Is There a Place for
Debian in the Enterprise?
Are you thinking about removing Red Hat Linux from your servers and replacing
it with something else? If so, you are not the only one. There seems to be an
increase of current and ex-Red Hat users making discreet inquiries on the
Debian and SUSE mailing lists, forum posts with less than flattering opinions
about the recent changes at Red Hat, and even full articles explaining
reasons behind contemplating such moves (see "
" by NewsFactor and "Should I switch
from Red Hat to Debian?
" by Screaming-Penguin). Even the most devoted
Red Hat users are unlikely to be immune to headlines such as "BREAKING NEWS: Red Hat To
" by the usually calmer LinuxWorld.com. While things are
rarely as bad as some sensationalist journalists make them look, it does
help to analyze the complaints and list all the pros and cons before making
that final decision.
The main reason for users' dissatisfaction is simple - Red Hat wants us to pay
for its products. As businesses go, this is not particularly unusual
position to take - except
that the world of Linux has created different expectations. Since version 1.0
(released in 1995) until version 7.3 (May 2002), Red Hat Linux was not only
completely free for all, the company even provided errata, security and bug
fixes for years after release. Updating a running server with the latest security
patches required as little as registering for a free account and running
up2date every time a Red Hat security advisory showed up in your inbox. For
many system administrators life couldn't be any more pleasant!
But about a year ago, things started to change. As Red Hat increased the sales
pitch for their enterprise class products while at the same time limiting the
life-span of the free edition to 12 months and making it harder for
non-paying customers to take advantage of the up2date service, many system
administrators in small and medium-size businesses began voicing their
concerns. The Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) products, priced from $180 to
$2,500 per system are excellent choices for large enterprises with matching
IT budgets, but what about the rest of us?
Let's look at some of the often cited concerns of those who are considering a
move away from Red Hat:
- Fear of change. Fedora is a major change, an evolution of the much trusted
original Red Hat Linux. Any change of this magnitude is bound to create
uncertainty and confusion.
- Value for money. This is probably the most often raised concern: why pay
for RHEL? While most users are not opposed to rewarding Red Hat financially
for all their great work, many find RHEL overpriced for their needs. Do I
really need an $180 product to run a web, mail and file server?
- Fedora life span. Red Hat has made it clear that Fedora will have a fast
development cycle and a short life span. It will be up to the community to
continue supporting past Fedora releases with errata and security fixes.
- Fedora quality control. Indications are that Red Hat developers will spend
fewer man hours on future Fedora releases than they used to on Red Hat Linux.
Yes, the most critical features will still be developed by Red Hat, but some
of the more mundane tasks will probably be handed over to the community. This
is not to say that the Fedora community is not up to the task. But the new
development model does create an aura of unaccountability - after all, it is
"only" Fedora, not the "true" Red Hat (Enterprise) Linux.
Most of those who find the above concerns too serious to keep deploying Red
Hat/Fedora on their servers will most likely be investigating offerings by
SUSE or Debian. We'll leave SUSE out until we know what Novell's plans are
with the German distribution maker and take a look at some pros and cons of
migrating to Debian.
First, the advantages:
- Freedom. Debian is a non-commercial entity, so you won't find any
Debian downloads and usage. There are no forms to fill in just to get the
latest security updates, and no newsletters promoting certification courses
or offering specials on professional products and services. The security
updates are available to all without restrictions and without having to wait
until paying customers disconnect from the servers providing the update
- Stability. Debian's release cycle, at an average of about one stable
release every two years, is slow by any standard. Yet, this conservative
approach means that the releases are extremely well-tested and comparatively
- Popularity. According to this
report by Netcraft, "Debian is the second most popular Linux
distribution we find on Internet web sites, surpassed only by Red Hat, and
leaving the likes of SUSE and Mandrake in its wake".
- Documentation and software. Debian has comprehensive, multi-lingual
documentation, plenty of software and unmatched package installation and
Now for some warnings:
- Installation and configuration. A lot has been said about the archaic
Debian installer, although the truth is that a skilled system administrator
has little to fear. Still, if you are used to Anaconda, the new reality will
not be pleasant. (This is about to change in the upcoming Debian Sarge
release, which will have a new installer - still text-based, but with many
new options, as well as hardware auto-detection.) System configuration is
done either by editing text files or by following text-mode apt-config
- Printed manuals and books. While books on Red Hat are a dime a dozen in
every bookstore, the publishing houses tend to stay away from books
about Debian (or indeed about any other distribution). Books on Debian
do exist, however, if you look for them.
- Mailing lists. The Debian mailing lists, especially the developer ones,
tend to get rough from time to time. Try not to take offense when somebody
expresses their disagreement too bluntly.
- Learning curve. Those of you who have invested time and money into Red Hat
certification programs will have to forget the Red Hat-specific parts of the
program and learn how to do things the Debian way. Of course, most of the
gained knowledge is general enough to apply to any distribution.
Switching a large number of servers to a new Linux distribution is rarely a
stress-free process. But if you feel that your current distribution no longer
fulfills your needs, it is good to know that there are other choices. And
that's what Linux is about.
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