February 9, 2007

STUX live CD: Some technical difficulties

Author: Preston St. Pierre

STUX is a Slackware/Knoppix-powered live CD with the Morphix-like ability to build a custom ISO. While the combination has high potential, this implementation leaves something to be desired. It's worth the experience if you enjoy using new distributions, but if you're looking to replace your current desktop OS, look elsewhere.

After I downloaded and burned STUX version 0.9.2, it booted properly and brought me to a fully configured system at a graphical desktop with very busy wallpaper. Instead of using a simple background to help contrast the icons, the distribution used a painting by Stefan Stux, the distribution's namesake. I soon found that a different painting of his was selected at each boot. While my first impression of having such a busy background was negative, I soon began to look forward to seeing what new and interesting painting would show up at each boot. After I got used to them I thought they gave STUX a unique touch.

I'd read that hardware detection on STUX was handled by a Knoppix-based system, so I expected decent results, and I wasn't disappointed. STUX properly detected the hardware on the six different computers I tested it on. There was one minor problem with a monitor that was set to use a frequency it couldn't handle, but it was easily and quickly fixed. However, after a short time of using STUX on my main computer (a Sempron 2800+ with SiS onboard network/graphics/sound and 2x250GB SATA drives) it froze. I experienced the problem only on my main system, so I assumed it was hardware-related. It kept happening after a few short minutes of use, which prevented me from installing STUX on the hard drive.

In fact, on both of the computers I tried to install STUX on (my main system with SATA drives and an older system with IDE drives) the installation program failed to detect my hard drives even though they were shown by lvmdiskscan. When I went to the forums for help I found little real activity and lots of spam. There was a little difficulty when I did get a reply, as the maintainer's first language is not English. That aside, I got help a few days after I posted and was eventually provided with a patch to handle the hard disk installation problem.

Before I received the patch I was shown in the forums how the command-line installer worked. I was still unable to install on my main system due to the hard locks but I was able to get STUX installed my secondary system. The installer simply wipes the partition you tell it to use and installs all the packages, offering no options. I installed the usual packages I wanted on that system (such as Apache, PHP, Python, MySQL, SuperTux, Dia, and KOffice) via QtSwaret, and STUX is at this moment running that computer well enough that I plan to leave it installed. After the status bar got to 99% when installing KOffice, Dia, and Python it stayed there for about 10 minutes each, but eventually worked.

STUX offers a number of worthwhile features, including the ability to install to a USB key, the capability of saving the live CD configuration to hard disk or USB key, and a way to customize a new ISO of STUX to burn. While I have no USB key large enough to hold STUX, something I found out the hard way because the installer neither checks space nor tells me how much space I require before formatting my key and starting the copy, I was eager to try out the others. When I tried to save my configuration to disk I found that the problem detecting hard disk drives was not confined to the installation program. The same problem was present when I tried to choose a place to save my configuration. No drives were available to select. Luckily the patch provided for installing to hard disk also fixed these problems once I applied it, and I was able to save my settings properly.

I moved on from there to creating a custom ISO of STUX. I've long been using a combination live CD/USB key with a script I wrote to load and store settings and files on the key. While this works for me, there is always a minute or two of waiting while my script pulls the programs I use from the key, installs them, and then copies my files. It's an ugly hack, so I was interested in making a custom ISO from STUX.

I assumed it would be easier to make and burn and ISO from my already configured STUX installation than to boot to the live CD again, so I ran the ISO creation program, which claimed it would create an ISO based on my currently running system. A few moments into the process it failed, claiming that it couldn't find some modules it wanted. I rebooted to the CD and ran it again, and this time it worked. At first it seemed there would be no progress bar, but after a few minutes one came up. The bar froze at 99% after about 30 minutes, and when I hit Enter to see if it was frozen, instead of asking me if I wanted to quit it just canceled the process. The system also became unusable at this point, causing me to have to reboot again to restart the process. After it finally completed I thought there might be a way to load the burning program into RAM, eject the live CD, and burn the new ISO. This, however, was not an option. I had to reboot back into my STUX install before I could burn the custom ISO.

STUX Linux includes a 3-D desktop; you can see some nice screenshots on the project's site. However, I was unable to get it working on any of the systems I have access to, despite the fact that several of them have 3-D support under Linux. There was an "nvidia" option at boot which I tried on the Nvidia cards, but it didn't help.

My experience with STUX wasn't exactly praiseworthy. There were a lot of technical difficulties and features that didn't work, in whole or in part.

The distro's developer promised a release of STUX 2007 by the end of January, but as of today it has not been announced.

If you're looking for a ready-to-use, well supported-distribution, STUX isn't there yet. However, I was impressed by the efforts made by Giacomo Picconi, who seems to be the sole developer of STUX, to design, produce, and support his distribution.

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


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