June 11, 2004

Review: Red Hat Desktop

Author: Jem Matzan

Recently Red Hat announced that it was still in the corporate desktop market, despite having handed off its former desktop product to the Fedora project last September. The new Red Hat Desktop is not available as a standalone product, but as a part of Red Hat's Starter Pack and Extension Pack. The first release picks up exactly where Red Hat Linux 9 (RH9) left off, which is both good and bad.

Installation

For this review I tested the software on an Athlon 64 3200+ system using an Asus K8V Deluxe motherboard, a WD Caviar JB series 80GB hard drive, an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro AIW (later substituted with a BFG GeForce FX 5700 Ultra), and a SoundBlaster Audigy OEM sound card. Look at the hardware compatibility list before you begin to see if your machine's parts are supported.

Red Hat Desktop's installation utility, Anaconda, appears to be identical to the version included with RH9. If there are changes beneath the surface (aside from updated and expanded packages to select from), they are invisible to users.

The graphical installer for the x86 edition locks the system if you use a modern ATI graphics card. Even though the ATI graphics card I used was listed as supported by RH9, it didn't work with Red Hat Desktop. (I tried a Radeon 9800 Pro, but the problem will affect all R350 and RV350 derivatives, namely all 9800 and 9600 models.) If you're using one of these cards you may have to install in text mode or get a different video card. If you can edit your XF86Config file and use the vesa driver instead of the radeon or ati drivers, you'll be able to start in graphical mode without any problems.

Serial ATA hard drives are not supported on VIA, Silicon Image, or Promise SATA controllers, so unless you're using an Intel-based motherboard that uses the ICH5 southbridge chip you'll have to install to a parallel ATA (standard IDE) hard drive. Aside from these limitations, Anaconda is among the best operating system installation tools available. After the software is installed you can make your own custom "kickstart" file to customize Anaconda for installations on other machines.

The AMD64 installer had a problem recognizing my hard drive's geometry. As a result I was unable to reuse the partitions I'd created for the i386 edition previously. Later I went back and installed from the i386 DVD again and encountered the same problem. I don't know exactly what happened, but the first time I installed the software I had no trouble reusing my old swap and home partitions from a previous installation of RH9 that I'd had on the drive. After extended testing I've traced the problem to the VIA VT8237 southbridge controller -- it seems it isn't properly supported in Red Hat Desktop. Fortunately this isn't a significant issue.

Anaconda failed to recognize my 3Com 3C940 Gigabit Ethernet card, and thus I was unable to immediately connect to the Red Hat Network. Fortunately the chip manufacturer, SysKonnect, has a driver available for download from its Web site. By booting to another operating system and saving the driver to the Red Hat root partition I was able to compile and install the driver module and use it to get online. The first two boots after that were kind of flaky, but subsequent restarts didn't yield any problems with networking. My Intel Pro 1000 Ethernet card had no trouble with RHD at all.

There are four installation discs with binaries for the operating system, one CD for optional packages, three source code CDs, and two documentation CDs. Red Hat offers these as downloadable ISOs, but if you request the media kit you can get them on pressed discs along with the paper installation manual. The x86 edition is kept on separate images from the AMD64/EM64T edition. The two are identical in terms of the functionality and software they provide, except the 64-bit edition has 18 fewer packages (of more than 1,000 total) than the 32-bit edition. Both editions are also available on a double-sided DVD in the media kit. If you download the ISOs for AMD64, they're on CD-sized images instead of larger DVD ISOs despite the fact that the media kit only has a DVD for the AMD64 edition.

Red Hat's interface is easy to learn and navigate - click to enlarge

Depending on the speed of your system and how much software you want to install, installation should take anywhere from half an hour to two hours. Once I ironed out my hardware-specific problems everything ran quite smoothly. The real problem was the amount of time it took to get the test systems working and properly configured.

