January 28, 2004

Spawn of Debian faceoff: LibraNet 2.8.1

Author: JT Smith

This is the fourth in a series of reviews of Debian-based distributions. The first three have covered the best known commercial distributions. The first one looked at LindowsOS 4.5. The second examined newcomer MEPIS Linux. The third was about Xandros 2.0. All three of those are more about providing a familiar environment for those coming to Linux from Windows. This one is different. LibraNet is aimed more at existing Linux users - including Debian users - than those from the Windows world.

The buzz about LibraNet

I recently spotted a posting about LibraNet in the linux.debian.user newsgroup from late 1999. It was in response to another post asking if LibraNet were any good. The reply was "It is Debian. Its not any easier to install than Debian. It does have a lot of interesting Desktops (Window Managers)." I don't think things have changed all that much since then.

In fact, I recently spotted a posting on the Hampshire LUG Discussion list which pointed other readers to a page at LinuxMafia.com about various "Debian installers." Prominent on that list, and recommended as well, is LibraNet.

The test environment

I am using a low-cost desktop box I purchased from Fry's Electronics for $199.99 for the review. It came with an 800MHz VIA processor, 128MB DRAM, 30GB hard drive, 52X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, and mainboard with built-in AC97 Codec sound, 3D Graphics Accelerator video, SiS630E chipset, and a 10BaseT/100BaseTX NIC.

The box is connected to the Internet through my home LAN. A Belkin Wi-Fi router sits next to my office desktop, and the test machine connects to it via Cat 5 cable. Connected to my desktop box is an HP printer which is configured to allow sharing with others on the LAN.


After downloading and burning (love K3B!) the two ISO images for release 2.8.1 of LibraNet, I was ready to start the install. The first screen to appear after it had booted explained how to use the arrow, tab, and enter to key to move about and select desired options during the install. The window looked like a throwback to the old days of DOS, or perhaps to the way most Linux installs looked 3 or 4 years ago. We're talking old-school, for sure.

I asked the installer to use the whole disk and to automatically partition it as it saw fit. It happily went about doing this and created a ReiserFS partition or two. Then it installed the base system.

A series of prompts asked me if I wanted Libranet to handle the booting chores, whether or not to create a boot floppy, and what time zone I was in. That done, it told me to remove the CD because it was time to reboot. I did just that, but LibraNet did the same thing Xandros did. It reneged on its promise to restart the machine. After a minute or two of waiting, I hit the reset switch.

Then I was asked for the root password, for a user name and password, and for a hostname. Once the installer had all that, it instructed me to put CD1 back in the tray. After I had done that, and hit Enter, it started back to work. It advised me that it was pre-configuring the desktop. Then it said it was installing the kernel source.

Next came the X configuration. Did I want auto or manual config? Auto, thanks. Do you have a SIS630 video card? Yep. PS/2 mouse? Yep. Then it said it didn't recognize my monitor, and would I mind filling in all the specs for horizontal/vertical frequency and so on. It had been so long since any Linux install had asked me for that information that I didn't have it handy. I told it to use 1152x864 (the max it would offer under those conditions) and kept on going. The test worked, although it only used a little more than half the monitor screen. It told me I could adjust the configuration once the installation was completed, so rather than go back, I accepted it.

Then I was given the opportunity to add or delete package groups to be installed. I added a few, and selected Gnome instead of KDE. I was about 16 minutes into the install when it started installing the selected packages.

Twenty-five minutes later it asked me to feed it CD2. Thirty minutes after that it finally told me that the installation of packages was now complete. There were a couple of times during the install that I had been sure it was hung. Each time, however, it eventually came back to life.

With the packages finally loaded, all that was left to do was to configure the sound, network connection, and printers. Sound was easy. The installer determined that I should have the Trident driver, loaded it, and it worked. The network configuration was almost that easy. I just had to select the type of configure I wanted to do (ppp, network, or expert), specify the type of network (static, dynamic, pppoe), choose whether or not to send the hostname when signing on, and enter the IP addresses of the nameservers. That last one had me worried for a second, but it shouldn't have. All it wanted was the local address of the Belkins router ( And it even prompted me to use that.

