March 7, 2007

Sidux: A live CD for Debian unstable

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Sidux aims to be the best Debian sid-based live CD -- and it succeeds. It offers a clean, easy hard disk install and a fast release cycle.

It's a rare distribution that impresses me before I've even tried it, but sidux did just that when, a few hours after I'd downloaded and burned a two-day-old preview release, the project announced that the next release was available for download. Clearly the sidux team intends to live up to its fast release philosophy. While I was downloading the new release I checked the forums, and found they were practically exploding with activity. That indicates a high level of popularity for a distribution that is only a few months old and has yet to reach its first final release.

The live CD's hardware detection worked well on several systems I tried, and the hard disk installation was an easy step-by-step process that walked me through partitioning, formatting, base package installation, configuration, updating the system, and installing additional software. The installation routine lets users choose Xfce, fluxbox, or fvwm-crystal as a window manager instead of the default KDE. The installer itself did most of the work -- I got a cup of coffee. The meta-package installation, which downloaded optional additional packages, took almost three times as long as the base installation, for a total of about 45 minutes.

The main problem I saw with the install was that, while installing the additional packages through APT, the user is required to press "y" each time a new package comes up. This meant that through the latter part of the install I had to sit and watch the computer. I didn't mind, though, because while I waited, I used the sidux IRC shortcut on the desktop to join a very active, friendly chat room. There were plenty of questions and answers being thrown around in various languages, the main two I saw being German and English.

Using the live CD to install isn't the only way to get sidux, however. I was informed in a chat about a script called "h2's script" after the creator that allows you to upgrade your current Kanotix or Debian installations to sidux by removing the current sources and pointing to sidux sources, and by installing sidux keyrings. The support for upgrading from Kanotix is slated to be dropped in later versions, though, so if you want to upgrade you should do it now. If you have any problems, post a message in the sidux forums, which are as bursting with activity as the IRC channels.

Once my new sidux system was up, I ran into a few snares. For philosophical reasons the distribution provides no CSS decoding or Flash player, and there are no non-free fonts or media codecs included with the default system. The sidux team leaves them out because they wish to use only completely free software. I found it a hassle to install the missing pieces manually, but I respect the developers' viewpoint enough to not hold it against them. For non-free software from the repository, including drivers, you must edit the APT sources file.

sidux - click to enlarge

In keeping with the free software philosophy, all work on sidux is volunteer. All donations go toward infrastructure, bandwidth, and testing equipment.

You might wonder, "If they hold so much in common with Debian, why choose them over pure Debian?" I asked some sidux users that very question, and the main answer I got was ease of use. The installation is much easier, and the hardware detection is excellent. I'm a big fan of Debian, but its installer doesn't match the user-friendliness and quick setup that sidux offers. I was informed by one user that sidux was the only distro he'd found that would properly detect the hardware on his Athlon64 system. Other users told me that wireless support is a strong point, and that sidux makes a good laptop distribution. The developers also boasted of a new ISO-creation process that allows them to create custom flavors of their distribution in minutes, which they plan to use in later versions to create special-purpose editions.

With sidux you get more than an up-to-date, easy-to-use system, however. Although it is not officially supported, many sidux users have enjoyed Beryl on sidux. If a 3-D desktop isn't your style, you still have plenty of customized artwork to choose from to make your sidux box look spiffy.

While I didn't encounter any problems with sidux, it is cutting-edge software, so you can probably expect to run into a few problems. That is the price you pay for having constant upgrades as soon as possible. Yet sidux is easy to use, fast, and for the most part it just works. It is more true to the Debian way than Ubuntu is, and it retains compatibility with Debian where Ubuntu does not. There is an active community to provide support, and the documentation is available in many languages. All around, sidux is an excellent distribution.

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


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