By Michael P. Deignan

Mandrake Linux 8.1 represents a significant step toward a serious, reliable alternative to Microsoft Windows’ server and desktop operating systems. This latest version offers numerous server-based features that IT managers will find extremely attractive and invaluable support features for system administrators. It also provides an extremely user-friendly desktop environment, loaded with applications and utilities.

Mandrake = Linux for the enterprise
Mandrake 8.1 is one of the most technologically advanced Linux releases on the market. The product uses the “enterprise” kernel 2.4.8 and supports SMP systems (globally limited to a maximum of 32 CPUs by NR_CPUS in include/linux/threads.h) and more than 1 GB of RAM. With these kernel-level features, Mandrake 8.1 can handle computationally intensive tasks and can run on high-end server hardware. For compatibility with older applications, the 2.2.10 kernel is also available.

If Linux is to make serious inroads in mission-critical server environments, it must offer journalized file system (JFS) support. A JFS provides a high level of data integrity and helps reduce downtime due to data corruption or hardware failure. While other vendors of Linux operating systems have been slow to adopt journalized file systems, Mandrake 8.1 supports several, including Ext3, ReiserFS, XFS, and JFS. Such support gives IT managers who are evaluating Mandrake vs. other Linux OSes (or vs. Windows) an additional reason to choose Mandrake as a mission-critical server OS.

Included software and utilities
Mandrake 8.1 offers a full contingent of utilities to aid in the administration of the server environment. Administrators will appreciate the time-savings offered by Mandrake’s auto-install feature, which allows you to easily duplicate servers and thereby lets you deploy multiple identically configured servers from any secure-browser-enabled computer on the network. Also, Mandrake’s automated software management tools let you deploy application updates with little effort.

In terms of server deployment, preinstallation planning for Mandrake is especially important if you intend to provide file and print sharing through Samba. Mandrake 8.1 includes a special version of Samba that, when used with the latest kernel and an XFS file system, lets you use access control lists (ACLs) like those found in Windows NT to enable flexible file- and directory-level security.

Although the adoption of Linux on the desktop continues to be slow in the corporate world, primarily due to a lack of commercial application support, Mandrake 8.1 also provides a collection of useful desktop applications, including GNOME 1.4.1 (with Nautilus 1.04 and Evolution 1.0 Beta 3), KDE 2.2.1, KOffice 1.1, and StarOffice 5.2 (included with purchased versions). Other useful end-user apps include GIMP 1.2.2 (for high-end image editing), Web browsers Netscape Communicator and Mozilla 0.9.4, and Gnomemeeting 0.11 (for NetMeeting-like functionality).

Versions of Mandrake 8.1
Several editions of Mandrake 8.1 are available. The Download Edition costs $5 per CD (there are three discs in total) from the MandrakeStore. Commercial boxed sets of Mandrake 8.1 include the Standard Edition ($29) aimed at the desktop, similar to the Download Edition but available only through retail outlets; the PowerPack Edition ($69), aimed at desktop power users; and the ProSuite Edition, appropriate for server deployment ($50 for DVD-ROM or $149 for a package that also includes two server CDs and two manuals).

The principal differences between the boxed sets lie in the level of technical support offered and the number of application CDs included. For example, the Standard Edition includes three CDs—two for installation and a third containing nine commercial applications and utilities, including StarOffice 5.2, Sun’s Java 2 SDK, and Kaspersky Anti-Virus software. The PowerPack includes seven CDs—the three above, plus another commercial applications CD (with apps such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and JBuilder 4), an extra CD featuring open source applications, and two CDs of source code. The ProSuite includes nine CDs and one DVD, featuring all of the PowerPack CDs plus an additional CD with 10 more commercial applications.

In terms of support, the boxed sets include free technical support. Standard includes 30-day subscriptions to both MandrakeOnline, an online service that delivers customized alerts and software updates, and MandrakeExpert, a subscription service that provides online technical support from Mandrake’s support staff and other affiliated experts. PowerPack offers 30 days of phone support and 60-day subscriptions to the services. The ProSuite offers 60 days of phone support and extends the service subscriptions to 90 days each. All three editions include online documentation and an installation guide, but only PowerPack and ProSuite include a reference manual. And the ProSuite Edition features Extended Server Support, which offers support for Web, mail, and FTP servers.

Mandrake Linux 8.1 is an excellent choice for organizations seeking a viable, stable, technologically advanced alternative to Windows-based servers. While its utility as an alternative desktop is still dependent upon commercial application support, Mandrake’s server environment is a very good, affordable option for use as an Internet gateway or file and print server for Windows (and Linux) clients. Its included applications and utilities are highly useful, and its support offerings are more than adequate for corporate server deployments. Also, its support for ACLs (with XFS) enhances Mandrake’s capabilities as a file/print server in NT environments. Organizations looking for ways to lower their server costs would be well advised to evaluate this latest offering from Mandrake.

Michael P. Deignan is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to ZDNet/CNET.

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