Linux in Government: Linux Desktop Reviews, Part 3 - Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Unless you qualify as an enterprise class customer, you might find it difficult to obtain a copy of the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) desktop. Red Hat requires a minimum purchase of 10 units, and the 10 unit starter pack costs $2,500. Individuals might find this to be a steep price, especially when you can download most Linux distributions for free, including Red Hat's own Fedora Core product.
However, enterprises find the Red Hat service model to be especially helpful when they want to manage large numbers of desktop computers. Even small- to medium-sized businesses find the Red Hat cost structure to be comparatively inexpensive. In addition, the bundled services surpass any other offering for enterprise class desktops, regardless of the platform.
In this article, we discuss how the RHEL desktop meets and exceeds a maturity model for open source. We also discuss the design and usability of the desktop product itself.
When you log in to the RHEL desktop, you immediately notice a difference in look and feel from other Linux desktops. Some might characterize the difference as that between a stripped-down Chevy and a Jaguar. Figure 1 provides a look at the default login screen.
In 2002, Red Hat chose to change its business model to one focused on the enterprise model. In an article titled "Defining the Linux Enterprise", I wrote, "The enterprise market consists of software applications used by corporations, government agencies, schools, not-for-profits, or other organizations, regardless of size. The software differs from that used by consumers. You will not likely find an integrated judicial case management system on the shelves of your local computer store next to the games, for example."
I also wrote:
You may recall the uproar that occurred when Red Hat discontinued its retail product in favor of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Many of us, as consumers, felt cheated. We wanted everything Microsoft offered on [its] desktops and we wanted an alternative.
Red Hat probably made a reasonable decision, even though it displeased many Linux advocates. Consider that the enterprise market represents approximately $200 billion per year in potential revenue compared to half of that for the consumer market. Additionally, enterprises provide a plethora of revenue opportunities, ranging from service offerings and consulting to intricate application and infrastructure products with higher profit margins. Red Hat needed to position itself where it had smaller competitors and more ways to make money.
Give Red Hat credit for tackling a tough market and winning. The company has constructed an organization that creates high customer satisfaction, furthers Linux acceptance and encourages many hardware OEMs to provide support for open-source platforms. That OEM hardware support probably would not have occurred from the Linux community alone.
We are asking some difficult questions about enterprise support in this series. In fairness, we asked each company the same ones (see Resources). Let's look at how Red Hat answers those questions.
What kind of support organization does Red Hat offer related to users? If you run into a problem, can you contact someone for help? How, over the phone or by e-mail?
Red Hat has a global services organization comprised of support, professional and learning services. It bundles support and maintenance with the purchase price of the technology. Phone and e-mail support are available around the globe, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
How big is Red Hat's support organization? Does the company out-source its support?
Red Hat has more than 100 people on hand globally in its support organization. Red Hat does not outsource support.
Does Red Hat have a professional services organization? If someone wants to buy a large number of desktops, how would Red Hat handle a big order?
Red Hat offers professional services globally. For large or complex deployments, Red Hat offers assessment and deployment services to match varying architectures. For a large desktop implementation, Red Hat assigns a technical account manager to manage the deployment and to handle post-deployment support.
Red Hat historically has offered documentation for the user. How about technical documentation, is there anything for the administrator?
Red Hat offers documentation to the administrator or person responsible for managing the systems. Also, Red Hat offers an on-line knowledge base that provides additional documentation, troubleshooting tips and support.
What kind of solution/provider ecosystem exists? Does Red Hat have resellers? How robust is that reseller organization?
Red Hat has a robust ecosystem. Top resellers include IBM, HP, Fujitsu and Dell. These companies offer tier-1 support for minor issues. More complex issues are transferred back to Red Hat.
What is Red Hat's server strategy? Does the company provide back-office functionality and identity management?
Red Hat Enterprise Linux began in the back-office datacenter. The company has experienced notable success powering some of the most computer intensive workloads in the financial and government sectors. As of October of 2004, Red Hat added identity management to its solution portfolio.
What tools exist for rolling out and managing the desktops? Does the company offer on-site training?
Red Hat sells its desktop as a bundle, with provisioning to aid in the deployment of consistent corporate desktops. Red Hat offers on-site training as well as learning services in 150 global locations.
How can administrators and help-desk people learn to provide desk-side support in their own companies? Does curriculum exist?
The Red Hat offers Certified Engineer and Certified Architect curricula designed for administering, maintaining and securing systems. Users have reported high levels of satisfaction.
