Ubuntu impresses in Linux enterprise server test

Five Linux-based servers feature easy install, solid management tools and cloud integration

Introduced in 1991, Linux boasts an estimated 67 million users worldwide according to linuxcounter.net. Free versions abound, but companies adopting Linux as part of critical infrastructure typically require more support than a community of unpaid, albeit enthusiastic, volunteers can provide.

The five products we tested -- SUSE Enterprise Server 11 Service Pack 2, Mandriva Business Server 1.0, ClearOS 6 Professional, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.4 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS -- are all enterprise server versions offering commercial support options, either at the OS level or in the form of commercial management tools and support plans.

For enterprises, the advantages of going with commercial support options include LTR (Long Term Release) versions of the software, improved interoperability, application support and legal protection if  a portion of the open source software is found to infringe on third-party intellectual property rights. Also, vendor longevity is more likely with a Linux distribution that’s backed by a commercial revenue stream.

We initially thought commercial goliath Red Hat might dominate in our tests, but in our final tally Ubuntu came out on top. Ubuntu delivered intuitive, uncluttered management tools, excellent hypervisor support, and transparency (commercial and open source versions are one and the same). Canonical also boasts progressive strategic alliances with large cloud providers. Ubuntu is also closely associated with the popular OpenStack platform.

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The remaining four contenders fell into two categories with Red Hat and SUSE representing enterprise-level offerings and Mandriva and ClearOS geared more towards small and midsize businesses. In the SMB segment ClearOS edged out Mandriva. (Watch a slideshow version of this story.)

ClearOS is easy to install, provides the most common server roles, which are easy to deploy, and has an impressive management interface that runs on a number of different devices. ClearOS can also be configured as gateway server, which we found appealing.

Cloud-wise, although ClearOS has a beta version for Amazon EC2, we would like to see support for some of the other public cloud platforms.

Mandriva, also primarily aimed at the SMB market, sports all-inclusive server roles and security features packaged into one at a reasonable price. We found the Mandriva website a bit lacking in terms of technical product information, especially for customers seeking to evaluate products.

Both Red Hat and SUSE are very robust enterprise server products with substantial customer bases. The online SUSE Studio provides a way for administrators to build a custom server appliance that will run on a variety of different virtual and cloud platforms. We also found SUSE to be one of the easier solutions to deploy and with excellent cloud support through OpenStack.

Red Hat gets high marks for its management tools, although we found some of the subscription and server management solutions a bit fragmented and cumbersome to navigate. Taking the guesswork out of whether RHEL will run on a certain hardware configuration, Red Hat certifies its server products to run a wide range of hardware from most manufacturers. Compared to some of the other vendors, we found Red Hat’s online documentation to be a notch or two above. We also liked the Red Hat Security Response Team, which constantly monitors and updates customers with information regarding security threats, and we received several notifications during the testing period.

Price-wise it is clear that Red Hat and SUSE are keeping an eye on each other, both offering basic one-year subscriptions in the mid-$300s and following each other up the price ladder for comparable solutions. Ubuntu pricing is based on a slightly different model, which offers the server software for free, but requires per-server annual subscriptions for the Ubuntu Advantage management platform.

We tested the products in three environments, physical, virtual and cloud. Our primary focus was to determine how the commercial solutions add value for customers. We were pleased to see that vendors are now tailoring products to the ever-increasing number of virtual and cloud environments, and finally providing web-based tools that simplify server management without the need to install and manage additional complex infrastructure. The web-based management tools, where available, also made quick work of our test cloud deployments. Here are the individual reviews:



While the Ubuntu operating system is free and open source, Canonical offers several versions of Ubuntu Advantage, a commercial support package available in three levels; Essentials, Standard and Advanced. These solutions are available as annual subscriptions ranging from $320 for the Essentials to $1,200 per year for Advanced. These include the Landscape management platform, the Ubuntu Assurance Program (legal assurance) and various level of support. With one subscription you can manage as many physical and virtual servers as you’d like, a configuration that makes Ubuntu very cost effective.

Ubuntu’s commercial long-term release schedule allows enterprises to plan migrations over a longer time span. A standard release is typically issued every six months, while LTS (Long Term Support) releases are supported for five years. The current LTS Ubuntu server version 12.04 offers support until first quarter 2017. Version 14.04 is slated to be released in 2014 with support until 2019.

We installed version 12.04 on a 64-bit server. Ubuntu requires quite a bit more user input during installation than some of the other products we tested. In total there probably weren’t any more parameters (examples: language, time zone, keyboard layout, proxy server, disk configuration) than with some of the others, but the linear, one item at a time command-line installation process seemed fairly inefficient.

According to Canonical, the decision to forego a GUI-based installer was done to provide compatibility with the widest selection of server hardware. In any event, according to Canonical, servers are typically deployed automatically using a PXE-based server, in which case the tedium of providing installation parameters at the console is avoided.

As Ubuntu gains popularity in the public cloud, Canonical is focusing on providing optimized server images that can easily be deployed with large cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft Azure. Canonical also offers something it calls Metal as a Service (MAAS), which allows administrators to set up a physical hardware base upon which complex services, such as the Ubuntu OpenStack, can be deployed.

