CentOS, the popular community-supported clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, reached Version 5.3 in March, some three months after its parent distribution, RHEL 5.3, began shipping.
CentOS is based on Red Hat's freely available Enterprise Linux source packages. The CentOS project strips trademarked logos and other branding from the packages before building them into a free, Linux-based operating system that boasts binary compatibility with its parent.
CentOS 5.3 shares in RHEL's recent improvements in the areas of virtualization, application development, security and storage. Unlike RHEL, CentOS may be had without any subscription fees, which makes CentOS a popular operating system option for many hosting providers and cloud computing vendors.
Applications designed and tested to work with RHEL should work just the same on CentOS, and security and bug-fix patches from Red Hat flow downstream to CentOS as well. However, the distribution lacks direct support from Red Hat, and CentOS systems can't be managed through the Red Hat Network service.
That said, with its roots in RHEL, CentOS is very stable distribution with a relatively long support term and a generous catalog of compatible hardware and software. In addition, the free, community-oriented status of CentOS results in plenty of regional mirrors from which to download updates (about 80 in the United States) as well as an active community that provides many software packages beyond those that Red Hat ships as part of its official distribution.
Server and desktop roles
CentOS is a great fit for server deployments, and can serve well as either a host or guest for virtualization. As a virtualization host, CentOS defaults to the Xen hypervisor, with Red Hat's Virt-manager utility for graphical management. CentOS isn't as full-featured a virtualization host as VMware's ESX Server, but I found the process of configuring a Xen host and spinning up guest instances smoother on CentOS than on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 in my recent tests of that distribution.
CentOS 5.3 can also work well in a desktop role, although the software packages that ship with CentOS trail those that ship with the faster-moving Fedora and Ubuntu Linux by a couple of years on average. For example, where the soon-to-ship versions of Fedora and Ubuntu will include Version 2.26 of the GNOME desktop environment, CentOS offers GNOME Version 2.16.