Since I had no local printer to configure, I was done. The installer said I was ready to use the new system, and that all I had to do was hit enter to start it. Sure enough, that's what happened. I had expected to see a Gnome desktop after logging in, but instead I got iceWM. But no matter, after only an hour and twenty minutes, the install was completed.

Post-install landscape

The first thing I had to do was to regain the monitor real-estate I had lost during the install because I didn't know the correct specs for my monitor. I started LibraAdmin and selected X configuration, then told it my monitor could do 1240x1024 at 60hz, and that it was a 17 inch model. Sure enough, after logging out and back in again, this time after setting the session parameter to Gnome, all was well on the monitor.

The LibraNet desktop under Gnome had the familiar Gnome paw-print icon on the task bar across the top of the screen. Clicking it brings up the applications menu. There were also icons on the desktop for your Home directory, the Admin Menu, PPP, a link to the LibraNet forum, a trash basket, and Start Here.

I cannot fault LibraNet for their selection of default applications. I could choose between several Window managers in addition to Gnome. The iceWM desktop, part of the LibraNet default, offered me a choice of Netscape, Mozilla, Galeon, or Opera for my browser. For email I could pick from Mutt, Balsa, Sylpheed, and Evolution. Since both categories include my faves, I think they made good choices.

More on page 2... Connectivity

LibraNet didn't connect anything for me: not access to the Internet, and not the shared printer. What they did was provide AdminMenu, a wonderful tool which in my eyes is their great piece de resistance. It handles just about all the system admin chores I am likely to ever need, including access to the Internet and the shared printer. As wonderful as a tool as it is, however, it still requires that you know a little bit more about your system (and LAN) than a neophyte is likely to know.

Software maintenance

LibraNet has very recently (as I was writing this review) unveiled its new "update-safe archive" to provide its users with the latest security/bug fixes. At present, it is only available for users on release 2.8 and 2.8.1. This allows LibraNet users to keep up with the latest Debian releases without compromising their stability and support by mixing repositories. The kernel is not yet included, but it's coming.


Security is not a strong point for LibraNet. While they do require a root password and segregate chores that can be done only by root from those a normal user can do, they don't do much more than that. No default firewall is installed, and there is no automatic checking for security fixes at the end of the install, leaving users in an insecure state from the time they install until they perform their first safe-update.

That first safe-update, by the way, was handled easily and gracefully by the Admin Menu. I found 13 packages with security issues waiting to be updated when I clicked on Security Update.

AdminMenu also puts a GUI-face on installing a firewall and controlling what services are running at start-up.


LibraNet does not provide support for the free download version other than what is available in the Support Solutions Database, but it does provide email support for registered users. The LibraNet "up and running" (TM) support offerings are designed to "get you up and running and keep you there." So long as your system remains in the "shipped configuration," that is.

The final score

LibraNet does not score as well on this review as the other distributions. But there is a reason for that. It comes down to this: LibraNet does not do all the hand-holding and babysitting the others do, and it is that babysitting and hand-holding that form the basis for comparison.

LibraNet doesn't skimp in those areas because of oversight or neglect. They tread lightly there simply because its primary target audience, Debian users and/or wannabes, neither want nor need such care. They know how to use apt-get to maintain their software and keep their system secure. And unlike me, they probably know the CUPS URI for their shared printer.

I'm willing to wager a donut, that were these same distributions to be reviewed by Debianites, using their own criteria for the benchmarks instead of mine, the standings would be reversed.

LibraNet is an excellent distribution for the experienced/advanced Linux user, and I would have absolutely no compunction about recommending it for same. But I would not recommend it for a noobie.

Category LindowsOS 4.5 MEPIS 2003.10 Xandros 2.0 LibraNet 2.8.1
Installation 90 90 75 70
Connectivity 95 95 85 75
Security 85 95 95 85
Software maintenance 95 90 95 85
Free/Included Support 75 90 90 85
Price as tested $49.95 $17 $89.00 $74.95
Upgrade software maintenance $49.95 N/A N/A N/A
Final Grade 88 92 87 80