The most attention-grabbing word associated with Linux and open-source software is "free."
IT projects are costly, and the promise of removing license fees from the list of costs—such as those for training, integration and maintenance—has been a major factor in the Penguins rise to prominence.
However, the Linux distributions best-tailored for enterprise use are sold under per-machine, annual-subscription-price models that are far from free.
Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc., producers of the two most popular enterprise Linux distributions, require per-machine licensing for their products, which they enforce through controlled availability of security and bug-fix updates.
Freely redistributable, license-cost-free alternatives to per-machine licensed distributions do exist, including free clones of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and a variety of so-called general-purpose Linux distributions.
While enterprise Linux distributions offer real benefits, they wont always be the best fit. Its likely that an organization with a significant Linux presence will end up with a mixture of per-machine licensed and free projects.
Companies should weigh the costs and benefits of completely free and commercial Linux alternatives and move forward with the best combination for their organization.
What are you paying for?
In exchange for the $350-to-$2,500 per-system-per-year cost for an enterprise Linux distribution from Red Hat, Novell or Mandrakesoft Inc., companies get a number of benefits, the most notable of which are phone- and Internet-based support services from the vendor.
Hardware and software certifications are another major benefit that enterprise Linux distributions can offer.
Enterprise hardware and software vendors that officially support Linux with their products certify their wares on a limited number of Linux versions—typically, RHEL and Novells SuSE Linux Enterprise Server—thereby reducing the compatibility scenarios for which they must test.
Another key benefit of enterprise Linux distributions is the promise of a long product life. Red Hat, SuSE and Mandrakesoft each state theyll provide security fixes for five years for their enterprise Linux distributions.
The longer supported lives and slower development cycles of enterprise distributions give independent enterprise hardware and software vendors a slower-moving target against which to certify their wares.
Finally, freely redistributable Linux distributions, by their nature, cant ship with important nonfree components.
This is why the base installations of Fedora or Debian wont play MP3s and dont contain popular applications such as Sun Microsystems Inc.s JVM (Java Virtual Machine), Adobe Systems Inc.s Acrobat Reader or Citrix Systems Inc.s ICA client—all of which ship with Red Hats, Novells and Mandrakesofts desktop-oriented enterprise Linux versions.
Because enterprise Linux vendors sell their products with per-machine licenses, they can negotiate licensing deals with intellectual property holders that dont allow free redistribution of their products.
For instance, Turbolinux Inc., a member of the ill-fated UnitedLinux group (which once also included The SCO Group Inc., SuSE and Connectiva S.A.), sells a version of its Linux distribution that includes Windows Media 9 codecs licensed from Microsoft Corp.
Theres no question that per-machine licensed enterprise Linux distributions offer significant benefits, but organizations that dont require particular software or hardware certifications or those that have little need for vendor-supplied support, should investigate lower-cost options.
In addition, the enforcement of per-machine licensing can be a pain to deal with. For instance, eWEEK Labs finds it much simpler to test or set up quick projects with RHELs all-free cousin Fedora than it is to use RHEL because we dont have to worry about assigning entitlements to our machines to fetch updates.