Official and Unofficial Linux Distributions for IBM POWER8 Systems

Official and Unofficial Linux Distributions for IBM POWER8 Systems

One of the advantages of IBM POWER8 systems is that they support a variety of Linux distributions. And choice is good.

Yet with choice comes responsibility. You have to decide which Linux distribution is best for your POWER8 environments. If you’re struggling to make the decision, this article is for you. It outlines the pros and cons of the major Linux distributions that support IBM POWER8.

Background: IBM POWER8, Endianness, Virtualization, and Linux

Before delving into a comparison of Linux distributions for IBM POWER8 systems, let’s first discuss some of the important things you should understand about the current state of POWER8 platforms and the software that runs on them.

In particular, you should have a grasp of what endianness means and how it affects POWER8 systems. You should also understand which virtualization frameworks are available for IBM POWER8.

Simply put, endianness refers to the way computers store data. Most PCs are little-endian systems. Traditionally, IBM’s POWER chips were big-endian. This meant that most operating systems and software designed for little-endian systems could not run on POWER systems without significant modifications.

Today, that is no longer true. Most modern POWER systems can now run either little-endian or big-endian software. So, if you are worried about how endianness affects your ability to run the Linux distribution of your choice on POWER8, you don’t have to. Although this was once an issue, it no longer is.

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You should also understand that POWER8 now supports two types of virtualization frameworks, which allow you to run guest operating systems on POWER8 servers. One is PowerVM, IBM’s traditional virtualization solution for POWER systems. The other is KVM, an open source hypervisor that runs on Linux.

In general, you can use either PowerVM or KVM to virtualize a Linux-based operating system on POWER8. Here again, what seems complicated is not actually that confusing. But I mention it because it can be hard to wrap your head around the different virtualization options for POWER8, especially because KVM is still a relative newcomer to this ecosystem.

The above is by no means a complete introduction to endianness, virtualization or other complex topics on POWER8 platforms. It’s intended merely as general background, and something you should be aware of because it affects the way you can deploy Linux on POWER8.

Official and Unofficial Linux Distributions for IBM POWER8 Systems

Official Linux Distributions for POWER8

OK. Now let’s talk about which Linux distributions actually support POWER8. We can break these down into two groups.

First, there are the Linux distributions that IBM officially supports. These fall into three families:

  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux – one of the most widely used commercial Linux distributions for data centers.
  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Server – another major commercial Linux distribution. SUSE’s profile within the open source ecosystem is somewhat smaller than that of Red Hat, although SUSE’s roots go deeper; it was one of the first major Linux vendors.
  • Ubuntu – a Linux distribution that is newer than those from Red Hat and SUSE (Ubuntu launched in 2004, the others date to the 1990s) and is almost certainly the most popular Linux distribution in the world for PCs. The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, has a strong focus on the server market as well, however. And Ubuntu has a very active user community.

IBM supports all of these distributions to run on bare metal, in KVM virtual machines or in PowerVM for POWER8 systems. In most cases, both little endian and big endian versions are supported. For the details on which specific versions of the distributions are supported in which contexts and on which specific POWER8 platforms, check out IBM’s knowledge center.

Unofficial Linux Distributions

In addition to the Linux distributions that IBM officially endorses on POWER8, you can run other Linux distributions as well. Options in this category include:

  • Debian – a well established non-commercial Linux distribution. (By non-commercial, I mean that Debian is maintained by the open source community, and is not directly supported by any company, unlike Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, and Ubuntu. Debian is, however, used in commercial settings sometimes.) Debian has probably the largest selection of software packages for any Linux distribution.
  • CentOS – another non-commercial Linux distribution that is basically a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. (Because Red Hat’s software is open source, the CentOS community can take its code and recompile it, creating CentOS.)
  • Fedora – a community-based Linux distribution that is supported by Red Hat but does not require licenses. Red Hat uses Fedora to incubate and test technologies that later find their way into Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a Linux distribution for your POWER server, then you have lots of options, which include both community-based and commercial offerings. And you no longer have to worry about the complexity regarding endianness and virtualization that used to make choosing a distribution for POWER architectures so confusing. This still matters somewhat, but things are much simpler today.

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Christopher Tozzi

Authored by Christopher Tozzi

Christopher Tozzi has written about emerging technologies for a decade. His latest book, For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution, is forthcoming with MIT Press in July 2017.

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