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Leading items and editorials

Gartner: dump IIS. The analysts have released a new set of proclamations relating to Linux and free software. Analyst opinions should always be taken with a grain of salt (if not an entire shaker of salt); they do not always reveal a deep understanding of how free software works. Nonetheless, they are a good indicator of how a certain segment of the world views free software.

The Gartner Group is one of those analyst operations that has shown, over time, an inability to "get" what makes Linux what it is. The Group's opinions have generally been hostile. So the latest words of wisdom from Gartner are doubly interesting when they state:

Gartner recommends that businesses hit by both Code Red and Nimda immediately investigate alternatives to IIS, including moving Web applications to Web server software from other vendors such as iPlanet and Apache. Although those Web servers have required some security patches, they have much better security records than IIS and are not under active attack by the vast number of virus and worm writers.

Apache, of course, is not a "vendor," but we'll let that pass. It's a slow process, but the corporate world is beginning to figure out that free software offers some real security advantages.

It is important, too, that web servers are the subject of this discussion. Some have claimed that Linux is free of email viruses only because, as an obscure (on the desktop) platform, it is not an interesting target for virus authors. But Apache is the dominant web server platform; anybody wishing to attack large numbers of systems via a web server would look at Apache first. The "obscure and uninteresting" argument will not wash here.

D.H. Brown's enterprise functionality study. A much more detailed proclamation can be found in the "2001 Linux Function Review" recently announced by D.H. Brown Associates. The full report is available from the D.H. Brown site, but only for those with $1500 to hand over. Those willing to register can get an "executive summary" in PDF format for free.

The report looks at several Linux distributions and reviews their functionality in a number of areas. The boiled-down rankings, from best to worst, are:

  • SuSE Linux 7.2, "good."
  • Red Hat Linux 7.1, "good."
  • Caldera OpenLinux 3.1, "above average."
  • Turbolinux Server 6.5, "above average."
  • Debian GNU/Linux 2.2r3, "above average."
All but Debian beat the "weakest Unix" (UnixWare 7.1.1), but none achieved the "very good" rating of the stronger Unix systems. D.H. Brown's reasoning is worth a look; it provides a sort of shopping list of features that one set of customers, at least, would like to see.

The ranking between the distributions is, to a great extent, driven by how current they are. Distributions shipping a 2.4 kernel came out ahead of those still shipping 2.2 (Turbolinux and Debian). Beyond that, D.H. Brown looked mostly at the additional features built in by each distributor.

Red Hat wins in the "scalability" category, seemingly because of its published SPECWeb results. SuSE got a lower rating because it lacks those results, and "a lack of support for key third-party load balancing software options." Caldera was penalized for not having a shipping 64-bit distribution. D.H. Brown remains unsatisfied, however, with Linux scalability:

...no Linux distribution yet provides scalability functions that are competitive with RISC-based Unix systems. The largest Unix systems can support up to 256 GB of main memory and 128 CPU's, far beyond Linux's practical limitation of eight processors.

Among kernel developers (and others), the question of whether Linux should ever scale to that many processors remains highly controversial. Those wanting support of hundreds or thousands of processors in an SMP mode are likely to be disappointed with the mainstream Linux kernel; making a kernel work in that environment carries a number of performance and maintainability costs.

SuSE, instead, wins the "Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability" (RAS) category. D.H. Brown liked the inclusion of ReiserFS, the S/390 partition support, and logical volume manager (LVM) support. But, says D.H. Brown, "True High Availability clustering options for Linux remain in their infancy." Also:

...leading Unix systems have added features for planned downtime reductions, such as live operating system upgrades and kernel hot-patching, which are not available in Linux.

"Kernel hot-patching" in Linux may be problematic, but the comment on live upgrades shows an ignorance of the upgrade capabilities provided by a number of distributions, led by Debian's apt system.

SuSE was also declared the leader in the "system management" category, due to the inclusion of LVM and its installation and administration tools. No distribution's administration tools were considered to be all that great, however. There was also an interesting comment:

While ease of use has long been a point of differentiation between the various Linux distributions, most of the studied vendors have focused on easing installation and desktop usability, rather than enterprise systems management. All of the studied distributions provide strong tools for software installation and management, based on either the RPM package manager or the Debian packaging system, but none provide advanced event management capabilities, which are critical for administrators who must monitor a large number of systems.

Given that a number of distributors have targeted the large enterprise market, they may wish to think about improving things in this area.

Red Hat was declared to be the best for Internet and web application services, mostly for its support of proprietary, third-party platforms. Caldera's broad protocol support was also called out, however. All distributions were criticized for their lack of support for Java2 Enterprise Edition servers. The last category was "directory and security services," though security does not appear to enter much into their evaluations. SuSE came out on top as a result of its inclusion of the latest Samba


Based on the results of this latest functional evaluation, DHBA believes that the leading Linux distributions are now quite capable of serving as general-purpose operating systems for a broad range of departmental and workgroup applications.

The study is interesting as a comparison of the distributions, and as an expression of a certain type of shopping list. It remains, however, a shopping list. In its comparison of distributions, against each other and against proprietary Unix, it looks only at which features can be checked off for each. Features are important, but the drive to complete feature lists leads to bloated, immature software releases.

A company looking at adopting Linux would be well advised to look beyond the feature comparison. After all, it is not hard to add a journaling filesystem to a distribution that lacks one. The real life and value of a distribution can be found in the openness of its development process, its approach to security, the strength of its user community, and the integration of the distribution as a whole. D.H. Brown has provided an interesting study, but it missed much that is important.

A quick Sklyarov update. Current events in the world have turned eyes elsewhere, but Dmitry Sklyarov remains under indictment. Here's a quick update from the EFF on what's up. Dmitry has a new lawyer, John Keker, the "Lawyer Lawyers Would Hire If They Got Busted" Among other things, Mr. Keker handled the prosecution of Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal. The next hearing will happen on November 26.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Serious PHP-Nuke vulnerability.
  • Kernel: A radical VM change; The question of proprietary security modules.
  • Distributions: Empower Technologies' Linux DA.
  • On the Desktop: The sound of Linux, first reports on KDE 2.2.1, new GTK+ and XFce releases.
  • Development: Web development projects, mpg321, Mozilla relicense, XML tools for C/C++, Python serial port library.
  • Commerce: Bits of Freedom.
  • History: Investments in Red Hat; HP wins fun patent of the week award; Embedded Systems Conference is big news.
  • Letters: Digital rights; UDI; Free software businesses.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

September 27, 2001


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