The quickest way to build a commercial Linux business is to clone whatever Red Hat does. That's what Oracle and CentOS do with their Enterprise Linux redistributions and accompanying paid-for support offerings, and it is now what Novell is doing with a "new" product called SUSE Manager.
With SUSE Manager, announced today, Novell is trying to not only provide a better tool for managing its SUSE Linux Enterprise server than its existing Yast and ZENworks products, but is also trying to branch out into managing Red Hat Enterprise Linux as well as its own distro for servers.
The company could have spent a lot of time and money creating a tool that allowed for the management of RHEL and SLES, the two most popular Linuxes (in terms of support revenue, not necessarily installations). Or it could grab the Red Hat Network Satellite code that its Linux rival created to provision, patch, and manage RHEL and make it play nice with SLES.
The code behind Red Hat Network Satellite, the version of Red Hat's management system that you run behind your own firewall (as distinct from plain old Red Hat Network, which Red Hat runs on its systems to manage yours from outside your firewall) was open sourced in June 2008. The RHN Satellite code was opened up as Project Spacewalk, which now exists upstream from the code base that eventually becomes RHN Satellite.
Doug Jarvis, product marketing manager for enterprise Linux at Novell, tells El Reg that Novell decided to create its own SUSE-compatible version of the Spacewalk code base about nine months ago. To make the Spacewalk code work with SUSE Linux required some changes, but nothing monumental, according to Jarvis. Essentially, you have to make RHN Satellite speak Zypp and AutoYast for SUSE Linux configuration and package management, both of which are used by SUSE Linux.
Red Hat's Enterprise Linux distro uses Yum for package management and Kickstart for network installs. Novell has added support for Zypp and AutoYast (their equivalents) to Spacewalk 1.2 and contributed this SLES-friendly code back to the project. So if it wants to, Red Hat can turn around and add support for SLES to RHN and RHN Satellite. Nothing has been removed from SUSE Manager that would break compatibility with RHEL, so you can switch from RHN Satellite to SUSE Manager.
SUSE Manager is similar, in concept, to the functionality in ZENworks Linux Management 7.3 and ZENworks Configuration Management 11, two existing products sold by Novell. But Jarvis says that these ZENworks products were designed at first to control Windows-based desktops and use terminology and logic familiar to Windows admins, not to Linux nerds.
But the problem is larger than that. Linux people want open source tools, Windows people could care less. Linux admins are still mad at Red Hat because its KVM hypervisor management tools run only on Windows, and ditto for VMware and its vCenter console. Linux and Windows platforms are like Hatfields and McCoys in the data center. They may share the same kind of iron most of the time, but even with virtualization on the rise and presumably making them share virtualized platforms under a single management framework, they tend to be siloed and they take shots at each other - mostly verbally - over the racks from opposite sides of the data center.
Novell tried to ignore this fact, as have Red Hat and VMware. The existing ZENworks tools were extended to support SUSE Linux Enterprise Server a few years back, but hard-core SLESheads didn't want to use a Winders tool to manage their Linux servers. They probably won't mind using a clone of RHN Satellite painted green with chameleons crawling all over it, though. And now, the RHEL people and the SLES people are allies inside of a company and in supporting the Spacewalk project, which Novell has been contributing to as it developed SUSE Manager. (If Novell wanted to be politically neutral, it could have called it Novell Linux Manager and not used the SUSE brand at all, of course.)
SUSE Manager is designed to run inside if a SLES 11 appliance atop a KVM or Xen hypervisor, but you can run it on bare metal iron running SLES 11 if you want to. The program can manage RHEL 4, 5, and 6 as well as SLES 11. The plan is to support the earlier SLES 10 release by the end of the year, but Novell does not have plans to go all the way back to SLES 9.
SUSE Manager is available today and is open source, so you don't have to pay to use it. But if you want the supported version, which gets patch feeds from Novell and Red Hat for their respective Linuxes, then you have to pay some cash.
The product has five different components. The first is the SUSE Manager Server, which runs on Linux; this costs $13,500 and it is the thing you put inside your firewall from which you control and patch your SLES and RHEL instances. You can manage virtualized versions of those Linuxes running locally on your own iron as well as out on public clouds; SUSE Manager can also be used, just like RHN Satellite, to patch and provision those Linuxes on bare physical iron in a non-virtualized manner. The second component is the SUSE Manager Proxy Server, which is used to do the patching and management work on your iron; this costs $3,500 per year, and larger installations with lots of servers might need a couple of these proxies to handle their machines.
Then, on top of this, you have to buy management, provisioning, and monitoring modules to provide the functionality that you want. Each of these modules has their own price on top of the cost of SUSE Manager Server and SUSE Manager Proxy Server, and the prices are the same for each module.
If you are running Linux on a bare-metal servers using x64 processors, then these modules cost $96 per server per year for support. If you are running in a virtualized environment, then in costs $192 per physical server with unlimited numbers of virtual machines. SUSE Manager can also be used to manage SLES and RHEL instances on IBM's logical partitions on its System z mainframes. In this case, support for the add-on modules cost $1,000 per year per mainframe engine.
While Novell is playing friendly with Spacewalk in helping the project work with SLES, the move is not just about co-existing with RHEL but also trying to replace it. The management tools that RHEL customers use are probably as important to system admins as the Linux distro itself, so trying to convince companies to drop RHEL because SLES is a lot cheaper is problematic. But if the management tools are essentially the same, now Novell at least stands a chance of winning some RHEL takeout deals. ®