August 1999 Column

August 1999 Column

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Distributions #4

I am currently somewhat gobsmacked by a Linux distribution. This is a surprise. Being gobsmacked by Linux distributions is a bit like being gobsmacked by a new model of Ford Fiesta; they can dress it up with exotic dancers and dry ice all they want, but it's still fundamentally not something to get worked up over. Except ... well, this is Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. It's a bit like going to the launch of a new model Ford Fiesta only to discover it's been taken over by Lotus. Or maybe Boeing.

OpenLinux has been the dark horse of commercial Linux distributions for some time. Caldera have had a somewhat corporate marketing strategy from the start; maybe this shouldn't be a surprise, for their core funding comes from Ray Noorda (founder of Novell) and their product is aimed squarely at the corporate desktop. To this end they've bundled additional commercial applications with their core distribution, focussed on stability rather than bleeding-edge features, and marketed corporate support agreements. All rather boring compared to the likes of Red Hat ("you want features? we'll give you features!"), and ever so slightly tawdry compared to the pure-as-the-driven-snow free software fundamentalism of Debian. But OpenLinux 2.2 breaks new ground, because the focus has changed: it's usability all the way down the line, and if this release doesn't light a fire under the other distributors nothing will.

This is not to say that Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 is a walk-over; it's still Linux, it still has rough edges, and it's still difficult to work on a pure GUI desktop without any inkling of the command-line complexities that lie beneath it. But it's still a vast jump forward, and here's why.

For starters, there's the new installation system. New installers are always popular with journalists because they've got cute pictures, buttons you can push that seem to do things, and it's far easier to install a package than it is to evaluate it thoroughly. Cynicism aside, though, the Lizard (Linux-wIZARD) installer really is rather cool. For the first time, it makes a decent stab at automatically repartitioning your hard disk for you -- a big stumbling block to new users who may not even know what a partition is -- and then it actually tries to autodetect your video card and set up X. This was a qualified success on my main desktop system; it spotted my Matrox Millennium II, but rather conservatively assumed it only had 256K of video RAM (until told otherwise). Nevertheless, the point is that it got it right, and got it right without forcing me to run a separate program or go grovelling through the video card's manual looking for obscure technical details.

Lizard has decent online help, and does a good job of protecting the naive user from the complexities of the underlying system. In fact, you can run right through an OpenLinux installation until it's done, reboot straight into KDE (the default desktop that comes with OpenLinux 2.2), and be working in a GUI environment without ever seeing a command prompt. But a command prompt is there if you want it -- Caldera haven't crippled their release in the name of making it user friendly. But where Microsoft force you to watch advertisements during an install, Caldera give you a very cute Tetris game to play. In fact, I could sit and install OpenLinux all day ...

I've now been using OpenLinux 2.2 as my main system for about a week, and I've noted some operational differences from RedHat 5.2 (my previous system), although the differences aren't as great as, say, those between Windows 95 and Windows 98. Caldera use slightly different device naming conventions from Red Hat when it comes to dealing with SCSI peripherals; some packages are absent that you may miss if you move from a Red Hat system, while others have turned up in their place. Instead of Linuxconf, Caldera comes with COAS, the Caldera Open Administration Framework: a fairly powerful-looking system management utility that has passing architectural similarities to SCOAdmin (except for the use of python instead of Tcl). This is still a bit rough around the edges, but looks as if it's going to evolve into a powerful system administration front-end -- most of the essentials are already in place, and it's certainly adequate for a standalone desktop system with local ethernet connectivity or a dialup network connection to the internet.

Bundled software includes StarOffice 5.0 (the FilterPack release, aka 5.0.1, which is better at coping with foreign file formats), Word Perfect 8.0 (which you need to go online to grab a registration key for, annoyingly), the BRU backup utility (also shipped with official Red Hat a while ago), Netscape 4.5.1, and Partition Magic and Boot Magic built into the Lizard to help you repartition while installing.

