maintenance tools. But don't worry--Caldera has packed this distribution with all the right stuff. eServer ships with a rich set of third-party applications that enhance its utility as a server platform, including Samba File and Print, Sendmail, DHCP and DNS servers, and the ubiquitous Apache Web Server (version 1.3.14), to name just a few. And eServer supports browser-based remote administration using Caldera's Webmin tool. In total, eServer includes more than 20 server-specific applications and 10 major server products and can be integrated into existing network infrastructures with relative ease. For users who'd rather not do without a graphical desktop environment, eServer also includes the user-friendly KDE desktop. An important caveat is that eServer 2.3 is among the list of products and distributions that won't install on Pentium 4 systems.
Documentation and support
The documentation for eServer, which resides primarily on Caldera's Web site, is practical, concise, and easily digestible, especially for first-time users. In addition, Caldera offers user guides, administration manuals, and how-tos on its Web site; the sections on security and print server configuration are particularly helpful. Caldera also maintains an online knowledge base that's well-organized and easy to use, but because it's a repository of information for all of Caldera's products, you'll have to run an advanced search to return eServer-specific results. As for tech support, Caldera offers a number of free support options; registering a Caldera product entitles you to e-mail and Web-based technical support for 90 days or five incidents, whichever occurs first. You can also purchase additional phone or e-mail support.
OpenLinux eServer is an ideal server solution for enterprise environments--especially for organizations with limited resources, less-experienced system administrators, or older hardware. By omitting the bales of extraneous applications that weigh down less specialized distributions, Caldera has instilled its strengths--organization, efficiency, and ease of use--into this product. While the level of technology in eServer is comparable to offerings from other Linux vendors, Caldera has put a considerable amount of thought into making eServer a more usable, focused product; eServer's combination of a small disk footprint, customized installations, and automation of tedious tasks represents a big leap forward for server-based Linux distributions. eServer is listed at $199 but is widely available for less than $80.
Debian GNU/Linux 2.2
With support for more platforms than any other Linux distribution and almost 4,000 software packages, Debian GNU/Linux 2.2 is arguably one of the most versatile Linux distributions available. This version of Debian has been in development for 18 months, with contributions from approximately 500 volunteer programmers. While there are no major surprises in this version, it's worth noting that installation has been improved slightly. But the uninitiated should be warned: with no printed documentation and little in the way of onscreen guidance, Debian still isn't the distribution of choice for new Linux users.
More apps, platforms, and languages
Known for its prolific offerings, you might think Debian would eventually run out of GNU software to add to its distributions. But public support for the Debian Social Contract hasn't waned; approximately 1,200 new packages have been contributed to this release. No matter what software you need on a new system, there's probably an application or utility somewhere in the distribution that will do the job.
Debian 2.2 also widens its sphere of influence by adding the PowerPC and ARM processor architectures to its roster of supported platforms, so Debian will now run on iMacs and Netwinders. There are even several different flavors of installation kernels, each tailored to accommodate various hardware configurations. You also have several installation alternatives using a variety of media, your local network, or the Internet.
Version 2.2 is a more international affair than earlier releases, with beefed-up support for Japanese and other non-Latin-based languages and improved translations for some European languages. Debian 2.2 also provides all the tools necessary to use this distribution to create your own version.
Less documentation and help
Debian has never been the distribution for the faint of heart or for those testing the Linux waters for the first time. This release does little to alter that reputation; even the installation could pose a problem for those new to Debian, because there's no manual. During our installation and testing, we encountered several instances where documentation or some onscreen explanations would have been helpful.
If you need the security of a manual, you should probably consider another distribution. But if you remain undaunted, plan on spending some time at Debian's Web site to search out and read as much as you can about this distribution. A preinstallation visit is also a good idea so that you can download and print the installation instructions.
The nearly 4,000 programs included on Debian's three CDs may seem overwhelming, but the Dselect interface makes installing your selections from the bevy of apps a breeze. You can even select groups of programs to install either during the OS installation or later.
If any of the programs you choose to install require other software or will create a conflict with another app, Debian will let you know. In many cases, you can install and configure software or update an existing application without having to close the application. Other package managers--such as Red Hat's RPM--don't offer the versatility that Dselect brings to the table.
The GNU advantage
You might expect that a thorough distribution such as Debian would include documentation to match. Unfortunately that's not the case. Manual writing is apparently less appealing to GNU contributors than is programming. And while you won't get the kind of technical support you do with other distributions, legions of Debian users are willing to help online via newsgroups and discussion forums. Also, thanks to the GNU free software ethos, you'll likely never be confused by licensing issues; Debian specifies which packages are not released under the General Public License (GPL) by putting them in the Contrib and Non-free directories on the CD.
