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Open Source and Commercial Product Comparisons

Discusses how the packaging and licensing of open source products complicates the comparison of competing open source and commercial products. It also covers why some of the coming reviews are divided as they are.

Traditional product reviews typically fall into one of two types, a group review where two or more directly competing products are compared by features, ease of use or learning, support or other related criteria. Single product reviews describe a single, often recently released product, in almost any degree of detail and other competing products are mentioned on a case by case basis where the author feels the comparison can make an important point.

With traditional commercial products there is little question of what a product consists of. You pay a fee and get a box with a license that pretty clearly defines what the product is and is not. Some products may contain trial or optional components. There is little question that trial products are separate and simply are included in the packaging for marketing purposes. If you want the full product, you must follow the prescribed procedures. Trial products are not normally reviewed as part of the product with which they are packaged. On the other hand, the optional components are clearly part of the packaged product and may be reviewed together or separately from the main product.

For example, Microsoft's Internet Information Server 2 - 4 was clearly part of the Windows NT 4 Server package as IIS 5 is part of Windows 2000 Server versions. While reviews of the Windows operating systems often mention that IIS is part of the package, the OS reviews do not typically spend much time on IIS. IIS is typically reviewed as a separate product, as part of group reviews of the leading web servers. The simple fact is however, that IIS is part of the Windows Server systems it comes with; there is no legal way to run a copy of IIS without buying the Microsoft Windows server operating system with which it is included.

When looking at specific commercial application products and groups, the dividing lines between different products are normally quite clear. You can buy several Microsoft productivity applications separately or one of several Office suites each of which contains a specific group of applications. You cannot split suites across different machines or "borrow" an application not included in the suite you purchased, from a friend, without violating license agreements. When comparing different suites such as those from Microsoft and Corel, while they may run on the same Windows platform, they share no common application components. Each feature has been developed or purchased independently and in direct competition with the other suite's counterpart. Each vendor tries to out-do the other with respect to features, functionality, ease of use and product integration using completely independent source code bases.

When you move to open source software products, virtually everything that you've learned from years of experience with commercial shrink wrapped software regarding what a product is or is not, how it's licensed and what the competing products are is simply wrong. A perfect example is Red Hat Linux 7.1. What is Red Hat Linux 7.1? It's difficult to say and everyone who provides more than a superficial definition is likely to provide a somewhat different description.

For starters, a superficial glance at the Red Hat Products page (since replaced with on shows several packages that look like familiar shrink wrapped packages. There are three versions of the current 7.1 system, a basic version, Deluxe Workstation, Professional Server as well as a high end version of an older product, 6.2 High Availability Server. As you move up from the basic version, each shows more features and higher prices.

The $39.95 retail price of the basic Red Hat 7.1 system is the first clue that something is very different. Looking over the Red Hat site, you find that you can download CD images for Red Hat 7.1 and they include detailed instructions on how to use these images to create physical install CDs and to install a system from them. Red Hat even provides links to mirror sites, from which you can get the same CD-ROM images, if the Red Hat FTP sites are too busy. You can copy these CDs and install them to as many machines as you care too. Obviously this very different than Microsoft, whose Windows NT / 2000 / XP products, start in the hundreds of dollars and are clearly restricted to use on a single machine (per license).

The prices you pay Red Hat or any retail software distributor that sells Red Hat packages cover the costs of media, preparing the media and install package as well as limited support options. Support increases with the more expensive packages. The more expensive packages also include additional software, literally hundreds of different, independent products.

What you are not paying for is what constitutes the primary component of any Microsoft product, a license to use the included software. The core pieces of Red Hat, Linux and the standard UNIX like utilities included with it, are completely free.

The additional software included in the Red Hat package comes with it's own licenses. Many products use the same license as Linux itself but other products have different licenses. Some of the included products are time or license limited versions of commercial products. It's your responsibility when installing any Linux (or other open source operating system) to be sure the extra components have license terms that are acceptable to you and your intended uses. See Comparing Commercial and Open Source Licenses for a brief comparison of commercial and open source (GPL and BSD) licenses.

