September 2, 2004

Review: Athene is beautiful but flawed

Author: Jem Matzan

Rocklyte Systems' Athene operating environment is at once fascinating and frustrating. It's a custom GNU/Linux distribution optimized for i686 machines that employs a proprietary graphics toolkit and video drivers, which means it's visually impressive and extremely speedy. Athene
is by far the most unique and technologically advanced GNU/Linux derivative to
date, but it needs some better administrative features, doesn't come with
much software, and its license is proprietary and restrictive.

Athene is a combination of a custom Linux
From Scratch
-derived operating system using the 2.6.7 kernel, SciTech SNAP
Graphics
drivers, and the Athene Desktop featuring the Pandora graphics toolkit.
It was designed from the ground up to be a fast yet graphic-intensive desktop
operating system that would appeal to a wide range of users.

On first inspection it's simply amazing. The graphics are visually impressive and there are none of the usual problems associated with an X server, such as tearing, flicker, bad
geometry, and slow redraws. You click a button in a window or dialogue and the
resulting action is instantaneous. I suspect this has more to do with the
superior 2D graphics engine than anything else -- in other words, you're seeing
the screen redraw faster than you're used to in Windows, Mac OS X, or an X11-based
desktop, and that makes the whole operating system seem like it's supercharged.
From a certain frame of reference, rendering 2D graphics in the desktop
environment does make Athene faster than other GNU/Linux-based
operating systems, even if all other things are equal. You "feel"
desktop speed based on how quickly you see the intended result that your
actions have initiated, so the degree of power that the hardware has is
irrelevant if your operating system can display graphics quickly enough.

I benchmarked the performance capabilities of SciTech's SNAP Graphics driver framework
for GNU/Linux last year and found it to be not only faster in 2D rendering
performance, but also far easier to install, maintain, and adjust than other
proprietary drivers. SNAP Graphics allows you to switch video cards between
reboots without having to change your configuration; it adjusts the geometry, resolution,
and color depth for you automatically based on the card's
abilities. I didn't benchmark Athene, but I believe Rocklyte when it says that
it's at least 25% faster than X11 in some ways. Even when running X11 programs
in Athene, the graphics should be significantly faster.

3D rendering is and probably always will be controlled by a kernel driver, and proprietary kernel drivers for video cards have not been bundled with Athene. That means that although the 2D performance is exceptional, hardware 3D rendering is not possible in this edition of Athene. It's difficult to say if simply adding the kernel module would add 3D support; most programs that use hardware rendering also require X11-based technologies like GLX and DRI, which would in turn have to be downloaded, compiled, and installed.

A desktop of a different color

The entire Athene operating system was designed with an object-oriented approach;
every icon, file, window, and program is an object in the system. Rocklyte
claims that this eases data management between programs and simplifies network
communication. Athene does not use an X server to run graphical programs, thus reducing
some of the usual network overhead of a GNU/Linux system.

Instead of using a threading model to implement a multitasked
environment as most Unix-like systems do, Athene uses a process called micro-tasking,
which breaks up individual programs into protected multiple tasks. Not only
does this increase speed and efficiency, but it also increases stability and
security.

The Indigo desktop is attractive and offers a large desktop space. Right-clicking on the desktop brings up a Fluxbox-like program menu, which could not be shown in a screenshot

Instead of traditional window managers, Athene comes with three choices of
desktop style: Wintel, which is more or less self-explanatory; Omega Workbench,
which is meant to look and feel like AmigaOS; and Indigo, which offers an
enormous scrollable desktop area and a basic on-screen menu. Of all of them I
preferred Indigo, but I can't decide whether it was because I loved the color
scheme and desktop layout or because I was sick of the Wintel look and didn't
really care for the way the Omega Workbench functioned. Certainly this is purely
a matter of personal preference.
These desktops are all part of the same framework, so you've got the same menu
entries and available features on all three desktop styles. Adding a program in
one desktop theme adds it to all of them.

The desktop themes are designed using an HTML- and XML-like language called Dynamic Markup Language,
or DML for short. It's very easy to understand and modify if you already know
HTML, but there are enough major differences and system-specific commands that
you have to go through the free tutorials to use it
to create anything of substance.

It's not just the themes that use DML -- the whole desktop environment is
based on it. The object-oriented approach plus DML equals a totally unique
graphical userland that doesn't run application binaries so much as it renders
programs based on DML files. In other words, the native text editor and file
manager, as well as the whole desktop environment and everything that you hear,
see, and use in Athene, is rendered from a fully hackable DML file. It's almost
as if your operating system were one big transparent Web browser. The only
departure from this is when you install and use X11-based programs; in those
instances an X server is started invisibly and the client programs run in it as
usual. There is no noticeable difference in the display when running X-based
programs; in other words, you could open the native text editor in one window
and KEdit in another window and if you didn't know that one runs in X and the
other is DML-based, you would not be able to tell one technology from the other.

KDE is advertised as being included as a package, but even after I
installed all of the packages in the KDE directory I couldn't figure out how to
start it. Rocklyte provides no readme file, no manual entry, nothing -- I suspect that KDE as we
know it is not what Rocklyte meant when it said that KDE 3.2.3 was
included. All of the programs that come with KDE by default are in the
packages directory, however.

Software support

There aren't many programs that are included with the base distribution -- a
very simple text editor, picture viewer, audio player, and an interesting file
manager. If you want more programs, there are about two dozen Linux binary
packages on the CD that offer programs such as Mozilla Firefox, the GIMP, KDE
plus KOffice, GFTP, GAIM, OpenOffice.org, MPlayer, and a handful of others.

