May 29, 2003

Tux goes to college

- by Russell Pavlicek -
In an era when mature Linux distributions abound, do you need a
special one just for college? Robert
Kennedy Collegein Delémont, Switzerland, thinks so. This institution allows
its students to learn entirely via the Internet, so the computer tools at the
student's disposal are critical to the success of both the learner and the
college itself. The school's CollegeLinux 2.3, a single-CD
Linux distribution, is a power tool for educational organizations.

What's different about CollegeLinux?  Well, for one, the installation
procedure is fairly straightforward, but not particularly graphical.  It
reminds me of the curses-based Linux installations which were in vogue
circa 1995.  It's not the type of installation you want your grandma to do
-- unless your grandma is fond of telling stories about her adventures
with punch cards in her youth.  It's a fairly easy install for someone who
is comfortable with computers, but it is clearly not designed to be either
beautiful or idiot-proof (just press Control-C and you'll see what I mean;
you'll be at the shell prompt before you can blink).  And cfdisk may be an
effective partitioning tool, but it's not something you want novices to
use.  The installation procedure also has the annoying property of verifying
just aboutevery response, requiring a "y" or "n" validation after just about
everyanswer you enter.  Plus, some questions have no obvious way to back out of
them, which could panic the uninitiated.

Another thing: don't have any illusions about installing this on your old
junker PC in the corner with a 1.5GB disk in it.  This baby requires 2.5GB for
the root partition, and refuses to install if you give it less than that.That's
because CollegeLinux is not designed to give you only the software you want.
There is no special class of workstation installation or server installation,
each with a selection of subsets available to meet your needs. CollegeLinux is
a "one size fits all" installation.

The cynic in me wants to draw comparisons to the "we know what's
good for you" attitude of many colleges.  But in this case, the uniform
installation might make sense.  Given that this version of Linux is
focused on the needs of a college curriculum, it is meant to be a tool box
jammed full of just about everything a student might need. It's like a
reference book that contains a massive amount of information, even though the
class using it has to read only half the volume.

CollegeLinux is based on Slackware, which means you need to do things the
Slackware way.  Forget about downloading RPMs; start grabbing tarballs
instead if you want to add software.  Yes, the rpm utility is present on
the system, but it isn't the Slackware way. It is technically usable, provided
you manually insure that all the dependencies will be met (I've tried it), but
you're better off learning to love pkgtool.

Slackware uses a BSD-style startup, rather than the System
V-style used by many popular Linux distributions.  Get used to editing
/etc/rc.d/rc.modules if you change your hardware.  And don't go looking
for your startup scripts in /etc/init.d/ or /etc/rc.d/init.d/ -- they're
not there. Instead, realize that the /etc/rc.d/rc.* entries are no longer
directories, but actual
run-level startup files
.

The installation process on my old 166MHz Pentium
with 64MB of memoryand sluggish 8X CD drive took longer than 2 hours from start
to finish.Doubtless a newer machine would move quicker, but there is still a lot
ofsoftware that gets installed from this single CD.

Upon first reboot, you enter the configuration phase.  During this phase
the sound card, the network, XFree86, and other devices
are set up.  Notable here is the use of Red Hat's old sndconfig program to
set up the sound card.  As with the installation, none of the
configuration dialogue uses the X Window System.  When the time came to
configure XFree86 4.3.0, I chose the easy (rather than expert)
configuration to see how it would handle my Matrox SVGA card and old Dell
monitor.  It didn't skip a beat as it configured it for 1024x768 without
any help from me.

First impressions

But the look changes as soon as configuration is complete.  Up pops KDE
3.1.1, complete with the hectic-looking
CollegeLinux wallpaper.  With this, CollegeLinux begins to look like a
21st-century Linux offering.  For a more minimalistic look, Blackbox is
available as an alternative to KDE.  But don't look for GNOME; you won't
find it.  I guess there is only so much you can cram on one CD-ROM.

