Choosing a Linux Distribution for Enterprise Work

You know you need Linux. Gone is the day when it was just a curiosity that the engineers had to keep in the back room. When deciding on which distro is right for your enterprise, keep these four essential considerations in mind.

By Michael Stutz
Thu, March 29, 2007

CIO — In many ways, there's never been a better time than now to make a big enterprise move to Linux. Code is mature, competition is fierce, and there are only a few serious contenders. However, each one of these Linux distributions has a distinct feature set, migration path and face for accountability. Picking the right one for your enterprise is crucial.

But the decision can be made easier if you take a few straightforward considerations into play. When you're picking a Linux distribution for the enterprise, you want to be familiar with the options—so you know which ones have the features and support you need—and you also have to take a cold look at your existing infrastructure, the kind of support staff you have, and what kind of accountability with which you're most comfortable.

Know Your Options
"We conduct a comprehensive due diligence assessment for any enterprise-class application, system or service," says Greg Ashley, senior associate CIO at the University of Georgia. As part of this process, Ashley says that the organization evaluates all available options. And that's the first step a CIO should make in choosing the right Linux.

The first two distributions to look at are the ones that have the "Enterprise Linux" gravitas in the industry today. That's Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise, says Jay Lyman, open-source analyst for the 451 Group in New York.

Last month, Red Hat Software released Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, the latest in its enterprise-caliber Linux, and which now includes Xen virtualization. In contrast, Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise 10, which came to market with Xen virtualization last summer, is billed as "the only enterprise-grade Linux platform offering a complete solution for your mission-critical needs."

While both are today's Linux enterprise stars, other distributions are rising. Ubuntu, for instance, has been a desktop success story. And now, it's taking on the enterprise. The French parliament will install Ubuntu on more than 1,000 desktops this summer. Ubuntu also has partnered with Sun to win support and placement on some of the latter's new Niagara servers, while building on the distribution's stellar desktop reputation.

"Frankly, we haven't really seen anything like that in Linux—and it's been the solid leader for at least two years running now, so it's not a fad," says Lyman. "I think normally when you talk to analysts and industry observers, they'll say it's going to be hard to impossible for anybody to gain on Red Hat and Novell, but a partnership with Sun Microsystems and the attraction that Ubuntu has had shouldn't be underestimated."

And there are others. Oracle's Unbreakable Linux is essentially Red Hat, but with Oracle providing the upgrades and support. Some companies have built distributions on their own Linux desktop technologies and are now vying for the enterprise. Mandriva released Corporate Desktop 4.0 last month and has a number of active partnerships, while Xandros provides a Windows-like environment, which is a big selling point: "Your Windows admins won't be completely thrown off by Xandros," says Lyman, who also sees an opportunity for some of these other distributions in just the right niches. According to Lyman, Debian, for example, has a place in enterprise data centers. (The city of Munich started its 14,000 PC migration to Debian last year.)

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