Know your Linux options

Choosing to use Linux at your SMB is one decision. Choosing the right vendor is another story.

Low cost and reliability have made Linux the right server operating system choice for thousands of SMBs. Choosing the right flavor of Linux, however, can be daunting.

If you peek behind the curtain of these distributions, you're going to find very similar technologies.
Bernard Golden,
CEONavica Inc.

Open source developers have created dozens of versions, or distributions, of Linux by adding features to the core open source operating system (OS). DistroWatch.com, the leading online guide to Linux distributions, offers many choices, but it's easy to become overwhelmed.

Rather than cruising through the downloads, Bernard Golden, open source expert, author and CEO of Navica Inc., a San Carlos, Calif., systems integrator, advises SMBs to focus on those distributions most popular with small and midsized companies: Red Hat Inc.'s Enterprise Linux, Novell Inc.'s SuSE Linux Enterprise Server and Debian from Debian.org. Of these, Red Hat Linux is the most popular, accounting for more than 60% of the Linux server market in 2004, according to Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC.

Tough decisions

Choosing between these three offerings would be hard to do, if based solely on technical merit. "If you peek behind the curtain of these distributions, you're going to find very similar technologies," Golden said. "You'd have to be a technical wizard to pick out the differences."

Debian is free, well tested, reliable and feature-rich, according to DistroWatch. On the flip side, it doesn't have the ease-of-use features, such as installation wizards, which are found in Red Hat and SuSE Linux distribution. Golden suggested using Debian, or another non-commercial distribution, only if your company has in-house Linux expertise or an excellent local Linux consultant.

Using non-commercial Linux is "choosing self-service instead of full service," Golden said. Third-party support is available for Debian, but the primary vehicle is online support via forums and mailing lists. Defending this model, Debian developers said they answer support questions more quickly than commercial distributions' support reps do.

Top Linux Distributors:

Distributor: Red Hat Inc.
Location: Raleigh, N.C.
Product: Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES
Pricing: Basic Edition, starts at $349

Distributor: Novell Inc. 
Location: Waltham, Mass.
Product: Novell Linux Small Business Suite 9
Pricing: SRP $475 per five-user license, includes Novell applications and SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Distributor: Novell Inc.
Location: Waltham, Mass.
Product: SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
Pricing: Starts at $379

Distributor: Debian Project
Product: Debian GNU/Linux
Pricing: Free in any version

Linux user Joe Cook lauds the huge amount of free online support for Linux. "I've never had to call for paid support," said Cook, owner of Cook's Computer & Software Service, a consulting firm in Broken Bow, Okla.

Red Hat and Novell offer relatively similar, subscription-based support contracts and have large international support organizations. This provides a comfort zone for businesses, Golden said. Both distributions also have similar features, including strong business operating systems.

Red Hat and Novell have alliances with many software and hardware vendors and consultants. Checking out how well your partner list matches Red Hat's or Novell's is a good way to narrow the field to one, Cook said.

Look for SMB specifics

Matching the SMB-specific offerings of both vendors is another good strategy.

Novell recently introduced Novell Linux Small Business Suite, a package of Novell applications and services bundled with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9. If you have used or are using Novell apps, then this offering makes SuSE a good match. Cook based his decision to switch from Red Hat to Novell on his good history with Novell products.

A recent version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES is designed for small business and departmental workloads, such as network, file, print, mail and Web servers. A more advanced distribution, Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS, is best suited for large data centers and database, ERP and CRM servers.

After you've made your comparisons, download your top choice and see how well it plays with your legacy applications. The proof of any product, Golden said, is how it acts in your world.


Maxine Kincora is a contributing technology writer in Berkeley, Calif.

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