The package manager itself is oversimplistic and tedious, and it has no
dependency resolution capabilities. If you want to install a program, you
navigate to the packages directory on the CD, open up the directory that has
the category you want, then double-click on the program name. Then you click
Next to agree to the license (assuming you do -- most are under the GPL), and
Next to install. Wait a few moments for the installation to happen, then
click Next again to finish. You have to do this for every program, unless of
course you discover that you need GTK or Qt installed before you continue, in which case you have to navigate to the Libraries directory and install the
dependency first.

I tried installing Sun StarOffice 7 from a program CD, and was successful --
I even got the Java Runtime Environment installed. The only trouble was that
there were no icons or menu entries created for the new applications, so I had
to start them from a virtual terminal window. I didn't explore the option of
adding menu entries by hand, but I'm sure it can be done as easily as it can in
Blackbox/Fluxbox or in GNOME (which is to say, not all that easily, but not a
necessarily complex process).

Web browser plug-ins? Forget it -- none are included with Firefox or anywhere on the CD. You can install them as usual through Firefox's
built-in plug-in installer, or download and install them separately as usual.

You can also run Athene 2004 completely from the CD, as it is designed to be
both a LiveCD and an installation CD. You'll get the same experience either
way, but of course everything will be slower if you run it from the CD.

Bugs, problems, and other shortcomings

The only real bug I found in Athene was in the installer utility, which tells you that
you must pre-partition your hard drive with Linux partitions. It even goes so
far as to tell you what programs you need to run from the command line in
order to make that happen. But if you click the Next button and sail through
that initial warning, you'll find a graphical partition screen before you. This
seems to be more of an error in documentation than a problem with the software.

Speaking of partitions, Athene supports ext2, ext3, XFS, JFS, ReiserFS,
FAT32, and NTFS. Unfortunately the partition utility available during the
installation knows how to write only ext2 and ext3 (and swap, of course)
partitions. Generally I prefer to have my /home directory as its own partition
so that I can overwrite the distribution with another one, or reinstall it, and
not lose my personal data and program settings. The installation program would
not allow this; you can't assign drive labels or mount points from the
partition utility. Instead, Athene uses the first available ext2 or ext3
partition on your hard drive and mounts the rest as directories in /mnt. You
can change this behavior by manually editing /etc/fstab after installation.

Athene installs in less than 10 minutes even on a
slow machine. However, it's poorly suited to unusual computers, such as laptop or notebook
machines and VIA's Mini-ITX small form factor systems. On my Dell Inspiron 3800
laptop I had a slight corruption in the display, and PCMCIA services
were nonexistent. Athene flat out refused to work in any way, shape, or form on
a VIA Epia MIII-12000 -- even the LiveCD wouldn't run.

There are no programs for user management, and you can't add new users
during the installation procedure; you must add them manually through the
command line. There are no power-saving functions, no hardware configuration
tools, and there is no way to update the system over a network.

Speaking of networking, Athene does not have any DHCP facilities available by default. That means that it's impossible for most people to connect to the Internet without downloading the source code for dhcpcd and compiling it manually.

Lastly, I had a problem with the license agreement, which is Microsoft-like and prohibits sharing. This is probably a necessity because of SciTech's proprietary drivers; in other words the licensing matters are out of Rocklyte's hands, to a certain degree. The license does allow for modification of the software to an extent, and Rocklyte makes available some 90% of the total codebase. That missing 10% is the really interesting stuff, though, so don't expect to be able to hack some of the more unique parts of the Athene operating environment.

Conclusions

Right now Athene 2004 doesn't offer much in terms of out-of-the-box functionality, and you can't be immediately productive with it, making it unsuitable for anyone except those willing to
explore and tinker with it. If that's your goal, U.S. $110 would seem an excessive fee for a year's worth of updates on CD. If you just want one CD, the cost is U.S. $47.95 -- that's a bit more palatable. If you wanted to use your existing operating system -- GNU/Linux or Windows -- as a base, you can buy just the Athene Desktop for $29.95, which is only the GUI and its native programs as discussed here.

Athene needs a significant overhaul of its existing utilities. It would
greatly benefit from some added utilities for user management, online updating,
hardware configuration and control, power management, and networking. These are
the kinds of graphical utilities that users have come to expect from a graphically-driven
operating system. It makes no sense to spend so much time and energy making a
graphical desktop as unique and powerful as Athene, yet force administrators to use
the command line interface for all management and configuration tasks. I'd also like to see a customized interactive development environment for programming in DML --
something specific to Athene, made for modifying the operating system and
designing new programs in it.

It's impossible to deny the degree of technical advancement in the Athene
operating system, and in fact I'd say it's the most technologically innovative
OS that I've ever used. But besides learning to program and modify it as a
hobby, I'm not sure what you'd do with it at this point. And it's unclear whether Rocklyte can
stay alive long enough and garner enough industry support and attention to
succeed. There have been many innovative operating systems in the past -- BeOS and NeXTStep
come to mind -- that have failed not because they weren't good, but because
they just didn't have the money and manpower to penetrate the market
significantly.

Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer Rocklyte Systems
Architectures x86
License Based on the Linux kernel and GNU userland, but most of the GUI is under proprietary licenses that heavily restrict the user's rights
Market Desktop users, OEMs
Price (retail) $47.95 for the OEM CD or $110 for a year-long subscription of CDs; $29.95 for Athene Desktop standalone
Previous version Athene Desktop 3.4
Product website Click here
Click Here!