5 top Linux server distros: How to choose the right one

What you need to know to choose among Ubuntu LTS, Oracle Linux, Fedora Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Enterprise Server

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Red Hat continues to enjoy a large portion of the commercial Linux market, both for desktops and servers, and Red Hat is one of the largest corporate contributors to Linux as a whole. Red Hat claims that 90% of the Fortune Global 500 uses Red Hat products. In addition to its flagship RHEL server, Red Hat also sells and supports various versions of JBoss application and Web servers.

Red Hat in the cloud

Red Hat is positioning itself to be a player in the cloud space, whether private, public or hybrid. Red Hat provides a comprehensive suite of cloud computing products, including the Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure, a cloud management option that allows you to build and manage cloud solutions. Red Hat Cloud Forms offers management across multiple public-cloud providers and hypervisors. In addition, Red Hat offers support for the OpenStack cloud platform, and OpenShift provides developers with a Platform-as-a-Service to develop, host and deliver cloud apps. Red Hat allows customers with existing subscriptions to migrate to the cloud via more than 100 certified cloud providers.

Red Hat installation

Red Hat provides a variety of download options for installation or to run directly as a virtual guest OS, KVM guest image, Boot ISO, Binary DVD, WinSynch Installer (MSI) and Virt-p2v ISO. The system requirements recommend 1GB RAM per CPU core and 10GB available disk space. Kudos to Red Hat for providing an installation that is quick and easy to navigate. Unlike some other Linux installs (looking at you, Ubuntu), Red Hat allows you to make all necessary selections up front from a configuration panel, and after that the installation takes care of itself with no additional input needed. There are six base server environments to select from including basic Web server, server with GUI or just a minimal server. Each environment allows for the addition of add-ons such as DNS, database and other roles and tools, making for a very granular and customizable installation.

Since we opted for the GUI version, Red Hat booted directly to a server version of the Gnome interface. This provides some additional features over the regular Gnome desktop, such as prompting for authentication when completing certain tasks, such as changing date/time or installing new software packages. Our next step was to register our server with the Red Hat subscription server; this can be accomplished from the command line or by using the subscription manager from GNOME.

Red Hat management – expensive

Once registered with Red Hat, you can view additional detail about your registered servers from the customer portal. This includes general information including Red Hat version, whether the system is up to date on patches and a timestamp for last check-in. However, it is mainly a read-only tool with few options for managing a server. For this, you can use Red Hat Satellite, a management product that can configure, provision, audit and manage software updates for thousands of servers from a unified dashboard. While Red Hat Satellite provides a powerful set of tools, it will set you back about $10,000 per year, just for the framework. In addition, you will need a Smart Management Add-On subscription for each system managed by Red Hat Satellite, which adds nearly $200 more per server.

Speaking of cost, a basic Red Hat Enterprise Linux server with self-help support is fairly affordable at $349. If you add basic support, you’re at $749, and with the aforementioned Smart Management Add-On and you’re close to $1,000 annually. There are other options as well, such as high-availability and extended update support. For those running a lot of guest VMs, the Red Hat Enterprise Linux for Virtual Datacenters version is probably your best bet, starting at $2,499 with standard support.

Red Hat virtualization, documentation, pros and cons

With Red Hat virtualization, organizations can virtualize any Linux or Windows workload. It can be deployed on top of existing infrastructure, and by integrating with other Red Hat products such as Red Hat Cloudforms and OpenStack, customers can manage the entire virtual and physical infrastructure.

Red Hat provides very good, well-organized online documentation, with options to view as HTML and PDF. There is also a comprehensive searchable knowledgebase along with a large collection of how-to videos.

Our biggest complaint with Red Hat is the relatively high cost to access real management tools. If you’re running just a few servers, the $10,000 Red Hat Satellite option is very steep. You can always use a third-party tool like Cockpit for management, but we think Red Hat should provide a better option like they used to with the Red Hat Network. That being said, Red Hat needs to be on any organization’s short list when evaluating enterprise-level Linux server products.

Oracle Linux: The obvious choice for Oracle shops

Oracle Linux has been around for more than 10 years, but has been gaining market share and the company says it has over 14,000 customers world-wide.

Part of its popularity may be the way it plays well within an Oracle environment and its full support for Red Hat Linux, on which it is based.

This interoperability theme is carried out through its support for the Open Stack tools for building cloud-computing platforms and its support for two different kernels.

The fact that it’s free and reasonably priced support is readily available make it hard to ignore, especially for enterprises heavily invested in other Oracle offerings.

What is Oracle Linux?

Oracle database was the first commercial database to be available on Linux in 1998 and in order to ensure that critical bugs were fixed, Oracle created and made available its Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK). Oracle Linux is compiled from the Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code and available with either the same kernel as Red Hat or with Oracle’s own Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel (UEK), which was initially developed to support highly scalable Oracle Engineered Systems.

The UEK kernel includes Oracle’s enhancement to online translation processing performance, security and virtualization improvements. In fact, Oracle uses its own Linux version to run several of its online websites, including Oracle Cloud and several of its Oracle Engineered Systems. Oracle Linux is 100% compatible with Red Hat regardless of kernel choice. It has been tested and optimized for use with other Oracle products such as its databases and applications like Secure Enterprise Search, Fusion Middleware and the E-Business Suite.

