July 6, 2004

Fedora Core 2: Making it work

Author: Ken Barber

Recently I concluded my review of Fedora Core 2 (FC2) on Linux.com with the words, "It's an
important step in the evolution of Linux ... but I won't be using it for
production work anytime soon." What a difference a month makes -- I am now using FC2 for production work. Here's how I got around the distro's deficiencies.

Getting FC2 to a state of desktop readiness is a task
that requires a medium amount of skill and will probably take close to a
full day for the first workstation (assuming that you have a high-speed
Internet connection). Subsequent installs should go more quickly;
indeed, I intend for my students to get most of it done during their first
three-hour class.

Step 1: Installation

If you intend to work in the GNOME environment I have
some suggestions to mitigate some of its problems. You will need the
gconf-editor package to do this, so if you're installing GNOME (I do, just
in case some of its libraries are needed) be sure to include that package.
You can also save yourself some time by installing nedit, in the
Applications/Editors package group, as an alternative to gedit.

But frankly, the best way to mitigate the myriad problems in GNOME 2.6
is to include KDE in your install, and make it the default environment at your
first opportunity to do so. I find myself far more productive in KDE than in
GNOME these days. It is wise to install KDE before creating any
non-root users, in order to get KDE's goodies onto their default desktops.

If you produce HTML or XML (especially DocBook) content in your work, you
will want to make sure you include Quanta in your install. In fact, I'm
writing this article in Quanta. Curiously, it's in the "Graphical Internet" package group instead of the "Editors" group, making it easy to miss.

If your work involves making PDFs from OpenOffice.org (OOo) documents, there's
an easy fix for the "huge PDF file size" problem: Skip installing Red Hat's
version of OOo. Install it later from the official binaries supplied by the
OOo project, and OOo won't embed fonts into PDF files that Acrobat Reader
already has. This makes even more sense now that OOo 1.1.2 has been
released.

Finally, if your workstation has a serial mouse, you will want to use the
text-based, rather than the graphical, installer.

Step 2: Post-install configuration

The first thing you should do with any new install is to
download and apply all of the available security updates. Fortunately,
FC2's up2date utility is vastly improved from prior versions, and
no extra configuration is required to begin using it. Just click on the throbbing
red icon that appears on your panel and answer the questions it
asks. This is a slow process even with high-speed Internet, so you might
as well add some third-party repositories to your yum configuration
while you wait (next section). Check up2date every few minutes,
because it pauses in a lot of places, waiting for you to click a button before
it continues.

If you're on a dialup connection this will take several hours to a day or
more. If you have more than one machine to configure and know the rpm
command well, you might consider manually downloading and installing the
updates instead.

Adding third-party repositories to your configuration

Because the Fedora Project is committed to supplying only 100% open
source products in its distributions, you must obtain useful applications like Acrobat Reader, Flash player, and MP3 support from third parties.

It is personally amazing to me how quickly the Fedora-using community
assembles applications into Red Hat Package
Manager (RPM) packages for FC2. Even better, most of these are available on
special sites called repositories that interact with the
yum command to automatically resolve dependencies (other packages
that your package needs, and must be downloaded and installed, in order to
run). The trick is in finding the repositories and adding them to your
yum configuration.

There's an excellent list of repositories already assembled into a custom yum
configuration file
at the unofficial
Fedora FAQ site
. There is also a Fedora tracker search engine that not
only finds the repository containing the package you want, but claims to
generate a custom yum configuration file for you!

Application Package name
xmms xmms-mp3
rhythmbox gstreamer-plugins-mp3

Unfortunately, there are a few repositories that reportedly do not play
nicely with certain other repositories. These incompatibilities seem to
fall mostly between the "purist" sites (only 100% open source) and the
"questionable license" sites.

Finally, there is the matter of those few packages that are not
available on a repository, and must be downloaded and installed the
old-fashioned way with rpm. (I can hear it now: "You softies! Why,
back in my day we had to install software with the RPM command! With a command-line interface! At 56Kbps both ways, by thunder!") Among these are Java
(available from Dag Wieers'
site
), Wine (available from newrpms),
Acrobat Reader, and RealPlayer.

The last two items are worth discussing further. For some reason, Adobe's
official Acrobat Reader binaries have never worked in any version of Fedora, at
least not for me or my students. Fortunately, the RPM of Acrobat Reader that comes
with SUSE Linux 9.0 works just fine in FC2 and FC1. You can find it on any SUSE
mirror, buried under an inordinate number of subdirectories named "SUSE"
in a directory named "i586."

You can download a beta of the open-source Helix player (formerly known as RealPlayer) with
plugins that enable it to play older, proprietary RealPlayer content. It
worked flawlessly when I tried it, but I didn't test it thoroughly.

Change the default environment to KDE

As root, edit /etc/sysconfig/desktop to contain only the following
line, including the quote marks:

DESKTOP="KDE"

Step 3: User-level configuration

Finally, each user has to do a lot of tweaking before
his new FC2 environment is very usable. If you have a lot of users it might
be possible to script this, or create a custom "skeleton file"
(actually a directory, /etc/skel, which holds the default
configuration for newly created users) to ease the burden a bit.

Everything is relative

Getting FC2 to a state of usability in a home or office environment
requires a great deal more labor than I believe should be required. However,
my complaints were put into perspective last week when I visited a classroom
to start getting it ready for summer term. I walked in on a cursing,
overworked desktop support tech who was griping loudly about the
inordinate time it takes to install and patch Windows on a roomful of
computers -- in an organization that will not pay for disk imaging
software or an in-house Windows Update server. "You don't need Microsoft
Office installed on these, I hope?" he asked through a fog of sweat and
frustration. I acknowledged that I did not. Then he wanted to know if I
needed HP printer drivers installed, with a cynical groan about how it
would "only take a few more hours."

I used to supervise people who support Windows on the desktop. I had
forgotten how bad Windows really is. Suddenly my gripes about Fedora
seemed petty.

White noise "hiss" from sound card

Of all of FC2's warts, this has turned out to be the most annoying problem. I don't know how many people suffer from it, but it
happens with every sound card I have. I hereby thank Peg Gallo for sending
the fix to me: In KDE, start KMix (Main Menu --> Sound & Video --> KMix),
click the Input tab, and check the "Advanced" box. You will see one or more
devices called "IEC958." One of them is the culprit; turn them off until you
find the right one.

GNOME's problems

If you insist on working in the GNOME environment, you can turn off the
annoying "spatial mode" in the file manager using the GConf Editor (in GNOME:
Main Menu --> System Tools --> Configuration Editor). In the left-hand
panel, open the following containers: Apps --> Nautilus --> Preferences.
In the right-hand panel, check the always_use_browser box.

If rhythmbox throws a "Could not pause playback" error when you try to
play a song, that is also fixed in the GConf Editor. See bug
#119958
for the solution.

I have not found a way to get GNOME's new help system to display man
pages. In the end, this was my biggest reason for switching to KDE.

Conclusion

So there you have it. With a little work (OK, a lot of work) Fedora Core 2
can be made useful for a production environment. In my view, it's worth the
work. It runs noticeably faster than kernel 2.4
distributions and has been rock-stable for me. And with all of the work, it's
still a lot less annoying than keeping a Windows system running. Indeed,
as I've been writing this my son has been struggling to get his sound card
working on his dual-boot system. After days of troubleshooting, it still doesn't
work in Windows -- but it works fine in his new Fedora Core 2 installation!

Click Here!