May 11, 2006

Ututo-e: "The only free distribution" revisited

Author: Bruce Byfield

A year ago, I reviewed Ututo-e, an Argentinian distribution based on Gentoo. Ututo-e is known mainly as the only GNU/Linux distribution endorsed by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). This endorsement is based on the fact that Ututo-e, in the words of Peter Brown of the FSF, "makes a commitment to follow the philosophy of the FSF as to what makes a distribution ethically free software." Last year, this endorsement seemed premature, because Ututo-e, while promising in some places, was buggy in many more. A year later, the 2006 release of Ututo-e is more polished, especially in its desktop and selection of administration tools, but its English version still falls below the standard of leading distributions such as Debian or Fedora Core.

Ututo-e uses a text-based installation program. Like the installer in the last version of the distribution, available options are limited to partitioning and the setting of locale, keymap, and time zone. Custom partitioning is available, but the installer is designed to encourage the creation of four partitions -- swap, root, /home, and /boot -- while custom partitioning includes an option for a separate /var partition. No package selection is available; instead a standard 2,371MB worth of software is installed. Network and Internet connections, as well as printers and sound, are left for users to set up for themselves after installation. Probably the most noticeable change is that the current installer completes in about 25 minutes, almost twice as fast as the previous one.

The Ututo installer is not difficult to navigate, but users do need to be alert to its quirks. For one thing, unless an error requires that you repeat a step, you cannot go back in the process. For another, users can easily be confused by the fact that pressing the Exit button in a text box continues the install in some places, but pressing the Cancel button in other places shuts down the entire process.

Other problems center on partitioning. Maybe the developers are wise to hide the option to overwrite the entire disk, but not having it available until after the install program goes through several screens and determines that no free space is available is annoying. Hedging the option with warnings, as the installer does with manual partitioning, would be far more straightforward. Even more importantly, automatic installation failed to partition properly five times for every time it was successful, even when the CD was carefully cleaned and replaced by a new one. By contrast, manual partitioning, with its choices of parted and cfdisk for tools and a step-by-step menu, was trouble-free.

In addition, the hardware detection seems limited. The latest version of Ututo-e was the first distribution in years that failed to install at all on my six-year-old ThinkPad. The installer did not even recognize its text display, requiring me to select a mode from a standard list of choices. Similarly, instead of using the standard 1280x1024 resolution on a 19-inch LCD monitor, Ututo-e set it to 1024x768, which seems to imply some unwarranted assumptions about the typical hardware that people are using, especially since the installer did get the maximum refresh rate right.

Desktop and software selection

Ututo-e boots a 2.6.15-3 kernel to a modified GNOME 2.12 desktop. Besides the obligatory wallpaper for branding, the modifications include 3-D icons and a theme and selection of icons that make GNOME resemble the KDE Keramik theme. The result is attractive but sluggish if you have less than one gigabyte of RAM, even though only two workspaces are enabled by default, rather than the customary four.

KDE itself is not installed, although it is available in the Ututo-e repositories. A few KDE programs are included, including KPrinter and the K3b CD/DVD burner, although the libraries needed to run K3b are not. Considering Ututo-e's ethical stance, the lack of proprietary software such as a Flash player is unsurprising, but, disappointingly, Ututo-e has also opted not to use any of the free alternatives that replace Java with GCJ and Classpath. This decision leaves, for instance, with some features disable, such as the beginners' wizards. Nor is any GNOME help installed, most likely so the developers could fit the distribution on a single CD. A few how-tos are posted on the English version of the project Web site, but most of these are for advanced administration.

Besides standard parts of the GNOME desktop, such Evolution, and the usual array of tools such as the GIMP, Scribus, and a graphical version of Emacs, Ututo-e also includes a more idiosyncratic selection, including J-Pilot for PDAs, MLDonkey for P2P file sharing, and the GNOME CD Master. As is usual in modern distributions, only some of the available programs are listed in the menu, so /usr/bin, /usr/share, and /usr/local should be among your first stops in a tour of the distribution. Not everyone will agree with the selection, but I give credit to Ututo's developers for making their own decisions about what a desktop needs rather than copying what everyone else does.

Ututo-e's selection of administration tools is especially thoughtful. Influenced by Gentoo, it includes Heartbeat, a clustering solution; a front end to Nmap, the security auditor; and Zaptell, a screen terminal multiplexer. To these tools, Ututo adds its own configuration center, a menu whose items vary from complete applications such as Bulldog for setting up a firewall to the opening of the font manager to /usr/local to provide a list of installed packages. The selection of options could use some organization, as well as a confirmation of actions --it is a desktop application, after all -- yet the overall result is an evolutionary leap ahead of the collection of scripts that the distribution used for administration in the previous version.

