Really free Linux takes hold

Use of community Linux distributions like Ubuntu, CentOS and Debian are on the rise in the enterprise

It's hardly news these days when RHEL or Suse Linux boots Windows or Unix off a server. And we know that commercial software vendors are paying plenty of attention to commercial open source.

But have you ever heard of a community version of the open source operating system displacing one of the popular commercial distributions? That's exactly what happened in Germany's third-largest public TV and radio station, according to a new report on community Linux by analyst Jay Lyman of the 451 Group.

Europe, in general, and France, in particular, lead in community-driven open source. Find out what open source lessons the French can teach us.

"Community distributions such as CentOS, Debian, and Gentoo are gaining enterprise respect for quality code, stability, response and, of course, for being 'free as in beer' and 'free as in freedom' (a common open source mantra referring to cost and freedom from vendor or standard lock-in). These community distributions are becoming a more significant market factor with growing enterprise acceptance and use of them," he writes.

Not surprisingly, the opportunity to cut costs is an important driver of community Linux, but Lyman makes an interesting point, noting that a rise in internal expertise -- and a willingness to use it -- is a key enabler of the nascent trend.

Who you gonna call?

As Lyman recounts it, Munich-based Bayerischer Rundfunk recently switched to CentOS after running into some auto-installer difficulties with Suse. Bayerischer considered Debian, RHEL (or one of the RHEL rebuilds), and SLES, which is dominant in Germany. The choice was RHEL, but given the organization’s previous experience with the open source OS, it did not see a need for a commercial support subscription. It ended up going with CentOS, which is technically identical to RHEL.

Support, of course, is one of the biggest talking points of Red Hat and Novell, but Bayerischer opted to handle support in-house, although it occasionally has to call on an outside consultant for help.

Hardware vendors, says Lyman, may have the most to gain from community Linux by providing their own support. He cites the example of, a Swedish online classifieds company, which runs CentOS on all 90 of its servers.

The company insisted on having some version of commercial support to rely on even though CentOS doesn't offer it. So Blocket looks to Hewlett-Packard, its hardware vendor, for that support. HP is really providing device driver and utility support it uses for customers running RHEL, but because the two distributions are binary-compatible, that support approach works just fine for CentOS. Blocket relies on its own engineers, systems administration, and software development to get its applications running on Linux.

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