Linux in Government: How to Misunderstand the Enterprise Linux Desktop
Linux disrupts enterprises because it's different from what enterprises are used to using. Windows also disrupts enterprises for three reasons. First, Microsoft will break Windows XP with its Service Pack 2. Second, previous versions of Windows will not receive the fixes available for XP, so they are not supported and become deprecated. Third, the next version of Windows--due in two years--makes radical changes in filesystems and application program interfaces (APIs). Microsoft also will be phasing out the Win32 standard in its next OS release.
This week, in DallasNews.com (The Dallas Morning News), Allison Linn gives us an overview of the deteriorating security picture facing Windows XP users in "Windows Security Upgrade Set for Launch". According to Linn's article, next month Microsoft will release Service Pack 2 for Windows XP. It's a response to a long sequence of attacks and vulnerabilities that have plagued Microsoft software. SP2 (for Windows XP only) is designed to mitigate the ill effects of the viruses, spam and malware that have been wreaking havoc for Windows desktop users and system administrators. Finally electing security over convenience, SP2 is likely to break a lot of applications that run on XP. John Pescatore, vice president of Internet security at Gartner Research, said, "The applications that will break with SP2 were essentially doing things wrong from a security perspective." Although companies are rushing to improve the compatibility of their applications or to negotiate changes at the last minute with Microsoft, they are complaining that SP2 creates headaches. A spokesperson from RealNetworks, Erika Shaffer, said, "The changes Microsoft is proposing for SP2 will have serious negative consequences on the consumer experience of many applications and Web sites."
Add to Microsoft's security woes an under-reported challenge enterprises will face in making the transition to Microsoft's next version of Windows. The next version of Windows produces an equally disruptive effect on Microsoft's installed base. Microsoft's technologies place as much if not more demands on an enterprise IT departments as a full-house transition to Linux, which wouldn't be required given the cross-platform nature of open-source software. For the first time, this theme sees the full light of day in Tang Weng Fai's article, "Does Linux really kill jobs?", published in The Business Times on-line edition (Singapore).
So, a fork exists in the road. Enterprises ultimately will confront these issues and must start considering their options. In making this choice, consider something a bit esoteric in IT circles--the difference between enterprise software and popular software. Also, consider that you can own enterprise software today for less than you paid for popular software yesterday.
One of the aspects of achieving Common Criteria Certification for Linux involves versioning. Both Novell SuSE and Red Hat won the EALS based on platforms that are two generations old. That means Linux was good enough two versions ago to be considered safe. The Novell SuSE version used to achieve EAL 3 is 8.0 or SLES and contains an older kernel (Linux 2.4 kernel and glibc 2.25). So, what's the difference between an enterprise version and a popular Version? Without knowing the answer to this question, one could be left with a false impression of Linux.
Some good examples of popular Linux are Novell SuSE Linux 9.1 or Fedora Core 2, the latter previously being Red Hat's plain vanilla version used by most free software enthusiasts. These are the latest versions of the major GNU/Linux distributions; the latest from Debian, Gentoo and others similarly qualify as popular Linux. Popular Linux is production-ready but is maintained by programmers in the community, analogous to maintenance programmers in an enterprise--updating and fixing code that is in production but not quite battle hardened.
In the context of amount of ongoing development activity, popular Linux resembles popular Windows. Windows Service Packs are the equivalent of cumulative maintenance programming fixes. Any given version of Windows is in maintenance mode, not in enterprise production-ready mode, after being released to the public. Once Windows reaches the space of a Linux or UNIX enterprise mode, Microsoft phases its version out.
We can make a primary distinction about enterprise Linux as opposed to popular Linux: the innovation harbored in enterprise Linux is cumulative and is not discontinued. These may seem like minor points, but they mean the world in the context of a discussion on the quality of national and corporate IT infrastructure, of spending tax dollars, of deploying military and private resources and of saving lives.
Enterprise Linux goes through a rigorous development and qualification process, which to many enterprise IT departments means that Linux is never production-ready. But that's not true. GNU/Linux is not only one thing, although many people hold such an image.
Red Hat came to this conclusion and chose to eliminate its long-time retail product and turn it into a free project, called Fedora. The free project hosts the experimental work. Then, when stable, new innovations stream into Red Hat's enterprise products in a steady fashion. For example, Red Hat will implement Security Enhanced Linux (SE Linux), which was developed within the National Security Agency (NSA), our national eavesdropping bureau. This will be implemented in the open-source project, Fedora, where it can be broken in by the Open Source community. It will not reach Red Hat's enterprise products until it's soup or, more likely, until it's been certified under rigorous international security standards, such as the Common Criteria.
This approach to popular and enterprise Linux allows Red Hat continuously to improve and develop its distribution of GNU/Linux and to implement important changes in its enterprise product at a responsible pace. In this way, Red Hat generates innovation from the Open Source community, without tuning its production enterprise products on the backs of enterprise users.
The rigors of keeping up with popular distributions hasn't been lost on Novell SuSE either. Novell continues to offer a retail product while marketing an enterprise offering through its primary business and government partners. Within its business partner channel lies IBM, which probably provides Novell SuSE with its largest marketing outlet. IBM has marketed Novell SuSE Enterprise products since Fall 2000. Currently, Novell SuSE Enterprise Linux runs on the entire line of IBM eServers, from the xSeries (Intel) to the zSeries (S/390 mainframes), including the pSeries and iSeries (RS-6000 and AS/400).
It's pretty clear that a difference exists between popular Linux and enterprise Linux. And it's important that people absorb these distinctions. You can buy enterprise quality Linux with popular applications and interoperability extensions from Sun Microsystems, for example, for 20% of the cost of a Microsoft desktop package. You'll need to look for other pricing ratios within Novell's SuSE and Red Hat's Enterprise Desktop models.