April 28, 2005

Review: Ututo-e, the "only free distribution"

Author: Bruce Byfield

Ututo-e is a Gentoo-based distribution developed in Argentina. Of all the distributions listed on DistroWatch, Ututo-e is the only distribution endorsed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Since he first noticed Ututo-e while visiting Argentina last August, Richard Stallman has described it as "the only free GNU/Linux distro I know of" -- an endorsement that promises to boost its user base the way that John F. Kennedy's endorsement of the James Bond books boosted their sales. In addition, the FSF hosts Ututo-e on its FTP site.

That Ututo-e contains only free software is easy to verify. The project maintains a set of links on its news page that list all the packages included in platform-specific versions of the distribution, and also highlights its licences. But how does Ututo-e rate as a distribution? What is it like in everyday use? These are questions that have yet to be answered, at least in English.

Looking at both the Spanish and English versions on several architectures, I found a generally successful adaptation of Gentoo for beginning and intermediate users, supported by a thoughtful selection of software and original scripts for administration. But I also found enough rough spots to suggest that Ututo-e is being pushed into the spotlight unprepared.

Ututo-e began in 2001 as a project for developing a LiveCD. Lead by Diego Saravia, an industrial engineer and chief professor at Universidad Nacional de Salta, Argentina, the project merged in April 2004 with the SOLAR (Software Libre Argentina) distribution, a personal project of Daniel Olivera, a freelance programmer.

Olivera writes that Ututo-e is not aimed at a particular class of user, but designed with four priorities in mind:

  • To use only software that meets the free software definition.
  • To be a single-CD distribution.
  • To be optimized for individual processors. The distribution maintains separate CD images for Intel 486, 586, and 686, as well as Athlon MP and XP and Duron.
  • To be optimized for speed.

Ututo-e has 37 contributors, 10 of whom are developers. The distribution has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, according to Olivera, and Ututo-e is being used by the city councils of MorĂ³n and Parana in Argentina, as well as a number of military and police organizations, non-profit groups, and companies. The project is currently working on a low-cost, high-performance cluster system, as well as a new release of the distribution.

FSF endorsement is verbal only
While promoting Ututo-e for its upholding of free software principles, the FSF has not adopted the distribution itself. Talking in mid-April 2005, Richard Stallman explained that he had had Ututo-e installed on one of his machines, but had discovered a number of bugs in the English version. According to Stallman, FSF technicians reported the bugs to Ututo-e and are urging a release in the near future to correct them. Until then, Stallman, much less the rest of the FSF, will not be switching to Ututo-e. "I won't be using this release," Stallman says, "but I will be making [switching to Ututo-e] a high priority." However, he adds that, "I want to be able to tell people that I'm using a release that I am totally comfortable with." The FSF endorsement, in other words, is presently more for potential and philosophy than for engineering accomplishment.

Installation

Ututo-e uses its own text-based installer. Once the installation program starts, you are notified of the default passwords for the root and everyday accounts, as well as a separate one for the administrative tools.

Although a custom installation is available, it offers only slightly more choice than the automatic option. Selecting a custom installation offers a choice of cfdisk or parted for partitioning, and the selection of keyboard language and time zone. No package selection is available -- both install options install the same 1,344 packages. All the same, most users with enough experience to be installing GNU/Linux in the first place might prefer the custom installation. The automatic installation's creation of a swap driver and a root partition with an ext2 filesystem is adequate, but experienced users may want to separate data and system partitions or to use the Reiser filesystem.

Whichever option you choose, installation takes about 55 minutes. Much of this time is due to the high number of packages, while configuring and optimizing the system takes at least 15 minutes of the time, according to the status messages.

Desktop and software selection

Unlike many distributions, Ututo-e does not add a single-user mode setting to the boot manager. Nor does it include by default a terminal icon on the desktop of ordinary users. Clearly, the developers assume most people, including the root user, will be using a graphical desktop most of the time.

For a graphical interface, Ututo-e offers IceWM or GNOME 2.8. Both are largely uncustomized, except for the distribution-specific wallpaper in GNOME, which, in the root account, features the message "YOU ARE ROOT - USTED ES ROOT" printed twice in large red letters, presumably to remind readers to be cautious.