Debian is a solid distribution with scores of programs, but its lack of documentation and other such amenities make it less attractive to newer users. And corporate users would probably welcome a more formal support program.
Simply put, no other distribution beats the polished user experience offered by Linux-Mandrake 8.0. If you're currently running release 7.2, version 8.0 provides a seamless upgrade. And if you've never tried Linux-Mandrake, version 8.0's amazing level of automation and its decked-out installation GUI provide the perfect Linux launching point. Featuring a GUI face-lift and the latest versions of the kernel, Xfree86, GNOME and KDE, Linux-Mandrake 8.0 sits squarely at the forefront of powerful yet easy-to-use distributions.
With version 8.0, MandrakeSoft has hit a home run in terms of visual appeal and ease of use. Linux-Mandrake 7.1 and 7.2 both received high marks from us for thoroughness and usability, and version 8.0 carries on that tradition. The installer for version 8.0 is seamless as they come. Once you get past the first few screens (confirming keyboard, mouse, and monitor selections), the installer offers a wide range of packages available for installation. A graphical menu displays icons for preset application groups such as office, multimedia, Internet, console tools, development, and so on. You can choose to install entire groups of packages or opt for individual package selection, for which the installer provides an expandable outline listing every available package. After you select and install packages, Linux-Mandrake helps you configure your network with its new network configuration wizard, which automatically detects and configures network parameters. Setting up a dial-up connection is just as simple: you select your modem configuration from a menu, enter your ISP settings, and Linux-Mandrake automatically completes your PPP configuration.
One of Linux-Mandrake's most useful features is the Mandrake Control Center, which lets you configure printers, monitors, and video and sound cards. It also allows you to install and upgrade applications, establish network file sharing, set up a firewall, and more. Linux-Mandrake includes a bevy of useful desktop apps, from productivity apps such as the StarOffice suite to personal finance programs such as the Quicken-compatible GnuCash. Linux-Mandrake 8.0's unique, user-friendly interface is reason enough to choose this stellar distribution, but its merits don't stop there. New additions include the 2.4.3 kernel, KDE 2.1.1, GNOME 1.4 (which includes the Nautilus file manager from now-defunct Eazel), and Xfree86 4.0.3.
The 2.4.3 kernel brings a host of improvements to version 8.0, including more reliable USB and firewire support, ATA-100 support, the Logical Volume Manager and ResierFS. Additionally, version 8.0 features substantially improved display options. Xfree86 4.0.3 offers much improved 2D and 3D graphics performance for DRI-compatible video cards; and KDE 2.1.1 features antialiased font support, which offers a dramatic improvement in display clarity.
Mandrake-specific improvements are less bountiful, consisting mainly of the new Mandrake Control Center, a flashier installation GUI, and greatly improved hardware detection. The Linux-specific package upgrades can be performed individually, but since version 8.0 includes upgraded versions of glibc and RPM, the process can be difficult. The question of whether to upgrade to 8.0 ultimately boils down to one of convenience. If you're willing to roll up your sleeves and upgrade packages separately, you may not need version 8.0; but if you prefer a more hands-off approach, upgrading to 8.0 is a wise choice, especially if you've had less than stellar success with hardware detection in past versions of Mandrake.
Linux-Mandrake features an excellent support package. Once you register, you get 30 days of support via MandrakeExpert, a user-to-user forum where you can post tech support questions and receive cogent responses from experienced Linux-Mandrake users, called experts. This is an innovative concept, but it remains to be seen whether such a service will outshine the tried-and-true Usenet discussion groups consulted by most Linux users. We tested the service by posting questions about printing and DHCP issues and received sensible and useful responses fairly quickly--usually within a few hours. However, the distribution's printed user guide leaves much to be desired. It includes plenty of information to help you get started and troubleshoot a few problems, but if you need more detailed information, you should consult Linux-Mandrake's online documentation.
Users who want to try Linux but are frustrated with the steep learning curve will find a welcome change in this polished, easy-to-use distribution. If any Linux distribution is actually making progress toward the consumer desktop, Linux-Mandrake is surely it, offering a computing experience approaching the simplicity of the Macintosh. New users, especially those looking for a quick and easy alternative to Windows or the Mac OS, will be hard pressed to find a smoother, easier transition to the world of Linux.
