Should SMBs Consider Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6?

By Joe Brockmeier | Posted December 21, 2010

Red Hat's latest major release, which it unveiled last month, places lots of emphasis on the features for big business. But what about the smaller businesses that have -- or want make the switch to -- Linux? How does Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 6 fit in the picture?

Despite the "enterprise" in the title, RHEL is suitable for some small and medium sized businesses. As a Linux distribution, it's perfectly fine for just about any computing task that an SMB would throw at it -- just because it's tailored for heavier workloads, doesn't mean that can't scale down, too.

Does Your Business Need RHEL 6?

The question is whether RHEL6 is the right answer for your business. The cheapest subscriptions from Red Hat cost $349 a year for "self-support," and about $800 a year for a "standard" server subscription with Web-only support and a two-day response window.

The prices go up from there, and if you want a premium support package for a heftier machine (4-sockets, or CPUs) with unlimited virtual machines, it's going to set your business back nearly $4,000. Note that this is Red Hat's SMB pricing, its regular pricing is a bit higher for the higher-end products -- but oddly its low-end pricing is the same.


Before we decide whether that's worth the cost to a small business, let's take a look at what comes in RHEL6.

What's New in RHEL 6

Many of the improvements in RHEL6 are related to virtualization and cloud computing, and they focus on KVM (kernel-based virtual machines) and replacing Xen (a virtual machine monitor).

The company (and the Linux community at large, it should be noted) has put a lot of work into scalability and solving problems for organizations that have a lot of servers hosting a lot of virtual machines. Red Hat is also prepping for cloud computing, as a guest system as well as hosting cloud computing workloads.

Note that you don't need to be running your own hardware these days to use RHEL -- you might want to consider Amazon's Web Services, Rackspace, or another provider. Of course, you'd be paying for the RHEL subscription as part of the overall hosting cost.

RHEL 6 also brings a lot of improvements in terms of resource control. SELinux has been improved to help isolate workloads and this release also brings "Control groups," (cgroups) -- a way to control resource usage by applications and virtual machines.

In short, the focus of RHEL6 server is on security, scalability, and handling server problems. If you're looking for a desktop system, Red Hat has put some work into SPICE, a technology for desktop virtualization. If this is something your business needs, RHEL is probably the best way to go. If you just need a handful of Linux desktops, go with an Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS)  or CentOS unless there's a solid reason to go with Red Hat. There's nothing wrong with RHEL on the desktop, per se, but it's not as user-friendly as Ubuntu.

Does My Business Need a Paid Version of Linux?

All Linux distributions aren't created equal -- but they're also not miles apart. RHEL releases often pioneer features in enterprise distributions. Almost all of RHEL 6's features have been in development in Fedora and other Linux distros for months or years. The difference here is the amount of quality assurance applied, and the length of support along with guaranteed updates.

The CentOS distribution is based on the source packages from RHEL, and CentOS 6 should be along any day now. It means waiting a few weeks, and the updates for RHEL6 may not be deployed to CentOS as quickly, but the project strives to be binary compatible with RHEL6. What does that mean? It means that aside from branding and having Red Hat's support, you're going to have the same experience with CentOS 6 as you do with RHEL6 without paying the yearly subscription fee. You can still find support for CentOS, though it won't be through a central provider -- you'll have to find a contractor if you don't have one on staff or on speed-dial already.

Another alternative is going with Debian or one of Ubuntu's LTS releases. Debian releases are usually maintained for at least three years, and usually longer than that. They tend to be less cutting-edge when released, though -- and Debian doesn't quite have parity with Red Hat's management tools or documentation. Red Hat makes all of its guides public, and it has pretty comprehensive guides.

If you're comfortable with Debian, Ubuntu's LTS releases have all the tools you're familiar with, plus a few bonuses. Whereas Debian releases arrive "when we're ready," Ubuntu publishes and sticks to a schedule. The LTS releases are supported on the server for five years, period. There's no guessing about when support will end or when a release will land. Ubuntu's parent company, Canonical, also offers support packages if you need them. You can get paid support for Debian, but not from the project itself -- you'd have to find a company or consultant that offers support.

You'll notice, perhaps, that I haven't mentioned Fedora, openSUSE, regular Ubuntu releases, or other community distros. That's because the support window is simply too short to be worth messing with. None of the major community distributions are supported longer than 24 months. This means a lot of fussing with updates that generally isn't worth it. Pick a distribution with at least three years of support ahead of it, and stick with that.

Most small businesses will probably be better off working with CentOS, Ubuntu, or another non-paid Linux distribution. Frankly, unless you're really pushing the envelope, the support costs from Red Hat aren't an expense you need to bear. This isn't to say that I don't want to see businesses spending money on Red Hat. Money that goes into Red Hat comes out as developer salaries to improve Linux, so it's a good investment by larger companies that need the attention that Red Hat gives to cutting edge hardware, scalability, and so on.

But the RHEL 6 pricing is not right for most small businesses. Spend the money on hiring IT staff or a consultant that knows Linux well and can support your business, until your business grows enough to justify the increased IT costs associated with RHEL 6.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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