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GUI Administration or Why I Hate Red Hat

last modified 2006-02-22 03:52 PM

Why Red Hat is my least favorite distribution. Why SUSE is not much better. And why you should consider MAC OS X if you really want and need GUI administration for FOSS.

As part of the Linux class I teach at Netcom, I spend some time with my students teaching them about different distributions. We also practice installing them. My personal favorites are Debian for servers, and Ubuntu (a Debian derivative) for workstations. But given the widespread popularity of Red Hat, I feel obligated at least to have them do a Fedora Core install, so they can experience the world of Red Hat.

Red Hat was actually the first Linux distribution I used - way back in version 4, if I remember correctly. It is true that in 1997 when I first started using Linux, it wasn't as polished or sophisticated as it is today. Even then I appreciated its advantages over Windows. We had a very mixed computer environment in our company, and Linux was the cheapest and most stable file server solution we could afford. Nonetheless I always felt I was in a wrestling match when I was working with Red Hat. Then my number one son Itamar (who got me involved in Linux in the first place) introduced me to Debian, and I felt like I had seen the light. I've never looked back.

But as I said, for my course I've had to fiddle with Red Hat again. While it is true they have added some admin tools to make life easier, they are almost all GUI based. This is especially problematic now that linuxconf has gone the way of the Dodo. When I work on my company or customers servers, particularly remotely, I tend to use command line tools. Even for something as simple as adding a new user, Debian has a great adduser script. The Red Hat equivalent semes to be partially brain dead.

But the essence of Red Hat badness comes into play when trying to add new software. When configuring a server in particular, I try to work with a minimal software installation to start, and build my way up. While I do appreciate the coolness of something like the GUI-based Synaptic, I still almost always use a simple apt-get for installing or updating software on a Debian box. GUI is often useless, especially since I may not even install X on a server to start (if I do, it is a minimal X so I can run VNC). By contrast, Red Hat's command line yum just plain old sucks. There doesn't seem to be much software in those Fedora repositories. Maybe there are other repositories I need to add, or I am missing something basic, but having been spoiled by the nearly 17000 packages available at lightening speed in the Debian world, Red Hat just seems so --- twentieth century.

While looking for alternatives to yum and/or how to improve it, I did get a good laugh when I found this page. Nearly ten years on and people in the Red Hat world are still living in RPM hell.

I recently got back this little Qrium server box. I bought it in 1999 for dirt cheap when DataVision was dumping leftover stock. It is this cute little (noisy) yellow Korean computer with 20 gig hard disk and a CD. It's probably a bit smaller than a Shuttle. Way ahead of its time.  I am using it to install and play around with multiple versions of Linux.

I heard SUSE is much better than Red Hat, so it was next on my list. Having now gone through the process, here is what Iearned. It is true that the YAST tool is really excellent. But there is a huge downside: SUSE extends the standard Unix admin files with SUSE specific stuff. So if I want to do stuff slightly different than the norm, I am either stuck with SUSE YAST or I wander out of the GUI world at great peril.

Now I understand the motivation for GUI administration. Not every organization can hire the best system administrators available. And less experienced admins are made more effective by having GUI tools that remind them of what needs to be done and automates much of the process. That is why NT became so popular. That is why large organizations are willing to pay SUSE and Red Hat licensing fees as well. They are paying for the proprietary GUI on top of the open source stack. And even though YAST and Red Hat tools were given open source licenses, they are still proprietary in the sense that they extend the open source stack, in a way which is specific to that distribution.

So here is a bit of heresy to consider. What server OS is built on top of a completely FOSS stack, and yet provides the best ease of use and user experience? MAC OS X. Take a look at the features offered out of the box for MAC OS X server in its current Panther incarnation. Take a second look at the feature set of the upcoming Tiger: directory services, file services, print services, email services, groupware services, web hosting, remote management and the list goes on. All based on standard FOSS tools. All working in a multi-platform environment. And it has the best, most intuitive GUI on the market. Best of all, the price is incredibly cheap compared to the competition (i.e. licensing fees for Windows Server, Red Hat or SUSE). While it is true that you can purchase a cheap Intel box for much less than the entry level minimum Macintosh on which you would run MAC OS X server, once you add in all the necessary components, take into consideration Apple service vs. the alternatives, and the quality of the hardware, the Apple box doesn't look that expensive any more. And again, given he licensign fees, the total Apple solution is actually far less expensive.

In summary, any organization that can afford to keep on staff sophisticated and highly experienced system adminsitrators, should probably stick to Debian based solutions. Any organization that can't afford that, but are looking for a FOSS-based, reliable and secure alternative to Microsoft, is most likely best off using Mac OS X servers.
 

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