November 9, 2006

Fedora Core 6: Kneel before Zod!

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Fedora Core 6, codenamed Zod, was released on October 24 for x86, PowerPC, and AMD64 systems. With a number of improvements over its predecessors, this is an impressive release, if you're willing to overlook a couple of installer bugs.

The FC6 schedule slipped a bit at the last minute due to a handful of serious issues, such as an Ext3 data corruption bug, but the Fedora team managed to get the final release out pretty close to schedule. Unfortunately, it's still a bit buggy in some scenarios. It might have been better to hold off releasing FC6 for another week or two to fix the problems, but it is a good release if you're willing to be careful during the install.

Installing Fedora Core 6

I have been using Fedora Core 6 since Test 3 was released in September. The Anaconda installer was spectacularly buggy in the test release and pre-release, and would crash any time I changed any defaults in the software selection part of the installation. The final release is much better, but it still crashes when you select the extras repository during installation. This is true whether you're performing a text-mode installation or using the GUI installer, and I've experienced it on two machines.

If you opt to install FC6 using Anaconda in text mode, it defaults to runlevel 3 -- multi-user text mode. This means that you don't get any form of the post-install configuration that you see when you use the GUI installer, which defaults to runlevel 5, multiuser with X11. You're not prompted to set up additional users, test sound, and so on. This strikes me as, if not a bug, certainly a poor choice.

According to the release notes, one of the new features in this release is IPv6 support in Anaconda. This has me scratching my head a bit, because I don't know of anyone using IPv6 in production. There's no harm in adding IPv6 support, but I have to wonder why developer time went into that.

I tested FC6, the final release, on a laptop, workstation, and under VMware Server. The workstation has an Athlon XP 2600+ CPU, 1GB of RAM, a GeForce FX 5500 video card, and a WinBook C1700 17-inch LCD. The laptop has a 3.06GHz Pentium 4, 1GB of RAM, and ATI Radeon 250 video chipset.

Hardware support under Fedora Core 6 is very good, at least as far as I could determine using my collection of test machines. FC6 got the video settings right on the first try, and had no problem configuring sound. On the workstation, I tried a USB soundcard/speaker combo that I got at Novell BrainShare rather than using an internal soundcard. FC6 had no problems with it.

The only major hardware problem I've found is with FC6's support for my laptop's trackpad. It's easy to send Firefox back several pages in its history if I'm not very careful about how I move my fingers on the trackpad. I Googled a bit, and found that other users have had the same problem with previous releases of Fedora Core. I've never had this problem with other distros on the same machine.

Using Fedora

If you don't customize packages during the install, which I was reluctant to do since Anaconda seemed mighty fragile, GNOME is the only desktop environment installed. If you want Xfce or KDE, they're just a few clicks away, thanks to the Pirut package manager.

In addition to Zod's improvements in GUI package management, the yum command-line package manager has been updated to feature a new metadata parser that's written in C. Now yum is supposed to be faster when dealing with package information, and it does feel a bit faster than yum in previous releases. FC6 sports package update notifications via an icon and notification in the desktop tray, which is a nice addition for those of us who forget to check on updates every morning.

If you choose the desktop set of packages, FC6 includes the applications you'd expect with a GNOME desktop: Firefox, Gaim, Evolution, OpenOffice.org, and so forth. The developers have, in most cases, included the most recent or very close to the most recent versions of applications, even including beta4 of Gaim 2.0 rather than sticking with the old stable version. They did stick with the 1.5 series of Firefox, though, so you may want to go ahead and grab the official release from the Mozilla site if you'd like to run the most recent release.

Compiz is installed but not enabled by default. If you have a supported video card, enabling Compiz is easy. Under the System -> Preferences menu on the GNOME desktop, there's a menu entry for Desktop Effects. Just click that, "Enable Desktop Effects," and that's it. If your video card isn't supported, it will error out.

Compiz worked just fine on the laptop, which sports the ATI Radeon card, and refused to start on the workstation with the Nvidia card. A list of cards known to work (and not work) can be found on the Fedora site.

If you've seen pictures or videos of Compiz in action, but haven't actually used Compiz on your own desktop, you might think that it's useless eye candy, and you'd be half right: It is eye candy, but it's not useless. The window thumbnail feature alone, similar to Mac OS X's Exposé, makes enabling Compiz worthwhile. This is such an easy way to sort windows that I loathe going back to a system without Compiz running.

Though perhaps a bit less exciting than spinning cubes and wobbly windows, printing has also received an overhaul in FC6. The printer configuration tool starts up faster than FC5's tool, because it no longer has to detect devices on startup, and the printer definition files are also scanned on demand rather than every time the tool is run.

The print tool does a very good job of scanning for printers. I have a Brother 1270N networked laser printer, and the print tool sniffed it out with no problem, though I still had to give it the correct printer model to get the right driver. In general, I found the new tool to be a bit less cluttered and easier to navigate.

Now and Xen

FC6 makes Xen easier to use by providing additional setup tools, though it's still not quite as easy to set up a Xen guest as it is to configure a guest system under VMware Server or Workstation, or Parallels. Xen is not set up by default, which is probably best, as most users are unlikely to want to set up Xen guests.

I followed the instructions on the wiki to install the Xen-enabled kernel and Xen tools, then used the Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) to install FC6 as a guest OS under FC6. VMM is a GUI app that's relatively easy to use -- simply set the parameters of the virtual machine (amount of memory, disk space, etc.) and point the installer at a location where the FC packages can be found.

VMM doesn't support installing from CD/DVD or an ISO image, so you have to point VMM at the FC tree over the network, over HTTP, FTP, or NFS. You could use a Fedora mirror, but that's very slow. It's probably best to just mount the ISO on the local system or a system on the same LAN and export it via NFS.

VMM is a great step forward, but it has a way to go before it's really ready for prime time. For example, it doesn't list guests when they're not running, and I don't see any way with VMM to start a guest that's stopped; you still need to run xm create vmname to start a Xen guest, even if you manage it with VMM.

I think the Xen install guide may be missing one point. FC6 enables SELinux by default, which I think causes problems for setting up a Xen guest. The first time I tried to set up a guest, I had an error and had to restart. I looked through one of the earlier guides, which recommended turning off SELinux. I did that, and then was able to install FC6 without a hitch.

Making SELinux easier

SELinux may be the greatest thing for security since Bruce Schneier, but it's not simple. The Fedora folks have taken some steps to help sand down the rough edges of SELinux by introducing a troubleshooting tool and a lot more options for modifying SELinux policy under the Security Level Configuration tool.

I didn't have a chance to use the SELinux Troubleshooter, but I did go through the policy editor to see what kind of changes can be made to SELinux policy with a click of the mouse. As with FC5, you can set the level of SELinux to enabled, permissive, or disabled. You can also disable SELinux for specific services such as FTP, Apache, and named. It also allows you to set more specific behavior, such as deciding whether Samba should allow sharing of users' home directories.

Some flaws, but good overall

If you're willing to overlook a few rough edges, Fedora Core 6 is an excellent distro, but I really think that it could have done with a bit more testing, particularly regarding the installer. If I had been evaluating FC6 just for my own purposes, rather than to write a review, I would have dumped FC6 when the installer segfaulted at the same point on two different machines.

The Fedora folks chafe at the suggestion that Fedora Core is nothing more than a Red Hat beta, but if they'd like to avoid that comparison, they should opt for more testing and choose to ship late rather than rushing out a release with known installer bugs.

Once I got past the installer pain, I was happy with FC6. It seems like a solid desktop system, and usable for servers if you don't mind the short shelf life of Fedora releases.

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