Best server hardware for Linux compatibility?

Q I've got a good one for you. I'm not sure that this can be categorised as a technical question but the only other places I can find answers are bound to be biased. I'm a Linux business user. Most of our back-end servers and services are Linux-based. Our users don't care whether we use Red Hat, SUSE, Microsoft Windows or Baron Samedi-style voodoo - they all have Windows desktops and essentially just want to browse the net and get their mail and files. We're upgrading our server hardware, which is extremely dated and is about to fall out of warranty (it's already been End of Life for some time). If fortune favours us we'll be able to do this upgrade one server at a time, so we're not under immense pressure to get the entire network done in one go. We have a decent budget but can't go on a complete shopping spree.

Now for the questions: what's the best server hardware to go for if we're looking for Linux compatibility? We'd like the vendor to have official Linux support - not just some guy on the net who's got some source for BSD we can try to cross-compile with mixed results. Secondly, is it really worth going for one of the paid-for Linux distros? All our current servers use Red Hat 8, which works pretty well. A Red Hat-based distro would seem an obvious choice but is Red Hat's Enterprise Linux the best option, or would we be better off with Fedora? Having said that, if we're going to be paying money for this, would SUSE would be better? Thanks for your help.

A Wow, an IT department with a budget, fantastic start! Before I give you my view and trigger an onslaught of hate mail please remember that this is only the opinion of one simple man trying to make his way in the universe, based on my own experience with server hardware and Linux distributions. Most of the hardware vendors out there are really very good. I'd say there are two main categories to choose from here. The top tier hardware vendors like Dell, HP, and IBM etc. These guys make phenomenal hardware - it's their business to, but many of them only support Linux as an afterthought. From my own experience Dell have it covered on their rack-dense servers. They can offer you Red Hat Enterprise with SUSE preinstalled at the factory, which means you can be confident of having good driver support.

Another big company taking bold strides is IBM. IBM has always been a favourite of mine, and with the millions of dollars they're pumping into open source they'd be a safe bet. At the other end of the spectrum you get the true grass roots Linux companies that make their own servers mostly out of commodity clone hardware. There are loads of such companies around, and most of them are small and so give a more personalised service than the big hitters. These companies are built on Linux so providing a product built with Linux in mind is what makes them tick. When it comes to picking a vendor for your software it gets more blurred. Here are the main reasons I would be willing to pay for a Linux distribution:

  • If a company provides a Linux package they're obliged to keep it running securely.
  • There's someone to call; even if it may cost a little money. Different levels of support are available for different budgets.
  • Often the people paying the cheques like to know that there is somebody they can hold accountable for a failure in service, either of the product or any of the ancillary services.

I'll focus on Red Hat in particular as I have no real experience with Novell/SUSE's commercial offering. Red Hat will give you the actual operating system license as well as a subscription to their up2date service for patches. Also, if they release a newer version (such as the upcoming RHEL4) you'll be able to download and install that too. For the approximately £500 standard package they'll answer an unlimited number of queries within four hours during business hours. This level of service can be upgraded all the way to one-hour response times, 24/7. SUSE's free product support will also work very well for you but don't expect anything more than Google for help; you really do get what you pay for when you're talking support. Having said that, if you've been using the free Red Hat product for some time, you can probably support yourself quite adequately whatever distro you go for.

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