CollegeLinux comes with some software you might expect, like a 2.4.20 kernel,
OpenOffice.org software suite, KOffice, nfs, Samba, and openssh.  It also
comes with a few things you might not expect.

For example, while Wine is considered an option on many other
Linux distributions, it is included here.  I guess many students have a Windows
partition on their machines. Having Wine installed means that many Windows
programs (the ones that don't choke under Wine, that is) will be available under
CollegeLinux.  Good idea.

CollegeLinux automatically tries to start pcmcia services
-- something which is unlikely to succeed on a desktop machine.  It
doesn't seem to hurt anything by trying, though.

Many CollegeLinux users undoubtedly study programming, so the distribution
contains languages like Perl, tcl, Python,
and the ever-popular gcc with its Fortran 77 front-end.

Also included is curl, a program to push
files to or pull files from a remote server without user interaction.  
Considering the amount of time that today's college students can spend
downloading and uploading assignments on the Web, curl seems to fit the
bill.

In the area of Web browsing, Mozilla and Konqueror both come preconfigured
with Java -- a sensible decision for the Web sites students are likely to
visit.  The distribution Web site claims that Flash is also enabled on the
browsers, but I found that not to be the case.  Also, while on the
network, you can expect students to communicate with each other, so CollegeLinux
provides programs like Gaim, Kit, Sirc, and XChat.  And what self-respecting
student could survive without some serious P2P action?  CollegeLinux
includes the eDonkey file sharing P2P client, in both X11 and console
versions.

Of course, if you're going to socialize, you need to know who is around
you and what services they offer.  CollegeLinux includes LinNeighborhood,
a Linux version of the Windows Network Neighborhood.  It front-ends Samba,
allowing users to tie in to shared directories across the network.  No
modern distribution should be without this tool or something like it.

A little poking around reveals the presence of both CD-burning software
and multimedia tools.  Included are mplayer, an X-based movie player;
workbone, a text-based CD player; mencoder, for encoding movies; and a set of
tools for encoding and listening to Ogg Vorbis audio.

Students might need to copy pages from books or notes from a
friend, so it is not surprising to find sane, which enables a variety of
scanners and digital cameras, loaded as well.  Surprisingly, though, gphoto --
the popular utility for digital cameras -- is not present in the
distribution.

Other capabilities that fit a university environment include iptables for
firewalling, plenty of HOWTOs and FAQs, and some "edutainment" programs to
drill students in key areas.

There is an awful lot of software included in this distribution -- almost
2GB worth.  Still, there are a few programs I
was surprised not to find in CollegeLinux.  Most of these are associated
with the absent GNOME desktop.  The Evolution mail client is missing, as
is the Galeon browser and AbiWord, a nice lightweight word processor.
Despite their compact size, there is no Virtual Network
Computing client or server present on the distribution.  I'd think that VNC
would be important for supporting newbie users.
Also, I miss Pico, the Pine editor, for mucking with command files.  But
that's just me, I guess.  I'll live with vi.  If I have to.

Finals

If I were going to build a system to be used for education, I'd probably
start with Mandrake or Red Hat and select packages that best suited an
educational environment.  But if I had to rely on a packaged solution,
CollegeLinux is not bad.  I wouldn't want a computer novice to use the
installation process unless perhaps he was going to wipe out the entire
disk and install Linux.  Also, the BSD-style startup will probably minimize
the support that students will be able to get from friends, since most
Linux distributions use the System V-style these days.

Once everything is up and running, though, CollegeLinux seems to
deliver most of the goods.  It's probably not the absolute ultimate Linux
distribution for education, but it represents a good effort.

Russell Pavlicek is a consultant and author dealing
with Linux in business. He is a panelist on The Linux
Show weekly webcast, and is a contributor to a number
of Linux Web sites. He formerly wrote the Open Source
column for InfoWorld magazine.

Category:

  • Linux
Click Here!