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Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 review

By Jem Matzan

MandrivaLinux (formerly MandrakeLinux) built its name and reputation on its consumer desktop products, but over the past two years its newer enterprise-grade GNU/Linux operating systems have been gaining momentum in a market traditionally dominated by Red Hat. Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0, released on September 19, is a major step forward not only for Mandriva, but for GUI-based server operating systems in general. It won't sway any sysadmins who are comfortable with the CLI, but if you don't have the budget to hire a good GNU/Linux sysadmin, you'll have a much easier time with Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 than pretty much any other server operating system.

Mandriva Corporate Server overview

This section describes Mandriva Corporate Server's common features and abilities. If you are already familiar with Mandriva Corporate Server, you may want to skip down to the next section to see what's new in version 4.0.

Mandriva Corporate Server makes installing, operating, and maintaining a network server on an x86, AMD64/EM64T, or easy. The base installation takes anywhere between 10-15 minutes to complete, and does its best to avoid including unnecessary software packages. Through the FIBRIC configuration tool, you can install and configure DNS, DHCP, NTP, PXE, Apache, Postfix, MySQL, MySQL-max, SQLite, PostgreSQL, OpenLDAP, Kerberos, PHP4 or PHP5, OpenVPN, Nagios, Webmin, and SquirrelMail, though advanced configuration of these services is still done from the terminal.

Virtually anyone who can properly install and configure a GNU/Linux desktop operating system can install, setup, and use Mandriva Corporate Server to get the most common network services up and running quickly.

What's new in version 4.0

Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 is a dramatic improvement over 3.0, which offered a barely usable graphical environment and few relevant graphical configuration tools. Here are the highlights of the new release:

  • Expanded virtualization support. Mandriva CS 4.0 was designed to work with VMware, Xen and OpenVZ to run virtual operating system instances.
  • Enhanced directory server integration. Service connectivity with Active Directory and OpenLDAP servers is improved.
  • A new graphical interface. KDE has replaced IceWM as the default graphical environment.
  • The FIBRIC (FIrst Boot RPM Installer and Configurator) service configuration tool. This program allows you to easily install and perform basic configuration on every service the operating system supports.
  • Simplified installation process. Sysadmins are now relieved of the burden of trying to figure out what packages need to be installed before the OS is installed. The only options during installation are whether to have a graphical environment or not (and whether it should be KDE or IceWM therein), and whether OpenSSH will be installed. Everything else is done post-install.

Putting it to the test

As advertised, it took no more than 10 minutes to install Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 on a test machine based on an Asus A8N-E with an Athlon 64 X2 3800+ and 1GB of RAM.

The installer, as usual, has at least one obvious bug in it: in the AMD64 version, at the end of the installation process the installer spits out the Mandriva disc and asks for the same disc. So it is looking for something that is not on the disc, apparently, but there was only one DVD to download, so I don't know quite what was missing. The message on the screen admonished me to press Cancel if I wanted to skip this, but there was no Cancel button. The only way out of it was to press Previous, then click Reboot. The system did not seem to have any adverse reaction to this installation blunder, though while installing programs in FIBRIC the system would spit out the disc every single time I chose to install a package, even though the correct (only!) disc was already in the drive.

On first boot you're asked to log in as usual, then you're asked for the root password to start FIBRIC, the new service installation and configuration tool. I found FIBRIC to be a wonderful first effort, but it is missing too much functionality to really do its job 100%.

Beyond the installation, setting up Apache, MySQL, and Postfix services through FIBRIC only took a few extra minutes. So far, so good, right? Well that depends on how much customization your services require. Postfix may work after a few basic configuration options are set, and you have the choice between Cyrus and Courier for your MTA, but what if you want to filter for spam and viruses with Amavis or Spamassassin? Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 does have an answer for mail filtering via Amavis, ClamAV, and Spamassassin, but there is no configuration module for it in FIBRIC, so you have to go to the command line to properly tune your filters.

