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Comparison of Community Linux Distributions for the Enterprise


Looking for ways to save money on your computing infrastructure? Heard about Linux uptime but need to do more research? You're not alone. Community Linux distros have become increasingly popular within the enterprise as organizations look to cut costs without compromising on functionality and reliability. But it can be tough to determine which distributions are best suited to different uses within the enterprise and how to approach a migration from a commercial Linux distribution like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL).

Today there are many good options available, including multiple distros and many third party support options. This article will help you set criteria, ask the right questions, and narrow your options so you can make an informed decision.


To give a short historical perspective, it was actually FreeBSD -- not Red Hat, as many believe -- that was the original popular, free and open operating system. FreeBSD made the first inroads into the enterprise with a multitude of appealing features, an enthusiastic community of developers, and an unbeatable price point. Because it appealed to technologists, it typically came in through the back door, starting adoption at the grass-roots level. It could be deployed on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, reducing costs radically, and it had excellent support for SCSI drivers and RAID systems, which were originally lacking in Linux. In addition, BSD had the best networking speeds for many, many years. BSD was a quick, cheap fix that just plain worked. []

Times have changed. Linux now does all of those things, and does them better, faster, and cheaper.


How do you get the most out of your data center and desktops with Linux? There are hundreds of enterprise-class Linux distributions that you might consider. Even if, based on your company's unique needs, you are able to narrow it down to a list of the top 10, there's still likely to be a wide variety of features to consider. This is both a benefit and a challenge of the open source world: there's no "one size fits all," and no one solution is perfect for every company.

First, determine the type of operating system environment you're looking to support. Are you going use Linux in a data center as a server handling big loads of largely automatic information, or are you looking to support individual end users on the desktop? Server or desktop is the first question to answer.

Second, determine the type of package management scheme you want to work with. In the Linux world you have two main package management schemes to choose from: RPM and DEB. These schemes determine how you will handle adding and updating programs and tools to your Linux operating system. Ideally, it's a seamless, automated process. In reality, it's close to that but there can be multiple issues. RPM is more widely used and recognized, while DEB is considered a more stable, technically superior package manager.

There are other package management schemes out there, but in general it's harder to add programs and manage your system with these. More importantly, your IT staff will likely have experience with RPM or DEB only. Red Hat or Fedora expertise is common, but Ubuntu expertise has been on the rise in the past several years.

One other important note: be aware of mixing your server and desktop package management schemes. If one is RPM and the other is DEB, extra expertise may be required of your IT people.


Primary Candidates

Based on four key criteria -- Supportability, Upgradeability, Reliability, and Compatibility -- we've narrowed our list to four Linux distros with great community support. In the RPM corner, CentOS [] and Mandriva [] are our leaders. In the DEB corner, Ubuntu [] and Debian [] are our top picks.

Some people will ask why SUSE and Fedora aren't included in this list, and that's certainly a valid question. Again, all environments are unique, and you should consider your specific needs and environment when narrowing your list of potential Linux distros. However, keep in mind that Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) gets built from the open source code of Fedora, and then CentOS. This means that CentOS is the most polished and most finished of those three distros. As for SUSE, SUSE Linux Enterprise is very good but RPM based, and CentOS has "better numbers."

  Server Desktop
  CentOS Mandriva Ubuntu Debian
Upgradeability Under its "Upgrade Any" service, you can move from CentOS 3 to CentOS 4 to CentOS 5, or even upgrade from Red Hat server to CentOS server. Provides level 1, 2 and 3 technical support covering the installation of Linux plus software, configuration, performance improvement, software maintenance, and "technology watch." Upgrading Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) to LTS for a newer version is a direct update. Along the same lines on the desktop side, Ubuntu desktops can be configured to self-upgrade or update as new code rolls out. Robust community support and online documentation but requires third party support to handle most enterprise IT issues.
Reliability Very good Very good Very good Very good
Compatibility Fully up-to-date. Fully up-to-date. Still some issues with graphics cards. Major branded graphics cards (NVIDIA, ATI) work fine, but less well-known graphics cards may not be supported.
Supportability CentOS makes sure that it supports a version for seven years, so CentOS 5.x will be supported until 2014 with patches and software. "Expected lifetime of 5 years." Ubuntu LTS is released every 2 years. Nothing offered directly by the Debian Project.
Price Free Mandriva Enterprise Server 5, starting at $419, downloadable and one year of updates. Free Free

Reliability is obviously a major factor, and any version of Linux will essentially get you there. Data center uptime of literally thousands of days can be expected for Linux servers. Linux uptime is excellent in comparison to Windows servers and even Unix servers. Coupled with LTS and solid hardware, years of uptime can be expected.

Compatibility is really a discussion about hardware. There was a time in the past when compatibility was an issue for Linux. However, modern Linux systems have the best drivers for networking and RAID controllers, bar none. Having said that, it still pays to do your homework. Your setup is unique. Look into what hardware you are using and how well it is supported under Linux.

Supportability is the most important consideration. Commercial Linux vendors roll out new versions every two years. Community versions of Linux come out with new versions every six months or so, but Ubuntu "tags" a version every two years and commits to LTS. In a data center, you don't want constant updates and upgrades, but rather consistency and reliability. For the desktop, it's a shorter support term.


On the server side, CentOS is the best data center Linux. Releases are supported for seven years, and third-party support and services are available. CentOS is RPM-based, which means the technical expertise is already common, and it follows the Red Hat release schedule. In other words, all the Red Hat money and expertise that has been built up can be easily utilized.

It's true that Debian has a reputation amongst systems and network administrators as the most reliable Linux server system, but it requires third-party support. You may not want that.

On the desktop side, Ubuntu is clearly the leader. The DEB package management system is better, and Ubuntu comes with apps for most current enterprise email and document repositories. Plug it in and it goes.

Desktops and Apps

On the desktop, you can't get around the "Microsoft Office question." Most users just need basic Office functions, like word processing, presentations, and simple spreadsheets. In the current Linux environment, these are fully covered. However, for extreme users who deal with macros in spreadsheets or other really sophisticated and linked uses of Microsoft Office, they probably need to stay on a Windows system.

Another common Linux question is "GNOME or KDE?" Without getting into specifics, suffice to say that both desktop environments work well but we tend to lean towards Ubuntu with KDE for the desktop.

Price and Support

Price is probably the most important question of all, and fortunately the licensing cost for Linux is zero. That is a major advantage, and in the enterprise it can save you $100,000 / year. The change in operating system environments, assuming you move to Linux from something else, will cost you some in productivity. If your IT staff are already strong with Unix, it is decidedly not a strong learning curve. However, because operating systems are a core component of your IT infrastructure, migrating to a new operating system takes time and patience. Make sure you evaluate your enterprise strengths, perform test rollouts with smaller groups, and work from a long-term plan. The good news is that OpenLogic and other companies offer a full range of support and professional services, including help with migrations and interfacing with proprietary or legacy systems. You have many expert options available.


Deciding on the best Linux distribution for your enterprise requires research. Your environment and computing needs are unique, and there are many factors to take into account. However, the reward can be dramatic cost savings coupled with high reliability and flexibility in your computing environment. There are third party support options –- including OpenLogic -– that not only help with support and services, but also can help with initial consultation and evaluation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Creative Commons License.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Creative Commons License.


There are a few community-supported distros I'm aware of. As a fan of Slackware derivatives, I'm attempting to install Slackintosh on a B&W G3 PowerMac but running into issues with the hard drive to which I am attempting the installation. (The issue has nothing to do with Slackintosh but with the hard drive controller.) 
Posted @ Thursday, March 06, 2014 1:15 AM by Eric
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