Package management is a modified version of Gentoo's Portage. Instead of offering the complete customization of Portage, Ututo-e offers each package for eight difference generic architectures ranging from a 486 to an Athlon or Xeon 64-bit processor. The package manager is supplemented by a Web-based repository similar to Debian's package pages, but with considerably less detail. A listing of package size and dependencies would be especially welcome. So would a progress bar during installation, since the process can be extremely slow. The package selection is also much more limited than in most major distributions -- possibly because Ututo maintains eight architectures -- although it's well-rounded enough for ordinary productivity.


Ututo-e pays more attention to security than most desktop distributions. Security-conscious system administrators will appreciate touches such as the fact that, aside from essential system daemons such as hald, initial services are confined to only xdm and cupsd.

However, Ututo-e's attention to security is probably most obvious in its management of system accounts. Desktop login for root is disabled, and multiple system accounts are used, including one for ClamAV. When you add new accounts, there is no predefined set of groups to which they are added; instead, they must be added to groups manually. The default account setup is weakened only by the fact that you can give administrative privileges to multiple accounts, something that no one with any knowledge of security is likely to do.

However, security can be a problem for English-speaking users because of a lack of documentation. The installation program twice gives you the default account name and its password, as well as the root password needed for configuration tools. What it does not mention is that, before you log out of the default account for the first time, you need to create an ordinary account and one with root privileges. If you overlook these precautions, you cannot access the desktop the next time you log in. Admittedly, everybody should follow these precautions without being told to, but, a warning is still needed, since Ututo-e's handling of user accounts is different enough from that of other distributions that even experienced users might think that creating new accounts is unnecessary.


The FSF Endorsement

In the last few months, the FSF endorsement of Ututo-e has changed from provisional to actual. Last year, Richard Stallman had tried Ututo-e on a laptop, but had found it too buggy for regular use. "I won't be using this release," Stallman said at the time, "but I will be making it a high priority. I want to be able to tell people that I'm using a release that I am totally comfortable with."

Since then, the FSF has donated server space, funds, and the assistance of three developers to Ututo. Stallman himself did not reply to a request for an endorsement, but Peter Brown, the FSF's executive director says, "Now we're glad to report that Richard Stallman now has a fully free distribution -- an ethically free distribution -- that he now has on his laptop that he's travelling around with. I think he's announcing that in all his current speeches. He's very pleased about it."

Stallman did, however, give his own capsule review of the distribution. "Ututo installation is now pretty easy, and installing packages is not very hard," Stallman writes, "but it isn't documented well enough. So I recommend that you find an experienced Ututo user to ask a few questions of. Once set up, it seems to work fine."

In general, the latest version of Ututo-e has a much higher standard of localization than last year's version. The Ututo-e disk boots to instructions in all the languages it supports, including Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, French, and German. However, if the English version is any indication, Ututo's localization still occasionally fall short of professional levels. The English version includes several awkward phrases, such as the installation program's notice that it is "installing kernel and base system of files" and the menu item in the Ututo Configuration tool for "menus for partitions handeling," but such lapses of localization are rare. I lack the linguistic expertise to judge how the other localizations or the original Spanish compare.

It seems likely that localization remains an afterthought in some ways. While having Spanish as the default system locale in the installation program can be excused as a display of cultural pride, it should not remain the default after you've chosen another language's locale and keymap. Nor, when the installation is in another language, should the desktop have the latest version of available only in Spanish, or have Google default to Spanish when the Epiphany Web browser is open. Admittedly, localization is a painstaking task; all the same, it needs to be done thoroughly if it is to be done at all.

Choosing performance or ethics?

With the FSF's help, Ututo-e has improved vastly in the last year. The current version is adequate for daily use, but its English version still needs work, and the distribution as a whole remains minimalist. It lacks the package selection of many distributions, and apparently the hardware detection abilities as well. Its speed, too, is mediocre on the desktop. Even ignoring the absence of proprietary tools such as RealPlayer and Java, which is only to be expected in a distribution with Ututo's principles, many may feel that Ututo's no more than acceptable performance is too high a price to pay for ethical freedom.

In fact, the tradeoff is more imaginary than necessary. Ututo may be the only distribution officially committed to the FSF's definition of free software, but it is far from the only one that deserves to be described as ethically free. Debian, for instance, despite having repositories for non-free packages and another for packages that depend on non-free software, installs with only free software, and its members struggle to live up to their own definition of freedom, although it is more anarchistic than the FSF's. Similarly, Fedora Core not only seems committed to free software -- although it refers to "open source" on its Web site -- but has also consistently pioneered the development and use of replacements for widely used proprietary software. Such distributions seem no less ethically committed than Ututo-e, even though their standards are not the same. Nor do they require a sacrifice of performance or selection in the name of principle.

With the next release, neither may Ututo-e. While the project's dedication to principles is admirable, and the improvement in the current version is obvious, its developers need to continuing spending time on the nuts-and-bolts problems of assembling a distribution if their efforts are to be worthy of the role into which the FSF's endorsement has placed them.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, and IT Manager's Journal.

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