Oracle Linux has offered support for OpenStack since 2014 and provides it as a free download that can be used to manage both physical and virtual servers in production environments. Oracle Linux is also tightly interwoven with Oracle Cloud and its Platform as a Services (PaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings.

Oracle Linux installation

Oracle Linux uses the same installation wizard as Red Hat and Fedora. The streamlined configuration panel allows all items such as network, disk partition and time zone to be configured before the installation begins, instead of presenting multiple prompts throughout installation. Just as with Fedora and Red Hat, you can select various roles and supporting software during the installation. Oracle Linux installs with the standard Linux kernel, and if you wish to use the UEK, you need to install it separately.

Oracle Linux management

Oracle Linux can be managed from the command line or a third-party GUI like GNOME. However, this only gives you access to one server at a time, and for most installation using the Oracle Enterprise Manager probably makes the most sense. Unlike commercial Linux vendors who charge for management functionality, Oracle provides the Enterprise Manager at no additional cost with a paid subscription. Enterprise Manager is run on-premises and provides a unified platform for managing all of a customer's Oracle deployments, whether on-premises or in the cloud. In addition to managing Oracle Linux servers, Enterprise Manager can manage other Oracle applications, databases, middleware, hardware and engineered systems.

Oracle Linux supports Spacewalk, the open-source community project that forms the basis for solutions such as Red Hat Satellite Server and SUSE Manager. Spacewalk can be used for a variety of management task, including system-software installation and updates, system provisioning, distribution of custom software packages, provisioning of virtual guests and deployment of configuration files.

On the virtualization side, Oracle includes KVM as it is the main hypervisor on Red Hat. However, Oracle does not support Oracle applications running on KVM and instead provides its own Oracle VM server for free for this purpose. Oracle claims its VM server provides better performance since Oracle databases and applications are engineered to work together. Oracle imposes no licensing requirements for Oracle VM, thus keeping the cost of ownership low. Oracle offers VM templates that are pre-configured, optimized and patched guest virtual machines based on best practices and standards. These VM templates are tested by Oracle and assist in automating the provisioning of complete production-ready application environments. By utilizing the Oracle VM Manager, administrators can manage and configure servers and other network resources.

For operations with a low tolerance for downtime, Oracle KSplice, as part of premium support, provides updates of certain critical components and security patches with zero downtime and no need to reboot. Another feature available with Oracle Linux is DTrace, a tracing framework that allows administrators to dynamically observe systems for performance issues in both applications and the operating system itself. DTrace lets you explore the server to understand how it works, track down problems across many layers of software and locate the cause of problems.

Oracle has an extensive network to provide 24/7 support in 145 countries in 29 languages. There are two main support levels available for Oracle Linux, a basic and a premium option. Both provide 24/7 support, and the basic support starts at $499 per year while the premium support starts at $1,399. One Oracle Linux license covers a system with up to two physical CPUs, but with unlimited cores and virtual guests.

In our view, if you’re running one or multiple Oracle software products, choosing Oracle Linux as your OS may be a no-brainer as it is optimized to work with Oracle applications. Unlike Red Hat, Oracle Linux is free to use, and paid support options are generally less expensive than similar Red Hat solutions. Also, comparing with Fedora, you get the LTS aspects of Red Hat not available with Fedora, at a lower cost.

The support options are very good at a reasonable cost and Oracle includes a solid set of tools and add-ons – including high-availability, KSplice and OpenStack – are free to license and use with the premium support plan. Oracle claims to be the only vendor that offers a complete Linux-based solution stack—applications, middleware, database, management tools, operating system and hardware plus support, which can eliminate some of the finger pointing when problems occur, as they do. That makes sense to us.

SuSE Linux Enterprise Server: Scales and supports third-party virtualization

SUSE Linux Enterprise Server is a multi-purpose server that has long been popular with Internet Service Providers for various Web-based workloads, but it’s well suited for enterprises as well, and even small businesses.

It’s been developed to focus on providing a platform on which to run mission-critical enterprise applications, partnering with large vendors like SAP, Microsoft and VMware to bring SLES to the enterprise. SLES releases major revisions every three-to-five years, providing enterprises with a long-term stable server platform.

For this review we looked at SLES 12 SP2, which has an online installation tool available to make it easier to customize.

SLES also has a small footprint version, cleverly named Just Enough Operating System (JEOS). This can be used as a minimized host OS for cloud images, container applications or just to simplify IT operations.

SLES is available for the cloud through over 50 different providers including Microsoft Azure, Amazon and Google Compute Engine. By utilizing SUSE Studio, customers can build their own custom SLES server appliance online by selecting from a wide variety of features from the core OS version and GUIs to Web, database and, yes, even some games. By last count, we noted more than 750 available packages.

SUSE installation

As with most Linux OSes, the system requirements to get started are pretty basic: 512MB to 4GB RAM, at least 256MB per CPU with 4GB hard-disk space and 16GB if snapshot/rollback of the OS is to be utilized. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention SUSE Studio as part of the installation options for SUSE. This is an online software creation feature hosted by SUSE that allows users to create their own custom SUSE installation by picking which applications they want to include with their install.

It can be used to create a variety of installations, including virtual appliances, and with it users can preconfigure common settings like time zones and network information. We tested the prepackaged solution, and with our two installation DVDs downloaded (10GB-plus total), we were ready to install on our quad-core AMD server.

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