Red Hat Enterprise Linux for the Clueless

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 7:08 AM

Your motives matter. The reason why you choose one distribution — “brand” — of Linux over another is to match your needs, your reason for switching from Windows to Linux. I want control, security, and long term support. I don’t want bloat, but I’m as lazy as anyone else about wanting the system to do all the work for me; automation usually means bloat. I want something which works the way I do, which solves the problems I don’t want to face. I’ll be willing to work a little for the rest of it.

In the past few years I’ve surveyed a wide variety of Open Source and commercial operating systems. They all stink. The question is not getting perfection, but the best balance, the least irritation over the inevitable imperfections. Since first playing with Linux over a decade ago, there have been very few which really came close, which is why I keep playing with it.

I really liked the old Red Hat 6.2 and 7.3, SuSE 8.2, Debian 4, and a few others, but those are now ancient history, obsolete and increasingly unable to deliver security of usability. More recently I found Red Hat Enterprise Linux/CentOS 5 really good, and it’s still supported and quite valid for aging hardware.

We can still recommend Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (“Lucid Lynx”) for folks who aren’t as interested in asserting their individual character. It is so easy to use. Lucid supportwill continue for a few more years, and it is very reliable, working with a very wide variety of hardware. It’s particularly good on laptops; I use it on mine (Dell Inspiron 1525). The Ubuntu developers go the extra mile providing specialty drivers which the Open Source purists don’t like because of licensing restrictions. With the huge collection of software packages built for it, it’s hard to imagine anything you can’t do with it, among the things possible on Linux. But I do not recommend using Ubuntu as a server unless you’ve had some time getting used to Linux, because the server edition is entirely commandline oriented. This is a hard jump to make for Linux newbies.

My ministry requires I know a good bit about running a server, while also offering the accommodations of a desktop. Many distributions of Linux can match Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) as a server, but few are better for my needs. Meanwhile, RHEL also offers the desktop usability that is just enough within reach, and will be supported with fixes and security updates far longer than just about any other distribution. I don’t like frequent changes that come with rolling release or punctuated release schedules where longevity and stability just don’t matter. Most computer users are like that, but in the Linux world, most developers don’t care or simply don’t have a clue. Red Hat gets it, offering a minimum of seven years support.

This particular release of RHEL is one of those “wow” Linux products for me. It’s visually very quick and responsive, and I’m hardly the only one to notice. What Red Hat developers don’t provide by default is easily available by third party projects or you can build it yourself. Indeed, it is hard for me to imagine you won’t need something extra. It’s possible the default is everything you need, but that would make you a tiny minority of the computer users in the world. The default assumption of this series is you’ll need to learn how to build software the generic Linux way, along with the unique Red Hat way.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 is currently available but not exactly free. In a month or so we can expect the free version, CentOS 6 to be released. The difference is purely cosmetic, because CentOS simply removes the Red Hat branding. You can also try Scientific Linux, but it’s not as widely known and its focus is different, with a different way of handling the project. In terms of user experience, the difference is negligible. For the most part, what I say about RHEL here applies to the other two.

If you care to join me in this exploration, please fasten your seatbelts. You’ll be learning fast and furious at first, and it can be rough. You could read the Installation Guide and Deployment Guide (user guide) yourself, but that would leave out too many important parts essential for Linux newbies, and at the same time covers a wide array of confusing options which simply aren’t likely to apply to you. I’ll do my best to bridge the gap and get you where you need to go. You’ll be in a position to call yourself a “Linux geek” and take charge of your computer without so much handholding.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.