Prior to using Red Hat's Enterprise Linux desktop, I gave Sun's Java Desktop System my highest rating for look and feel, ease of use and administration. As of this writing, Red Hat has pulled ahead as the "best of class" desktop. One example of why RHEL took the lead can be seen in Figure 2; here, you can see that Red Hat greatly simplified its launch menu and improved its desktop rendering. Even compared with Fedora's design and the last RH public version, RH 9, the menu system has become easier to use and the graphical presentation has improved.
Additionally, the default desktop install reduces the number of unnecessary applications and options often found in less professionally designed distributions. When a customer buys a RHEL desktop, Red Hat's deployment team configures it to the specifications the buyer wants. Thus, the functionality can become even tighter.
Red Hat has integrated the Red Hat Network (RHN) into its RHEL desktop products. For those who used RHN in the past, you may find the new functionality surprising. For example, you now can utilize RHN's Web services to provide a number of tightly controlled management functions. Figure 3 allows you to see a portion of the management section of the RHN Web site. Although this view provides only a small section of the tools available, you can see that administrators remotely can manage individual desktops or groups of desktops.
Depending on the service offering an enterprise customer selects, one can utilize the RHN from Red Hat's facilities or bring the support infrastructure in house. Red Hat also offers hosting services for desktops.
As show in Figure 4, I used RHN to install a graphical secure copy tool to the desktop. Red Hat provided an application called gftp in the packages available for the desktop. This version of gftp provides for visual secure shell access (SSH). I found it useful for moving files between two computers.
Interestingly, I logged in from a separate computer to manage my RHEL desktop. I could install software, change system preferences, schedule updates and perform a variety of other tasks. The management functions allow one to administer a large number of desktops from a single desktop, without having to visit each workstation physically.
Obviously, the services Red Hat provides for deployment and administration of enterprise desktops do not come free. Consider the infrastructure required, number of trained professionals involved and continuous monitoring and testing of applications needed. For large desktop infrastructures, Red Hat removes a significant amount of overhead from the enterprise and provides an extra layer of security, reliability and continuity.
Enterprises have started embracing the notion that they have overbought IT functionality in the past. Most organizations utilize 10% of the available features they purchase. This realization has allowed enterprises to shuffle resources and reduce overhead dramatically.
Red Hat has provided enterprises with the ability to maintain the 10% of usable functionality while reducing unused and redundant functionality. The Red Had desktop provides several ways to interoperate with Microsoft desktops, servers and applications.
Let's first discuss how Red Hat's desktop can work with Active Directories. Gerry Riveros, Product Marketing Manager - Client Solutions, explained the process to me as follows:
Red Hat has made it easy to plug a Red Hat Desktop into an Active Directory environment. It's a one-time setup that a system administrator would perform. After that, the user would be able to log in to his system and automatically authenticate with Active Directory.
The system administrator uses a Red Hat tool called Authconfig. Authconfig is used to configure winbindd. Next, the administrator creates user home directories and restarts the GNOME display manager. Now, Active Directory authentication works. To add Kerberos authentication for single sign-on to network services, the administrator uses Authconfig again and modifies a config file setting.
Red Hat provided us with a detailed process for setting up Active Directory configuration. Unfortunately, we do not have the space in this week's column to provide that information. Suffice it to say, enterprises wanting desktop interoperability with Microsoft can have it.
In addition to authentication in Microsoft networks, the RHEL desktop easily can browse and share folders with SMB/CIFS clients, such as Windows NT/2000/XP. Figure 5 illustrates a small workgroup as seen from the desktop's network browser window.
As a footnote, Linux desktops represent two of the desktops in this workgroup.
The RHEL desktop also provides support for the Windows Terminal Server and Citrix. In addition, you can run Win32 applications from an individual PC. For example, we installed several Windows applications during our pilot. Figure 6 shows us installing a Win32 application using CrossOver Office.
In Figure 7, we installed a popular Windows application using CrossOver Office.
CIOs may want to begin rethinking their options when it comes to deploying desktops now and in the future. Although some say that Linux isn't ready for the desktop, you might discover that it's ready for your organization. You can maintain your current infrastructure and provide seamless integration. In the meantime, you can provide your users with outstanding applications, including productivity suites, groupware, Web browsers, graphics and multimedia. If you still need Windows in some areas, then use it where it's needed. Meanwhile, you can cut costs and provide a safer environment for your enterprise.
Tom Adelstein works as a Distinguished Analyst and open-source software consultant with Hiser+Adelstein, headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration, to be published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has been consulting and writing articles and books about Linux since early 1999.