May 28, 2004

Review: Fedora Core 2

Author: Ken Barber

Updated: As I sit before my new installation of Fedora Core 2 (FC2) I'm reminded of the first time I had to put down a beloved dog. FC2 suffers from some fatal flaws. For most people, it will be best to put this malformed whelp out of its misery and wait for the Fedora Project's next litter of pups, which promises some awesome powers.

Though the installation for me was flawless, I am a firm believer in clean
installs, so I have not tested how well FC2 does an upgrade
installation. Also, there are reports
that installing FC2 in a dual-boot configuration with Windows 2000 or
XP might cause the Windows side of the machine to fail. Readers
contemplating this configuration should thoroughly read bug
#115980
. (It is hard to resist the temptation to ask whether this
is really a bug or just a security feature, and why anyone would want
to run Windows anyway.)

Owners of nVidia graphics cards should be aware that
nVidia's proprietary, binary-only drivers for FC2 are not due to be available
until somewhere around the time this article sees print.

Last January Red Hat became a victim of its own success when
Fedora Core 1 (FC1) became so popular that the update repositories
hosted by Red Hat could no longer keep up with the demand for downloads.
This was a tragedy because there were plenty of mirrors
to distribute the load and the configuration fix was an easy one to make.
Unfortunately, not enough people found out about it, and Red Hat
ended up with some serious egg on its face.

FC2 solves this problem in a truly elegant fashion: up2date is now configured to get updates from any one of several authorized mirrors,
which it seems to pick from the list at random.

Kernel improvements

After the software was installed, real testing began well. FC2 runs noticeably faster than FC1, which in turn ran faster than its competitors from Mandrake and SuSE.
There are a great many other improvements as well, such as support for CD burners without a SCSI emulation layer and better support for laptop hardware.
Unfortunately, FireWire support had to be pulled back at the last minute because of show-stopper bugs.

The kernel improvements that excite me the most are in the
security arena: NTFS-like ACL support in filesystems, the SELinux
improvements contributed by the U.S. National Security Agency, and --
my favorite -- a crypto API. This last will enable easy setup
and configuration of encrypted filesytems and IPSec networking, which
will in turn make the world a safer and more secure place.

The tools to implement most of the kernel's new security
capabilities are still at an early stage, so it will be a while
before most people can take advantage of them. But for anyone working
with next-generation security FC2 will probably be required study
material.

System administration

Over the last couple of years Red Hat developers have been building a set of Python-based GUI tools to simplify the tasks of system
administration. These live in the System Settings submenu in
the Gnome and KDE environments, and have come to be
known as the redhat-config-* scripts because their command-line invocations all start with that phrase. Now they'll be known as the system-config-* scripts. As usual there are a few new ones, making a total of about two
dozen now. That's a good thing.

However, SUSE's YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool) still beats the
pants off of every other system administration tool. Now
that Novell has decided to release YaST under an open-source license
I am hoping that we will start seeing it in other distros.

Packages

I think we're all finally getting used to the idea that Fedora is
not a consumer product and was never intended for use by Joe
Sixpack. Rather, it's a testbed for future releases of Red
Hat Enterprise Linux, a collection of core components from
which tinkerers can build something useful, and that is exactly what
Red Hat Corporation wants to see happening.

In this release the Fedora Project has given us more to tinker with than usual (read: lots of stuff doesn't work). If you need a distribution that "just works" out of the
box, FC2 is not for you. For everyone else, there is a growing
list of third-party repositories to explore. A list of them can be found in
this Slashdot post.
You also won't find your skills with the make utility getting rusty anytime soon.

You won't find any proprietary software in FC2, such as Acrobat
Reader, RealPlayer, or Flash player. You also won't find
any apps that might infringe on a patent, which unfortunately
leaves out MP3 support and mplayer. This is frustrating to people who want a Windows-like experience out of the box, but a benefit to the Open Source movement in the long term.

There are a few apps that should be included but are not, such as
Abiword,
Quanta (Web authoring)
and Audacity (audio editing).
Curiously, the first two are actually included on the installation CDs but
are not available to be selected from the Package Manager.

Correction: As the author points out in a comment to the story, both Quanta and Abiword are present.

On the plus side, there is cool new stuff, such as
KGPG (a GPG keyring tool) and
K3B (CD burning tool).

What's broken

Unfortunately, all of FC2's admirable qualities cannot save it
from its congenital defects. These range from annoyances such as
broken audio drivers to the abomination known as Gnome 2.6, and are
serious enough to make the Fedora Project's second litter of pups
unsuitable for any use other than as laboratory animals.

Audio drivers

The bug
preventing Rhythmbox from working on a rather large number of sound
cards has a workaround posted, but it causes a royal pain every time I want to listen to
music. Also, my sound card outputs constant "white noise" to my
speakers that is too loud ignore.

OpenOffice.org 1.1.1

Let me make this as clear as I can: PDF files hundreds of
kilobytes in size are unacceptable for a single-page text document,
especially when the only fonts in that document are
native to Acrobat Reader. OO.o 1.1.1's PDF export worked fine in Red
Hat 9 as long as I used only those fonts, but PDF output has been
horribly broken ever since. For those of us who produce content for a
living, especially on the Web, this is a show-stopper.

Evolution and GPG encryption

For a long time, Evolution developers have had an attitude problem with old-style (non-MIME) GPG encryption. Now they seem to be treating both ways equally: there is no support for GPG encryption at
all in Evolution 1.4! At least I couln't find any, and believe me, I looked.

Correction: The author didn't look closely enough. Evolution has handled cryptographic signatures and message encryption correctly for a long while now.

The GIMP 2.0

Color management using icc
profiles is an important tool for anyone doing serious photography
work. To date, Mac OS X (v. 10.2 and above) is the world's only
operating system that fully implements color management, but a few
rudimentary tools are
available to Linux users, including a partially functional plug-in
for Gimp 1.2
. While that plug-in's developer told me he
plans to make it available for Gimp 2 eventually, it is not available
today.

Gnome 2.6

If you're going to install and use FC2, don't bother installing Gnome. Yes, it is that bad. Nicholas
Petreley barely scratched the surface in his scathing
criticism
of Gnome 2.6 a few weeks ago. To his remarks about the
sheer stupidity in the new Nautilus design, allow me to add a couple
more observations:

The File Open dialog box

Click to enlarge

Those of us who administer systems need a fast, easy way to edit
configuration files. We know where most of those files live, and can
usually type them in to the File Open dialog a lot faster than we can
get to them via the browsing tool. But my favorite tool, gedit, is no
longer suitable for that purpose, because, as you can see from the screen shot at right, there is no longer any way to type a filename into the File Open dialog!

The Help system

We all know how unwieldy man pages can get. I remember one that
ran more than a hundred printed pages. A GUI help browser is a
real timesaver to system administrators. Guess what? Man and Info
pages are gone from the new Gnome help browser. What were these
people thinking?

Fortunately, KDE's help system is excellent. It's even better than
Gnome's was. And so are KDE's mail client and file manager (KMail and Konqueror). I might eventually learn to like KDE.

Conclusion

Fedora Core 1 has proved to be a remarkably stable and
well-supported distribution suitable for home and office desktop work,
after the missing (non-open source) pieces are installed.

Fedora Core 2 is not. It is bleeding-edge technology that will become mainstream in a year or so, and as such is an important distro for
people who will be working with next year's technology. It's an
important step in the evolution of Linux, and I'm glad it's here to
experiment with, but I won't be using it for production work anytime
soon.

Ken Barber teaches Linux system administration at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., and writes open-source-related technical articles and user
documentation when he isn't roaming around in the nearby woods and mountains.

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