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Enterprises play waiting game on 2.6

Red Hat and SuSE won't have 2.6-based versions of enterprise Linux until mid-to-late 2004, and that's fine for enterprises that need stable, ISV-certified, mission-critical operating systems.

The 2.6 kernel, released this week, may be enough to satiate Linuxphiles, but it's just the first step for enterprises that want to drive Linux deeper into mission-critical infrastructure.

Big business is unlikely to build its own distribution, experts say. Instead, businesses will play the waiting game, as Red Hat Inc., Novell Inc.-SuSE Linux AG and others race to be the first with a 2.6-based enterprise-grade version of Linux.

"[Enterprises] have no interest in hacking together a distribution," said Forrester Research principal analyst Ted Schadler. "They're waiting for support and services packages to be put together and for ISVs to certify their applications on 2.6. They'll wait for support and certification [from] IBM and HP as well. There's no rush to move."

The new kernel, the first overhaul since September 2001, features many enhancements in the areas of scalability, reliability and memory management, all of which enterprises need at the heart of their IT infrastructures.

So which distributor will be first, and how big a deal is it to be first?

Red Hat angered many customers when it announced it was ending support for Red Hat Linux, with support scheduled to drop off at the end of the year for RHL 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3 and next April for RHL 9.0. Instead, the company said it would support Red Hat Enterprise Linux and a hobbyist version of Linux, called Fedora. Version 3.0 was released in October, and a Red Hat representative said Friday morning that the next version won't be available until next fall, at the earliest.

"It would be irresponsible to come out with a new product based on [the 2.6] kernel before it was ready for prime time," said Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day. "We feel that we have to take the time to get the kernel hardened and tested [before pushing] it out into our enterprise release."

Day pointed out that RHEL 3.0, which is based on the 2.4.21 kernel, includes back-ported 2.6 features. Of greatest appeal to the enterprise are a native Posix threading library, IPsec, asynchronous I/O for improved application performance, a highly scalable O(1) SMP scheduler and other features.

"Enterprises don't want to risk binary compatibility, which can become an issue when moving to a new kernel," Day said. "They're interested in stable, reliable releases that application vendors want to certify on."

Novell, which last month announced its intention to acquire SuSE, hopes to have a 2.6 distribution ready by the middle of 2004. Novell's Jeff Hawkins, vice president of the company's Linux business office, said the acquisition should be complete in January, and the majority of the company's integration plan should be in place by then.

With SuSE's broad influence in Europe, the company's leap into the market with a 2.6 product could persuade some Red Hat customers to jump ship.

"Since the change that Red Hat made, it is most likely that I'm going to move over to SuSE," said Raul Trujillo, a junior systems administrator with Metal Surfaces Inc. The Bell Gardens, Calif.-based company provides precision-engineered plating to the automotive, aerospace, electronic and medical industries. "That all depends on how the acquisition goes."

Early results from a reader poll currently being hosted on indicate that users believe Novell will indeed be first with a 2.6 product. Red Hat's Day, however, said that isn't an issue for the Raleigh, N.C.-based distributor. And Forrester's Schadler agreed.

"It would be a huge mistake [if Red Hat rushed a 2.6 product]," Schadler said. "Enterprises need slow, comfortable, methodical kernel moves."

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