Even after writing some papers about Red Hat   the distribution itself is a mystery. The first impression is, that RHEL is simply yet-another-linux-distribution. It has the Linux Kernel, the Gnome GUI, and programs like GCC and Java. But something is special about it. I would call it the collective ignorance of the so called community. The community is the sum of weblogs, online-forums, podcasts, magazine and dedicated Linux conferences. Let us investigate hundred, random selected podcasts about Linux which has the newbie or the expert user as the target. The surprising fact is, than in 99 of them any other Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Gentoo is presented but not Red Hat. Red Hat is in the contrast the big elephant in the room who is ignored by everyone. That means, it is hard to find information about it. If we are searching not explicitly for the new version of RHEL, we can be part of the Linux community for many years without even notice it.
Why is RHEL special? The reason number one is, that it is not used by private users. Red Hat earns money with Linux, around 2,4 billion US$ per year. If the ordinary customer pays 500 US$ per year per RHEL PC, than the operating system is installed on 4.8 million PCs worldwide. Most of them are servers and workstations in big companies. The operating system is out there, it works great, but it is unknown by private users.
The typical Linux beginner is migrating from Windows to Linux because he wants to surf in the internet, improve his programming skills and likes games. So the natural choice is Ubuntu or a similar distribution. That RHEL is not on the list of favourite operating system for home-users is not very surprisingly. If the media doesn’t promote it, the end-user will not use it.
In my opinion the imbalance of public reception and the technology itself is a sign for an information gap. That means, RHEL is well suited for the Linux beginner, it is only uncommon. In reality, the newest version of Fedora is well suited for installing the chrome browser, Opensource games, and every programming tool available for Linux. The reason is, that the distribution is very stable, the dnf-package manager works and the system gets the latest security patches. If Fedora is bullet-proof for business needs it is also the right choice for amateurs users who want to have fun with their machine. The only problem is, that this usage scenario isn’t very widespread. That means, I have found no podcast, no blog or no book which describes “Fedora for home users”. RHEL can be called an elephant without any advertisement. It is unexplored land.
But what makes Fedora special from all the other Linux distributions? The main difference is, that RHEL is not for free. That means, if somebody wants to use the software daily for his business he must pay real money. According to the latest pricelist it is 350 US$ per year for the workstation version and 700 US$ for the server version. In my opinion this paid-model is the reason why the Red Hat distribution is superior. Because it is a serious distribution, which is not programmed by enthusiasts or people who hate Microsoft, but by a company who has financial interests. On the first hand this sounds familiar with Microsoft. But Red Hat is different. Apart from the EAL4+ certified RHEL version, there is also the Fedora community distribution out there which has all the feature but can be downloaded for free. And apart from Microsoft, the software-development is done inside opensource projects like Apache or Gnome. RHEL is only the marketing-term to bundle all the software into a product and makes it easy to use.
Linux for education
Explaining what Red Hat is, can be done with a reference to the Minix operating system. Minix was developed for higher education. It was embedded in a university course about operating system. Minix is similar to Xinu only a theoretical operating system. It makes sense to print out the sourcecode and write a paper about it, but it is not ready for daily usage on a webserver. Linux is different. It was not designed with education in mind but with business-oriented daily usage. That means, Linux is not a university project but has a financial background. Alan Cox and Linus Torvalds earning money with their work and their are not part of higher education system.
Let us investigate some of the Linux distributions out there. Most of them were created with an education purpose. For example, Debian, Gentoo or “Tiny core Linux”. The idea is not only create the distribution, but to explain the people how they can make their own distribution. In the ArchLinux project for example, is a powerful meta-distrubution-creator part of it, which downloads the sourcecode of programs and creates of that an iso-file. Gentoo works with the same principle. The best example for a teaching-only distribution is perhaps “Linux from scratch”. It is like Minix created with the purpose in mind, to explain the people what a distribution is, and how the booting process works.
From a practical point of view this knowledge has no top priority. If somebody is interested in using Linux on his workstation or on the server, he is not interested in getting knowledge about how to create a distribution. He do not need another Andrew Tannenbaum who is explaining to him, how to compile a piece of code or how to careful select the components of a distribution. What the user wants is a ready-to-run distribution, created by somebody other and optimized for daily usage. RHEL is such a distribution. And according to my research it is the only distribution out there which can be used in real life. All the other examples like LFS and Debian have an educational purpose. That means, if somebody is interested in the distribution building itself than it is the right choice.
From a historical point of view the evolution of Linux-like software can be summarized in the following timeline:
1. Minix, educational unix-clone -> Debian, educational distribution
2. Linux, daily usage kernel -> RHEL, daily usage distribution
Let us investigate potential alternatives to RHEL a bit in detail. I understand the concept behind LFS and Gentoo very good. “Linux from scratch” was created with a special purpose in mind. The idea was, that an Opensource kernel alone is not an operating system. If somebody downloads the latest tar-ball from kernel.org he is not able to run his computer with it. Because apart from the kernel, additional software for the command-line and the boot-up process is needed. “Linux from scratch” provides these programs. Or better, they are distributing knowledge how the user can find these programs and creates his own operating system. The information inside the LFS project are valuable, it is one of the best books about creating a distribution. LFS is similar to the Minix operating system and it is very well suited to teach the knowledge in higher education.
But, what LFS is missing is a practical usage. That means, if a company needs a ready to run workstation, LFS is the wrong choice. Even in 10 years, the user will get with LFS not a Linux distribution up and running. And even the system will boot, it has too many problems in the daily usage. The LFS project knows about the problems. And they won’t fix it because LFS was created with a different purpose in mind. The same reason Minix can’t be used as a workhorse, LFS can’t be used too.
With LFS, Gentoo or Debian nothing is wrong. They are like Minix very well suited to explain the people how an operating system distribution works. But using Gentoo on a productive server is not a good idea. Because, there are certain requirements which have to be fulfilled.
Teaching vs. usage
At first, it is important to define what the user wants. If he is interested in learning Linux, than he should look at Minix and LFS. The minix-documentation gives him a good introduction how a kernel has to be programmed in theory, while the LFS documentation gives him background knowledge how to create on top of the kernel a distribution which includes other projects like a bash-shell and a package manager. I would go a step further and would call Minix the definitive resource for learning purpose and the official LFS book the most important book about how to build a distribution.
But “Learning Linux” is not the only aim a user may have. Apart from it, he can also be interested in using Linux as a workstation for private usage or in a company. In the same way he uses today MS-Windows or Apple. Then, Minix and LFS are a poor choice. That means, it is not able to use LFS productive. The system updates don’t work, and even the user has read the book he has no Linux-distribution. For this purpose the RHEL/Fedora distribution was created. It is the right choice for people who are not interested in learning Linux but using it as a server or a workstation.