Linux in Government: How to Misunderstand the Enterprise Linux Desktop

by Tom Adelstein

If you are considering deploying open-source software in your organization, this article aims to help you draw appropriate distinctions for your business case. We address economic issues, issues of security and administration and the availability of applications. We also discuss myths and perceptions of the dominant operating systems in the market today.

Executive Summary

GNU/Linux and open-source software have matured and attained significant popularity within the enterprise space. GNU/Linux already has made a showing of dominance based on empirical indicators. For example, the Netcraft Web Server Surveys shows the Apache server as having an installed share of 67% to 71%. Apache has become the default Web server for Linux. The Linux desktop also receives consideration for enterprise deployment. Anchored by cross-platform productivity suites, such as OpenOffice.org, StarOffice and the Mozilla FireFox browser, Linux has gained acceptance in numerous heterogeneous environments.

One measure of enterprise acceptance achieved by Linux is its place among the elite operating systems produced by IBM, HP, Sun, SGI, Microsoft and Sony. In addition, two Linux enterprise distributions recently achieved the coveted status of Common Criteria Certification. This certification offers governments a high level of confidence in using Linux (see Table 1).

Common Criteria Certification

What is Common Criteria? Certification in this area provides standards for security for mission-critical software. Common Criteria Certification provides a seal of approval recognized by government agencies and enterprise IT professionals. Countries that recognize the Common Criteria include the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and Japan.

In January 2004, Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8 earned the EAL 3 certification. Atsec Information Security GmbH, along with IBM, assisted Novell SuSE with the certification process. In May 2004, Oracle helped Red Hat achieve its Common Criteria certification. Version 3 of Red Hat Enterprise Linux was certified to meet EAL 2 of the Common Criteria Certification.

Having attained this certification, Red Hat and Oracle and Novell SuSE can be deployed in government operations and in the Department of Defense. It also means they can deploy into security-sensitive organizations, such as federally insured banks and other government and government-regulated agencies. State and local government units with Federal Assistance programs also can deploy Red Hat and Novell SuSE Enterprise distributions.

Table 1, below, lists all operating systems that have been evaluated, as taken from the complete and official list of all evaluated software products. As you can see, Linux shares space with some prestigious software.

Table 1. Operating Systems that Meet the Common Criteria Standards for IT Security

The Federal SmartBuy Initiative

On July 1, 2004, the Executive Office of the President of the United States issued a memorandum for Senior Procurement Executives and Chief Information Officers. The memorandum emphasizes the President's previous memorandum titled "Maximizing Use of SmartBuy and Avoiding Duplication of Agency Activities." In this latest memorandum, OMB 04-16, the President issued the following ground-breaking statements:

This reminder applies to acquisitions of all software, whether it is proprietary or Open Source Software. Open Source Software's source code is widely available so it may be used, copied, modified, and redistributed. It is licensed with certain common restrictions, which generally differ from proprietary software. Frequently, the licenses require users who distribute Open Source Software, whether in its original form or as modified, to make the source code widely available. Subsequent licenses usually include the terms of the original license, thereby requiring wide availability. These differences in licensing may affect the use, the security, and the total cost of ownership of the software and must be considered when an agency is planning a software acquisition.

This is merely one example of the changes under way in procurement policies and habits across federal, state and local government agencies nationwide. Despite great odds and powerful opposition to changes in the status quo, open-source software has established a place at the conference table, where it will stay and survive on its merits.

What Does this Mean for Your Enterprise?

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."

Next-Gen Windows Is a Radical Change

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).

Two Disruptive Forks in the Road

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.

Conclusion

If XP is broken soon, and all earlier versions of Windows (see Figure 1) do not receive the same quality of support as XP, one has to wonder what enterprise-grade software means to Microsoft. You have to wonder if its next-generation Windows solves the dilemma.

Figure 1. Windows Version Splits

Source: OpenOffice.org User Survey 2002-2003 (total responses: 208,373)

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, and Sam Hiser lives in New York City. Both work as local and national Linux and open-source software consultants. They're the co-authors of the upcoming book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Both have written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as guest editors for a variety of publications. One of their latest projects is JDSHelp.org.

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