December 10, 2004

My workstation OS: Slackware

Author: Michael Stibane

I first began running Linux when SUSE 5.3 and Mandrake 6.1 were the latest distros. Since that time I can't count all the distributions of *nix/nux I've tried and worked with. For the last nine months, however, I've been a happy camper with my Slackware desktop.I run Slackware 10.0 with some enhancements from Slackware-current and kde-look/kde-apps.org. My main desktop environment is KDE 3.3.1, my office package is OpenOffice.org -- pretty standard, with an ever-changing list of installed software according to my needs, my curiousity, and the tasks I get from my editor.

Before I started using Slackware my steady Linux work environment was Mandrake 8 and 9.1 with Texstars enhancements. Later in 2003 I moved to MEPIS Linux 2003.10. One day I stumbled onto VectorLinux, which, while originally intended for older hardware, did a very speedy job on my quite up-to-date computer. I also tried the Slax LiveCD. Both VectorLinux and Slax are children of Slackware. Once I tried the full distro, I never looked back.

Why do I use Slackware?

Reason one: Hardware support
Kernels of other major distributions like SUSE and Mandrake are subject to heavy patching, often to meet the sales and marketing needs of the next release. No distro with a patched kernel 2.6.x (except SimplyMEPIS 2004.03 and up) was able to support all the parts built in to my new laptop -- a Clevo D400E in its former life, now a local brand -- without major tweaking. Slackware with an unpatched kernel 2.4.26 recognised everything at the first go, and everything still works -- even suspend-to-disk, which I rarely use since the laptop is a desktop replacement.

Reason two: Package management
Working as a freelance Linux trainer and writer for a few German Linux magazines, I have to test a lot of software. If it's bleeding edge and packaged as RPM or DEB it usually causes major problems when I install the software on Debian or RPM-based distros. It's a pain to bring Debian package management back to a normal state once it's out of sync after a dpkg -i --force-things command. By contrast, there is nothing like Slackware's tgz packaging without dependency checks (except compiling from source). Install the package, run it from a terminal, and see which libraries are not found. Install those too and usually everything is fine. Slackware also takes RPM packages without questions if you supply the --nodeps switch.

Reason three: System architecture
Did you ever try to find the text file for network configuration in SUSE without the help of YaST? Did you ever wonder why the System V init tree is so complex? Everything has its pro and cons. I prefer the simple way Slackware developer Patrick Volkerding put things in place. For example, to start a service at boot time, just chmod +x /etc/rc.d/rc.service. BSD-style init scripts can also contain settings, and that's what Slackware uses with the network interfaces. Another sign of good system architecture is the place where the KDE is installed. Usually KDE is splattered all over /usr, but not in Slackware. There is a single /opt/kde directory, just like the developers wanted it to be.

Regulary used programs

Since I also have to train students in Web design under Windows I dual-boot with Windows 2000. I use the GRUB boot manager because LILO proved too unflexible for the changing contents of the other free partitions. CUPS and SSH servers start at Slackware boot and KDE 3.3.1 provides my desktop environment. The KDE got some enhancements from kde-look.org, including transparent window decorations that I couldn't resist installing. Another desktop environment I use from time to time is Equinox.

Thanks to the guys from linuxpackages.net you will find a lot of software that doesn't come with the two Slackware installation CDs packaged for download. KNetworkConf is an add-on for the Control Center, netGo can switch network profiles, and KNemo shows blinking icons for network activity as a KDE tray icon. I installed Mozilla, OpenOffice.org, and Inkscape this way. With smb4k I browse the Windows shares of my daughter's computer. I do most of my Web browsing with Konqueror, though for a few pages I need to start Mozilla. XChat fulfills my IRC conversation needs. KMPlayer with a Xine backend and Konqueror plug-in does a great job for playing DVDs, Internet radio stations, and MPEGs.

Since it would take me ages to learn the GIMP, I still do most photo editing in Windows, but I installed the GIMP for fast cropping and resizing of screenshots. I'll wait for the upcoming Krita betas to move this nearly last Windows task of photo editing to Linux. Only for bookkeeping and tax declaration do I still need the other OS. That's where Linux still lacks a bit -- business software for the small and medium-sized business that is not tailored to the American market. For example, in the last 10 years I cannot remember using a cheque for payments, which, I understand, is quite common in the U.S.

Why you not should use Slackware

Slackware is no Point-and-Click Linux distribution. You need at least intermediate knowledge of the OS to handle the text-based installation routine and the setup afterwards. Configuring X, changing the standard runlevel and number of started ttys in inittab, or setting up new users should be no black magic for you at a Bash prompt. If that's too intimidating, SimplyMEPIS is probably the best choice available for you. If not, Slackware will reward you with a rock stable and fast system which works on hardware down to i486 architecture.

Michael 'STIBS' Stibane regulary writes for the German PC!Linux and Linux Intern magazines. He's a trainer for Linux and Web design and lives with his family in "Silicon Saxony" near Dresden.

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