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Old 06-30-2004, 10:51 AM   #1
ArloLeach
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getting started: choosing a distribution


Hi folks,

My company has developed lots of websites in Linux-based shared hosting environments, and now we're taking the next step of moving to dedicated web servers, where we will have more responsibility for maintaining the OS and the server daemons. In preparation, I'd like to set up an old PC with Linux here at the office and practice configuring and managing it. My first obstacle is selecting a distribution that will be comparable to what I'm likely to encounter at the hosting companies.

The hosting companies that we've worked with so far all seem to be using RedHat, but the options there include enterprise and non-enterprise versions. It seems that I can download the non-enterprise version for free, but would have to pay a minimum of $350 for an enterprise version, which includes support that I doubt I will use (as long as there are helpful forums like this one all over the place!). The situation with SuSE Linux, which seems to be another good option, is similar.

1) My first question is, if I'm going to use RedHat, should I spend the money on the enterprise version, or will the non-enterprise version teach me what I need to know?

2) On a related note, does anyone know what version a hosting company like, for example, Rackspace, means when they say they use RedHat? Are they actually paying hundreds of dollars per box, or using a free version, or getting some kind of special deal?

3) Finally, I've seen recommendations for distributions that are more optimized for web serving, namely Debian or Slackware, in this forum. I might like to use one of those if we ever need to build a server from scratch. But would the skills I learned from that transfer over to a hosting company's RedHat installation, or are they different enough that I would have to re-learn some skills in that case?

Thanks in advance for your help!

-Arlo

P.S. By the way, I do have experience setting up Apache/MySQL/PHP servers on Mac OS X, including editing various .conf files and using the CLI. So, I think I have a good base of knowledge for this endeavor, but am also prepared to learn a lot since there will be no "safety net" of the Mac GUI running on top of everything.
 
Old 06-30-2004, 07:46 PM   #2
J.W.
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Welcome to LQ. Here's what I suggest given your description:

1. I'd start out with the free, non-enterprise edition, as there is no point if spending $350 just to discover that a given distro won't satisfy your needs. Once you learn your way around the free version, then proceed with the paid version if it is satisfactory. BTW I believe the main difference between the two Redhat releases is mostly that the paid version comes with technical support, automatic security notififcations and updates, etc while the free one does not. (I may be wrong about that; I'm sure Redhat can articulate the differences in more detail)

2. The best way to determine what version a hosting company is running is to contact them and ask, but presumably most companies would stay up to date and would be running something reasonably current. As for what kinds of fees they are or might be paying, I don't have any clue, and whether or not they'd be willing to divulge this info would be a matter of speculation. From a functional standpoint however, I'm not sure this really matters. As a customer, if you are getting good service from them, then I would think that whatever relationships they have with their vendors are pretty much up to them.

3. There will always be some differences between distros, but Redhat has customized things a bit more than others, while Slackware remains one of the purest Linux distros. By and large most operations on one distro will be the same on another, but I think it's fair to say that due to the customizations, it may be easier to move from "non-Redhat to Redhat" than it is to move from "Redhat to non-Redhat".

In general, the "which distro is right for me" question is probably the most common one that is asked, and there is no absolute correct answer that will apply to everyone. It all depends on your needs and preferences. I'd suggest however that you give several distros a tryout (many of the most popular distros are available at www.linuxiso.org ) and also check out the Distributions forum here at LQ. There is a lot of info there regarding the plusses and minuses of one distro vs. another.

Good luck with the project whatever your decision -- J.W.
 
Old 07-01-2004, 01:35 AM   #3
chort
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Right, like JW said Red Hat has a lot of proprietary "stuff" that you'll only find in Red Hat. Learning RH doesn't necessarily translate into great Linux knowledge and knowing other Linux distros doesn't mean you'll be able to use RH the way it's designed.

The difference between RH Enterprise Linux and Fedora is actually pretty vast. Fedora is like an Alpha or pre-Beta release. They put a lot of stuff in Fedora just to test it, so it's not really a good platform for deploying in production. I know that hasn't stopped lots of vendors from using Fedora, but it's not really wise.

As for which version hosting companies use, most likely it's RH 9, but you never know. It wouldn't cost a hosting company nearly as much per license for RHEL as it does if you bought 5 or 10 licenses. When you're deploying tens of thousands of servers, you tend to get very steep discounts.

As for the suggestion that Slackware or Debian are "optimized" for webservers, that's nonsense. Every single Linux distro claims to be "optimized". Red Hat will claim that they've done the most work on optimizing, and oh by the way look at all the webhosting sites and enterprise data centers that use Red Hat. Mandrake will tell you they have a super-special version of Apache that is compiled just for your CPU and has features no one else's Apache has. The Debian evangelists will tell you that Debian is less bloated and more "pure" and that it leads to faster speeds. The Slackware people will tell you the same (by the way, Slackware tries to emulate FreeBSD in it's configuration).

