Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is the top dog in commercial Linux distributions. It has first-rate support and services, and provides rock-solid dependability. Red Hat, a pillar of Linux and one of the foundation distributions, makes substantial contributions to Linux and open source year after year.
Many Linux distributions are descended from it, and you can even get free clones like Scientific Linux and CentOS. Its releases come with the longest support cycles: 10 years, with an optional extended support phase of three years.
While Red Hat provides superior manuals and RHEL has excellent management and configuration utilities, it's not for a beginner. Of course, you shouldn't let beginners anywhere near your servers anyway. But it's fairly easy for anyone with network and system administration skills to get up and running quickly.
SUSE Enterprise Linux
SUSE Enterprise Linux is the other "big" Linux name. SUSE, like RHEL, is a first-rate business operating system that won't let you down. Priced similarly to RHEL, SUSE also offers great documentation and excellent management tools.
SUSE offers one product that RHEL doesn't: a point-of-service edition for retailers. It's affordable even for a small shop, though the real cost of any POS is integrating it with your products and inventory, and keeping it updated. SUSE POS supports touchscreens, offers centralized administration and deployment tools, supports network booting and diskless terminals, and has a good graphical configuration capability.
Figure 2: SUSE's Geeko Samurai, slaying bottlenecks and other vexing problems.
Another feature unique to SUSE is SUSE Studio. SUSE Studio started out as an easy customization tool for creating custom SUSE images. It still does that, plus it quickly builds custom portable and cloud-enabled application stacks. But that's not all. Everything is cloud and virtualization these days, and so SUSE Studio also builds virtual applications for VMWare, Xen, and KVM.
If you don't need all that fancy stuff, SUSE Enterprise Linux is still an excellent general-purpose LAN server.
Debian and CentOS
There is a tie for the fifth spot in our roundup: Debian and CentOS Linux. These are my picks for the experienced Linux admin who doesn't need commercial support or a lot of bells and whistles. Both are lean and efficient, and completely customizable to suit your needs. Both have good community support and a wealth of documentation.
Debian, like Red Hat, is one of the foundation Linux distributions. Unlike Red Hat, Debian is completely community-maintained and has no commercial interests. Debian and Red Hat represent both sides of Linux and open source. Debian has many offspring, including the popular Ubuntu. Debian doesn't come packaged with a lot of fancy doodads, but it is a mighty power tool in the right hands.
A clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS usually runs 2-3 months behind RHEL releases, all the Red Hat branding has been removed, and it cannot use Red Hat services like Red Hat Network. Security patches and updates are timely, and the excellent Red Hat manuals work fine with CentOS. It's an easy way to get a feel for RHEL, and it's a good server operating system in its own right.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook, and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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