A wakeup call for commercial Linux

PC World is reporting on a survey showing that community-supported Linux is growing in business at the expense of RedHat and SuSE.

This doesn’t surprise me at all. I run systems using both free and commercial Linux distributions, and the free ones are consistently less of a pain to maintain.

One of the biggest factors is that RedHat and SuSE’s business model involves selling you a new set of CDs for each new release. The assumption is that you will down your servers and do a clean reinstall from CD. Actually upgrading via the package management system is an afterthought, if it’s supported at all. Even OpenSuSE doesn’t support upgrades properly — the 10.3 upgrade hosed /boot/grub/menu.lst on every system I performed it on, which is the kind of bug that should be caught by even a small amount of testing.

I see this commercial Linux requirement for CD-based reinstalls as frankly stupid. If you’re willing to do a full reinstall every year, why not stick with Windows? In fact, it was the annoyance of having to keep reinstalling and reconfigure that drove me away from IBM’s internal Linux desktop image, which is based on one of the commercial distributions.

Furthermore, there’s an issue of practicality. Even if I were willing to reinstall and reconfigure everything for the upgrade, the fact is that I’m in Austin, and the servers are in Dallas. I don’t want to have to travel for hours and spend time in a cold, dry machine room.

Reinstalls aside, there’s also a quality issue. My experience with RedHat has been consistently negative, with problems ranging from broken Unicode terminal support to broken executables hidden in library packages. Plus, of course, the running sore that is RPM, and the incredible slowness of the Band-Aid that is Yum.

A lot of the time, people run commercial Linux because they have to, because the commercial software they want to use is only supported on commercial Linux. IBM Lotus Domino Server is a classic example — it’s only supported on RedHat Enterprise Linux or SuSE Linux Enterprise Server. The same is true of Oracle. Oh, sure, you can get them to run on community-supported Linux distributions, but if you hit technical problems, there’s no support.

So right now, the commecial Linux business model is to get people to put up with a sub-standard product, in return for having it be someone else’s fault when something breaks. I don’t think that’s a viable long-term strategy. I see signs that the application vendors are getting tired of the commercial Linux value-subtract; they want customers to have a good experience in migrating to Linux, and OS maintenance issues detract strongly from that experience. Hence Oracle’s decision to maintain their own Linux, and IBM’s decision to support Ubuntu as a desktop Linux platform.

It’s time for RedHat and SuSE to put some serious effort into quality control, and ensure that their Linux offerings exceed the reliability and maintainability of the free Linux distributions. The “Oh, you need to reinstall from CD” excuse is wearing thin.

[As always, opinions are mine, not IBM’s.]