When you are evaluating products, you need to first set what your criteria is. If you just go out and ask "what is best for ___" you're going to get 20 different answers and you'll end up with a lot of useless opinions and no facts. Make a list and prioritize it, then check into each distro (well, maybe pick just 5 to look at for the sake of time) and see how well each does for each category. It's not too far fetched to download 5 distros, install them, and see how difficult they are to install, get configured to your requirements, and then update them. An example list could be something like this:
  1. Default install sets require very little or no modification (i.e. can host a site by default, but doesn't install a bunch of bloated junk that you have to remove).
  2. Security updates are easy to notice and install (some kind of notification method to alert you, and hopefully an auto-update or prompt).
  3. Default security policy requires very little modification for required level of assurance, or can easily be set during installation.
  4. Management of multiple deployed systems can be done in a centralized and/or coordinated fashion.
  5. Has good capabilities for backup and restore of hosted data

This is just one example. You'll have to come up with your own priorities and evaluate based on those.
 
Old 07-01-2004, 10:19 AM   #4
bughead1
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Good points made here. As some one who relies on primarily on Slackware for servers (two run with Debian), I'd like to take a moment to expand and expound on this "favorite distro," issue.

To use Slackware as the example: Slackware is appropriate for servers. It is NOT appropriate for EVERY server, nor for EVERY organization.

Unless a company, and it's administrators, have both the time and the inclination to experiment, the distribution chosen should be made on the basis of support and proven compatibilty with applications. An administrator, relatively new to Linux, and working under extreme time constraints, would be very foolish to attempt to migrate any database to Oracle on Slackware. There will be problems encountered with RH AS. But at least you will have some one to turn to for help in a hurry when you need it. And you will need it.

On the other hand, it isn't all that uncommon that an administrator will have time (and permission) to explore. That administrator may also have a store room full of obsolete P150's.

The second situation is an appropriate scenario to look into things like Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, et al. Management wants to see something in a couple of months -- you have an idea for a basic LAMP application that should really impress them -- and you have that unused 486DX sitting there...then go for it. It might be the sort of thing needed to really make your case: Free Linux, minimal hardware requirements, very reliable...and ready to roll out for production on a brand spanking new PIV.

But unless this second scenario applies to you, or unless you have spent the past decade immersed in Linux administration, you are more likely to end up serving hamburgers at McDonalds than getting a pat on the back for selecting Slack, or Debian, or Gentoo.

The harsh reality is this: If your experience level is such that you feel a need to ASK which distribution you should use, you better choose RH or SuSE for your mission critical deployments. Once you KNOW which distributions you want to use, you can more realistically look at Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, whatever, and determine for yourself if they offer YOUR operation any advantages/benefits.

I am impressed with Slackware. It is a superb distribution for servers. It is also hell for most NT/Win2000 admins who are migrating systems to Linux and it is not only unrealistic, but a real disservice, to simply recommend it without a long list of caveats and qualifying statements that will not apply to the situations of the majority looking at Linux as an alternative to NT/2000.

Don't take these comments to mean that I think I'm some sort of uber-geek who can solve any administrative problem, because I'm not. I just had the time and freedom to experiment. Anyone who doesn't have that time and freedom would be very foolish to select my preferred Linux distributions for use in another business setting.

Last edited by bughead1; 07-01-2004 at 10:21 AM.
 
Old 07-02-2004, 10:48 AM   #5
Charlie Spencer
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Those have got to be the three most insightful, coherent answers I've read in response to the "What distro?" question. Thanks guys, especially to bughead1.
 
Old 07-02-2004, 05:04 PM   #6
ArloLeach
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Whoa, yes, thanks for all the info! From my perspective, they key points are 1) I won't be going off track if I start out with the free version of RedHat, 2) that would be a pretty close match to what our hosting providers are using, and 3) at my current experience level, I probably don't need to worry about finding a specialized distribution, and should stick with one of the commercial products. On the other hand, 4) Red Hat tends to be more customized than some of the other distributions, and might offer a bigger bump when transferring skills to a different distribution.

In a way, this isn't the answer I was hoping for, because I have two goals that are somewhat in conflict: first, to get familiar with the platform that our hosting providers are using, and second, to learn some general Linux knowledge that I could transfer to other situations. Starting with RedHat might be the best choice for the first goal, and the worst choice for the last goal! But, as much as the second goal interests me, the first is really the most important to my company. So I guess, for now, I should focus on Red Hat.

That being said, I've already downloaded both Red Hat and SuSE, so I'll go ahead and try them both, and try to get a sense of what parts of Red Hat are "standard" and which are unique. Just knowing what I can expect to find in other distributions and what I cannot will be a big help if I do branch out in the future.

Thanks again, and for you U.S. readers, have a good holiday weekend!