Software is oriented towards GNOME applications, such as AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Evolution. KDE is not available as an option, although enough KDE libraries are included to run KOffice and K3b, the CD/DVD burner. Unusual software choices include Guidedog, a GUI for packet routing and IP masquerading, and Bulldog, a firewall GUI. The kernel is version 2.6.6, and the applications are of similar vintage -- not bleeding edge, but not so old that users are missing much, either.

Despite the time the installation process spent optimizing the system for the processor, performance seemed much the same regardless of whether I used the 486, 686, or Athlon XP-optimized CD images. I found a larger performance gain when I reduced the number of desktops from four to one.

Administrative tools and package installation

In the absence of the KDE Control Center or anything remotely similar in GNOME, Ututo-e uses its own scripts, the Lynx browser, and whichever other Web browser is set as the default to provide a text-based
administrative tool. The tools include Webmin-like applications for managing users, and a link to ClamAV for anti-virus scans.

Among the administration tools, a standout is the package installer. An adaptation of the Gentoo Portage system, Ututo-e's package installer resembles a better organized version of Debian's dselect. It gives users a text-based list of available packages from which to select. Although a progress bar would enhance the tool, overall it provided a seamless, painless install.

Security

Ututo-e security standards are mixed. On the positive side, the distribution uses multiple system accounts. That is, in addition to the usual root account, Ututo-e uses a number of specialized user accounts, each with a name that suits its specific purpose -- for example, daemon, cron, and portage. With the use of each system account narrowly defined, crackers cannot break into the system by obtaining a single password. User groups are defined with similar narrowness, so much so that if you create additional everyday accounts, you need to add them to additional groups before they have the same access as the ututo user account created automatically during installation.

On the negative side, Ututo-e tells you the system's three basic account passwords at the start of installation, but makes no effort to remind users to change them as soon as possible. Since these passwords are "enter," "enter," and a blank password, this is a major gap in security.

Other basic lapses in security include the automounting of diskettes, CDs, and DVDs; a graphical log-in for the root account; and no enabling of the firewall during installation. The distribution would also benefit from following some of the suggestions in the Gentoo Security Guide, such as placing directories to which users will write on a separate partition, using grpquota and usrquote settings to define drive mounting in /etc/fstab, and installing cracklib to prevent easily-guessable passwords.

Many of these security weaknesses, of course, have become standard in modern distributions. However, they stand out more in Ututo-e more than usual because of the obvious thought that Ututo-e's developers put into the multiple system accounts. Having taken this advanced precaution, they seem to have overlooked the elementary ones.

Problems

Despite the evident attention given to administration tools and system accounts, Ututo-e has several basic problems. In both the Spanish and the English versions, at least one game isn't properly configured, and the Start Here folder is available on the GNOME desktop, but empty. More seriously, USB support is not enabled, but an icon for xsane labelled Scanning Tool is placed by default on the desktop. Similarly, a standard SiS sound card on my system was detected during installation but not configured. Both the automatic and manual X.Org
configuration tools hang the system.

In addition, the English version has problems of its own. The English is often non-idiomatic, with such menus as "Configuring the distribution of its keyboard" and "Menu of handling of partitions." Phrases like these can usually be interpreted without much effort, but the awkwardness lessens the professionalism of the distribution. A far more annoying problem in the English version is the series of keyboard mapping errors you receive when GNOME is starting up. These seem to point to larger problems, because, if any attempt is made to change the mapping, the system hangs and reverts to Spanish on rebooting. Even worse, the English version points by default to a Spanish package repository, and I could find no mention of an English one in the operating system or on the distro's web site.

Conclusion

Ututo-e meets its first two priorities of containing only free software and confining itself to a single CD. However, its attempts to optimize for processor and performance are less successful. Yet even if the distribution met all four of its priorities, that would still not be enough for it to meet the expectations the FSF endorsement places on it. Especially in the English version, there are still too many inconsistencies and problems for Ututo-e to compare in functionality to the leading distributions.

Still, what is most noticeable about Ututo-e is how little it sacrifices to remain true to the ideals of free software. True, it lacks RealPlayer, Adobe Acrobat, or a Java Runtime Environment. However, much of the time, it sacrifices so little that most users will hardly notice the principle in operation. If disappointing in presentation, Ututo-e still acts as a reminder of how far the free software community has come -- and of how small a price users need to pay today to support its principles.

Bruce Byfield is a freelance course designer and instructor and a technical journalist.

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  • Linux
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