Red Hat Enterprise Server: Linux distribution for small-to-midlevel servers
In North America, "Red Hat" has long been synonymous with "Linux." In the past few years, the company has shifted its emphasis to its "Enterprise Linux" line, which includes a workstation edition, a small-to-midlevel server offering, and a high-end edition able to run on anything from high-end x86 gear to mainframes.
The middle point in the company's Enterprise Linux line is Red Hat Enterprise Server (ES). ES is meant to pull duty as a basic departmental-level or edge server. It is limited to x86 hardware and, unlike its more costly sibling (Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server), it isn't meant to exceed a 2-way system with 8 GB of main memory.
Red Hat ES ships as either a collection of downloadable ISO images (available through the Red Hat Network) and a less robust support package called the "Basic Edition," or as a media kit with CDs and an installation guide with more support called the "Standard Edition." The Basic Edition is priced at $349, the Standard Edition $799. Red Hat Linux 9 customers, who may still be feeling burned by the company's decision to end-of-life the product this April, can receive half off the price of each for the next two years.
One of the earliest ways Red Hat Linux distinguished itself was in ease of installation, and that holds true for ES. In fact, if pressed to describe the differences between the ES install we executed for this review and a recent installation of Red Hat Linux 9, we wouldn't be able to note much. Since the older Red Hat Linux versions were less differentiated, the installer program offered choices like "workstation," "desktop," and "server." Since ES is a server offering, it foregoes these choices. That difference aside, the ES installation works the same as Red Hat Linux: It's graphical and mouse-driven, and it's easy.
The user is presented with simple options. Although the installer software does a good job of auto-detecting monitors and mice, it offers a chance to pick alternatives. It also provides a package selection area that ranges from stripped down (to allow the product to serve as a compact firewall or router) to a kitchen sink approach that installs every package available. In between those extremes, users choose from general server options for such roles as file server (using NFS or Samba), Web serving with Apache, database services (with MySQL or Postgres), mail services (with sendmail as the default MTA and the option to provide POP3 or IMAP servers, or use alternative MTA postfix), and DNS services with BIND.
The installer also provides a straightforward and easy-to-use disk partitioning tool. Red Hat supports a variety of filesystems, but the default is the Linux ext3 journaling filesystem, which is considered slower than some alternatives (such as ReiserFS) but more stable. It's also backward-compatible with the old ext2 filesystem. We were a little surprised to find the disk partitioning tool provided a very simple layout of three partitions: a swap partition (which it automatically set at twice the available RAM on our test system), a root partition, and a boot partition. The installer's proposed partition scheme is easily overridden, of course, allowing traditionalists the opportunity to create a more compact root partition and separate /usr and /home partitions.
Network configuration was also a snap, with the option of using either a DHCP server or allowing the user to configure the IP, host name, and three DNS servers.
Finally, there's a firewall configuration option, which allows admins to block all but selected ports (for services they plan to run). Combined with fine-grained control of which services are installed at all, this tool makes for a fairly secure system out of the box.
Once the basic installation is complete, ES reboots the system then steps through a one-time wizard to install additional documentation, create users, and register with the Red Hat Network.
The installation is quick and simple. In situations where multiple installations of the same configuration are required, the installer also deposits a simple, human-readable "kickstart" file in the root user's directory. This allows for automated installation using the same parameters as those of the configuration just completed.