May 19, 2008

Fedora 9: Leading edge or bleeding edge?

Author: Bruce Byfield

With Fedora 9, the Fedora project continues its tradition of being the most innovative major distribution, combining new applications from other distributions as well as its own inventions. However, in no other release has Fedora walked the line between leading edge and bleeding edge so precariously. At times, as with its updating of subsystems and its selection of desktop software, Fedora 9 manages to innovate without inconveniencing users. But, in other cases, most notably in the changes to package installation, the project has chosen innovation over usability.

Like earlier releases, Fedora 9 offers a wealth of installation alternatives, and introduces some of its own. The download page offers 32- and 64-bit DVDs and CDs, and live media for both GNOME and KDE desktops. Alternatively, you can create a bootable USB flash drive -- an option that, starting in Fedora 9, includes the ability to store your own data and permanently alter the installation. Other choice include the Unity subproject's supply of custom spins. If none of these choices suits you, you can create your own install image using Revisor.

With Fedora 9, you also have the option of using live-usb-creator from Windows to create a live flash drive. While Fedora leader Paul Frields says that adding a version of Ubuntu's Wubi remains a future possibility, the live-usb-creator seems a simpler alternative, especially as the result lacks most of the speed problems of a live CD. For now, the application is not available in Fedora itself, although the project page suggests that it should be soon.

Most users will probably install via an install or live DVD/CD. The live CD is the fastest choice to download and offers the simplest install program, but experienced users might miss the ability to control the details of the installation.

The standard install disks use Anaconda, which is probably the oldest graphical install for GNU/Linux still in use. Fedora 9's Anaconda offers only minor changes from earlier versions, such as the ability to install on an ext4 filesystem (if you happen to feel adventurous, since the format is still being developed and is only partially supported by tool sets) and the ability to resize partitions. Between the beta and the final versions, the listing of wireless devices in Anaconda seems to have vanished, leaving installers in the uneasy position of not knowing which ones have been detected until they reboot into the new system. That point aside, as in previous versions, Anaconda provides an installation that requires minimal choices for newcomers while providing the customization that experienced users may prefer.

Fedora 9 also looks forward to future releases with PreUpgrade, a wizard to guide you through the process of upgrading an existing system. While PreUpgrade currently points only to Rawhide, the Fedora development repository, it does promise to remove some of the uncertainty about how to change from one release to another.

The system and the desktop

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Behind the scenes, Fedora 9 boasts a number of modifications that average users may not observe, but that may still have a major effect on their computing. PulseAudio, which was an installable option in Fedora 8, is now a standard in the configuration dialogs, offering more sophisticated sound than earlier alternatives such as ALSA and OSS. Fedora 9 has also adopted Canonical's Upstart as a replacement for System V's init scripts, resulting -- among other things -- in a somewhat faster boot and shutdown, with the promise of more enhancements to come. Other speed increases come courtesy of Xorg 1.4 and X Server 1.5, which together improve the performance of the X Window System.

After installation, Fedora 9 opens a default desktop with New Age tie-dye wallpaper. The selection of standard software is more cutting edge than in earlier versions of Fedora, perhaps due as much to accidents of timing in various project releases than any deliberate policy choice. At any rate, the release includes not only stable new releases such as GNOME 2.22 and OpenOffice.org 2.4, but also some applications still in development, such as KDE 4.03, Firefox 3 beta 5, the 2.6.25 Linux kernel, and OpenJDK, the free version of Sun's Java, supplemented by the earlier IcedTea workaround. On the whole, the inclusion of releases still in development is remarkably trouble-free. OpenJDK seems ready for prime time for common desktop purposes, while Firefox 3 is stable, if not optimized for speed yet. Those who use wireless devices with Ralink chipsets should be especially glad of the 2.6.25 kernel, which includes built-in support for them.

To this mix, Fedora 9 adds only a few minor enhancements in applications, such as a redesigned Screen Resolution dialog and SE Linux policies for browsers and extensions. Probably the most noticeable changes for everyday computing are in the Network Manager, which now supports multiple active network devices as well as what the release notes summary describe as "ad-hoc support for wireless" -- which appears to mean automatic detection of wireless devices without the need to configure them specifically.

Software installation

The most controversial change in Fedora 9 is the replacement of the Pirut front end for Yum and the Pup updater with PackageKit, an application intended to provide a universal front end for all package systems. Although PackageKit is not intended to allow you to install a mixture of .DEB and .RPM packages on the same system, or convert packages from one format to another, the advantages of a common interface are obvious. PackageKit is also a marked improvement over Pup, in that it divides upgrades into categories such as Security, Bug Fixes, and Enhancements, allowing you to make choices about what to install without having to go to the effort of researching every upgrade.

However, the way that Fedora 9 has implemented the change is less than ideal. For one thing, neither Pirut nor Pup is in the Fedora 9 repository. Even more importantly, while the GNOME PackageKit interface divides packages into groups and displays filtered search results, it does not allow installation by groups or multiple selections. In other words, should you want to add the KDE or Xfce desktop without having to install dozens of packages one at a time with GNOME PackageKit, you need to use the Yum command itself, or install another graphical software installer like Yumex.

According to the PackageKit FAQ for Fedora 9, group installs should be available shortly in PackageKit. But, given the current lack of this functionality, PackageKit's inclusion in the release seems premature. It could have easily waited for the next release.

Conclusion

Aside from the problems with PackageKit -- and, to a lesser extent, the inclusion of KDE 4.0.3 -- Fedora 9 manages to balance innovation with a high degree of usability. Over the last few months, Fedora has been increasingly compared favorably with Ubuntu on both accounts, and, to a large extent, it deserves this praise. If anything, it has probably exceeded Ubuntu in innovation, with at least a dozen major new ideas in every release. It is a rare release, too, in which Fedora's menus and dialog do not show minor tinkering to fine-tune the user experience.

Yet the problems in Fedora 9 emphasize how difficult a balance the Fedora project tries to maintain. The fact that improvements are coming for both KDE and PackageKit, and that, meanwhile, workarounds exist, is beside the point -- these facts are lucky accidents, and nothing that Fedora has done.

Although Fedora's innovations make it one of the more interesting distributions to use and watch these days, the project needs to temper its creativity with more consideration of how changes affect users. Perhaps these relatively minor problems will help the distribution correct its release policies before a major disaster happens in a future release.

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  • Fedora/Red Hat
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  • Linux
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