Red Hat releases Enterprise Linux 5

CeBIT: Latest version of the open-source server and desktop has been released and now boasts integrated virtualisation technology

Open-source specialist Red Hat has released the latest version of its Linux distribution, which will now feature in-built virtualisation and clustering technology.

After some delays, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5 finally launched on Wednesday with a special event at the CeBIT IT show in Hanover.

One major difference between RHEL 5 and its predecessors is the inclusion of Xen virtualisation software. This process has accounted for some of the delays to the OS, which was expected to ship in 2006.

Primarily developed by US-based start-up XenSource, the Xen software lets a single computer run multiple operating systems simultaneously. Virtualisation is one of the key technologies behind RHEL 5, according to Red Hat, and although rival Novell went to market with native Xen virtualisation support earlier, Red Hat says it has benefited by taking its time.

"We get clear messages from our customers that they don't want releases too frequently, provided they don't fall behind on the technology curve," said Nick Carr general manager of RHEL at Red Hat. "We are shipping RHEL 5 at a time when we feel that the quality and capabilities of virtualisation and other new features meets our customers' needs."

Tim Yeaton, Red Hat's vice president of enterprise solutions, said the release of RHEL 5 was accompanied by a desire across the company to simplify its messaging and product offerings. "We are trying to make everything simpler," he said.

This includes cutting the service level agreement for customers of RHEL to one clear page of dos and don'ts, compared to the nine-page document for RHEL 4 and the 36 pages required by "a competing Linux distribution", he said.

RHEL 5, under development for two years, is available in two versions, in a similar vein to the set-up under RHEL 4, which gave customers the choice of a high-specification AS version or a standard ES version.

With RHEL 5, the high-specification version has been renamed Advanced Platform (AP) and comes with premium levels of support for an unlimited number of virtual instances of the operating system.

The base version, or simply RHEL 5, is aimed at small to medium-sized enterprises and has less functionality, flexibility and scalability. Red Hat's marketing material does little to sell this cheaper alternative — a clear sign of where the company's priorities lie. The standard package also only includes virtualisation support for four guest virtualised instances of the operating system, whereas the all-singing Advanced Platform supports an unlimited number.

Yeaton was unable to provide exact numbers or even ratios for how many customers opt for the standard (ES) or advanced (AS) versions of RHEL 4, but said that the company adds around 10-12,000 new customers a quarter, and a "large number of those" are small to medium-sized companies opting for the ES version.

Despite the advances made around virtualisation in RHEL 5, Yeaton could not provide specific guidance on the support and pricing around users who choose to run virtual instances of other operating systems such as Windows.

Increasingly companies see virtualisation as way to integrate and manage heterogeneous infrastructure. On Wednesday Novell and Microsoft announced that HSBC bank had signed on to use technology from their controversial partnership announced last year — part of which will focus on improving virtualisation of Windows and Novell's Suse Linux.

HSBC has signed a three-year subscription to use Novell Suse Enterprise Linux, but it also makes extensive use of Windows. In a move that could anger some in the open-source community, the press release around the HSBC deal, approved by Novell, included a statement from HSBC claiming that Windows has a lower cost of ownership than Linux.

For its part, Red Hat is planning to improve the support it offers customers via the creation of Corporate Resolution Centre, which will tackle some of the complex customer problems often associated with virtualisation. "Most of the complex problems are often integration issues," said Yeaton. "The natural response is for one vendor to first check if the problem is due to their software and if it isn't then say it's not our problem, but we are now going to step up and work with partners to get those issues fixed."

Red Hat also announced the launch of Red Hat Exchange, which will allow customers to get buy integrated stacks of software for specific purposes made up of software from the Linux distributor and its partners. Planned for launch in the second quarter of 2007, Red Hat Exchange appears to be similar to resources on offer from online sales automation specialist, with its AppExchange platform. It also has similarities to the open-source integration offerings provided by companies such as SpikeSource.

As well as two specific versions of the OS, Red Hat has also created three packages of software and services aimed at specific niches. Red Hat Datacentre solution, based on the Advanced Platform, includes systems management, high availability, identity management, consulting and training services.

The company also announced a database-specific package called Red Hat Database Availability Solution, which it claims offers all the reliability of a clustered database system at savings of $200,000 per database. The database offering could be seen as a reaction to Oracle's decision to launch its own version of Red Hat Linux – called Unbreakable Linux 2.0. Although Red Hat and Oracle are partners, the move was a direct attack on Red Hat's business model and resulted in a significant slump in the Red Hat share price.

The final package on offer is Red Hat High Performance Computing Solution, which is aimed at engineers, researchers and financial analysts focused on "difficult computational problems", the company claims.

As well as virtualisation technology from XenSource, Red Hat is investigating alternatives, including Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM), backed up by start-up Qumranet. The company has plans to integrate KVM with its unsupported Linux offering Fedora 7, but Red Hat chief technology officer Brian Stevens recently admitted that KVM would take at least a year to catch up with Xen's current position.