When Red Hat Inc. discontinued its popular Red Hat Linux product, the company forced many users and organizations running that distribution to re-examine their understanding of free software.
Users could download Red Hat Linux without charge or buy a boxed retail version, and Red Hat offered paid support. Red Hat Linux branched into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a per-machine licensed product tailored to business needs, and into Fedora Core, a freely available, community-supported distribution with an aggressive development pace set by Red Hat.
The split left many organizations that relied on Red Hat Linux—and that werent able or willing to spend a few hundred dollars per machine to move to RHEL—wondering where to turn.
Red Hats own description of the user for whom Fedora is appropriate is a "developer or highly technical enthusiast using Linux in noncritical computing environments."
This is an over-bleak assessment of what Fedora has to offer. Fedora offers fewer assurances than does RHEL, but its faster pace and support from software repository projects make Fedora an excellent option for a general-purpose desktop.
Given proper administration, Fedora systems can serve well in a variety of demanding roles.
The Wikimedia Foundation, whose projects include the popular Wikipedia Encyclopedia, runs Fedora Core versions 2 and 3 across most of its machines, which include database, Web, caching and load balancing servers. (For the complete rundown of Wikimedia machines running Fedora Core, go to http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_servers. Open-source project site SourceForge.net also runs Fedora on its Web site and some of its compile farm servers.
Fedoras strengths and weaknesses flow from the distributions status as a sort of testing ground for RHEL; this tends to make Fedora an early adopter of new and updated software components.
For example, Fedora was among the first distributions to ship with the 2.6 version of the Linux kernel and Security Enhanced Linux—both of which will debut in the upcoming Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4.
Compelling new applications, such as those for virtualization and for stateless clients, are working their way into Fedora now and may appear in RHEL 5.
Although Fedora development moves faster than Red Hats Linux development, weve encountered good stability and performance from Fedora in our tests. Red Hat doesnt officially support Fedora, leaving that job to "the community."
Between the Red Hat-hosted mailing lists and the various Fedora-dedicated forum sites—and, of course, Google—weve so far been successful in finding answers for any problems weve encountered.
Another big difference between Fedora and RHEL is the length of time for which Red Hat said it will maintain security updates—five years for RHEL, about one year for each Fedora release.
The Fedora Legacy Project has set out to lengthen the lives of Fedora releases. It is maintaining Version 1 now, and Red Hat plans to hand off update duties for Fedora Core 2 at the end of next month.
Until the Fedora Legacy Project or others prove themselves, there will be pressure to upgrade Fedora fairly regularly, about once a year.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.