Amazon Linux 2 - Who nicked my cheese?

Updated: February 17, 2018

In mid-December, Amazon Web Services have announced the availability of the Release Candidate of their own custom operating system called Amazon Linux 2, based on Red Hat Linux Enterprise, with five years of support and some neat, modern features that should help people test - and hopefully get even more interested - the AWS compute technologies.

AWS also released AL2 as a virtual machine appliance, so it is available for testing outside the AWS domain. Which is where this article comes into play. I downloaded the VirtualBox vdi and set up a virtual machine, to see what, how, where, and when. Let us commence.

Initial impressions

I downloaded the VDI, set up a Red Hat type machine, configured the usual options, and then let it boot. After about thirty seconds of fast-scrolling text, I had a login prompt. Text of course, no GUI. In AWS, you'd login with your SSH credentials to your EC2 AMI. Here though, you need a different way. 'Tis a bit convoluted so we will talk about it separately. For now, assume there's a magical way to login - I haven't been able to find any easy or trivial root or ec2-user name/password combo online, and had to do some basic hax0rology.

Boot menu

Login

The system is now yours to use and command. System updates, package installation, the whole deal. Without being part of your AWS environment, this is somewhat less exciting, but still, you have the kernel, systemd and some custom packages to install, and you can do that without paying for cloud hosting, making this is a rather appealing testbed.

Kernel version

System update

By default, you get a small subset of Amazon tools under /opt/aws. You will need to install additional stuff like aws-apitools-ec2, aws-apitools-elb or others. But then, it works, and you can start playing and tweaking, within the limitations of what this setup offers.

Install various AWS apitools

Apitools installed

List of EC2 scripts

Is this good?

Well, that's an interesting question. The enterprise world of Linux is dominated by Red Hat, followed by SUSE, which has a stronger foothold in the CAD and supercomputing space. Ubuntu is a close third, and then there's a mix of other enterprise flavors, mostly based on Red Hat.

The big players offer their systems with strict ABI (no breakage like Debian), 10 years of support, and even longer. Anyway, Amazon promises LTS versions, which will probably mean a good round decade of support. More on this later. Plus, there's a wealth of supporting tools that should help you manage your environment more easily - and also make you more dependent on the vendor, as we shall discuss in a separate article. Most companies already have many years of legacy of applications and infrastructure build on top of RHEL and SLES, and changing will not be easy or immediate. Or even possible.

But Amazon Linux 2 is based on RHEL, so that should help some, plus it's the native system for the AWS environment, and offered free of charge, so the long game premise is definitely interesting. The chicken and the egg problem. What's more expensive, porting everything to a new operating system over six years or paying for premium enterprise support for your existing Linux over the same period? Times 23,000 servers. Or such.

AWS has nothing to lose by doing this - if no one picks up the OS, they still have customers running cycles in their cloud and paying for that, and the price already includes all the different licensing overheads and such. If people do embrace their system, then they win a tighter customer lock-in.

Will this be good for the users out there? Well, that's the real question. Amazon knows that they have to offer a differentiating factor compared to the established enterprise players, otherwise, apart from some string changes, there's no benefit. Hence the modern kernel 4.9, which is lightyears ahead of the existing enterprise crop - but also completely unsuitable for production use. It will be in 5-6 years, by which time, those testing and trialing the Amazon Linux will be comfortable with the technology.

The second joker could be performance - if Amazon can optimize their Linux and squeeze more juice from the processor than what RHEL (or others) can do, then they might sway performance-itchy customers, or those with large environments where every cent or percentage of speed difference means a lot to the bottom line.

But then ...

Reading the FAQ page, it seems the LTS image will be ONLY 5 years and it will BREAK the kernel-space ABI. So this may prove rather tricky. And of course, it is entirely possible that Amazon is aiming for a different type of customers than the classic enterprise tier. We will see.

Conclusion

So far, it's a relatively benign, easy introduction to a new operating system that blends the familiar and new in a timid package. Perhaps that's the goal, because a radical offering would right away scare everyone. Amazon Linux 2 is an appealing concept, as it gives users what Red Hat never quite did (yet) - A Fedora-like bleeding-edge tech with the stability and long-term support of the mainstay enterprise offering. But then, it also pulls a Debian/Ubuntu stunt by breaking ABI, so it will be cubicle to those who enjoying living la vida loco (in their cubicle or open-space prison).

Having lived and breathed the large-scale HPC world for many years, I am quite piqued to see how this will evolve. Performance, stability and ease of use will be my primary concerns. Then, is it possible to hook up a remote virtual machine into the EC2 hive? That's another experiment, and I'd like to see if scaling and deployment works well over distributed networks. Either way, even if nothing comes out of it, Amazon Linux 2 is a nice start to a possibly great adventure. Or yet another offspring in the fragmented family we call Linux. Time will tell. Off you go. Cloud away.

Cheers.

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