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LinuxWorld preview: Linux 2.6 - What's the holdup?

Linux 2.6 is the kernel that gives Linux enterprise credibility. So, asks expert Ken Milberg in this column, why isn't it going to be the toast of LinuxWorld next week?

So, how do you like the new kernel? You say you're not running it? Well, you should know that you are not in the minority. The vast majority of Linux users are still not running with 2.6. At LinuxWorld in San Francisco next week, you'll see that not every Linux distribution has embraced 2.6, either.

So what's the deal? Why aren't more companies using the latest and greatest? Who is shipping distributions with the new kernel, and who is holding back? What is the reaction of the Linux community to the 2.6 kernel? This article will try to answer some of these questions.

First, let's sum up recent history. In December of 2003, Linus Torvalds and Andew Morton released the new version of the kernel, the first real update in about three years. The last real update is 2.6.7, released in the middle of June, in an effort to fix a security bug that allowed users with shell access to a Linux host to bring down systems. Now, the first real candidate for the upcoming 2.6.8 kernel has just come hot off the presses. It includes QLogic SCSI controller firmware updates and various drivers and smaller patches.

This past March, SuSE unveiled SuSE Linux 9.1 Professional, the first major commercial release of the 2.6 kernel release. Though the majority of the benefits of 2.6 are geared to the corporate enterprise, it's clear that in this distribution, SuSE is also targeting the home user as well. For one thing, there's a focus on faster reading and writing of CDs and DVDs, better audio and video application performance, and improved streaming of video and audio data.

Of course, SuSE 9.1 Pro can also handle more processors, more physical devices and additional hardware, because the 2.6 kernel improves scalability by supporting 64-bit systems. Also, it offers such improvements as faster threading, enhanced I/O support and memory management.

The SuSE 9.1 distribution also ships with GNOME 2.4.2 and KDE 3.2.1 open-source desktops, as well as Samba version 3.

Business users have been generally positive about SuSE 9.1, especially with respect to the installer. YaST, which is short for Yet another Software Tool, did the SuSE installation. I like the install program because it has a very sharp interface, is very intuitive, is great at detecting hardware devices and is very detailed. While I've heard some complaints that it asks too many questions, I don't see that as being problematic. I'd rather the install take another five minutes, then have to spend five hours troubleshooting a configuration issue days later. Also, I love the manuals, which come with a user guide and DVD.

So what is Red Hat up to? Red Hat's next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux will be using the 2.6 kernel, and Fedora 2.6 version came out prior to the SuSE version.

Fedora is an interesting entity. The Fedora Project is a Red-Hat-sponsored/community-supported open source effort, but Fedora is not a "supported" product of Red-Hat. Instead, it is billed as a staging ground for new technologies that can ultimately be a part of Red Hat. People tell me that it's a good distribution for desktop use because it has a lot of precompiled, package software. They like the improved security features, such as IPsec support, and better support for multiprocessor systems, as well as GNOME 2.5 and KDE 3.2. It's free, too. But the lack of support from Red Hat is certainly not enticing to the corporate world.

The current Red Hat Enterprise Linux uses the Linux 2.4.21 kernel, with additions from the Linux 2.5 and 2.6 kernels. A 2.6 version may be released sometime this year. The official party line of Red Hat is that the current release supports many 2.6 kernel features, and that it is the only commercial Linux that has back-ported 2.6 features.

Many business users tell me they're skeptical about Red Hat's two-pronged (Fedora and RHEL) road map with 2.6. On one hand, Red Hat is aggressively helping to develop the 2.6 open source distro, and with the other, it is marketing a high-end enterprise product that will live by a very conservative release strategy. I am not skeptical. I feel that this strategy is very safe for them because it really offers no risk. I don' t see the big reward for them in playing both sides of the fence. If they wanted to be bold, they could have made an exception to their release dates and aggressively pushed an early release of the 2.6 kernel. On the other hand, Novell's SuSE boldly struck first (despite Fedora's preemptive strike) with the first real commercial version, so Red Hat would just be a me-too offering.

Unfortunately, I have not heard many complaints that 2.6 is not included in RHEL. Perhaps, it's because Linux folk are generally savvy enough to upgrade the kernel on their own. That's probably why smaller shops are not really concerned. Or worse, the advantages of 2.6 have not been publicized enough.

Regarding other distros, my personal favorite is Mandrake, now offering 2.6 in version 10. Its latest version contains kernel 2.6.3. Mandrake really does deliver improved scalability to 16+ CPUs using the new scheduler. The claims have been proven for improved file system performance and support for Ext3, ReiserFS, JFS and XFS, improved threading support, added memory support, enhanced drive performance and storage access.

In addition to the Linux kernel, Mandrake's distribution also offers Samba 3.0, KED 3.2, DrakPark (software application management software) and DrakFax (faxing software).

Another one of my favorite distos, Slackware, still offers the 2.4 kernel in its 10.0 release, though you can select 2.6.7 online as an alternate choice in testing.

My view is that Linux vendors will need to start being a bit more innovative in terms of their offerings. All Linux distros should be releasing their version with the 2.6 kernel now. No excuses. They also should include more extras. Look at Mandrake, including fax software in its release. SuSE gives some extras away as well, and I like the fact that they include 1.1.1, the office productivity suite, and Kontact 0.8.1 Groupware Suite, which has an integrated e-mail client, calendar and address book, among other things. Come on, vendors, throw in free support for a year. Give people more reasons to go to Linux.

Linux did not get where it has today by sitting on the fence. What is Red Hat waiting for? Fedora is not a corporate system, and because Red Hat is being so conservative with 2.6, many smaller distros are following its lead. I think Red Hat is missing the boat here. By the time Red Hat is ready with 2.6, it may be too late for them. The company's stock has already dropped about a dozen points in the past month, so things obviously could be better in Red Land.

Though Red Hat is still the commercial leader, Novell's bold move may fill the vacuum that Red Hat left by dropping much of its product line and hesitating on the new kernel.

For large companies looking for enterprise solutions today on Linux, I can't see them going Red Hat since SuSE offers the latest and greatest out of the box and customer support. Novell needs to try harder to push 9.1 as being a real enterprise solution that can compete with Unix now. Historically, Novell was never good at marketing, which is why it lost the Netware and WordPerfect battles to Microsoft. Here's hoping it learned from its mistakes.

Well, the first keynote speaker at LinuxWorld will be Matthew J. Szulik, Red Hat chairman, CEO and president. Let's hope he stuns us all with an aggressive road map for RHEL and 2.6, and gives us some new Linux technologies to work with, too.

Before, during and after LinuxWorld, Linux users and IT shops should start demanding that distributors offer the best Linux there is. If there was a huge demand for SuSE today, because of its 2.6 version, you can bet Red Hat would change its tune. I haven't seen at happening, and it's a shame because 2.6 is a stellar kernel.

About the author: Kenneth Milberg is a Unix and Linux consultant and president of UNIX Solutions. Ken has worked with HP, SCO, Linux and Solaris operating systems for 15 years and holds multiple certifications, among them AIX Systems Support, Solaris Systems Administrator, CCNA andOCP-DBO.

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