What are Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora?

To take Red Hat Linux development into the future, Red Hat made some changes to how it did business. Find out how that affected individuals and businesses back then and what it means now.

Having directories of software packages floating extraneously around the Internet was not a bad way for hackers to share software. However, for Linux to be acceptable to a less technical population of computer users, it needed to be simple to install and use. Likewise, businesses that were thinking about committing their mission-critical applications to a computer system would want to know that this system had been carefully tested and well supported.

To those ends, several companies and organizations began gathering and packaging Linux software together into usable forms called distributions. The main goal of a Linux distribution is to make the hundreds (or even thousands) of unrelated software packages that make up Linux work together as a cohesive whole. Popular Linux distributions include Debian, SUSE, Slackware, Gentoo, and Mandrake. For many years, the most popular commercial distribution was Red Hat Linux.

In September 2003, Red Hat, Inc., changed its way of doing business. That change resulted in the formation of the Red Hat–sponsored Fedora Project to take the development of Red Hat Linux technology into the future. But what does that mean to individuals and businesses that have come to rely on Red Hat Linux?

Red Hat forms the Fedora Project

With Fedora Core 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, the promises Red Hat made to the open source community and to Red Hat's commercial customers have finally begun to solidify. The Fedora Extras project has made excellent inroads in providing ready-to-run RPMs of software that didn't make it into Fedora Core. Red Hat Enterprise Linux product offering is looking like a solid, reliable system for mass deployment of Linux in large organizations.

A year or two ago, things didn't look so rosy.

The announcement of the Fedora Project by Red Hat, Inc. at first prompted more questions than answers about the future direction of the company and its flagship Red Hat Linux product. In fact, it seemed that nothing named Red Hat Linux even existed anymore. Instead, what was Red Hat Linux would be reflected by Linux distributions coming from two paths:

  • Fedora Project -- An open source project, beginning from a Red Hat Linux 9 base, that produces its own Linux distribution. While the project is sponsored by Red Hat, Inc., there is no official support for the Linux distribution (called Fedora Core) that the project produces.

  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- An official set of commercial Linux products from Red Hat, Inc. that are offered on an annual subscription basis. Red Hat backs up its Enterprise product line with technical support, training, and documentation.

The primary result of the Fedora Project are sets of binary and source code packages (distributed on DVD or CDs) containing the Linux distribution referred to as Fedora Core.

Before its name was changed to Fedora Core 1, that distribution was being tested simply as the next in the series of Red Hat Linux distributions (presumably, Red Hat Linux 10). The complete set of binary and source code included on the DVD that comes with this book are distributed as the official fifth release of that software: Fedora Core 5.

The name change from Red Hat Linux to Fedora Core wasn't the only difference between Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, however. Red Hat, Inc. also changed its association with Fedora Core in the following ways:

  • No boxed sets -- Red Hat decided to not sell Fedora through retail channels. The ever-shortening release cycle was making it difficult to manage the flow of boxed sets to and from retail channels every few months, and Red Hat believed that early adopters of Linux technology were clever enough to get the software themselves.

  • Short guaranteed update cycle -- Critical fixes and security patches will be available for each Fedora release for a much shorter period of time than on RHEL products. As a result, users will have to upgrade or reinstall the system more often.

  • No technical support offerings -- There are no technical support programs available from Red Hat for Fedora.

  • No Red Hat documentation -- The set of manuals that came with the previous Red Hat Linux product was not brought over to Fedora. Instead, a series of small task-oriented documents are being collected for the project in article format. The Fedora Documentation project (http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/DocsProject) is, however following a path to release Red Hat documentation under an open source licence so that the Fedora Project can develop and distribute that documentation.

By not creating a whole support industry around Fedora, that project is free to produce software release on a much shorter schedule (possibly two or three times per year, but so far only one every six to nine months). This allows Fedora users to always have the latest software features and fixes included with a recent version of the operating system. But the Fedora Project is more than just Fedora Core. It is really a collection of projects that also includes the following:

  • Fedora Extras -- Provides packaging guidelines, suggestions, policies, mailing lists and other resources to help developers contribute RPM packages for a wide range of open source software to Fedora Extras repositories. At the moment, there are more than 1,600 packages in Fedora Extras (and the list is growing).

  • Fedora Ambassadors and Marketing -- Focuses on spreading the word about Fedora to the world. Ambassadors have been assigned to different parts of the U.S. and to countries around the world to represent Fedora to their areas. The marketing project is helping to encourage presentations, developer conferences, and other initiatives to publicize Fedora.

