Scientific Linux 6: RHEL for Research

I am a long-time Debian fan.  As with many people in 1997/98, I started with Red Hat 4.2 and flipped between many Linux distributions before setting on Debian at home.  Ever since then, I’ve pretty much stuck to Debian-derived distros, from Storm Linux to XandrOS, Mepis to Progeny, and most recently Ubuntu.  I’ve been using Ubuntu at home and at work for years now and am generally very pleased with it.  Canonical has done more for end-user Linux than any other company by a country mile.  They’ve made Debian usable, and available on Dells, HPs, and many other laptops, netbook, and desktop machines.

Scientific Linux on my ThinkPad X61

However, I’m a full-time sysadmin.  On the server side, we have been moving very slowly from Solaris to Linux.  In general, we have a mix of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, CentOS 5, and Ubuntu 10.04 (and 8.04) on servers.  While RHEL is certainly less usable as a desktop, it makes a fine server OS.  Red Hat is also the strongest backer of the Linux kernel and other key parts of the plumbing that forms the basis for the Linux ecosystem we all enjoy and should support.

All of this to say that, while I prefer Ubuntu on a day-to-day basis, RHEL is my reality for core servers.  So, I thought it best to use it for a while on the desktop as well.  The results have been surprisingly positive.  For this test run, I am using Scientific Linux (SL.)  It, like CentOS and White Box Enterprise Linux, is a community-supported rebuild of RHEL.  You can mix and match sources between these distributions, ending up with a remarkably flexible and well-supported base.

I have been focusing mostly on SL6, a new rebuild of RHEL6.  Thus far, I have installed in on the following machines:

  • Sun Ultra 40 Workstation (Dual dual-core Opteron, 32GB RAM, Nvidia Quadra FX5500 video)
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2.2GHz, 2GB RAM, 64GB OCZ SSD)
  • IBM ThinkPad x24 (Pentium III, 640MB RAM, 1.8″ PATA drive)

I also tried unsuccessfully to install SL6 on an IBM ThinkPad X40.  The processor in this machine doesn’t support PAE, so I have reverted to SL5.5 on this machine instead.  This has given me the opportunity to test both major releases on a variety of hardware, from the low to the high-end.

Overall, all systems have been remarkably stable.  SL6, being based on Fedora Core 13, is very straightforward to configure with Google Chrome, Firefox 4, LibreOffice, and all of the modern niceties that Ubuntu users take for granted.  SL5.5 is based on the much older FC6.  This means that adding newer versions of software is far more problematic.  That said, both can be very usable systems.

I’ve also been impressed with Scientific Linux’s additions.  Flash worked out of the box, and adding support for MP3s and other file formats, while not as straightforward as Ubuntu, is easy enough to manage.

Still, I miss Debian’s 10,000+ packages.  This is unfortunately a common find:

Missing packages: Not an uncommon occurence

Thankfully, I have yet to find a package that I need that isn’t easily installable. True, there isn’t too much in the repositories, however you can still find RPMs of most programs. For the example above, Cluster SSH is packaged here. In general, this has been my experience using an RHEL-based distribution for a week. Overall it is a bit more work, but is no big deal for someone who has been using Linux for a while.

Overall, I’ll stick with SL6 on my desktop machines for a bit.  It’s no Ubuntu, but I try not to get too tied to any OS vendor.  I like Red Hat as a company and it’s worth trying to use their product (or at least a community rebuild of it) for day-to-day use.  I’m not a huge RHEL5 fan but it is very stable.  My biggest beef with Red Hat Enterprise Linux in general is the lack of upgrade-path.  I find it nothing short of stunning that there is no supported way to upgrade a server or desktop machine from RHEL5 to RHEL6.  Yes, it’s good that Red Hat is ready to support their releases for many years but upgrading OS releases is a problem that Debian solved ages ago.  Here’s hoping that Red Hat will tackle this with the inevitable RHEL7 release that is to come in the years ahead.

Next up:  Tips and tricks for making RHEL6/SL6 usable as an end-user desktop.

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