Novell Takes On Red Hat with SuSE Enterprise
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
SuSE would have undoubtedly got its implementation of the Linux 2.6 kernel out the door without the assistance of Novell, which acquired SuSE late last year. But the combination of SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9, which was announced last week at the LinuxWorld trade show in San Francisco, and the worldwide Novell training and support machine gives SuSE an even chance of competing with rival Red Hat in the corporate Linux arena.
Novell wants to make a lot of hay out of the fact that its SLES 9 software is the first major commercial release to make full use of the Linux 2.6 kernel, which was announced earlier this year with lots of interesting new features. But Red Hat backported many of the technologies from the Linux 2.5 development release back to Linux 2.4 when it created its Enterprise Linux 3 server operating system. The test now will be if SuSE, by waiting, has been able to get a better Linux 2.6 out the door than the hybrid Linux 2.4/2.5 that Red Hat is peddling. And even if SLES 9 is better across different metrics--scalability, reliability, raw performance, and so forth--Red Hat is readying its Enterprise Linux 4 for release in the first quarter of 2005 and currently has momentum on its side, with about 300,000 licenses sold and 70 percent of the market for Linux server operating systems.
Novell wants to get a bigger piece of the Linux pie with SLES 9, and it will use strong partnerships with IBM and Hewlett-Packard and aggressive pricing compared with Red Hat to try to take market share. SLES 9 appears to perform better and scale further than SuSE 8 did. (SuSE 8 was based on the UnitedLinux tweak of the Linux 2.4 kernel.) SLES 9 runs on Xeon, Opteron, Itanium, Transmeta, and VIA X86 processors as well as on Power processors from IBM, and is available on all of these platforms at the same time and for consistent pricing.
Jack Messman, chairman and CEO of Novell, said last week at the LinuxWorld launch of SLES 9 that being backed by the 6,000 employees of Novell and its worldwide support and training organization is a key differentiator. Red Hat has under 700 employees by comparison, and about a quarter less cash in the bank, too. Moreover, Messman said that Novell has hundreds of programmers dedicated to various open source projects, including work on the Linux kernel, the Mono .NET development environment, the Reiser file system, the Gnome and KDE graphical user interfaces, the Mozilla browser, and lots of other projects. The implicit meaning was that Red Hat does not have the same open source credentials as Novell now does through its acquisitions of Ximian and SuSE. Whether Linux shoppers care about how much open source work Novell does remains to be seen. They will care about price and performance, and price hikes by Red Hat for maintenance and support last year have given Novell an opening to compete.
SLES 9 includes support for the Native POSIX Thread Library, which is a key feature of Linux 2.6 that significantly boosts the performance of multithreaded applications (such as databases). The Linux 2.6 kernel can scale to 32 processors and has even been pushed to 64 processors; this is a lot further than the 8-way SMP configurations that typified Linux 2.4. Linux 2.6 includes improved support for SMP processor clustering and also much-improved support for NUMA clustering, which is a less tight form of gluing processors together into a single system image. Linux 2.6 also includes a new job scheduler and a new technology called Class-based Kernel Resource Management, which Novell says it developed in conjunction with IBM; the two together make Linux run more smoothly and allow for resources to be dynamically allocated and reallocated for jobs as they are running. Linux 2.6 also includes anticipatory file I/O, which means the I/O subsystem waits for just a millisecond or so for the next I/O request in case the next bit of data that is required by an application is adjacent to the one just sent over the I/O subsystem. By pausing briefly, the overall throughput of the system goes up because many applications are doing sequential reads. Linux 2.6 also includes the IBM's JFS and SGI's XFS file systems as well as native write support for the Windows NTFS file system (Linux 2.4 could read NTFS but not write to it). SLES 9 also includes hot plug peripheral support, something that has been sorely missing from Linux. Finally, Linux 2.6 also includes the ability to run the Linux kernel as a user-space application, which is often called user Linux or a Linux instance. In effect, Linux can now run multiple copies of itself inside an instance of the kernel, which is a form of virtual partitioning.
In the past, SLES 8 had a regular Enterprise Server edition and then a cut-down Standard Edition for customers who needed only to run Linux on small servers. With SLES 9, Novell has three different product categories. There is a version of the software for 32-bit and 64-bit Pentium and Xeon chips from Intel and 64-bit Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices. The initial license costs $349 for a two-way server and $899 for a machine that spans between 4 and 16 processors. On machines with more than 16 processors, customers have to buy SLES 9 in eight processor increments, which costs $579. Maintenance support costs after the first year are equivalent to the initial license prices. The next band up is for Intel Itanium and IBM Power platforms. The initial price for a two-way server is $689, with a machine with between 4 and 16 processors costing $1,299. Licenses for increments of eight processors for Itanium and Power machines cost $799. The top SLES 9 pricing band is for IBM System/390 and zSeries mainframes. It costs $5,999 per engine per year to license SLES 9 on a Multiprise or G5 mainframe; $11,999 per engine per year for a G6, zSeries 800, or zSeries 890 server; and $13,999 per engine per year for the high-end zSeries 900 and zSeries 990 mainframes. Novell is offering a 30-day free trial of SLES 9 on all platforms, including support, through its Web site.
In addition to the new Linux kernel, SLES 9 also includes the open source Mono implementation of Microsoft's C# and Common Language Runtime environment as well as Intel's new Linux compilers as part of its software development kit. Novell has also worked out a partnership with the open source JBoss application server project, and will now include a copy of JBoss with SLES 9 as well as providing Level 1, 2, and 3 support for the product as part of SLES 9 support.