August 2, 2005

Review: Lunar Linux

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Lunar Linux is an eye-opener, even for someone who has used many GNU/Linux distributions. It's based on the Source Mage distribution, but, as indicated on the project's Web site, Lunar Linux developers have rewritten both the install code and the package management code in an effort to increase its user-friendliness. A user-friendly source-based distribution? Yes, but as is the case with most new code, there are bugs to be worked out.

After downloading and burning the ISO, I booted from the CD into an installer unlike any I've seen. The installer takes you through a series of steps that are themselves divided into sections, using an ncurses-style interface. If you attempt to choose a step that has an unfinished prerequisite, the program will stop and inform you which step to choose next. It feels almost like a cross between the installers for Slackware and Fedora.

The install procedure's on-screen documentation is extensive and detailed. Although a page of text for each step may not be user-friendly to some, it certainly makes the install easier. However, there is absolutely no hardware detection. When given the option for installing a sound card, you are simply asked for the name of your sound card's module and given a text box in which to put it. To make matters worse, although I know the name of the module for my card, it failed to load properly and is not working to this day.

After the install I rebooted and logged in as root. (There did not appear to be an option to add another user during the install process.) My first order of business was to set up a non-root user. Typing adduser and filling in the appropriate blanks did not work. No errors were indicated, the system simply did not create the new user. Several successive attempts also failed, so I used useradd, which is less friendly but worked as expected.

You are prompted at login to read the manpage for lfirsttime, which tells you how to create a working system from the output of the installer. Essentially, you completely recompile the system, just as a stage 1 Gentoo install would have done from the start. You are then instructed to use Linar Linux's package management system, lin, to update the system and install the base libraries. From that point on you are on your own.

With little more than the base GNU libraries, GCC, and the Linux kernel installed, and the need to create a working desktop system, the next step was to use the dependency checker by typing lin xfree86. The lin command allows for tab-completion with package names in case you aren't sure of the name, a feature I'd like to see implemented in Debian's APT.

After a number of questions regarding which libraries I would like to link to, lin began the compilation. Thirty minutes later it returned an error. No problem, I thought, I'll just submit a bug report. I tried to use the lin links command-line Web browser to visit the Lunar Linux Web site to sign up for the bug control software. Unfortunately, to prevent spam, the site requires users type a graphically displayed code. I was unable to see the code from my system, not having X installed.

Unable to submit the bug report, the next step was to try compiling X.Org instead. The dependency checker went crazy for at least an hour, adding dependency after dependency until the compilation finally began. Partway through, in the same section as XFree86, the compile failed. After a quick refresher course in C, I fixed the problem, but forcing a user to go to such lengths is completely unacceptable.

By now, you're probably asking yourself, "Did he finally get it to work?" I'd continue to entertain you with every boring detail of what I had to do, but I'm afraid I'd go on for pages and pages. Still ...

When X was installed, there was no X config file created. The package gnome2 didn't compile GNOME completely, only a skeletal version. The package gnome linked gnome2 and also failed. When I finally installed all the GNOME packages and had a "working" desktop, it still used twm, the Tab Window Manager, instead of Metacity. I also had to install Nautilus separately from the GNOME package. Even after I manually installed and switched to Metacity, many of the functions in GNOME didn't work, such as using Alt-Tab to switch applications and Alt-F2 to launch a program.

Admitting defeat and moving on from GNOME, I tried KDE, which quickly failed to compile because of a dependency problem with Qt. The Qt library package too failed to compile because of a dependency problem with Qt. After I downloaded, compiled, and installed Qt manually, the KDE install still failed with a Qt dependency problem.

Admitting defeat once again and moving along, I typed lin xfce4 (XFCE Desktop Environment). What do you know? It didn't work. I did find the right package, however, xfce4-profile, on the Lunar forums. It appeared that others were having similar problems. That package worked and I finally had a desktop that worked.


Getting a working desktop on Lunar Linux was harder than getting one on any other system I've built, even if you include Linux From Scratch. I found more bugs than I've seen in any other distribution. The install may be "easier" than a previous version, but that is not saying much. It was a difficult and time-consuming experience.

Using Lunar Linux to set up a desktop system is certainly not efficient and I would discourage you from trying it. On a more positive note, I learned a lot, as it forced me into a hands-on applied test of Linux skills. The distro's documentation is excellent, so someone with little knowledge about GNU/Linux could learn a great deal by installing Lunar Linux. So, if you want a learning experience, or simply a challenge, give Lunar Linux a try. You may not have the same problems I did.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer science student at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada.


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