Red Hat Betas Enterprise Linux 4
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Commercial Linux distributor Red Hat announced last week that its has put out Enterprise Linux 4, its next update of Linux using the 2.6 kernel, out for its first beta test run. Beta 1 is a public beta, which means that Red Hat is encouraging Linux shops of all stripes and persuasions to give it a spin--but please, not in a production environment. The beta includes not only the server variants of the Enterprise Linux 4 software, but also a desktop variant.
Red Hat briefly got out of the commercial desktop operating system business last year when it looked like Linux might never take off on PCs and laptops, and this was just in time for corporations the world over to get sick of the cost and hassles of supporting Microsoft's desktop operating system and office applications. Red Hat quickly jumped back in the desktop game with the Fedora Core alpha testing program, and then in May 2004 announced, with Update 2 of Linux Enterprise 3, a little thing called Red Hat Desktop, which comes with remote management features that companies find compelling. With the general availability of Enterprise Linux 4 in the first quarter of 2005, a desktop operating system will be available in lockstep with and based on the same technologies as the current server Linuxes available from Red Hat.
According to Donald Fischer, a product marketing manager at Red Hat, Enterprise Linux 4 will have improved scalability and performance enhancements that come through the adoption of the Linux 2.6 kernel. Red Hat backported to the Linux 2.4 kernel some of the features in the Linux 2.5 development release, which eventually made it into the Linux 2.6 kernel, to create its Enterprise Linux 3 product line, which was launched with workstation (WS), entry server (ES), and advanced server (AS) editions with support prices and features that scaled as the Linux operating system covered more iron. Red Hat is not pre-announcing what the feeds and speeds will be on Enterprise Linux variants, but the expectation is that Linux 2.6 can technically scale to 32-way processing and beyond with the AS variant, although Red Hat may go conservative (as it has in the past) and say that it only scales to 16-way processing.
The updated Red Hat Linux, once it is generally available, will come with the Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) variant as a supported option. SELinux, as the name suggests, is a hardened variant of Linux that has kernel tweaks and other mandatory access controls built into kernel and network services features that makes Linux suitable for security-sensitive applications. Basically, these access controls give every application and service the minimum amount of access to the Linux kernel and other Linux services that is necessary for them to perform this function. Fischer says that there is a slight penalty for running in the SELinux mode, but arguably many customers will happily pay that penalty. This SELinux option may be integrated with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, but Fischer says that the company will only allow customers to activate it if they buy a set of implementation services from Red Hat. This is not like installing a piece of software or flipping a switch inside Linux. He says further that Red Hat will seek the Common Criteria EAL4 certification in the second quarter of 2005 with Enterprise Linux 4; this is the highest security rating available on this ranking system, and it means that Linux can be used in defense and government contracts where rock-solid security is a must. In August, IBM and Red Hat achieved the EAL3+ certification on Enterprise Linux 3, and in January of this year IBM and Novell achieved the EAL3+ rating on SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8.
The updated Red Hat Linux will also have a new block I/O layer (which could not be backported to Linux 2.4) and a block reservation feature that will boost performance of the EXT3 file system commonly used with Linux. Red Hat is also moving ahead with the open source Logical Volume Manager 2 (LVM2) software, which has better support for storage virtualization than the existing LVM1. Mirroring and multipathing of storage will be supported, and snapshots of data done with LVM2 are now read/write (rather than just being read-only under LVM1). The software will also have support for online file resizing without having to dismount and remount a volume, and support for NFS V4 will be added.
The whole shebang, including the Linux 2.6.8 kernel, was compiled using the new gcc 3.4.1 compilers. Enterprise Linux 4 has the Gnome 2.8 GUI, the OpenOffice 1.1.2 office suite, the Evolution 1.5.94 email client, and various open source browsers (Mozilla 1.7.2, Firefox 0.9.3, and Epiphany 1.3.8). The operating system is available in beta form for 32-bit X86 machines (Intel and AMD) as well as for 64-bit Xeon-64 and Opteron machines, 64-bit Itaniums, 64-bit Power, and 31-bit and 64-bit S/390 and zSeries mainframe processors. The Power and mainframe servers can only run Enterprise Linux AS, while the Desktop variant is only available on X86, Xeon-64, and Opteron machines. Linux Enterprise WS and ES are available on any X86 (32-bit or 64-bit) or Itanium machine. Interestingly, Red Hat is supporting the X86 runtime environment, called the IA-32 Execution Layer, on Itanium machines. This environment runs 32-bit X86 code at about half speed on Itanium machines. And just a reminder: Red Hat also has a runtime environment in Enterprise Linux 4 that allows code written specifically to features in Linux 2 and Linux 3 to run unchanged.
Red Hat is being vague about when Enterprise Linux 4 will ship, but the LinuxWorld show in Boston in mid-February is probably when it will hit the streets. Fischer says Red Hat is planning two beta releases--another public beta comes about a month from now. After that, Red Hat will create release candidates, but these will only be tested internally and with key customers to put the finishing touches on the software. Pricing for the software and support has not been announced, but given that Red Hat just announced price increases with Linux Enterprise 3, the odds favor them staying the same until the economy improves.