December 6, 2004

Fedora Core 3: A whole new level

Author: Ken Barber

Fedora Core 3 (FC3), released last month as the successor to Red Hat's consumer-grade product that was discontinued a year ago, takes Linux to a whole new level.

Fedora is not a distribution aimed at the general consumer market, and it's hardly fair to compare it to commercial distros (as I once did). Fedora's intended audience is people who want to be somewhere between the leading edge and the bleeding edge: it's a test bed for the next release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.  Its developers try new things with every release, and they don't always work, but you get to work with the newest of the new stuff. Fedora is meant to be tinkered with and customized. It is meant to be pushed to the breaking point to find its weak areas. It has become an important proving ground for new technology. In addition, the Fedora Project's commitment to 100% free software means that there will always be certain goodies (such as MP3 capability) that users will have to obtain and install themselves.

I have three critical pieces of advice for anyone installing this release:

  1. Do a clean install (i.e., not an upgrade install).
  2. Read the release notes before you
    try to do anything.
  3. Apply the updates immediately.

In the past, upgrade installs of Red Hat distributions have worked well.
Not this one. There is a whole new level of technology here, and early
adopters are finding that it's quicker and easier to install and configure
from scratch than to fix all the things that break in an upgrade.
There are also many old ways of doing things that do not work anymore,
leading to a great deal of frustration for people who neglect to read the release notes.

One of these is a "dynamically managed" /dev directory in which
device nodes are created and deleted on the fly by a daemon called
udev. Unfortunately, some debugging code was accidentally left in the
shipping version, so some of your hardware won't work until you apply the udev
update.

Once these three items are taken care of, FC3 is an excellent distribution
that, unlike its predecessor, "just works" on most
hardware. There are annoyances and a few gotchas, but no show-stopper bugs.
I was productive again on the same day that I installed it.

What's new

In addition to the udev daemon mentioned above, there are several
other things that, from a system administrator's viewpoint, are significant.
Almost all are documented in the release notes:

  • The Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) extensions work, thanks to a new
    "targeted policy" that is turned on by default.
  • Changes in the yum configs make it easier to add and remove
    repositories and work with mirror lists.
  • The new up2date utility is configured to work with a larger list of
    mirrors, and can be restricted to the ones near you. This should ease the
    frustrating up2date hangs due to server overloads that FC2 users have been
    enduring for the last few months.
  • Lots of things that were broken in FC2 are fixed too:
    • Rhythmbox no longer hangs with an error every few songs -- at least
      not in GNOME. I'm still testing it in KDE.
    • K3B works for all users; you don't have to be root anymore to use
      it.
    • OpenOffice.org fonts work correctly when generating PDFs. If you stick
      to Acrobat's built-in fonts -- Times, Helvetica, and Courier -- you won't get
      huge PDF files any more.
    • I haven't been able to confirm this, but the "Can't boot Windows
      after a dual-boot installation" problem seems to have gone away.
  • And finally, GNOME 2.8 sucks less than 2.6 did. But now that I've
    discovered the vast superiority of KDE, I doubt that I'll ever go back to
    GNOME.

Commonly encountered gotchas and their workarounds

  • An unfortunate issue with the kernel used by the installation program
    (see Alan Cox's explanation) causes
    the mediacheck function to condemn CDs that are actually good. Workaround:
    at the install CD's boot: prompt, enter linux ide=nodma
    before proceeding.
  • Some graphics chips (primarily nVidia and Intel) don't work with the
    new X.org drivers without tweaking. This can lead to a catch-22 where you
    can't log in to fix the problem until you've logged in and fixed the problem.
    Workaround: At the GRUB screen, follow the on-screen instructions to edit the
    kernel options line. Remove rhgb quiet to get a non-graphical boot,
    and add a 3 to the end of the line to boot into runlevel 3. Then,
    after you've searched through the fedora-list archives for the solution for your particular chipset, you
    can fix your config files.
  • CD-ROMs and diskettes are now mounted in /media instead of
    /mnt. Lots of scripts and users will have to be reconfigured.
  • SSH has stricter security settings; among other things,
    remote X11 forwarding is no longer on by default.
  • For people who need to compile kernel modules for certain <cough>
    nVidia </cough> graphics cards, the method for installing kernel sources
    has changed. Be sure you read the release notes.

Adding applications

One of the things that makes Fedora so useful is its popularity -- because
it is so widely used, it is easy to find precompiled third-party applications
for it. These are normally installed with the yum tool from
repositories on the Internet that have varying levels of compatibility with
each other.

Fedora Extras is the
Red Hat corporate-sponsored repository for packages that are not included in
the Core distribution. Like Fedora Core, it contains no software that is
encumbered in any way by patents or non-free licenses. A well-defined policy for testing and QA ensures that its packages won't
conflict with the Core or with each other. As I write this,
this repository had not yet been populated with packages for FC3, but I have been
assured that it is underway.

Livna.org considers
itself "an extension of fedora.us" (the host domain for Fedora Extras),
distributing packages that are unacceptable to the latter because of licensing
or patent issues -- for instance, packages that permit only non-commercial
use. These people work closely with fedora.us to ensure that their packages
do not conflict with each other, and in some cases Livna packages have
dependencies that are in the other repository. So if you're using Livna, you
must also include fedora.us in your yum configuration.

Another repository that works closely with fedora.us to ensure
compatibility is jpackage.org, which contains Java applications.

Then there are what I call the Lone Rangers -- repositories operated and
maintained by one person. One person working alone does not have the
resources to thoroughly test packages for conflicts with the other
repositories, and packages downloaded from some of them do not play nicely
with some of the other repositories. Among these are Matthias Saou's freshrpms.net and Dag Wieers'
site
, which both advertise as not conflicting with each other. Dag's
FAQ
also mentions a few other sites that he says won't conflict with his.
One site that he doesn't mention is Axel Thimm's ATRPMs site, though Axel mentions
Dag in a list
of repositories
that he says he is "in cooperation with." On that list
are several more repositories that space does not permit including here.
Caveat emptor.

A few of the applications that we've all come to rely upon are free-as-in-beer
but their licenses forbid redistribution. Some examples are Acrobat Reader,
RealPlayer, and the Macromedia Flash player. You can go to their respective Web sites,
download their binaries, and install them yourself. The one site that
Macromedia has authorized to distribute its Linux binaries is yum
compatible, so you can add it to your configuration if you wish. But there is only one
application there -- Flash player -- so you might as well just download it and
install it the old-fashioned way with rpm. Though they're not
supposed to be there, you can often find RPMs of these apps on some of the
more irreverent repositories.

Conclusion

If I were a movie reviewer, I would give FC3 a thumbs-up. It is a solid
release with few problems, and most of those are specific to certain hardware.
Its ease of installation and package management system make it an
excellent choice for newbies who want to learn Linux without the horrendous
learning curve associated with having to compile everything yourself. Its
functional SELinux component is a powerful incentive to install it just to
learn what will certainly become a standard in the near future. Indeed,
SELinux alone probably takes FC3 to a whole new level.

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