The standard desktop is KDE 1.1; expect an upgrade to KDE 1.1.1 real soon, if not already available by the time you read this article. It's a solid desktop environment and although it's not quite as polished as the Lizard installer it does a good job of carrying the sense of smooth integration over.

As far as the noncommercial packages go, there's something for everyone. If you own a Palm Pilot you're in for a treat: there're hot docking capabilities accessible from the KDE main menu. There's the usual kitchen sink of general purpose tools; the full KDE suite, Xemacs, XCDroast (if you have a CD burner), a plethora of programming languages and tools (including the astounding DDD debugger), and so on. And it's all driven by RPM, the same package manager that Red Hat, Pacific HiTech, and SuSE all use.

Documentation is fair. The manual is multilingual, like the installer, and although it only gives an abbreviated tour of the Linux desktop it's hard to fault. (Too many manuals mistake verbosity for lucidity; this is hardly surprising, as technical authors tend to be expected to produce lots of text, rather than limpidly brilliant one-liners that explain everything in a nutshell.) However, the usual mounds of virtual dead trees lurk under /usr/doc, waiting to waylay the scholastically inclined.

Now for the irritating bits. Luckily they're mainly mild ...

Firstly, I couldn't get the supplied sound modules to run. The 2.2.2 kernel is compiled with the entire kitchen sink available as loadable modules, but for some reason I couldn't get them to talk to my SoundBlaster 64. Never mind: installing the Open Sound System and forcibly disabling the Caldera sound modules sorted that out for me, so now I can listen to The Orb and have my computer make weird ambient twittering noises whenever I resize a window. This was a minor irritation, but I think a novice would be totally stumped; given that the rest of the Caldera setup experience is so polished, I'm surprised there's no analog to Red Hat's soundconf tool, or that they haven't licensed the OSS drivers (which can pretty much automatically detect your sound board and configure themselves accordingly).

More seriously from my point of view, there's no IP masquerading (or IP chains, to use the 2.2 kernel terminology for firewalling and packet redirection) with this system. While COAS has a menu entry for switching on forwarding, there's nobody home behind it; the net-tools kit is release 1.46 (you need a more recent version to support IPchains) and none of the modules seem to be present.

If you view Caldera OpenLinux 2.2 as a desktop workstation for a relatively unskilled user, this makes sense: giving them firewalling, tunneling, and all the advanced networking capabilities a server needs merely empowers them to shoot themselves in the foot with a machine gun. But Red Hat and SuSE see fit to provide firewalling out of the box: because their view of the typical Linux user is a bit different -- a techie, basically. I'd rather Caldera had left the masquerading kit in place, albeit switched off and hidden from view so that only the clueful could find it. As it is, I can tell I'm going to have fun getting to grips with the 2.2 kernel configuration utilities some time in the near future.

The other big annoyance is not Caldera's fault: it's the US government's. I had to manually compile and install various bits of necessary security: tripwire, ssh, pgp, and so on. I may be paranoid, but there's nothing like having one of your machines hacked badly to make you sit up and pay attention to security. If the export restrictions were a bit less insanely baroque, Caldera could install all that stuff for us; but as it is, if you want a lock on your front door you'll have to learn how to use a screwdriver.

Apart from those caveats, things went smoothly enough. I installed KDE 1.1.1 as soon as it came out; I also re-installed a load of stuff that wasn't quite to my satisfaction and a bit of stuff that didn't come with the distribution, because I'm the kind of nerd who can't live with a computer until I've put my grubby fingerprints all over it. For the most part, it went well: I even installed some stock RPM packages built against Red Hat 5.2, and they worked fine. You shouldn't count on this, but certainly most stuff will work, and if they won't, recompiling from the SRPMs is still easier than rebuilding from scratch.

