January 25, 2007

Pardus gives Linux a custom lift

Author: Mayank Sharma

Apart from a KDE desktop and applications, the developers of the Pardus 2007 Linux distribution have built an entire distribution from scratch. Pardus, released last month, has its own multilingual installer, custom dependency-resolving package manager, and an INIT system that slashes boot times by several seconds. The distribution has come a long way since its first release in 2005, when it was based on Gentoo and lacked a package manager. Thanks to its custom tools, it's one of the easiest Linux distribution to run and manage.

Most of the custom tools in Pardus are written in Python. The first you'll run into is the distribution installer YALI, Yet Another Linux Installer. It's easy to navigate through, with clear installation instructions. You can use YALI to resize NTFS partitions to make space for Pardus. The Zorg script handles Xorg configuration and configures the best settings for the monitor and graphics card during installation.

Pardus also offers faster boot times, thanks to its Mudur init system. The developers insist that Mudur isn't a replacement for the /sbin/init command nor just a parallel script executor, but rather the best of both worlds. A detailed article on Mudur explains how their technique of writing custom service scripts and avoiding unnecessary disk reads can speed up the boot process even on older machines.

The package manager, PiSi (Packages Installed Successfully, as Intended), installs, removes, and upgrades packages, automatically resolving dependencies. It can be configured and used from the command line or through a graphical interface. To configure the distribution, instead of using the KDE Control Center, you need to go to the TASMA Configuration Center. TASMA does everything the KDE Control Center does, from setting up wallpapers to setting up Samba. But for the most common tasks, like setting up a firewall or managing user accounts, TASMA relies on Pardus's custom tools. Pardus also has a custom Network Manager to manage wired, wireless, and modem connections. Pardus's User Manager lets you add, remove, and modify users and their rights on external media. You can also prevent users from performing tasks such as powering down the machine or listening to music, or enable them to do administration tasks through sudo and su.

Network security is provided by Pardus Firewall, whose management interface is easy to use. It rejects all incoming connections by default, but lets users control access through its graphical interface.

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All these custom applications serve Pardus's goal of offering easy-to-use and task-oriented tools. All applications from Mudur to TASMA are controlled by COMAR, the configuration manager. It's the job of COMAR to ensure all the different custom components collaborate so that the system runs in a consistent manner. COMAR is aware of the installed applications and their respective functionalities and requirements. This allows, for example, users with appropriate rights to use Pardus's custom tools for configuring the firewall or the package manager without knowing the root password.

As far as Turkish users are concerned, the most important feature of Pardus is the integration of Zemberek, an open source natural language processing library for the Turkish language. With the library, all applications in the distribution, such as Kopete, KMail, Firefox, and OpenOffice.org, can use Turkish spell-checking.

Installing and configuring Pardus

I installed Pardus on three machines; one with a 1.7GHz Celeron CPU with 384MB RAM and a 32MB ATI Radeon 7000 graphics card, a barebones 1.4GHz Celeron laptop with 256MB shared memory, and in a virtual machine with 512MB virtual memory running inside a 1.8GHz dual-core machine. The default installation language is Turkish; if that doesn't work for you, make sure you select English (or German or Dutch) before proceeding. During partitioning, if you choose automatic partitioning, the installer doesn't prompt you before formatting the disk. This is fine if Pardus is the only operating system on your disk; otherwise, it would be nice to know how the installer has decided to use the disk space.

As with most single-CD distributions these days, Pardus gives you no opportunity to select individual packages. Pardus dumps 3.4GB worth of software into the partition, including the 2.6.18 kernel, KDE 3.5.5, OpenOffice.org 2.0.4, and gcc 3.4. Thanks to the included non-free software for playing music, watching DVDs, and viewing Web sites with Flash and Java content, Pardus Linux 2007 is a more ready-to-use distribution for a new user than others, such as Ubuntu, that include only free software.

By default, Pardus uses the GRUB boot manager. If you decide against using it, make sure you edit your existing bootloader to append mudur=language:en to Pardus's entry. True to its word, Pardus boots up in a fraction of the time required by other distributions. On my laptop it took about 20 seconds to drop me to the login screen, compared to about 45 required by Ubuntu 6.06. Pardus helps configure basic desktop settings on your first login with the custom Kaptan Desktop tool.

