August 20, 2008

Foresight Linux: Two out of three's not bad

Author: Bruce Byfield

According to its past and present marketing, Foresight Linux has three claims to fame: Its user-friendliness, its use of the Conary package management system, and its role as a showcase for the latest in GNOME. In practice, its latest 2.0.4 version is not more user-friendly than any other GNOME-based distribution -- if anything, it is slightly less so because of its limited software selection and package management -- but its other claims are enough to make Foresight one of the more distinctive modern distributions.

Foresight is available in several forms. The full GNOME version is available either on DVD or on two CDs. Alternatively, you can choose a single-CD GNOME Lite version, which is available only in English, and does not include Still another choice is the Xfce version, which is still in alpha release and -- at least for now -- several months less current than the GNOME releases. Given Foresight's traditional focus, you should probably use one of the GNOME versions if you are interested in getting the full flavor of the distribution. You can always install Xfce or KDE later once Foresight is running on your machine.


Foresight runs a modified version of the Anaconda installer. Language, keyboard, partitioning, bootloader, time zone setting, and user creation are all much the same as in distributions like Fedora, except for the Foresight rebranding of the dialog windows. The only unusual features are that XFS is the only journalled filesystem available in the custom partitioning dialogue, and that ExtLinux is offered as a bootloader in addition to GRUB. Experienced users may also miss the lack of opportunity to perform any package selection.

From the DVD version, installation takes about 10 to 12 minutes on a recent computer. Installation from CD takes a few minutes longer. However, in both cases, Foresight's install program takes a long pause between displaying the announcement that installation is 100% complete and allowing you to advance to the final screen. In fact, the delay is so long that you might conclude -- as I did -- that the process had frozen and failed. But if you wait five minutes, the install does complete successfully.

If you accept the defaults, Foresight creates a 196MB boot partition and a 2GB swap partition, leaving the rest of your hard drive as the root partition. The total install takes about 3.6GB -- a reasonably compact installation by modern standards that perhaps explains the lack of package selection.

Desktop and software selection

Both the thoroughness with which its green theme is applied and the installation of the Microsoft core fonts and leading free fonts such as Gentium and the Liberation fonts suggests that some thoughtfulness has gone into Foresight's creation. The default software is up-to-the-minute, and includes a 2.6.25 kernel, GNOME 2.22.3, Firefox 3.0, and 2.4. It also includes the option to use PulseAudio for sound, which is still relatively rare in distributions.

In a few cases, Foresight opts for popular applications over ones designed specifically for GNOME. Firefox, for instance, is included rather than Epiphany, GNOME's default browser. Otherwise, the distribution heavily favors GNOME applications, including ones written in Mono, such as Banshee and Tomboy. In fact, the preference is so strong that GNOME apps are included even when, as with Pidgin, F-Spot, and Glipper, they are either not the most popular software in their category or else relatively unknown. By contrast, although the latest minor upgrade was released only a couple of weeks ago, Foresight's repositories still retain KDE 3.59, rather than the latest 4.1 version.

Since most distributions ship with a mixture of applications or show a preference for applications that are not specific to a desktop, Foresight's emphasis on GNOME is mildly unusual. You can probably find an application that does what you want in Foresight, but it won't necessarily be the specific application that you want.

If you are setting up a Foresight installation, you should also note that the default installation uses only free drivers, although proprietary ones are either already installed or can be found by searching PackageKit, a package-system-neutral graphical interface that in Foresight's case provides access to Conary. The extensive and lucidly written online help can guide you in enabling the proprietary drivers should you choose to use them.

In the negative column, Foresight's default GNOME desktop is strangely sluggish.

Software installation and security

One of Foresight's major distinctions is its use of the Conary package management system, which combines dependency resolution and optional building from source with version control that allows you to have two versions of the same program installed.

From the desktop, you can largely ignore Conary, since Foresight includes an updater and PackageKit for adding new applications. However, because PackageKit is still under heavy development, it does not yet support installation of more than one package at a time, which means that, for some operations -- such as adding KDE support -- you will need to use Conary.

Conary's command structure is similar to apt-get's or yum's, and easy to learn. For example, the basic command for installing or updating a package is conary update packagename. To update all package on your system, the command is conary updateall, while to delete a package you use conary erase packagename. Once you install the conary-builder package, you can also use conary emerge packagename to build packages from source. To learn other functions, enter conary help. Overall, Conary operates more quickly than yum, but slower than apt-get, which makes for an acceptable speed.

The main limitation on software installation in Foresight is the size of the distribution's repositories. Because the distribution is still focused largely on GNOME, many KDE and desktop-neutral applications are simply unavailable, including Digikam, Krusader, Bluefish, and Pysol. You may find the selection in Foresight limiting, especially if you choose your software by functionality rather than desktop.

Foresight's security is a slight cut above that of many distributions. Like Ubuntu, Foresight uses sudo to limit access to the root account. It is also extremely cautious about the default services it runs, by default turning off Autofs, the automounter for external drives, and both the Anacron and atd schedulers, leaving only crond for those who want to set specific scripts to run at certain times. Those who are running a standalone workstation might want to go to System -> Administration -> Services to see if there are any additional daemons they want enabled at boot time.

Two out of three

By any standard, Foresight Linux is a well-designed, throughly modern distribution that takes full advantage of GNOME's steady improvements in usability and customization over the last few years. It is also the leading example of a distro that uses the Conary package system, whose ideas and structure are overdue for inclusion in both the Debian and RPM systems.

However, once you venture outside daily use, in some ways Foresight is less user-friendly than many leading distributions. While PackageKit is the first graphical interface for Conary, its inability to do multiple installations simultaneously is a serious handicap, especially for desktop users, who may not feel comfortable falling back on the command line. Similarly, the relatively scant package selection may feel like a restriction to anyone who has tried other distributions and is used to having several choices in most software categories.

These problems should be solved. PackageKit is now under rapid development, while the software selection should improve as the developers find time to create more Conary packages. But for now, Foresight makes good on only two of its claims -- its use of Conary and GNOME -- while falling short of its claims to user-friendliness. Two out of three isn't a bad record, but it's also one in which the room for improvement is obvious.


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