Linux distributions ranked for speed, security, support, performance: Whirlwind Tech Tour

How do Linux distributions compare in terms of performance, support services, security and speed under different enterprise conditions? Linux experts compare Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise and Ubuntu against these criteria.

After a Thanksgiving break, the Whirlwind Tech Tour is back on the move. This week, we address the issue of how Linux distributions compare in performance under different enterprise conditions. Whether you manage a small or large IT department, have the latest software versions or ...less-new ones, check out this question and the answers below to find out which Linux distribution might serve you best.

This week's question is:

Are there certain conditions under which you have found one Linux distribution to consistently outperform another in an enterprise setting? How so?

Tony Iams, Vice President and Senior Analyst – System Software Research, Ideas International

Linux distributions can be distinguished by feature sets or other characteristics that appeal to particular user constituencies. For example, our research has shown in the past that SUSE Linux often is first to market with production-grade implementations of high-end, enterprise-oriented functions. By contrast, Red Hat stands out for the maturity of its Red Hat Network systems management platform. Ubuntu has proven to be popular as a desktop operating environment. Debian is respected for the strength of its package management system, which provides powerful tools to configure layered software on top of the Linux kernel. There is no single distribution that outperforms another across the board. Rather, users may find that a distribution is better than others for a particular use case.

Iams contributes to the Ideas International blog

Jay Lyman, Open Source Analyst for The 451 Group

I have not done the testing to say quantitatively where one Linux distribution consistently outperforms another, but I can point out certain market segments or verticals where some versions of Linux are more prevalent and popular. I would add that because they are all based on the same operating system kernel, all Linux distributions have some of the stability, scalability, security, flexibility and other attributes that help determine where and when Linux, in general, is most prevalent. That being said, we do see some flavors of Linux favored in some markets.

SUSE Linux, for example, is prevalent on the Top500 Supercomputer list (2.2% on its own and another 8.2% in mixed use) and this highlights its popularity in very high-end computing. We do see other Linux distributions in the Top500 (RH has 1.2% share and CentOS has 1%) and much of the list is marked by general, non-specific Linux (77.8%).

Banking, finance and financial services is a vertical where we see the commercial Linux distributions leading, with SUSE Linux and Red Hat again being most popular. Part of this has to do with these vendors' support for customers' applications, as well as performance demands.

In telecommunications, we see a strong embrace of Red Hat Linux, with SUSE Linux prominent again for reasons similar to those listed above for banking and financial services. This is one area where we also see a non-commercial, community Linux distribution: Debian, which is used in telecom for its well-known stability.

Government also shows a preference for Red Hat, particularly in the U.S. This may partly be a result of the desire to avoid lock-in - Red Hat, as a Linux vendor and open source software company, is seen as a way to do it. We do see SUSE Linux in government as well, particularly outside of North America. There are also a whole host of regional and localized versions of Linux throughout Europe, Asia and other parts of world.

A number of embedded and real-time-enabled Linux distributions and vendors, such as Concurrent, LynuxWorks, MontaVista, Novell, Red Hat and IBM, TimeSys and Wind River,.continue to produce traction for the OS in verticals including automotive, consumer devices, government and military, industrial control, medical IT and devices, and networking.

Outside the desktop, I have seen a preference for Ubuntu in software and virtual appliances. JumpBox is an example of a vendor that bases its virtual infrastructure and application software on Ubuntu Linux and open source.

Another emerging use of Linux that is interesting to watch is netbooks, where distributions such as gOS, Linpus, Ubuntu, Xandros and others are delivering substantial desktop market share for Linux. This category also highlights how performance of the OS includes not only speed and ease of computing, but also efficiency in resources such as memory and battery life.

Lyman contributes regularly to the 451Group's enterprise open source blog  451 CAOS Theory.

Russell Coker, computer and network security consultant and contractor

In any comparison of distributions there are corner cases. Much of the discussion on the net that compares distributions rests on the basis of a particular application failing to work on a certain distribution. If you have to use a particular application in a particular configuration it is relevant to know whether a distribution supports that without patching. But for a wider scope that is not relevant.

