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.
Use and Management
The basic outlay of services available on an ES system are about what one would expect to find on any Linux distribution, commercial or not. As we mentioned earlier, Red Hat has outfitted the distro with basic Web, database, mail, file, and print services. It can also handle networking tasks such as DHCP and DNS.
Most of ES' available services are at least somewhat configurable through a collection of graphical tools on the root user's desktop. It is relatively simple, for example, to create a few basic Samba shares with the appropriate tool. More advanced performance tuning options aren't presented, though. Similarly, the Apache tool allows for a simple server to be configured using a collection of virtual hosts and optional SSL support for each and a few basic performance-tuning options. We were also able to set up DNS zones with relative ease.
For managing the operating system itself, there are configuration tools to manage some kernel configuration options (such as turning on or configuring syncookies, which can be used to shield against denial of service attacks) and which services are running on the system at all (allowing a simple point-and-click way to make sure unneeded and unconfigured services aren't running).
All told, as nice as the graphical tools are, we didn't find ourselves warming up to them much. Some of them were merely adequate, and all of them left us with the feeling that while they'd work for a truly simple installation, any detailed work would require getting under the hood and into the configuration files themselves.
Red Hat's GUI menu system could also use some work as far as overall organization goes. We were puzzled, for example, to visit a "system tools" menu, click on a "configuration editor" icon among the icons for tuning the kernel or switching the default MTA, and not only find that we'd accessed a desktop configuration utility, but also that Red Hat thoughtfully provided a popup window to recommended we not use it.
Those complaints aside, getting around an ES server is not particularly tricky. It's easy to find the most basic configuration options and handle most maintenance tasks with relative ease, the tradeoff being less help for advanced configuration. For a product aimed firmly at departments and light edge-of-network duty, that's probably not a huge issue considering Red Hat's installation and configuration support.
Errata management is handled via the up2date package, which puts a helpful icon in the system tray of the root user's desktop that indicates when new patches are available. up2date logs in to the Red Hat Network, sorts out the dependencies associated with updating a package, and handles download and installation. It's an easy process, and Windows admins will find it pleasantly devoid of the need to reboot with each patch -- except in cases where the Linux kernel itself must be updated. In general, Red Hat's quite good about restarting any effected services once up2date has updated them.
The primary value of Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES is the support. It's the deciding factor in the price difference between the Basic and Standard Editions.
Basic Edition customers get 30 days of installation and basic configuration support for their money. They can also expect a next-day turnaround on support calls, which are received during normal business hours across the United States. In addition, they receive a year of Web-based support, with a turnaround of two business days for queries.
Standard Edition customers receive what Red Hat calls its "ES Standard" support package: very specific help with a variety of configuration and installation tasks. The Standard Edition support package also includes a year of phone support, with a response time of four hours.
Both editions are eligible for a year of Red Hat Network (RHN) errata support via the RHN Update Module. Each is also eligible (in most cases) for purchase of the RHN Management Module, which allows for more complex package management by allowing admins to group multiple systems together for mass errata updates and package load comparisons. The addition of this module pushes the price of the Basic Edition up to $445 and the Standard Edition up to $895.
From a strictly technical standpoint, Red Hat ES isn't particularly noteworthy: It's a collection of software compiled and packaged up, given a few management tools of varying quality, and pushed out the door. We did not notice any functionality unique to this Linux distribution, and there are certainly others out there that could fill the role of "departmental server" with equal facility for a lower price.
At the end of the day, Red Hat ES in either edition is less about selling a technical solution than it is about selling support, and perhaps subsidizing a longer release cycle for the company's Enterprise Linux lineup. In the past year, Red Hat took a number of steps to cut out the costs associated with retail marketing, foregoing the revenue of a semi-annual or annual release cycle that comes with pushing shrinkwrap, and set its sights on the business market, where the prevailing assumption is that support and some sort of accountability must exist before a piece of software may be put into use.
Red Hat is also selling compatibility with a broad array of business applications. Offerings from BEA, Oracle, Sybase, Veritas, and many others are all certified to run on top of Red Hat's product line. That software support list narrows the field of potential competitors dramatically, and it's what keeps Red Hat ahead of the game and realistically able to charge a substantial amount for an average-to-good offering.
Pros: Strong support system in place; Compatible with a broad array of business applications; Easy to install, configure, and manage
Cons: Nothing noteworthy from a technological or functionality perspective
Reviewed by: Michael Hall
Original Review Date: 2/24/2004
Original Review Version: 3.0