Red Hat liberates low-end Linux

With the release of Red Hat Linux 9, the company moves to a strategy that lets it adopt the latest technology more aggressively for its lower-end products.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Linux seller Red Hat has moved to a strategy that lets it adopt the latest technology more aggressively for its lower-end products, a strategy that will become visible March 31 with the release of Red Hat Linux 9, code-named Shrike.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based company has just completed splitting its

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product line in two: the slow-changing premium Red Hat Enterprise Linux version for businesses and the free Red Hat Linux version for enthusiasts. Establishing the RHEL option for conservative customers freed up Red Hat to accept more flexibility with the RHL line, said Matt Wilson, manager of Red Hat's base operating system, in an interview Tuesday.

"We wanted to be able to have a little more fluidity in Red Hat Linux...so we get the best open-source technologies that are available and stable," Wilson said. "It's a new way of thinking that we're able to do now that we have Red Hat Enterprise Linux with the longer support lifecycles."

The new "Shrike" RHL product will be available in stores April 7, Wilson said. But subscribers to the company's Red Hat Network service will be able to download it March 31, part of an incentive to encourage people to pay for the service. Red Hat Network, which primarily is used to deliver bug fixes, is a key part of the company's plan to shift revenue toward recurring sources that pay continuously instead of in a one-time surge accompanying a new product release.

Red Hat Linux 9 costs $39.95, including 30 days of Web-based and Red Hat Network support. The product can be downloaded for free, but that version doesn't include any support. Red Hat Linux 9 Professional costs $149.95, and it includes 60 days of support, more office applications, and a rescue tool.

Many in the Linux community had expected the next version to be 8.1, not 9. For one thing, the beta versions, code-named Phoebe, were numbered 8.0.92 through 8.0.94. For another, Red Hat has historically issued "point" releases such as 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3. And version 8.0 was only issued last September.

The accelerated numbering reflects Red Hat's move to speed the adoption of open-source technology, Wilson said.

The biggest single change coming with version 9 is a move to a new way of handling simultaneous programming tasks called "threads." The new threading system, called the Native Posix Threading Library, means deep changes to how some software interacts with the heart of Linux, called the kernel.

"We felt it was important to get NPTL to a mass audience soon," Wilson said. Better threading improves server tasks such as running Java programs and databases; it also helps the performance of some desktop software, such as the Mozilla Web browser and the OpenOffice software suite, Wilson said.

Red Hat also expanded Bluecurve, the user interface customizations the company employed beginning in 2002 to gloss over some differences between the KDE and GNOME graphical interface software. Red Hat has cleaned up confusing Bluecurve menus and has extended the Bluecurve feel to more programs, such as Mozilla and OpenOffice.

But the change to NPTL means some older software won't work, including 3D graphics support for Nvidia and ATI graphics cards and some versions of Sun Microsystems' software for running Java programs, Red Hat said.

Another change in Red Hat Linux 9 is the use of CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System, which supports more printers and better features, Wilson said.

But Red Hat wasn't able to get everything it wanted into the new product. Access control lists, which permit administrators to control very precisely which computer users have access to what computer files and resources, wasn't mature enough to use, but Wilson believes it will be ready for the next version.

Also missing is Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) support, which governs laptop actions such as going into hibernation modes. ACPI also would help servers. In particular, it's used to describe details such as the arrangement of processors in multiprocessor machines, Wilson said.

But server customers will see the adoption of version 2.0 of the Apache Web server. And because they often have to run multiple jobs simultaneously, servers are the most likely beneficiaries of the threading improvements.

For threading, stars have aligned for NPTL. One key endorsement came from Linux leader Linus Torvalds, who has accepted NPTL into the 2.5 version of the Linux kernel, the test version that will be numbered 2.6 when ready for real-world use.

Another endorsement came on March 14, when IBM programmers working on their own threading improvements--a project called Next Generation Posix Threading--announced they were focusing their attention instead on NTPL. "We don't want to split the community to choose one over the other," the developers said in a statement, and NPTL has successfully dealt with the problems the IBM team had set out to solve.

While Red Hat programmers Ulrich Drepper and Ingo Molnar were instrumental in making NPTL a reality, IBM programmers such as Rusty Russell also have helped, Wilson said.