My general verdict on OpenLinux 2.2 is this: if you are new to Linux, this is far and away the easiest distribution to install. Go for it: it's as simple as that. The only exception to this general rule is if you specifically need to build a firewall or a network gateway: in which case OpenLinux 2.2 will do what you want, if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and re-engineer chunks of it. Under those circumstances, SuSE or Red Hat or Debian are more appropriate to your needs. But as a worstation with a cute graphical face and basic productivity applications, OpenLinux 2.2 is ahead of the pack.

Pocket trouble?

And now for something completely different.

Linux is a UNIX descendant. As such, it's heir to a long line of mainframe and minicomputer operating systems. Today's desktop machines are powerful enough to rival an 80's supercomputer, so it's not surprising that Linux runs fairly efficiently on them.

But desktop PCs, Macs, and workstations are not the whole of the personal computing world. There's another class of machine out there that many of us use -- the palmtop or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). How does Linux get on with palmtops?

The answer seems to be "variably". Some palmtops are utterly useless to a Linux user; there is simply no reasonable way to get useful data on or off them from Linux. Others are pretty cool; you can plug them in, make them appear as a filesystem mounted on your Linux system, synchronize files with them, and translate their internal files into something useful on Linux (and vice versa). Finally, there's a third category: palmtops that run Linux. So which is which?

I have a confession to make: for many years I've been a Psion fan. I started back in '93 with a Series 3a. I moved on to a bigger one, passing the old machine to my other half, and got myself a Series 5. Now I'm back to a 3MX -- basically a linear descendant of the original Series 3, which came out in 1992. You see, the Series 5 turned out to be nearly but not quite entirely useless ... (I hear a chorus shouting "Yer wot? The Series 5 is crap? What drugs are you on?" Patience ...) I am a Linux geek. To use a phrase from Redmond, I "eat my own dogfood"; I am so far apart from the "mainstream" PC world that I have never even logged onto a Windows NT box, and I have never even seen a PC running Windows 98. Windows compatability is therefore utterly irrelevant to what I use a pocket computer for.

The Psion Series 5 is a beautiful piece of hardware which happens to be an obligate peripheral to a Windows 95/98/NT system. Using a tool called p3nfs (from it is possible to NFS-mount a Series 5 machine (or a Series 3, for that matter) on a UNIX system using a serial cable; but that's not enough to make it useful. You cannot translate foreign file formats directly; you're supposed to move files to and from the Series 5 using a piece of software called PsiWin (which should tell you what platform it relies on). PsiWin does all the translation for you: no PsiWin, no file conversion. You can't even get the file format and write your own translation tools (something which has been done with the Series 3). The Series 5 (and related EPOC/32 machines) are a closed box that simply doesn't want to talk to anything but Windows or MacOS -- the platforms Psion decided to support.

In contrast, the Series 3MX is an old friend. It's open. It's well- documented. Tools to parse and convert its files exist and are available on all UNIX platforms. p3nfs turns it into a transparently mounted extension of your filesystem, just as PsiWin does for Windows systems. There are freeware development tools like CPOC. There's a working version of vi (elvis), and a UNIX-like shell (Shell3a). It is, in short, about as Linux-friendly as a PDA can get. Its case feels slightly flimsier than the old 3a, but the screen is as clear (and the backlight a blessing!), the battery consumption far more parsimonious, and it's subjectively much, much faster.

The point of all this? Well, you can use a Psion Series 3 or a Series 5 with anything you feel like, and you can move files to and from your Linux system -- but if you want to make use of the data on the Series 5 from the Linux system you're out of luck. The Series 3, in contrast, feels like a really useful accessory to the Linux system.

In mitigation, I should say that there is one major use for a Series 5; you can run Linux on it. There is a port of ARM linux and a tool that will load the Linux kernel off a Series 5's filesystem and boot into it; you will also need a decent-sized CF disk in order to hold a reasonable filesystem (See the Linux 7110 project for details). There's no GUI yet -- don't expect the X windowing system to run on a palmtop screen! -- and no useful palmtop-oriented applications: it's still in development. But if you can get on with a command-line Linux environment, this is definitely the smallest off-the-shelf package you'll find it in.)