-Arlo
 
Old 07-02-2004, 06:20 PM   #7
bughead1
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Quote:
Originally posted by ArloLeach
...I won't be going off track if I start out with the free version of RedHat, 2) that would be a pretty close match to what our hosting providers are using,
I'm not certain what you mean by the free version of RedHat...if you meant Fedora Core 2, I wager you will that find RedHat 9.0 is a closer match. You can download a basic version of RedHat 9.0 for free as well.

If you can't find a site nearer to you...try this one: ftp://ftp.biochem.uthscsa.edu/pub/linux/Redhat
 
Old 07-03-2004, 02:15 AM   #8
J.W.
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One other point that I think deserves mention is that there is also a tremendous amount of material available online, particularly the Linux Documentation Project in addition to many fine books, such as O'Reilly's Running Linux

Certainly nothing beats hands-on experience with Linux, but in my view, reading a lot of quality reference books will make you aware of countless things that you might otherwise have missed or just not known about. -- J.W.
 
Old 07-03-2004, 02:40 AM   #9
ArloLeach
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bughead1, I found a mirror of 9.1 from distrowatch.com and downloaded that; thanks for confirming that that would be a good place to start. I was very confused about the Red Hat versioning scheme until I found this link: http://www.redhat.com/solutions/business/migration/

J.W., the O'Reilly book you recommended looks great. I usually prefer online documentation, but for taking in large amounts of information at once, a good old fashioned book is probably still the way to go. I'll order a copy.

Cheers,
-Arlo
 
Old 07-03-2004, 03:03 AM   #10
ArloLeach
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You know, after browsing these forums a bit more, I've found lots of good recommendations for Mandrake Linux. Given what I've shared about my situation, would anyone recommend that I evaluate that alongside Red Hat and SuSE? Something a little less commercial/corporate appeals to me personally, although it would need to be acceptable to our clients as well.
 
Old 07-03-2004, 05:08 AM   #11
chort
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You're still just asking for personal opinions. Until you lay out a specific set of evaluation criteria, you won't have any way of qualifying one distro as "better" than another for your needs. Draw up your requirements first, THEN test. Testing things at random and largely based off of other peoples' personal opinions is not a sound method of testing.
 
Old 07-03-2004, 09:52 AM   #12
ArloLeach
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Okay, I'll summarize my criteria in choosing my first distribution to learn on. Here they are in priority order:

1) The skills I learn must be transferrable to the distributions that our third-party hosting providers are using, which is primarily Red Hat.
2) The distribution we become comfortable with must have a high chance of acceptance by our conservative, corporate clients.
3) The skills I learn should be transferrable to other distributions that we might encounter in the future.
4) The distribution we become comfortable with would ideally be one that is widely favored in the open source community.

As I mentioned earlier, the problem is that these goals are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. If someone said, "Don't worry, your Red Hat skills will transfer to Slackware just fine," or "In our experience, large corporations are starting to branch out from Red Hat," then this would be a lot easier. But from the discussion so far, I don't expect to hear either of those. (smile) As it is, I'm looking for any advice that would help me find the right middle ground. For example, if someone said, "Stay away from Mandrake, it's too grassroots and your corporate clients would never go for it," or "You'll find the transition from Mandrake to Red Hat confusing," that would be very helpful.

Cheers,
-Arlo
 
Old 07-03-2004, 11:00 AM   #13
bughead1
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Much of what passes for "Linux skills" are nothing but rote memorization and product familiarity.

Now, certainly there are things that translate from distribution to distribution. And you will pick those up as part of the job of learning to administer Linux systems and networks.

But when you have to administer systems, even if you eschew the use of graphical tools and/or other distribution specific utilities provided by the distribution, you will find differences in everything from initialization to location of libraries to the approach taken with regard to package management. Each of these differences can cause delays and much head scratching when things go wrong.

Your hosting provider uses RedHat. You want to understand their systems and get up to speed quickly. So use RedHat. You will also learn some basic skills that will make it easier to learn how to administer other distributions, even though there will be a learning curve to overcome with every other distribution you try.

Mandrake is not RedHat. SuSE is not RedHat. Debian is not RedHat. Slackware is not RedHat. Only RedHat is RedHat.

I'm not trying to be unpleasant. I strongly urge you to try these other distributions later -- after you have accomplished your primary goal of getting familiar with your hosting provider's environment. Just don't begin your experiments with them on production systems.
 
Old 07-03-2004, 02:06 PM   #14
chort
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Basically your criteria just described Red Hat. The large site hosting companies use Red Hat almost exclusively, and when most people hear "Linux" they think of Red Hat. It's the most widely deployed in corporate datacenters and there has been a lot of industry press about RH. If you want a safe bet that corporate customers will accept, choose Red Hat.

People could argue about whether RH is "best" overall, but for the situation you described, it is.
 
Old 07-04-2004, 03:53 PM   #15
ArloLeach
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Sounds good. Thanks, folks, for helping my clarify my needs and then making a recommendation based on them. I'll order Red Hat Enterprise ES and get started!

Cheers,
-Arlo
 
  


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