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Analyst weighs in on the future of Red Hat Enterprise Linux

Operating systems expert Tony Iams says it won't be too long before Red Hat Enterprise Linux offers full support for virtualization.

Tony Iams is no stranger to operating systems. A senior analyst with Ideas International in Port Chester, New York, Iams spends much of his time working with users - and vendors - of the latest operating systems. sat down with Iams to discuss the recently released Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 (RHEL 4). In this interview, Iams talks about some of the new features of RHEL 4 and explains the direction the operating system will take in the future.

Is Red Hat focused on bringing cutting edge features to market with RHEL 4?

Tony Iams: The thing about Red Hat is that, for many users, this is the standard Linux distribution. For many users, Red Hat and Linux are synonymous. That isn't true for everyone, obviously. But Red Hat has the greatest brand recognition. They have the most visibility. As a result, they don't necessarily need to push the envelope the most with regard to technology. They don't necessarily have to have the most bleeding edge technology to succeed. They can afford to take a little bit more time to bring out new features and focus on the other things that are important to their enterprise customers like stability and compatibility and things like that.

So, RHEL 4 is largely focused on the needs of enterprise users. Can you elaborate?

Iams: Indeed. One of the things that they're emphasizing is the compatibility. That is the ability to run binary applications of earlier versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 2.1 and version 3. RHEL 4 is guaranteed to support the applications from those versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Beyond enhanced compatibility, what else does RHEL 4 bring to the table?

Iams: There are a bunch of other new features in there. Red Hat is definitely taking advantage of the 2.6 kernel. They have introduced a new I/O system that increases the performance and scalability of their storage capabilities. They can now support up to 16 terabyte file systems, which is a major improvement. It will definitely allow Red Hat to increase its reach in the enterprise environment. They have also taken advantage of all the kernel enhancements that boost performance. Users can now get a lot better performance for applications that need that.

I understand that RHEL 4 also offers increased support for 64-bit capabilities. Why is that important?

Iams: A lot of the newer processors have 64-bit ranges. That includes processors like the AMD Opteron, as well as the EM64T from Intel. Those both have 64-bit functions as well as strong support for 32-bit applications. Older processors like the Itanium are also 64-bit, but those are designed purely for 64-bit environments, not mixed 32-bit and 64-bit. A lot of users are leaning towards going with AMD64 and EM64T because you can mix your 32-bit apps and your 64-bit apps. They provide a smoother migration path than going directly to Itanium. Red Hat now has full optimization for that.


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What about security?

Iams: What they've done is they've basically made Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) part of the basic distribution. In the past, that was sort of a separate version of Linux that was optimized for security. Now you don't have to get a separate version of Linux if you want to have these high security-type functions.

Now, this only addresses part of the requirements that you need to meet to have a truly secure system. What this basically gives users is the functions that are necessary for a secure environment. In particular, they're called the Mandatory Access Control functions and what they do is allow you to define policies that regulate which resources and operations are allowed by which users. It's just the functional capabilities.

What more do you need to do to come up with a truly secure environment?

Iams: You have to put this together with the system, some hardware, and then generally you need to have certification based on something called Common Criteria and EAL. RHEL users now have all the functions that they need to go through that certification. It's going to make it relatively straightforward now to run RHEL4 through that process.

What's coming down the road in terms of updates and new functionality?

Iams: They're more or less on an 18-month cycle at this point, so there will be a Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 coming out sometime in 2006. But again, we expect that to again be emphasizing those same values of continuity, security and so on.

What else do you expect from the next version of RHEL?

Iams: Red Hat has talked a little bit about what they're going to have in that new version. They're going to have improved support for auditing, profiling and debugging. And they're going to focus increasingly on virtualization. The news that has been coming out in the last couple of months is that they're going to be supporting the Xen technology in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.

Can you explain Xen?

Iams: Xen is an open source virtual machine technology. It's a little bit different than VMWare, but it gives you the same basic capability of being able to run multiple operating systems on a single server. Now, it's a little bit different than VMWare because in order for users to be able to host operating systems, they need to modify the operating system that you run in the virtual machine. VMWare, by contrast, just runs standard operating systems. You can just take a box of Windows or a box of Linux and just run it unmodified in a virtual machine. With Xen you need to have some modifications in the host and the guest operating system.

How will Vanderpool technology change this dynamic?

Iams: When Intel brings out its Vanderpool technology, at the chip level, users are going to be able to run unmodified operating systems as well. And Vanderpool is going to be coming out later this year. When you're looking at the 2006 timeframe, you'll have Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, plus Vanderpool virtualization support. When you put those two together, you're going to have complete support for virtualization in the RHEL environment. It could fundamentally change the way that people run their data centers.

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