After installation I tried to get the proprietary Nvidia drivers to install, but I failed. The driver installation program prohibits you from installing the software while in the X server, so the first challenge was to kill the X server safely and get to the terminal. Once I solved that problem I started the Nvidia installer from the command line, but since I didn't have the kernel headers installed (despite having done an "everything" install) I couldn't use the driver. Although I could have searched for the requisite headers on the source CDs, it wasn't worth the trouble.

Features

As a derivative of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, Red Hat Desktop has several features that make it unique among desktop distributions. The features that stood out most to me were the special tools for managing hardware. There is, for instance, a Disk Management tool for mounting and unmounting drives and media; an Internet Configuration Wizard where you can set up your communication devices to work with your software; a Network Device Control module that allows you to control and configure network devices; a Hardware Browser that shows you all of the devices recognized by the software and what their device nodes are; and of course the crown jewel of any Red Hat distribution, Up2date.

Red Hat Desktop network config - click to enlarge

Up2date is a tool that, along with its partner, the Alert Notification Tool, helps keep your software up-to-date by downloading security updates and bug fixes. It is generally configured to automatically connect to Red Hat Network (directly or through a proxy or satellite server), check for updates, and warn you when patches are ready to install. The only other updating agents in the operating system world that work as efficiently and effectively are SUSE's YaST Online Update, Java Desktop System's Java System Update Service, and Linspire's Click-N-Run update service.

Red Hat Desktop also has a built-in firewall program that you configure as part of the software installation process. It has general rules for specific services; that makes it easy to enable and disable it, but that feature isn't terribly helpful to advanced users who need to open up certain ports for isolated programs or processes.

Using Red Hat Desktop

Red Hat's Bluecurve desktop theme is just as nice as it's always been, and cosmetically there is no difference between Red Hat Desktop and RH9 or most other modern Red Hat products. However, the older software included with the distribution was less than stellar from my frame of reference, and no more stable than more recent versions.

Red Hat Desktop has a number of really stupid problems, the first of which was that it wasn't able to reassign ownership of the files in a user's home directory that I carried over from a previous RH9 installation. I had to log in as root to change the permissions on all of the files and directories and erase the old program locks. In other words, my attempt at upgrading from a previous edition of the software was not totally successful, although there was no specific option to upgrade rather than do a fresh installation. In a possibly related debacle, the Red Hat User Manager hung when I tried to rename one of the users.

Some of the Internet apps included with RHD - click to enlarge

On my laptop system the PCMCIA network adapter would not connect to the network (or the Internet) by default because the startup sequence puts the network initialization before the PCMCIA module is loaded. To get the NIC to work properly I had to remove and reinstall it every time I booted the system.

Up2date found a ton of updates from Red Hat Network when I first ran it -- 14MB worth. I downloaded and installed them all, but one of them (some sort of kernel update) refused to install. No reason was given for this failure, but the RHN dialogue that popped up said that all available updates were already installed. Despite that, there was still that one left, and that meant that the RHN icon continued to flash a red exclamation point, meaning that updates were available for my machine that had not been installed yet. Upon restarting (which was not given as a requirement of the selected updates), the problem disappeared.

The software in general is pretty old -- the kernel is 2.4.21 with various special updates and backports introduced by Red Hat. Mozilla was version 1.4.2 (several versions old), the GIMP was 1.2 (one version old), and Evolution was 1.4.5 (one version old, but full of bugs, some of which have not been fixed in newer versions). The fact that the included applications are older versions doesn't necessarily present a problem in using them, but you're kind of left behind the times. If you're used to the GIMP 2.0, it's hard to go back to 1.2.

Red Hat's strategy

Red Hat has always made a highly polished product, but it has been struggling with the proper design and marketing for its offerings. With the discontinuation of the consumer desktop line, Red Hat now has one product -- Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- which it pares down to different bundled packages. The most capable is the Advanced Server, and the least capable is Red Hat Desktop.