Ubuntu’s server orchestration management tool JuJu works both in the private and public clouds. JuJu provides developers with a set of best practices that can be developed into reusable ‘charms’ that allows customers to scale up or down services as the demand changes. For instance, one pre-built charm provides installation and setup of WordPress optimized for the cloud.

The Advantage package offers both support and legal assurance, but we were particularly impressed by the Landscape system management tools. These full-featured, web-based tools enable sysadmins to deploy and manage Ubuntu servers, both physical and virtualized. Ubuntu Landscape can run on a local server or as a hosted cloud solution provided by Canonical. We tested both and liked the sharp interface and comprehensive management and configuration options.

Landscape can monitor clients by deploying an agent that provides health metrics such as temperature, system load and memory usage to one central location where alerts can be acted on. Processes can be monitored remotely and rogue processes can be restarted or ‘killed’ remotely. Ubuntu Advantage can be configured to send email notifications when issues need attention, such as the email we received informing us that our test server needed 20 some patches installed. It also includes patch management and compliance features. This allows administrators to install, remove and update packages remotely to any Ubuntu server (physical or virtual) registered in Landscape.

A local Ubuntu installation running virtualized on a Windows server behind a firewall with a local IP can be readily managed remotely from Ubuntu’s Advantage cloud server with minimal or no changes to most firewall configuration settings.

The Ubuntu cloud infrastructure provides administrators a way of deploying an OpenStack cloud without the need for third-party proprietary add-ons. Ubuntu is also compliant with existing cloud standards such as Amazon’s EC2 API and works well with cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure, HP and Rackspace. OpenStack and Ubuntu enjoy a somewhat special relationship, as Ubuntu is the reference operating system used by the OpenStack project, currently supported by well over 100 vendors (including Red Hat, Cisco, Dell, VMWare, Intel and others). It includes support for a wide range of hypervisors and network/storage components.

Similar to Red Hat and ClearOS, Ubuntu uses KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) as its default virtualization technology. KVM is part of the Ubuntu Linux kernel and takes advantage of AMD and Intel hardware virtualization extensions. Administrators can manage KVM virtual machines on Ubuntu with tools like the libvirt virtualization API or a virtual machine monitor like QEMU.

Paid technical support is available as part of the Ubuntu Advantage offering from Canonical. There is also a good online Wiki and documentation together with a very active online community that provides good support.


ClearOS (formely known as ClarkConnect) is developed and maintained by the Clear Foundation. Based on CentOS and Red Hat Linux, ClearOS is deployed in over 150 countries. The ClearOS Professional server edition is available in three versions; Basic, Standard and Premium. There is also a ClearBox 300 appliance that provides an all-in-one solution for up to 250 users.

ClearOS supports unlimited users without the need for additional licenses and offers network and gateway features that provide comprehensive intrusion detection and prevention.  

We installed the ClearOS Professional 6.4 version on a 64-bit server. Similar to Red Hat, ClearOS uses the Anaconda GUI installer. The minimum system requirements are fairly modest with 512MB RAM recommended, 2GB free hard disk space and a 1GHZ processor. ClearOS Professional supports up to 16 processors.

Management of the ClearOS server is achieved from a graphically appealing Web-based interface called WebConfig that runs on a variety of browsers from desktop to mobile. When first launched and connected to a server, WebConfig prompts you to go through a comprehensive wizard to configure the server and also to select any add-on applications you may want from the ClearOS Marketplace.  

We downloaded a couple of free apps to see how they integrated with WebConfig and found that these add-ons were seamlessly added to the menu in the appropriate categories. The WebConfig wizard also provides a link to the Marketplace site should you wish to browse and install additional applications. ClearOS also provides a sample framework as a starting point for developing mobile apps to manage and monitor ClearOS installations.

The dashboard type interface provides access to common server tasks from system updates and resource usage monitoring to management of gateway and firewall settings. There are also some decent on-screen reporting features with the “psychedelic disk usage wheel” displaying how disk space is being utilized. Other reporting features include a log viewer by log type as well as professional-looking resource reports. The process viewer displays all running processes along with resource usage (CPU and memory) and the ability to issue ‘kill’ commands to terminate a process.

The Clear Foundation positions itself as a pioneer in the hybrid cloud technology sector, which combines on-premise system functions with cloud applications and services. ClearOS has been using cloud connected services such as remote updates, dynamic DNS and subscription-based services for more than a decade.

While ClearOS includes KVM support built into the kernel and also supports other hypervisors like Zen and VirtualBox, it is not specifically intended to be a virtualization platform. ClearOS can operate as a guest OS on several VM platforms such as VMware and VirtualBox. There is a beta version available that runs on the Amazon EC2 cloud platform.

ClearOS comes bundled with a number of security features ready to use, including DansGuardian anti-virus and the L7 application layer packet classifier, contextual analysis and access control. ClearOS can be installed in ‘gateway mode’ that provides intrusion detection/prevention, protocol filters, firewall and proxy services from first boot.

Paid support is available through the Clear Foundation’s ClearCARE offering, which is included in the Standard and Premium versions and can be purchased on a per ticket basis for other versions. If you’re just evaluating the software, there are some helpful online video tutorials for some of the basic tasks (installation, etc.) together with partner write-ups made available by ClearOS with instructions for completing tasks such as configuring virtualization with KVM to how to setting up a VPN.

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