With greater than two-thirds of the Linux distribution market share, Red Hat Linux is arguably the de facto standard for the Linux software platform. Buffed up with a new kernel, vastly improved hardware detection, foolproof package management, and an Internet-based software management feature that's in a class by itself, version 7.1 is Red Hat's most significant upgrade yet. It delivers a flexible, reliable, rock-solid platform suited for home, small-business and enterprise users alike. New kernel Red Hat 7.1 includes the 2.4.2-2 kernel, which supports up to 64GB of RAM, far more than the 4GB limit in the 2.2 kernel series. While the 2.2.x kernel can't take full advantage of servers with more than four CPUs, the 2.4 series is much more scalable, with SMP (symmetric multiprocessor) support for machines with as many as eight CPUs. The 2.4 kernel also offers hot-pluggable support for a wide range of USB devices and vastly improved support for CD-R/RW drives.
Red Hat 7.1 offers an array of installation options that set it apart from typical Linux distributions. If you use an older version of Red Hat (as far back as version 3.0.3) and wish to keep your existing user files, you will find 7.1's upgrade procedure quick, painless, and efficient. In contrast, competing distributions such as SuSE Linux and Linux-Mandrake offer package updates that can be error-prone and take more time than performing a complete installation.
Prior versions of Red Hat have included automated server and workstation installation options. Version 7.1 adds a laptop installation option that enables support for a significant number of PCMCIA cards, touchpads, and LCDs. This version also offers improved support for hundreds of graphics cards and smoother font rendering, thanks to XFree86 4.0.3. If your system has a 3D graphics accelerator, the installation process lets you select a 3D accelerator card from an extensive list--a feature conspicuously absent from previous versions. Unfortunately, sound card detection and installation continue to be sore points. Red Hat still requires that you use the text-based sndconfig utility to detect and configure your sound card after the installation process is complete.
Version 7.1 lets you choose either KDE 2.1 or GNOME 1.2 as the default desktop and gives you the option to install both, either, or neither. However, we were surprised to discover that GNOME 1.4, which includes leading-edge apps such as Nautilus and Evolution, was excluded from this release, especially since Red Hat is a well-known supporter of GNOME.
The new Red Hat also offers beefed-up security options. The installation process helps you set up a firewall and disables notoriously insecure protocols such as FTP and Telnet by default. During installation, a firewall configuration screen lets you specify which ports and services are allowed to pass through your firewall.
Managing multiple user accounts and passwords can be a significant burden for a systems administrator. On the client side, Red Hat Linux lets you specify which NIS, LDAP, or Kerberos server you'd like for user authentication. Red Hat's support for client- and server-side centralized user authentication is an attractive option for organizations looking to minimize the number of passwords that users are required to remember.
New configuration tools Version 7.1 includes apacheconf, a handy tool that lets you modify the basic configuration of Apache Web Server (version 1.3.19-5 is included with the distribution). While it's not a complete replacement for editing your httpd.conf file manually, apacheconf does an adequate job of configuring Apache's most common settings, including the server name, the administrator's e-mail address, the maximum number of connections and requests per connection, and so on. apacheconf's clean graphical interface can save a lot of hair-pulling, particularly during the setup of Apache's virtual hosting, which lets you configure multiple Web sites on one physical server.
Also new to 7.1 is printconf, a long-awaited print configuration tool that lets you select a local printer from a list of more than 500 supported laser and inkjet printers. printconf easily handles network printer selection and lets you configure and use any printer attached to a Unix-based print server. It also provides access to Windows-based print servers via Samba.
Red Hat Network
The Web-based Red Hat Network service truly sets this distribution above the rest. Since its introduction with Red Hat 7, the Red Hat Network has undergone two significant upgrades, adding a bundle of new, enterprise-worthy features that should help system administrators avoid a lot of headaches. With Red Hat Network, an administrator can configure and manage any number of servers and workstations securely and remotely from a central location via an SSL-enabled Web browser. When a server experiences difficulties or has been compromised, a system administrator's traditional response is to shut off the machine, isolate it from the network, and troubleshoot the problem. Too often, the only solution is to completely reformat the disk drive and reinstall the operating system, applications, and user files from scratch. Depending on the severity and the downed server's importance, this can put a significant dent in an organization's productivity. Red Hat Network helps prevent problems from occurring on servers and workstations with features such as: >System health monitoring, which tracks CPU temperature, file system errors, disk space, process memory usage, and more for each machine
Software security updates, feature enhancements, and bug fixes are delivered far more rapidly in the open source world than in the proprietary one. Red Hat Network's Software Manager lets you opt to download and install updates automatically, or you can choose to receive notification of package updates via e-mail and handpick your own upgrades.