For general purpose OSes (desktops and servers), the first objective criteria I use is the ability to have system builds that can be reproduced and therefore analyzed. Distributions which are based on compiling from source fail this test because you never know which header files were used. It is ideal to have a strong package management system so that you can know which package owns each file and what version of the package is installed. This reduces the scope to distributions based on the dpkg and rpm package management systems.

Next is the issue of the range of packages available for use on the distribution. This can depend on the usage scenario. Enterprise distributions such as RHEL typically have shorter lists of packages, but also include most things you need for that environment. I find that Debian's wide range of supported packages is a significant benefit for home desktop systems (where users always want more software installed on a whim) and also provide benefits for some servers (for example, mail servers where a range of anti-spam software is needed).

Finally there is the issue of support. There are two issues around support: how long software patches are provided to fix severe bugs (including security flaws) and whether you can pay someone for help. In terms of software patches the long term support provided by RHEL and CentOS is a significant benefit for corporate environments and for situations where you want to deploy servers and then leave them in place for a long time without much maintenance. Debian also scores reasonably well on this criteria due to the infrequent releases. The more often the distribution is released, the greater the incidence of third party software vendors skipping releases. This is particularly a problem when using software from multiple vendors who may not release for the same versions of the distribution.

For paid support, I have found the phone services provided by Red Hat to be very good (I can't comment on other commercial distributions due to lack of experience with them). While for any distribution I can find a local consultant who will provide assistance for a fee, some of my clients want a single number to call for a commercial distribution.

Disclosure: I used to work for Red Hat, but I don't believe that I am biased in this regard.

Check out Coker's blog, etbe.

Michael Applebaum, senior product marketing manager at Novell
SUSE Linux Enterprise from Novell outperforms other Linux distributions in virtualization, interoperability, and mission-critical and desktop computing. It is ideal for enterprise customers that require a world-class operating system from the desktop to data center and physical-to-virtual environments:

  • Virtualization: SUSE Linux Enterprise Server outperforms other Linux distributions as a guest operating system in virtual machines, making it the "perfect guest" OS for VMware, Microsoft and Xen deployments. Support for VMware's Virtual Machine Interface (VMI) protocol enables SUSE Linux Enterprise Server to run as a VMware-optimized operating system. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server is also the best performing guest on Windows Server 2008. Additionally, through work Novell has done with the Xen hypervisor, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server has near-native performance on Xen.
  • Interoperability: Businesses today are working with mixed IT environments and struggling to ensure those environments remain cost-effective. Customers such as Wal-Mart use SUSE Linux Enterprise because it provides interoperability with Microsoft Windows and allows them to more easily manage a heterogeneous environment. Through our collaboration with Microsoft, Novell is delivering tangible innovation in areas such as virtualization (SUSE Linux Enterprise offers cross-platform virtualization with Windows and Hyper-V); standards-based systems management; directory and identity management (federated identity management between Windows and Linux environments using open Web services protocols); document format compatibility (including bi-directional translators for OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office); accessible desktop computing (assistive technologies across Linux and Windows); and Moonlight (a Linux implementation of the Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in, providing rich media experiences on the Web).
  • Mission-critical computing: Novell's real-time and mainframe operating system products are consistently preferred by enterprise customers, such as UMB Financial, for time-sensitive and mainframe-based mission-critical services. In recent independent tests, SUSE Linux Enterprise delivered significantly better performance for the leading market data application, Reuters Market Data System, in key criteria such as throughput, latency and jitter. Novell's close technical collaboration with IBM's mainframe platform developers has also resulted in a distribution that is preferred by the vast majority of enterprises running Linux services on the mainframe today.
  • Desktop Computing: Novell outshines the competition in three areas of desktop computing. First, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop offers unmatched interoperability with Windows environments, which increases productivity and lowers cost through superior compatibility with Microsoft Active Directory, Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Office. For example, OpenOffice.org Novell Edition provides enhanced Excel and VBA compatibility and richer file import capabilities than other versions of OpenOffice.org. Second, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop gives customers greater flexibility with the ability to be deployed across desktops, notebooks, netbooks/nettops and thin clients. Lastly, Novell provides greater simplicity for desktop Linux users through OEM relationships with leading vendors including HP, Lenovo, Dell, Wyse and Micro-Star International. Customers can purchase and deploy SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop preloaded on a range of thick and thin client devices, enabling faster time to value and greater ease of management.

