October 24, 2007

X/OS is an undistinguished Red Hat clone

Author: Preston St. Pierre

X/OS Linux is a distribution built from Red Hat Enterprise Linux sources. Its developers claim it was created "to provide a hassle-free enterprise-class Linux operating system without usage terms tied to commercial services." I downloaded it expecting I might find all the refinement of Red Hat along with some improvements and the community one expects to find growing around free software. It seems I set my expectations too high.

X/OS is offered on 6 CDs or one 3.6GB DVD. After waiting overnight for the DVD image to download I was eager to see what X/OS would be like. Booting up, I saw the familiar Anaconda installer, upgraded somewhat since I last used Red Hat, and themed to suit X/OS. The install will be familiar to Fedora users, and is quite friendly. The only downside I ran into during the install was that when I chose to not install GRUB to the MBR, the installer didn't copy the proper GRUB configuration for booting X/OS. I tried booting to the X/OS CD and using "linux rescue," but that simply dropped me to a shell for maintenance instead of offering a "fix bootloader" script (or anything else). I had to add X/OS manually to my running menu.lst, but it would have been nice if I could have simply copied and pasted the requisite information. This is a minor issue however, and won't be a problem to people who want to install X/OS's GRUB.

On first boot users must fill in a number of configuration options. The wizard's screens once again are nicely themed to suit X/OS instead of Red Hat. At the end of all the questions, with everything seeming to work properly so far, my screen suddenly went black save for the cursor. I was still able to move the cursor 10 minutes later, but nothing else was changing. I tried killing X with Ctrl-Alt-Backspace to no avail. My attempts to gain access to a console using Ctrl-Alt-[F1-F6] were similarly unsuccessful. I eventually had to reset the computer. My fears that this would become an infinite loop of questions followed by freezing were unfounded; the configuration was saved and X/OS booted to a login screen. I logged in with the user the configuration wizard made me add, which brought me to an X/OS-themed GNOME desktop.

As the most prominent thing on my screen was the flashing "updates available" button, I started the updates downloading and perused the installed programs. During the installation, I had chosen the Web server, database server, FTP server, SSH server, development, and desktop categories for my system in order to use it for local testing of the scripts I create. However, despite my selections, only the SSH server was actually running. I am of two minds about this. On one hand, if I select an option to make my computer a Web server, I expect that the OS will make it a Web server. From a security perspective, however, it is much safer to require that the functionality be enabled manually after the configuration has been reviewed. I enabled Apache 2, MySQL, and vsftpd in the service configuration wizard. PHP was configured to work with Apache, and I had no problems contacting the database. The updates installed while I was doing all this, and when they were done I rebooted as requested.

Besides the development-related software, the desktop category includes frequently used programs such as the Firefox Web browser, the OpenOffice.org suite, Evolution for email and organization, and Pidgin (formerly Gaim) for multi-protocol instant messaging. RhythmBox and Totem filled the respective sound and video niches; however, with support for MP3s and most codecs missing, you can't say they cover those categories well. I had hoped that X/OS, unlike Red Hat, might have included them to make people's lives easier.

X/OS is a good, easy-to-use operating system with a massive choice in software -- which is only to be expected, since that's what Red Hat is, but it lacks any value beyond that offered by Red Hat or CentOS, another distro built from RHEL sources. The major change touted on the project's Web site is additional installation methods, but to enable these methods you must have a valid RHEL or X/OS key. Another change is listed as "minor bugfixes," with no further info beyond "see specific packages for details." The rest of the differences between Red Hat and X/OS are just naming and skinning. There is no additional documentation available on the X/OS Web site, nor are there X/OS community forums or chat rooms. As a matter of fact, there are no support options shown on the X/OS site. Some Google searching brought me to the X/OS Experts in Operating Systems Web site, where paid support is offered for X/OS Linux, along with a variety of other options. The support seems remarkably limited in scope compared to what Red Hat offers, however.

Knowing that it would be difficult for a third-party vendor like X/OS to support a Red Hat rebuild better than Red Hat itself, I assumed that being free was the main reason to use X/OS, yet the distro offers nothing for free beyond the software download. CentOS, on the other hand, offers community support through forums, IRC, and mailing lists. While CentOS is a dedicated project with a large following, X/OS seems more like a tool that is used by one company and offered to people simply to comply with the GPL and perhaps to gain popularity for their company.

I was not entirely disappointed by X/OS, but I was also not particularly impressed. Its developers put in the minimum amount of work required to separate X/OS from Red Hat, but beyond that, added no value to the product. Since there are already other distributions available that give the same functionality and add more value, there is no reason for someone who wants a free Red Hat clone to use X/OS. For most people, CentOS is a better choice.


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