With version 7.1, Red Hat Linux offers more than just an operating system. It's a complete Linux solution that incorporates system management and deployment features that will ease system administration for enterprise and small-business users. With a new kernel, versatile installation options, new configuration tools, and an excellent Web-based system management service, Red Hat 7.1 deserves serious consideration as a Linux server and desktop solution for your organization.
OUsers familiar with SuSE's massive software catalog and advanced features will find it no surprise that version 7.2 of SuSE Linux Professional offers yet another significant upgrade to an already comprehensive product. And users new to SuSE should appreciate the ease and convenience that SuSE brings to Linux. Incorporating the latest Linux technologies--including the 2.4.4 kernel and Samba 2.2--along with improvements to installation, security, and multimedia, SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional is a high-performance distribution suited for almost any enterprise environment.
The installation procedure for SuSE 7.2 is similar to that of version 7.1, with excellent hardware detection and ease of use, but SuSE has refined the process in several ways. SuSE's YaST2 installation and administration tool probes your system prior to installation to verify that you have adequate RAM and disk space for a minimum installation. YaST2 lets you perform a fresh installation or update an existing SuSE system. You can select one of five preset installation profiles--minimal, graphical, full install, and so on. Or you can select packages yourself, either individually or in logical groupings such as development tools, server packages, multimedia applications, and so on.
New and improved
By default, SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional installs the 2.4.4 kernel, which supports USB, Pentium 4 processors, the increasingly popular Reiser File System (RFS), RAID devices, and up to 64GB of RAM. It also installs the latest version of Samba (2.2), which supports Microsoft's Distributed File System (DFS), Windows 2000 workstations living in Samba domains, and NT server manager administration. Furthermore, SuSE is the first company to have its Linux operating system validated against Oracle's 9i Database. These features--along with SuSE's excellent ALICE (Automatic Linux Installation and Configuration Environment) tool----make SuSE Linux remarkably easy to implement within heterogeneous networks.
Version 7.2 also adds support for loopback mounted crypto file systems; this option lets you store data in an encrypted format that requires authentication when mounting the file system. Another handy addition to security is SuSE's AMaViS (A Mail Virus Scanner), which works with almost any common mail server to filter out nasty viruses such as Kournikova. And SuSE's YaST Online Update (YOU) keeps system security current by grabbing security updates automatically from the SuSE server.
SuSE 7.2 features XFree86 4.0.3, which offers a modular architecture, speedier performance, and support for antialiased TrueType fonts. SuSE's SaX2 tool provides a graphical interface for configuring XFree86. In addition, the KDE 2.1.2-based Konqueror tool is now more versatile as a Web browser thanks to reactivate technology, which enables Konqueror to embed ActiveX controls such as Macromedia Shockwave and Flash, in addition to common Web formats such as CSS-2, Java, and SSL.
SuSE 7.2 Pro features a large number of multimedia packages. Video and voice over IP (VoIP) are supported via applications such as ohphone. Tools such as Broadcast2000, x2divx, and xawtx let you create, edit, and play video in various formats. Sound support is especially strong in SuSE 7.2 Pro. SuSE is one of the only distributions that supports Yamaha sound cards, and version 7.2 exhibits a new focus on audio with an impressive selection of tools, including MP3 players, streaming MP3 servers (such as Icecast), audio sequencers, real-time sound synthesizers, audio production tools, and more. The broad selection of tools found in SuSE 7.2 Pro make it possible to create and interact with professional multimedia presentations on the Linux platform.
Documentation and support
Tech support for SuSE remains largely unchanged. Registration brings 90 days of installation support via phone, fax, or e-mail. The boxed edition of SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional comes with five excellent manuals, including networking and reference manuals not included with SuSE Linux 7.2 Personal. For new users, these manuals alone are worth the price of the boxed product, since they provide well-organized, easy-to-understand information on many relevant topics. However, the printed manuals generally stick to the basics; advanced users may want to consult the expansive SuSE Linux Knowledge Portal, or the SuSE Support knowledgebase.
SuSE Linux has established itself as a leader in advanced open source solutions with support for the newest standards and a collection of more than 2,000 applications. SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional's refinements to convenience and ease of use make this distribution highly accessible to new users, and its extensive multimedia features should attract a variety of creative professionals.