Anyway. You have a choice between a palmtop that can run Linux (and not a lot else), but is otherwise Linux-incompatible, and a palmtop that makes a nice accessory to a Linux system. Which do you choose? Well, that depends on where your priorities lie. If, like me, you think a PDA is a PDA and not a pocket software development kit, you'll go for the Series 3. If you desperately want a pocket Linux system and hang the practicality, you'll wanty a Series 5.

What's the rest of the field like?

Palm are very good at getting on with Linux. While Linux has been booted on a Palm Pilot Pro, it's not a sensible option. However, Palm made their development tools and file formats as open as possible, and Palm/Linux synchronisation software has been written. For example, using KPilot you can synchronise a Palm Pilot's contact manager with the Ical calendar/contact manager application (in both directions). In fact, you can mount your pilot on your Linux box about as easily as you can mount a Psion. So a Palm Pilot is a good bet for the PDA-as-PDA crowd. I'd use one myself, except it's a pen-based machine, and pens were invented by the devil specifically to torture left-handed touch-typists like me. (I sometimes have a nightmare about waking up in a world where well-meaning engineers have taken away all the keyboards and replaced them with pen-driven computers.)

The Rex Pro is currently a dead loss, but may be worth checking up on in a few months. Phillipe Kahn of Starfish -- the people who invented it -- has allegedly been heard talking about releasing its communications and file format details, so that Linux developers can write drivers for it. If this happens it will be a very nice gadget; but if you want to buy a PDA right now you won't find it much use.

Windows CE is, apart from anything else, the spawn of Redmond. This doesn't automatically make it evil and bad, but you'll find the desktop synchronisation sofware suffers from the same problem as the Psion Series 5 (i.e. "Linux? What's that?"). If you can find one that saves RTF or Excel files and talks X-modem or Y-modem over a serial cable you'll be alright, but it's not an optimal solution. Also, if you have a laptop you should be able to take CF cards from a WinCE machine and read them in your laptop's PCMCIA slots (with the aid of a suitable adapter). To be perfectly frank, I haven't investigated them in any detail -- I'm still a Psion loyalist to that extent -- but it's probably fair to put them on a par with the Series 5 (except that there haven't yet been any reports of WinCE machines running Linux).

The well-to-do may want to investigate bigger machines. The Toshiba Libretto, for example, is a nice piece of kit; a laptop that's shrunk in the wash, until it's bigger than (say) a Psion Series 5, but smaller than a Windows CE 3.0 machine. Apparently you can get Linux to install on the Libretto, although it's a bit of a headache -- you really need another machine to act as a host. The Libretto will run X, giving you a full-blown laptop-grade environment (albeit in a small case), but it's a bit pricy compared to a real PDA. (I am, as it happens, drooling after one of the Psion Jedi machines -- the A5 notebook-sized "next generation" of Series 5, which was demoed at CeBIT -- as the ultimate in long-battery- life portable Linux machines.)

As a final summary, it's worth noting that nobody has yet brought out a really, truly, Linux-friendly PDA. Such a machine would probably run Linux, plus a GUI based on something like Nano-X (which will, in future, support Gtk+ and a subset of GNOME). It would have a serial or ethernet connector, connecting via TCP/IP to a host machine (possibly using mobile-IP or DHCP to figure out where it belongs on the network). Using the Coda distributed filesystem it would support transparent synchronisation between a user's filespace on their main machine and the PDA's own filesystem. There'd be a suite of basic PDA utilities, but in principle it would be a genuine portable Linux system. Does this sound impossible? Maybe -- but we're probably six to nine months away from seeing it running on top of the Psion Series 5 I've just spent a chunk of this column reviling!

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