Kaptan Desktop configures the mouse and lets you choose the desktop layout style and wallpaper. It also helps you set up your network with the Network Manager tool. The tool detected all the wired network cards on my desktops and the Linksys PCMCIA wireless adapter and the modem on the laptop. Once network configuration is done, Kaptan describes the PiSi package manager and suggests that it can be configured to work in the system tray and check for new updates automatically. Finally, Kaptan ends with the option to run the TASMA configurator to further tweak the system.

Using Pardus

The Pardus desktop is very clean, with its nice Tulliana fonts and icons. The desktop has three preset items: Home, System, and Trash. System gives you information about the CPU, memory (total and free RAM), and display (graphics card vendor and driver in use), all in one window. Pardus also mounts all other partitions on the disks, with read/write access, and gives information about their respective filesystems, along with total and available disk space. It identifies all devices by their size.

The distribution could use a little general help to get a new user started. While it retains all of KDE's help for individual applications, there's no help documentation to accomplish tasks like installing a font. There's also no help available for using certain custom Pardus applications, such as TASMA. Even the minimalistic "What's this?" help feature doesn't work.

I also found some stability issues. For example, after setting my Samba shares and clicking on OK to save the settings, the TASMA window blanked. However, Samba was installed successfully, and thanks to Smb4K, network shares can be easily mounted. Other than that I found the distribution to be pretty stable. The only other problem I had was that Firefox crashed thrice, very quietly, while I was fiddling with Amorak. But to its credit it restored the session with all the tabs intact when I started it up again.

Downloading applications with PiSi is a piece of cake. When you select a package for installation, PiSi resolves dependencies and keeps all the packages to be installed in a basket. While downloading packages, PiSi doesn't display current download speed or estimated time of arrival. I installed the Apache Web server, and after PiSi was done installing the packages, it dropped me back to package selection area. I poked around and saw it had created the /etc/apache2 configuration directory and the /var/www/ content directory. To activate Apache, I went over to TASMA -> System -> Service Manager to start the service. The custom Service Manager can start and stop servers like Apache and services like bluez-utils for Bluetooth. The default Apache welcome page is in Turkish, as are the tooltips in the PiSi package manager and MPlayer video player, but you can use KMPlayer, which is in English and uses MPlayer at the back end.

If an application you want to use isn't available as a package, you can request one be made available through the bugzilla. Even if the software is not accepted for the official repository, a volunteer can add it to the contrib repository. Between the two, Pardus has around 5,000 packages. You can also compile and install packages from source.

If you asked Kaptan not to let PiSi sit in the system tray, you can only launch it from the TASMA configurator, which isn't very efficient. The same holds true for the other custom Pardus tools. The developers should consider bundling them all in a "System Tools" menu on the main menu.

The developers have customized several applications with custom splash screens. Firefox, for example, has links to Pardus's mailing list, wiki, bug tracker, and several blogs -- but it lacks knowledge about BitTorrent, PDF, and office applications in the system. It would be nice if Firefox knew how to handle these files.

Looking ahead

Pardus Linux 2007 is the distribution's second stable release, but the project has been in active development since mid-2004, with the first release, Pardus Live CD 1.0, in February 2005. The first installable version of Pardus debuted in December 2005. After fixing more than a thousand bugs and hacking in the various missing components, the team decided to rename Pardus 1.1 as Pardus Linux 2007.

In an email discussion on Pardus's future, Koray Löker, in-charge of community relations for Pardus, says that the distribution, "is being developed and supported by several IT vendors, volunteers, NGOs and institutions in different ways." The project is hosted by Turkey's National Research Institute of Electronics and Cryptology, which is one of the 15 R&D institutes of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.

Currently Pardus has 15 paid developers in Turkey, besides volunteer contributors from countries such as India, Netherlands, USA, Spain, and Poland. In addition to the desktop version, for which the developers plan a major release annually, the Pardus team is also working on a server edition. "The preview version of the server edition," says Löker, "will be available in the first half of 2007. It will have a release cycle of 18 months."

Despite being primarily for Turkish users, Pardus 2007 can be easily used by English-speaking users as well. Löker promises more multilingual documentation in the future.

If you've been using a Linux distribution for some time, getting used to Pardus wouldn't take long, despite all its custom tools. New users will appreciate the ease in carrying out out system tasks such as setting up firewalls and managing startup services. With its modest hardware requirements and streamlined boot scripts, Pardus could easily turn an old machine gathering dust into a modern Linux desktop.


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