  • Fedora Live CD (Kadischi) -- The Fedora live CD initiative centers on a set of tools under the name Kadischi. Rather than being a live CD distribution itself, Kadischi incorporates the Fedora anaconda installer into a procedure for producing customized live CDs of Fedora. A live CD provides a means of running a Linux system on a computer without installing it to hard disk. It offers a great way to try out Fedora withouth disturbing anything installed on your hard disk.

  • Fedora Documentation -- Besides seeking to release Red Hat documentation under an open source licence and maintaining it publicly with the Fedora Project, the Fedora Documentation Project is pursuing other initiatives. Those include assigning beat writers (to cover various software topics) and editors (to clean up and manage documentation contributions).

For information on the status of these and other Fedora projects, you can refer to the Fedora Weekly Projects Reports. If you are interested in contributing to any of the Fedora projects, the Weekly Projects Reports page is a good place to start.

Another potential upside to Fedora is that the Fedora Project hopes to encourage community software developers to create compatible software. By including software download and installation tools (such as the yum utility) in Fedora Core, the Fedora Project hopes to encourage people to contribute to software repositories that Fedora users can rely on to download additional software packages.

In the past few months, there has been an extraordinary upsurge of software being made available to run on Fedora. Officially sanctioned software packages that don't make it into Fedora Core are being added to software repositories called Fedora Extras. Third-party repositories for Fedora Core containing software packages that Red Hat won't distribute due to licensing or patent issues have also grown and stabilized lately.

In the area of support, Red Hat has endorsed the FedoraForum.org site as the end-user forum of choice for Fedora users. That site already has more than 30,000 members and over 300,000 posts you can search for answers to your questions. As for the Fedora Project itself, it is currently transitioning from http://fedora.redhat.com to Fedoraproject.org as the official Fedora Project site.

Just as Fedora Core 4 was being released in June 2005, Red Hat announced its intention to free the Fedora Project from Red Hat's direct control. Near the end of that year, the Fedora Foundation was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Over time, it is expected that a board made up of Red Hat and non-Red Hat people will steer the future direction of the Fedora Project.

Red Hat shifts to Enterprise Linux

The major shift of attention to Red Hat Enterprise Linux as the focus of Red Hat, Inc.'s commercial efforts has been on the horizon for some time. Some characteristics of Red Hat Enterprise Linux are:

  • Longer release intervals -- Instead of offering releases every 6 months or so, Enterprise software will have closer to an 18-month update cycle. Customers can be assured of a longer support cycle without having to upgrade to a later release.

  • Multiple support options -- Customers will have the choice of purchasing different levels of support. All subscriptions will include the Update Module, which allows easy access to updates for Red Hat Enterprise Linux systems. The Management Module lets customers develop custom channels and automate management of multiple systems. The Monitoring Module allows customers to monitor and maintain an entire infrastructure of systems.

  • Documentation and training -- Manuals and training courses will center on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux install types focus on three different types of computer systems, referred to as WS (for workstations), AS (for high-end systems), and ES (for small and mid-range servers). Red Hat has also recently released a new Red Hat Desktop product targeted for wide-scale desktop deployments.

Each system in the Red Hat Enterprise Linux family is meant to be compatible with the others. There are Basic, Standard, and Premium editions of these Enterprise systems. While Basic offers only software downloads, standard and premium editions offer hard copy documentation and additional technical support. For a detailed look at RHEL product features, see Appendix C.

Choosing between Fedora and Enterprise

If you bought this book to try out Linux for the first time, rest assured that what you have on the DVD and CDs with this book is a solid, battle-tested operating system. There is still a lot of overlap between Fedora Core and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. However, many of the newest features of Fedora Core 5 provide a way to test out much of the software that is slated to go in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 editions.

Although Fedora may not be right for everyone, Fedora is great for students, home users, most small businesses, and anyone just wanting to try out the latest Linux technology. Larger businesses should seriously consider the implications on support, training, and future upgrade paths before choosing whether to go the Fedora route or sign on with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Despite its lack of formal support, however, Fedora Core is being used today in many businesses, schools, and homes around the world.In whatever way you plan to ultimately use Fedora, it is without a doubt a good way learn and use the latest Linux technology before it makes its way to Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Chapter table of contents

This is an excerpt from Chapter 1, 'An Overview of Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux,' from the book Fedora 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Bible by Christopher Negus and courtesy of Wiley.

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