May 27, 2005

My Workstation OS: Scientific Linux

Author: William Roddy

Scientific Linux (SL) might seem a strange choice as a desktop operating system for someone who is retired, disabled, and elderly, and who has relatively little scientific or programming knowledge, but I get great excitement from exploring the art of Linux distributions, and with Scientific Linux, that excitement is amplified by knowing I'm using the same operating system that is being used by many of the world's leading scientists.

Scientific Linux has been around for quite some time, but has made no effort to publicize itself in other than the scientific community. An announcement of upgrade on DistroWatch gained the attention of a wider community.

Scientific Linux began as Fermi Linux, at the famous Fermilab, whose mission is to explore high-energy physics, the science of matter, and space and time. Scientific Linux is a vendor-cleansed version of the latest Red Hat Enterprise Linux, completely recompiled from source. Stable versions include the 3x and 4x vendor tree and are called Scientific Linux, though they still bear the earmarks of the Fermilab craftsmanship that is a major part of it. It is completely open source, free, and available to anyone.

An exciting aspect of this distribution is that the CERN lab in Switzerland is now directly involved with its development and maintenance. Both Fermilab and CERN use SL as their primary operating system, as do a number of leading U.S. and European physics research laboratories and universities throughout the world.

SL is made for and used in both i386 and x86_64. At CERN, at least 100 machine have installed upon them the x86_64 version. Fermi's entire facility, "banks and banks" of computers, use SL as servers and workstations.

When SL developers Connie Sieh and Troy Dawson at Fermilab and Jarek Polok of CERN receive a vendor distribution, or new errata, they check the code for any problems that might be inherent, and they fix them. In general, this means that every stable release is rock-solid. After all, this is the tool that is part of the driving force behind the largest linear accelerator in the world.

The facilities at which this Linux version is used require security, so you can rely on the security of this distribution. It is constructed to be functional and secure for years to come.

SL developers have been fastidious in their removal of vendor identifiers, and precise about using open source program. They feel they have created a stable base that users can easily customize by pointing at their own repositories, if they choose to.

SL includes GNOME, KDE, and IceWM desktops. For applications, SL features the latest Firefox, OpenOffice.org, the Helix and XMMS media players, JPilot for synchronizing with Palm OS devices, and many other packages. In addition to these, I use the GIMP, Thunderbird, Synaptic (the remarkable APT interface), and Samba and SSH for networking, all of which SL installs by default, except Thunderbird.

It's easy to add applications to SL that are not included in the distribution. A Google search found some Xine-related RPMs that I easily added to let me to watch DVDs and stream media. I also downloaded and installed the OpenOffice.org 2 beta and the Drivel LiveJournal client.

SL's Web site is simple and straightforward. The project's mailing lists are useful, intense, and without the deviations from the project at hand that sometimes impair other distributions' attempts to move forward. The emails from various labs throughout the world are fascinating to read because of the meticulous deliberation that goes into problem-solving with the scientific method. Their servers are blazing fast for download and updates. This past week, SL added a Commnity section to its Web site.

If you need a Linux distro that has undergone the scrutiny of some of the world's foremost scientists, you can't do better than SL. It's also exciting to know you're using the same distribution that's being used by leaders of the scientific community throughout the world, who are studying the real "final frontiers": space and time.

What's your desktop OS of choice? So far, we've heard from fans of FreeBSD,
Mepis
Linux
, Debian, Xandros, Slackware, Windows XP, Lycoris, SUSE Professional, NetBSD, Ubuntu, FreeDOS, Libranet, Mandrakelinux, Arch Linux, Mac OS X, Knoppix, Linspire, Gentoo, PCLinuxOS, Yoper, Fedora Core 3, Windows 2000 Professional, Damn Small Linux, VidaLinux, Kanotix, VectorLinux, and Irix.

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