What if you need to host several virtual domains? Well, FIBRIC doesn't support that in its Apache and Postfix configuration modules, so you're out of luck. Mandriva's apparent answer to this problem involves installing virtual copies of the OS through OpenVZ, Xen, or VMware (though there are no FIBRIC modules for these, either). Installing a virtual OS to handle a different domain is the software equivalent of building a second office complex because a new employee needs a cubicle. It's not only overkill for the task at hand, but it increases the amount of system administration work. Sometimes virtualization is the best solution for servers that require dramatically different configurations, but in the majority of cases, simply configuring Apache for virtual hosting and Postfix for virtual domains and aliases is quicker, more efficient in terms of system resources, and requires less sysadmin time.

FIBRIC only covers some network services; others, like setting up a proxy server or modifying the hosts definitions, are still done through the Mandriva Linux Control Center. Still others may be managed through Webmin, though as I pointed out in the previous edition of Mandriva Corporate Server, Webmin is not properly configured for the services that Mandriva offers. More than half of the modules shown in Webmin are inactive because Mandriva doesn't have packages for them.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I'm left with the same feeling I had with Mandriva Corporate Server 3.0: if you're going to have a server that uses a graphical environment, you should be able to do all of your configuration work from it. If you can't, the GUI just gets in the way. Mandriva Corporate Server 4.0 is the inexperienced sysadmin's best bet, but if you already know how to configure your services in GNU/Linux, then you'll probably find Mandriva Corporate Server to be overpriced and overautomated. If you can easily set up Debian, Slackware, or Gentoo to perform all of your server needs from the terminal, then why do you need to pay hundreds of dollars for Mandriva Corporate Server only to do half of your work (or less) through a GUI, then work mostly from the terminal from there onward? It doesn't make any sense.

Mandriva Linux as a desktop operating system has value to users because most or all of the complex setup work is done for you; Mandriva Corporate Server may do the initial setup for you and get your server up and running, but all of the advanced options are ignored. Additionally, though the company boasts virtualization support, there are no graphical configuration tools to configure them. Again, why bother with Mandriva if, in the end, you have to work from the terminal anyway?

Though it should be obvious from the review text, here's what I'd like to see in the next edition of Mandriva Corporate Server:

  • Better testing. It seems like I put this as the #1 priority in every Mandriva review I have written in the past several years. There is a distinct lack of respect for quality assurance testing at Mandriva; this is something that has to change for the company to stay competitive with SUSE and Red Hat. The error with the DVD I mentioned above is a stupid oversight -- it is not something that requires weeks of stress testing to find. There are also "development" and "Development" package groups -- yet another stupid oversight. There is no excuse for these kinds of errors in a commercial, production-quality GNU/Linux distribution.
  • Consolidate the administration tools. I like FIBRIC a lot, but it needs to do more than ask for passwords and set domain name variables. Webmin is very good at providing a graphical interface for advanced configuration of all of its supported services, but Mandriva has again failed to customize it for the limits of the operating environment. Since FIBRIC and Webmin basically aim to do the same things, why not examine Webmin's depth and attention to detail, then add that functionality to FIBRIC? It's also time to take the system administration functions out of the Mandriva Control Center and put them into FIBRIC as well. There should be a single, consistent interface for system administration, not three or four.
  • Graphical tools for Xen. VMware comes with its own GUI, and I've never used OpenVZ so I have no idea what it's like. Xen, however, could stand to have a Mandriva-specific configuration tool. SUSE has one, and so should Mandriva. Again, this goes back to the sentiment that if you're going to provide a graphical environment, the user should be able to use it to control the whole operating system.
Purpose Server operating system
Manufacturer Mandriva Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Mostly the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses, but some parts are proprietary, and the product as a whole is under a proprietary, restrictive license.
Market Small/medium businesses
Price (retail) U.S. $314 with one year of software maintenance. Longer maintenance periods are available for an added cost.
Previous version Mandriva Corporate Server 3.0
Product Web site Click here