For more information about SUSE Linux Enterprise, visit www.novell.com/linux.

Kristian Erik Hermansen, Security and Open Source Specialist

The combination of Gentoo and BIND results in a high performance DNS server, able to serve nearly 100,000 queries/second. You can't get any better than that - even with FreeBSD, according to ISC

Hermansen maintains a blog on his work in open source.

Nick Carr, marketing director, Red Hat

The word outperform brings to mind the simple consideration of software performance - how fast can an application be executed? In actuality, Red Hat's success over other Linux distributions is built upon its achievements across many aspects of an IT deployment, of which low application execution time is just one. For any customer, the choice of an operating system and its surrounding environment depends on several factors:

  • Technical capabilities/suitability:Does the product have the technical features required for the application? Is it fast, secure, scalable and highly available? Is it robust and stable?

    In these dimensions, Red Hat Enterprise Linux has an exceptional record. Performance has been proven repeatedly through the publication of many world benchmarks since the product was first released six years ago. Its security track record is second-to-none, from the embedded firewall to SELinux mandatory access control developed in partnership with the NSA. From auditing to virtualization, Red Hat's technology development is based on the open source model, which has long-demonstrated its ability to create high quality software faster than any other model. Additionally, Red Hat distributions maintain a commitment to keep application interfaces (API/ABI) stable for the life of every product - so that applications can be certified once and then run for many years without change.

  • Business model: How is the product supplied? What does it cost? How is it licensed? How flexible are the business terms?

    Red Hat solutions have been carefully designed to avoid the complexity of proprietary software vendor product models. RedHat software is usually licensed under the GPL and always available for free download. For supported environments all software is provided under a fully inclusive annual subscription model, with unlimited support, updates, upgrades included.

    Subscriptions can be easily moved from an old system to a new system, from one architecture to another (from 32-bit to 64-bit, for example).

    Red Hat's Open Source Assurance program ensures that customers do not have to worry about Intellectual Property issues. And prices, of course, are highly attractive - Red Hat offers cost savings - often dramatic - compared to other proprietary offerings.
  • Services model: As mentioned above, all Red Hat subscriptions offer unlimited access to support. Red Hat has the scale to provide support worldwide, 24x7, in multiple languages. It has the scale to provide seven years support for all its Red Hat Enterprise Linux products, thereby making long-term deployments practical. Additional services provide up to 10 years support. And service offerings go far beyond support and maintenance: Red Hat offers comprehensive training and consulting services worldwide. These allow customers to ensure that their deployments are properly designed, deployed and maintained, and that their staff members are properly skilled.
  • Vendor viability: Is the vendor going to be in business for the long haul? Red Hat is a leading software solutions provider, having been in business since 1992 and gone public in 1999. With rapid revenue growth and continuous profitability for the past 26 quarters, Red Hat has ranked in the top three software suppliers in the CIO Insight Survey for the past four years. This puts it ahead of Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Novell.

Red Hat, in close partnership with its partners and open source communities, is a primary developer of many open source technologies - so the raw performance of the resulting products is fortified by many hands. But it is the combination of all the factors described above that allow Red Hat to consistently outperform other Linux distributions.

Read more on Red Hat's customer testimonial page.

Editor's Note: If you would like to suggest a question or if you want to have the chance to contribute your opinion in future Whirlwind Tech Tours, send us a note.

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