5.5. So Many Distributions, So Little Time
At last count on http://www.linux.org, there were over 350 different Linux distributions. In an annoyance-free world, everyone could download her favorite distribution and get courteous and free support from the wide variety of Linux geeks dedicated to support online. So much for the perfect world!
Many people think of Linux as a free operating system. Linux geeks know that isn't quite true. Support takes time, which is valuable. Many Linux distributions, including Red Hat and SUSE, provide fee-based support for licensed installations of their distributions. If you're willing to get your support directly from the community, there are alternatives to the well-known licensed Linux systems.
Red Hat network entitlements are expensive. They start at $179 for Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS (workstation) and can reach above $2,500 per system for Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS (advanced server). While Red Hat is the "name brand" Linux distribution, there are ways to get the same software for the cost of support. Novell's support fees for SUSE are similar: they start at $60 for SUSE 10.0 and can reach $14,000 for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 for IBM Z Series servers.
Red Hat's move away from standard supported distributions has dismayed a significant part of the Linux community. However, Red Hat continues to release the source code for all but the proprietary packages of their Enterprise distribution. This means the Linux community has access to the same software that Red Hat is licensing. Similarly, SUSE releases many of the binary packages for its latest workstation and server distributions, with ISOs available some weeks later.
5.5.1. Alternative Distributions
As a Linux geek, you probably already know something about the variety of available Linux distributions. You may already have your favorites. In most cases, distributions organize packages in one of two camps: RPMs or DEBs. In other words, they work with the RPM Package Manager or the Debian package system.
In this book, we've focused on Red Hat/Fedora, Novell/SUSE, and Debian. This is patently unfair to the wide variety of available distributions. I've included in Table 5-5 an arbitrary sample of alternative distributions that include some level of support, assuming you've purchased an official version of their product. The list is less than fair, as it does not mention many of the benefits of distributions such as Knoppix and Ubuntu (both derivatives of Debian). A more complete list is available from http://www.linux.org/dist/list.html.
5.5.2. Red Hat Enterprise Rebuilds
Red Hat builds the software for its distributions from source code, organized in source RPMs. Red Hat releases this enterprise-quality source code on public FTP servers. When others compile this source code into a distribution, it is known as a "rebuild." The process is considerably more complex than just compiling source RPM files.
Several groups have sprung up to provide "rebuilds" based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code. I personally prefer the cAos rebuild (http://www.caosity.org), as the cAos Foundation keeps its rebuilds up-to-date with the latest Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3/4 updates. (Its rebuilds of these distributions are officially known as CentOS-3/CentOS-4.) While others have also kept their "rebuilds" up-to-date, cAos at this time appears to have the most active community. But even with volunteers, maintenance and download servers are expensive, and cAos has requested that users contribute $12/year per system.
I've found the cAos updates are available about a month after Red Hat releases its updates. While cAos has modified the icons and other graphics to avoid Red Hat trademarks violations, the software is identical to what is released in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3/4 in almost every respect. One exception is that it uses the yum (Yellow Dog Updater, Modified) for updates, as is done with Fedora Linux. Others follow a similar model. Table 5-6 lists a few Red Hat clones, along with their web sites.
If you need an official level of support, there are alternatives to Red Hat. Progeny supports the most recent versions of Red Hat Linux (8 and 9), released before 2003. cAos has links to corporate levels of support at www.caosity.org/support/commercial. But if you are a Linux geek, you may be able to support your Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3/4 rebuild installations on your own, with a little help from the community, as described in the next annoyance.