March 15, 2006

First look: Fedora Core 5

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Fedora distribution is one of the most widely used GNU/Linux distributions. Although non-users sometimes dismiss it as too mainstream to be of interest, those familiar with it appreciate that it uses only free software and showcases the latest programs. Fedora Core 5 (FC5) is slated for release next week. Like earlier Fedora releases, it includes both recent versions of desktop programs and maturing software that has yet to be included in most other distributions. Although the default install fails to include many standard applications, FC5, from its installer and desktop to its package management and administration and security tools, is one of the most complete snapshots available of the state of desktop GNU/Linux.

The first thing FC5 users will see is the Anaconda installer, which has been used in Red Hat and FC for so long that you might think it has little room for improvement -- but FC5 tries. Throughout the installer, the left pane that displayed help in earlier releases is gone, and help notes are placed at the top of the window instead. Advanced options, too, are tidied away. The partitioning window is reorganized, and both the firewall and Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux) configuration are given more emphasis by placing them in the First Boot Wizard, which starts when the system is loaded for the first time. The overall result of these changes is largely cosmetic, especially since anybody doing an install is likely to be famililar with the basic steps. In terms of interface design, at least, improvements to Anaconda may have reached the point of diminishing returns -- the effort spent on an already polished program doesn't seem worth the minor improvements that result.

Behind the scenes, however, improvements continue. In FC5, Anaconda uses Yum for the first time to resolve dependency problems. The rendering of screens has been improved in the installer, and remote logging via syslog is enabled. In a sign of changing hardware standards, serial mouses are no longer officially supported, although the rumor is that they can still be used.

Despite this flurry of changes, two longstanding problems remain. First, instead of being available during disk partitioning, the Reiser filesystem is only available if you enter it as a parameter when you start the program. Second, if a CD needs cleaning, Anaconda may give you another chance to insert it, or it may crash altogether. This inconsistency is mitigated by the fact that you can check your install media shortly after Anaconda begins, but, like the filesystem support, it is still overdue for correction.

Desktop and software selection

FC5 runs on a 2.6.15 kernel and uses a branded version of GNOME 2.14 as its default desktop. Although GNOME 2.14 is roughly twice as fast as earlier versions when installed in other distributions, little of this acceleration is visible in FC5. A large part of this relative slowness is due to the default enabling of SELinux -- turn it off, and GNOME is as much as 60% faster.

For those who prefer, FC5 also offers the KDE 3.5 and XFce 4 window managers. Both are branded and tweaked to resemble GNOME as much as possible.

FC5 includes recent versions of standard software, including Firefox 1.5 and the GIMP 2.2.10. Instead of Sun Java, it installs the GCC 4.1 and tools built with it, such as Eclipse. This decision allows FC5 to use only free software, but often at the cost of slower performance. In OpenOffice.org, for instance, Java-based features such as the basic document wizards open so slowly that you may conclude that the program has frozen before anything happens.

FC5 is selective about the GNOME applications it includes. Although the usual panel applications and utilities are installed by default, along with accessibility programs such as Gnopernicus, many standard GNOME applications are not, including the AbiWord word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet. Even some programs new to GNOME 2.14 are excluded, such as Pessulus, Sabayon, and the AlaCarte Menu Editor. In fact, Pessulus, for one, is not even in the package repositories.

The GNOME programs that are included are used economically, sometimes with surprising results. For example, if you select Office -> Notes from the stripped-down menu, you don't get a small program for jotting down a reminder. Instead, FC5 starts Evolution in the new Memo view, which seems far too large a program to open for such a simple task.

Another set of default programs requires Mono, the free software community's answer to Microsoft .Net. Among these programs are Beagle, a search tool for home directories; Tomboy, a note-taking application, and FSpot, a photo album. Each seems a typical program of its kind, if somewhat slow to respond, but interesting less for its features than for the fact that it depends on Mono.

Other software that is not new, but is still not common in the installation lists of other distributions includes Xen, the virtual machine monitor; Festival, a free speech synthesizer; drivers for the Linux Wacom Project, which enables the use of drawing tablets; and Ruby, the popular programming language, which replaces FC5's GCC-based Java applications if installed.