Users who need a fast, direct approach to implementing single-function servers may find SuSE Linux's plethora of bundled apps too cumbersome, and may be better served by a more focused distribution such as Caldera OpenLinux eServer. With its huge number of included packages, SuSE 7.2 Pro can be tuned for nearly any task, from networking to development, and provides an excellent all-around solution for enterprise environments. SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional lists for $69.95, but is widely available for less.
Measured in Linux years, Turbolinux is an old hand, having entered the arena in 1992 and first offering its own distribution in 1997. Despite the company's experience, Turbolinux Workstation Pro 6.1 lacks some of the polish of other desktop distributions, and its non-graphical installation interface is likely to intimidate all but grizzled Linux veterans. Turbolinux 6.1's improved Japanese language support should please its legions of users in Pacific Rim countries. Also, if you need to develop software applications and test them on the PowerPC, Intel IA-64, and Sparc platforms, this version will fill the bill nicely. But if you're a desktop user looking for easy installation or a no-sweat dual-boot setup, you'd be better off with Caldera OpenLinux, Corel Linux, or Linux-Mandrake.
Turbolinux is the only major Linux vendor that still offers only a text-based installation routine. Linux veterans may not mind the spartan interface, but if you're new to Linux you should take note that the installation guide specifically says that installing Workstation Pro 6.1 requires some familiarity with Linux. If you're still undaunted, the installation process is reasonably well-documented, with step-by-step instructions as well as pictures and descriptions of installation screens.
Turbolinux also marches to its own drummer when it comes to configuration utilities. Instead of standard graphical configuration tools such as Linuxconf or Webmin, Workstation Pro 6.1 offers a disparate array of configuration tools unique to Turbolinux. The toolkit includes graphical and text-based versions of TurboNetCfg (network identification), TurboTimeCfg (system clock settings), TurboPrintCfg (local and remote printer setup), TurboService (configuration of services and deamons), TurboPortCfg (inetd and tcpd configuration), and TurboTboot (floppy boot disk creation). Two text-based tools, turbopkg (package management) and turboxcfg (display settings), also are included. The text-based configuration tools work reasonably well for remotely configuring client machines via a Telnet or SSH session, but we hope that future versions of Turbolinux will add centralized and easier-to-use tools such as Linuxconf, Webmin, or Caldera's upcoming Volution management software.
The PartitionMagic Linux Prep Tool, a version of PowerQuest's popular partitioning software, is included to make it easy for you to set up a dual-boot system with Windows 95, 98, or NT. (It also lets you dual-boot with Windows 2000 if FAT is the Windows file allocation format.) But there's no mention of the PartitionMagic utility in the installation guide. In fact, the guide suggests that you use the far less intuitive FIPS partitioning utility to nondestructively partition your hard drive. We also ran into some difficulties setting up a dual-boot system when we discovered that the usual LILO setup screen doesn't appear during Workstation Pro 6.1's installation, so we weren't offered the option of booting into Windows once the installation completed.
We decided to call tech support (you get 30 days of telephone support for installation help), but couldn't find the telephone number in the box. So, we registered the product at Turbolinux's Web site and emailed to request the phone number; three business days later, we received a response (despite an automated email reply promising a response within 24 hours). After some confusion about the AWOL LILO setup screen, the tech support representative offered a fix that required manually editing the /etc/lilo.conf file. Apparently, a LILO setup screen has been omitted from Workstation Pro 6.1's installation routine, even though it was in previous Turbolinux versions.
Solid development tools
Workstation Pro 6.1 provides a solid set of commercial IDE tools that are well designed for developing and deploying Web-based applications. Borland's popular Java development tool, JBuilder Foundation 3.5, is included, although a serial number registration key (not provided) is needed to install it. However, we were able to install Sun's freely available Forte for Java without a hitch. IBM's Developer Kit for Linux Java and trial versions of WebSphere Homepage Builder and the Apache-powered, JSP- and XML-enabled WebSphere Application Server are included for Web developers building dynamic, database-driven sites.
Given its less-than-friendly installation, we don't recommend Turbolinux Workstation Pro 6.1 for newer Linux users or those inexperienced with setting up a dual-boot system. The trial versions of enterprise-worthy commercial software bundled with Workstation Pro 6.1 also are available for download from Borland's, IBM's, and Sun's Web sites. Given these factors, there's little compelling reason to purchase this version for nearly $80--unless, of course, you need to test applications on a variety of platforms or require comprehensive Japanese language support. For most desktop users, however, Caldera OpenLinux, Corel Linux, or Linux-Mandrake would be a better choice.
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