Although dozens of Linux distributions are available, only two have garnered significant acceptance among corporate users. Those two -- Red Hat Inc.'s Enterprise Linux and Novell Inc.'s SUSE -- are poised to leverage their strengths for greater market share while also warding off new entrants into the enterprise Linux market.
Among businesses, support is a key evaluation criterion in choosing a distribution. "Red Hat has done a good job making itself appear to be the safe choice for corporate users," said George Weiss, vice president at Gartner Inc.
Companies feel safe when key vendors address problems in a timely manner. That feeling was one reason why Secure-24, which provides managed hosting solutions, has been using Red Hat for the past few years to support many of its clients' applications.
"Security is an important selling point with our services, and we have found that Red Hat makes sure that its product stays updated with the latest patches and security fixes," noted Matthias Horch, CEO at Secure-24. Secure-24 runs Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat GFS on Dell servers with Intel 64-bit processors.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux is often the first distribution supported by many independent software vendors, and the product has garnered acceptance from key hardware suppliers like Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM. Consequently, Red Hat has become the dominant distribution in the U.S.
"Red Hat did have a six-year lead on us in the U.S.," noted Justin Steinman, director of Linux product marketing for Novell.
SUSE, which Novell acquired in November 2003, has been Red Hat's counterpart, being the dominant European distribution. Novell would like to improve its position in the U.S. and has had some success marketing SUSE to firms already using Novell products.
The State of Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency, which has 1,300 employees, has been a Novell user since 1992. "We have been using NetWare and GroupWise for our office applications because they are more secure and simpler to maintain than other products," noted Skip Holler, network administration manager for the EPA.
Once Novell entered the Linux market, the agency decided to move some high-performance, custom applications from HP Unix hardware to less expensive HP Linux servers. "We were a little concerned about the difficulty of moving our Oracle DBMS to the new platform, but the transition went smoothly," stated Ohio EPA's Holler.
Yet, such success stories have been rare in this country thus far. "While there was a lot of anticipation about Novell's entry into the Linux marketplace, its actual impact has been minimal to date," said Gartner Group's Weiss.
Novell is trying to improve its position by enhancing SUSE's features. In July, the company announced the latest release of its distribution, SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, which includes virtualization functions, support for Xgl graphics and an integrated search function.
Rather than fight Red Hat head on in the server niche, Novell is trying to differentiate itself at the desktop. "We are the only company that offers a strong desktop version of Linux," said Novell's Steinman.
Most vendors have ignored the desktop because many enterprises have standardized on other operating system options. In fact, Gartner estimates Linux accounts for less than 1% of all U.S. desktops, although the percentages are higher in foreign markets -- especially Europe, where SUSE had its start.
Red Hat and SUSE have garnered most of the enterprise interest, but options exist. "Debian has been gaining a lot of momentum in the Linux community," said Gartner's Weiss. But he pointed out that interest seems to come more from consumers than businesses, which are often leery of supporting the "new kid on the block."
Sun Microsystems Inc. is certainly a grizzled industry veteran and could emerge as an important player. The company has historically focused on its Solaris operating system, but recently it has begun to open up to Linux. "Sun is in a strong position to offer another distribution, but the company seems to be backing into, rather than aggressively pursuing, Linux opportunities," noted Gartner's Weiss.
As Debian and Sun eye the Linux market, it remains unclear whether businesses desire more than a couple of enterprise Linux distributions. Linux usage could benefit if the community standardized around a limited set of distributions. ISVs could then spend their money developing software rather than porting their products to different distributions.
Consequently, enterprises seem to have settled on distributions -- at least for the moment. Red Hat is the choice of most U.S. enterprises, while companies with either Novell products or international operations prefer SUSE.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.