Package management

At the command-line level, FC5 uses Yum. Like Debian's apt-get, Yum automatically resolves dependencies, taking the pain out of installing new packages. Its command structure is similar to apt-get, and both programs give similar information about what they are going to install, update, or remove. Yum has the advantage over apt-get in that it automatically removes package files once the software is installed. In addition, all installations are cryptographically checked, a feature that is just being introduced into apt-get. However, try to update with Yum a program currently in use, and, unlike with apt-get, the program crashes. Some users, too, may miss apt-get's recommendation of additional packages. Even more importantly, while Yum itself seems well-designed, some of the compilers of RPM packages apparently need to learn more about listing dependencies, since several updates I tried resulted in broken systems. All the same, Yum is a vast improvement over RPM for package installation.

On the desktop, FC5 introduces two new tools: Pirut, a general package manager, and Package Update or Pup. Both tools offer simple and attractive interfaces, but neither functions as well as it might. Pirut offers three views: Search, which has filters for all, installed, and available packages; Browse, which, like the installer, groups packages into categories such as Desktop Environments or Languages; and List, which displays packages alphabetically. However, by default, Pirut doesn't display the dependencies that will be installed -- a piece of information that is often essential in package management. Moreover, once you begin an install, it has the annoying habit of giving you 20 seconds to change your mind before it starts. Similarly, Pup (which has the cutest logo this side of Microsoft's Clippy), is clean in design, consisting of a list of selectable items, but moves with such glacial slowness that experienced users may think twice before using it.

If you want to manage packages from the desktop in FC5, Yum Extender (yumex) seems the best choice. Although not installed by default, yumex gives far more of the control that package management needs than either Pirut or Pup, and is just as well-designed. In fact, considering that yumex packs more functionality into a single window, it is actually better designed. With basic views selectable from a toolbar on the left, a search function on top, and package information arranged in tabs, it is a model of compactness. It even has an editable queue for multiple operations and an output view for troubleshooting. Unless you prefer a desktop tool to the command line in every circumstance, none of these tools has any advantage over Yum, but if I had to pick one, my choice would be unquestionably be yumex.

Security and administration

The movement of the firewall and SELinux configuration to the First Boot wizard highlights security by placing options where they are impossible to overlook. Both are easy to configure. The firewall configuration window sets which protocols are allowed to run, and does not require more than accepting the default of SSH. The SELinux configuration is more complex, but, since many of the choices involve disabling a default, it is still relatively accessible. However, it desperately needs detailed help so that users are not just placing blind faith in an impressive-looking feature, but rather can learn some of the basics of security instead. Users need this education all the more because the default configuration of SELinux strongly affects performance. Especially on low-end systems, the choice might seem to be between comprehensive security and speed. Knowing which SE Linux settings could be relaxed would help users find an acceptable balance between these two priorities.

To these security features, FC5 adds several new administration tools. The GNOME Power Manager and Sabayon, which sets access to software and hardware, are borrowed from the new GNOME 2.14 release. By using FC5's repositories, you can also add frysk, a system monitoring and debugging tool, and SystemTap, which provides the infrastructure for analyzing the currently running Linux kernel. Another welcome tool, although not new, is system-config-kickstart, an editor for kickstart files that Fedora and Red Hat provide for creating duplicate installations on other machines.

Many of the everyday configuration tools, such as Pirut's Browse view and the date and time tool, closely resemble the corresponding parts of the Anaconda installer. This design choice gives users tools they may already have some familiarity with -- a simple but effective aid.

FC5 does not have a spotless security and administration record. For one thing, several daemons, including one for Bluetooth and another for the Samba client, are installed without any detection of whether they are needed. For another, the graphical package manager's hiding of dependencies makes it difficult for administrators to keep track of what is on the system. Still, FC5 does more than most distributions about alerting users to security needs. It also provides promising new administration tools. It deserves commendation for both.

Recommendations

FC's position as a showcase for the latest in GNU/Linux comes at a high price in system resources. The release notes for FC5 Test 2 (notes for Test 3 are unpublished as I write) suggest a minimum of 256 megabytes of RAM for a graphical system, and recommend 512. Even a command-line system requires 128 megabytes. Compared to the less demanding Debian or Ubuntu default installations, FC5 is a lumbering giant of a distribution.

For this reason, many users will probably prefer to take their time and choose what software to install for themselves rather than accepting the defaults. After installation, they may need to spend time installing some of their favorite older applications, and manually editing and reducing the running daemons and security options.

In other words, FC5 is not a distribution for beginners or those whose only interest is a desktop for everyday work. However, even moderately experienced users should seriously consider installing it to a spare partition or computer. For anyone who wants a broad sampling of the latest free applications, there is no distribution more suitable than the latest version of Fedora Core.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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