Red Hat Linux 7.1, even the "Deluxe Workstation" version, is not a specific software product in the sense that Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional is. Like all Linux "distributions" any specific version of Red Hat is a collection of products. At the core is the Linux kernel which is covered by the GPL. Most of the UNIX style user and development utilities are products of the Free Software Foundation and also covered by the GPL. Together these create a very UNIX like, text based operating system. The details of the directory structure, the version of the kernel, which utilities and servers are included and their versions, will vary between different Linux distributions. At the command prompt, unless a specific tool the user is used to using is missing, different, reasonably contemporary versions of Linux, will look and behave pretty much like.

Red Hat has developed custom installation routines that are good at detecting hardware and adjusting system settings to take advantage of the specific computer on which the system is being installed. In addition to the kernel and standard utilities, a Red Hat install normally includes an X Window GUI. Gnome is the default GUI interface but KDE can be optionally installed along with or instead of Gnome and can be set to be the default user interface. The system can be set to boot to text mode or directly into a graphical mode. KDE is much more Microsoft Windows like than Gnome; it's close enough that most Windows users should have little difficulty adjusting to it.

Even the install provided with the "basic" Red Hat includes several very different configurations. The primary choices are Workstation or Server. With either of these, the user can still select individual packages (software components) to be installed. If they do, the components that would be installed for a workstation or server are pre-checked and the user can add or remove components at will. A custom option allows the user choose all packages to be installed without defaults set. Either the workstation or server with individual package selection makes better sense as anything but a purely experimental machine would not be likely to include all the possibilities.

A server install would typically include all the standard Internet servers including DNS (Bind), SMTP (Sendmail), FTP and httpd. Some of the servers including httpd, the Apache web server, are actually a separate products. Apache has a BSD style license except that there are additional name related restrictions, i.e., you can't call a derived product Apache or include Apache in its name without prior permission. Apache, with a BSD style license can be included because it's not actually part of Linux which will work with or without it or with other web servers. All Red Hat installs typically include the NFS and RPC related daemons.

A Red Hat workstation install with KDE selected will normally install KOffice, an office productivity suite. It is not a professional quality product and not comparable to Microsoft Office or StarOffice. StarOffice is included with the Deluxe Workstation and Professional Server versions of Red Hat 7.1 but not included in the standard version. It was available as a free download from Sun under Sun's Binary Code License (now appears fully commercial at or as an open source product from with either a GPL or compatible but different Sun Industry Standards Source License. Either way, it's a professional quality office productivity suite competitive with the Microsoft and Corel suites, available for free use, even in commercial environments. Support options can be purchased from Sun. Unless you plan to modify source code or wish to redistribute the product the details of the license are not likely make much difference.

Because Red Hat 7.1 really is not a single product, I intend to review different components in different reviews. I'm going to start with multi product comparison and discuss Linux, OpenBSD and the Windows NT / 2000 family of server products. This will discuss the three operating systems for use as servers only, as opposed to desktop systems. The Linux discussion will focus on Red Hat, including 6.1 through 7.1, because that is where most of my experience is. Most of what is said will be applicable to most contemporary Linux systems as I'll only be looking at the kernel, text mode and the standard UNIX utilities. It's worth noting that since both Linux and OpenBSD share most of the command line utilities and development tools they have much in common as well as many fundamental differences. Some of the pros and cons of even having a GUI on a server will be discussed.

As a separate review, I'll compare the X Window system and the KDE user interface to the Windows 95 - 2000 user interface and discuss this from the perspective of a desktop machine.

For any open source operating system to compete head to head with Microsoft Windows products as desktop systems, they must include a fully featured office productivity suite that is competitive with the Microsoft and Corel office products. StarOffice is such a product and available for Linux in a variety of languages as well as for Windows and Solaris. The emphasis will be on StarOffice with a number of specific feature comparisons with both Microsoft Office and WordPerfect / Corel Office products. It won't be comprehensive, as that would take a book or several, to describe what today's office productivity suites are capable of. The point won't be to establish that any one suite or specific application is superior to the others but that all three are fully featured, professional quality suites with enormous capabilities and also that each has some problems. The actual selection should depend on a number of factors. Unlike open source operating systems where it may not be clear what is and is not part of the product, StarOffice 5.2 is a specific product that can be directly compared and contrasted with competing commercial products.

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