Red Hat's old Linux desktop wasn't so much discontinued or transferred as it was renovated to assume a more corporate role. Red Hat Desktop 3 is the first and only version of the software; this is because all RHEL products maintain the same version number. They're all based on the same core code and they're all upgraded at once -- every 12 to 18 months -- rather than sporadically like other operating systems. The release schedule is designed to allow a company to more easily predict and plan for its software upgrade cycle. Updates are released quarterly to patch security holes, fix bugs and add hardware support; Red Hat Desktop is based on RHEL 3 Update 2.

The software included with Red Hat Desktop is more selective than in other distributions; instead of three different office suites there is only OpenOffice.org (version 1.1.0) and instead of several different Web browsers there is only Mozilla. GNOME 2.2 is the default desktop environment, but KDE 3.13 is also available to you if you choose to install it. Every program in the complete install fits comfortably into the menu system, even at 800x600 resolution, so it remains easy to navigate. The software on the Extras CD consists of the IBM Java Development Kit version 1.4.1, RealPlayer 8, AcroRead 5.08, Agfa Monotype document fonts, and ICAclient, a Citrix ICA client for GNU/Linux. The i386 edition of Red Hat Desktop also includes the Flash, Java, and AcroRead browser plug-ins for Mozilla.

Support and documentation

The standard support offering is 30 days of installation support over the phone or via the Web. Web support is actually extended to one year and covers "basic configuration," which is more or less useless. The response time is one day for phone support and two days for Web support. In other words this "support" is a farce, but that seems to be the industry standard for corporate desktop operating systems. Count on your system administrator or other in-house IT staff for installation support of Red Hat Desktop unless you spend big bucks on Red Hat's more advanced support. Even that I wouldn't necessarily trust -- phone support isn't really all that helpful no matter how much money you've spent on it. There is no replacement for a skilled on-site technician or engineer.

There is an "optional" installation guide which is free if you request the media kit. It's not quite as nice as the one that Red Hat used to give away with the boxed editions of RH9, but if you don't know what you're doing it can save you some trouble. Since the installation is a piece of cake if your hardware is supported, and there is little chance that the people installing Red Hat Desktop will be inexperienced in installing and configuring operating systems, you don't need a paper guide. The media kit certainly is nice to have though.

Conclusions

Red Hat Desktop doesn't always provide the ease of installation and customization that it should. Even if I had never messed with my video card and had used an old (and hopefully supported) network card, I'd still have had to struggle with the faulty partition utility and the problems with modifying the old home directory with the same username. Not everyone will run into these problems, but they make me wonder what difficulties lie in wait that I did not discover.

Overall I don't think you're in for any more of a hassle with Red Hat Desktop than you would be with any new operating system. They all have difficulties like these, or worse.

Red Hat Desktop's license is nicely open -- it more or less restates the GPL's four freedoms and puts in the usual warranty, liability and remedy sections. Unlike other commercial GNU/Linux distributions, Red Hat Desktop does not have any integrated proprietary tools that impose restrictive licensing terms on customers. Overall it's quite an agreeable license.

Red Hat Desktop provides an excellent low-level computing platform for ordinary employees who were previously using an older version of Windows. By replacing a Windows 98 or NT environment with Red Hat products you gain security, support, and reduced licensing costs. Home desktop users will be happier with Fedora Core than with Red Hat Desktop; FC is more up-to-date, uses much newer programs and kernels, and has exceptional support for the 64-bit AMD64 platform. It's simply more conducive to home and recreational use.

Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer Red Hat Inc.
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License GNU General Public License, except for some extra programs that are under different licenses
Market Enterprise-level corporations
Availability Red Hat Desktop is not available as a standalone product, but as a part of one of two package deals that Red Hat offers. The first package is the Starter Pack, and it includes either the proxy or satellite server and 10 or 50 Desktop Management Module entitlements (10 for proxy, 50 for satellite). The other package is the Extension Pack which does not include any server software, but has 50 Desktop Management Module entitlements -- this is for customers who already have a Red Hat server and just want to replace their current desktop operating system.
Previous version Red Hat Linux 9, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3
Product Web site Click here

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

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