Linux distributions revisited

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Corel Linux

Corel announced their intention of shipping a Linux distribution in late 1998. It's now early 2000, and Corel Linux has appeared at last; was it worth the wait?

Here's the bad news: Corel Linux isn't as easy to install as MacOS. (It's far easier to install than Windows 98, but being a curmudgeonly old hack I'm moving the goal-posts for ease-of-use and won't concede that an OS is truly easy to install until my cat can do it in her sleep.)

Nor could Corel Linux autodetect my test machine's sound card (a weird proprietary laptop sound chip -- I tortured the installer by pointing it at a laptop, traditionally not something Linux distros are good at). And it definitely failed to detect my ethernet and modem connections -- which gave me grounds to suspect that it was broken, until I remembered that I'd removed them the day before.

The news gets worse. This distribution is slick. It's so slick, in fact, that I'm really worried about my job. I mean, if all Linux distributions go this way, I'm going to be looking for a new occupation. Yes, Corel Linux is bad news all round -- for everybody else. Let's take a closer look at it ...

Corel Linux is based on Debian 2.1. Debian is the One True Open Source Linux Distribution; it's created by a team of volunteers and the core Debian system is truly religiously clean -- it contains nothing that violates the open source definition. Unlike Red Hat, Debian relies on the DPKG package system -- which was, until the release of RPM 3.0, superior to RPM at tracking dependencies and maintaining inter-package consistency. There are other minor differences, although nothing like a major as those between Linux and Solaris or SCO OpenServer.

Corel took Debian and dinked with it. They layered KDE 1.1.2 on top for a consistent graphical look and feel. They hacked on the KDE file manager, KPanel (and menus), KDE control centre, and other aspects of KDE, giving it an infinitely more consistent feel than the default version. They also wrote a graphical installer, similar in feel to the ones now used by Red Hat and Caldera, but assuming an even less technical bent on the part of the user; it's possible to install Corel Linux on a reasonably standard PC by just shoving a CD in the drive, turning it on, and hitting the "Enter" key repeatedly. As with the other graphical installers, there are advanced options to choose individual packages and manually partition the hard disks on your system. Several pre-canned configurations are supported; I picked the "desktop" option just to see what Corel's idea of an average user is like.

Unlike the other distributions, there's no requirement for user interaction in setting up X11; Corel's installed recognized the C&T65500 video chipset in my laptop and the 600x800 LCD display and autoconfigured it for maximum colour depth without asking any confusing questions. (This leads me to worry about the installation experience users may have if they try putting it on truly bleeding-edge equipment for which no drivers are available -- but that has always been a problem for Linux, and will remain so until some standard for supplying XFree86 video drivers with new hardware is established.)

Corel Linux, in its first incarnation, comes with Kernel 2.2.12 -- not the most stable version, but perfectly adequate. It appears to be SMP-ready and was quite happy with my SCSI configuration and PCMCIA cards. The kernel does not support APM by default, though, nor IRdA; laptop owners will have to do some compiling.

The standard desktop install has some interesting omissions. There's no web server; not even a lightweight personal one. Nevertheless, the desktop install still comes with a mail server (exim, rather than the more common sendmail) and telnet server -- it's just that most of the heavyweight services are ommitted. This may be of interest to network administrators who want to roll out Corel Linux as a desktop environment for their staff. Any ommissions you feel a need to rectify can be fixed using the Corel Update package manager -- a graphical front end to apt-get and dselect, the Debian network-aware package update tools. Apt-get is particularly useful in that unlike Red Hat's RPM, it will recursively fetch packages from a remote FTP server to satisfy dependencies -- if you want to install foo, and foo relies on a newer version of bar than the one on your system, it'll grab the latest version of bar and install it before starting work on foo -- which means an end to versioning hell. And to make things better, there's an extensively improved version of the KPackage front end to RPM and DPKG, so that you can even splice RPM packages into your system if you so desire.

There are quite a lot of interesting additions, too. The presence of Word Perfect 8.0 is perfectly predictable, as is that of Netscape Communicator. Corel licensed Bitstream fonts so that WordPerfect doesn't look atrocious on Linux. They've gone to great pains to integrate Windows filesharing support -- using the Control Centre it takes about ten seconds to tell your Corel Linux system about the network neighbourhood, and once turned on you can browse the network as easily via SMB as via NFS. They've attempted to automate printer setup and they've spliced the excellent Kppp dialup networking tool in to handle modem connections. The Linux Dos emulator is present, although -- oddly -- WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) isn't. Their customizations and additions to KDE have the net effect of making it a 100% self-contained desktop environment; users who just want to write documents, surf the net, and do email probably won't ever need to install any extra software.

Under the hood, Corel Linux is Debian. There's something like the SVR3 initscripts layout under /etc, but the rc.d directories are sitting around loose; there's no bundle of configuration files under /etc/sysconfig. There are signs of attention being paid to automating a system that may not have a clueful administrator; for example, the checksecurity tool (which looks for changes to setuid programs); this looks to be roughly the case, judging by the on-line help topic "Managing Corel Linux systems", which seems fairly superficial. Despite that, there's a huge amount of online documentation accessible via Netscape, and Corel's excellent techpubs staff seem to have been hard at it -- the Corel-specific documentation is very professionally prepared, although it seems to lack a precise vision of who the end user is (a common problem of operating system documentation).

My general verdict on Corel Linux is this: if you are new to Linux and are looking for an easy platform for learning about Linux, go with Corel. Installation is the hardest task a beginner faces, and Corel Linux will ease you over it without a bump (unless you are using cutting-edge hardware, in which case you may have a problem or two). The level of integration within the components is high, making it a credible desktop environment for people who know nothing and care less about computers. For advanced users, it's Debian with a friendlier face -- Debian's initial installation is as unfriendly as Corel's is welcoming. Given that Corel are giving away Corel Linux free with millions of cheap motherboards over the next year, we can expect to see it cropping up everywhere on entry-level PC's. The one issue I have is that the installation seems to be 100% graphical -- if Corel Linux's installer doesn't recognize your hardware you can't fall back to a command-line interface and do everything by hand, unlike Debian (which it's based on).

I can't think of any drawbacks to Corel Linux if your hardware is compatible, other than my own lack of experience with it. I haven't run a million-hit-per-day website or a mission-critical e-commerce server on it yet, although I have no reason to doubt that it would work. By taking Debian as a starting point, Corel leap-frogged a chunk of the Linux distributor's learning curve; the result is truly the slickest Linux distribution to date.

Red Hat 6.1

Red Hat are the yardstick all other linux distributions tend to be measured against these days. They're big, so big that they're in danger of being seen as the Microsoft of the Linux world. Despite being so big that some purists regard them with distrust, Red Hat started small -- the prototypical two-men-in-a-garage start up in 1994. I've been using Red Hat Linux since 2.1 (in 1995) and in general Red Hat have delivered a solid, robust product. Having said that, zero releases (4.0, 5.0, 6.0 ...) tend to mark the integration of some new technology (such as GNU LibC in 5.0 and Kernel 2.2 in 6.0) and consequently have developed a name for being a bit wobbly and needing lots of updates. Intermediate releases, however, like 6.1, demonstrate exactly why Red Hat got to their number one position.

Red Hat rely on the RPM (Redhat Package Manager) system for managing the component packages of their distribution; no surprise really, as they invented it. Red Hat 6.1 brings a few extras to the standard Red Hat mix. For starters, there's the autorpm tool; running autorpm, a networked Red Hat system pulls system updates off the web as and when Red Hat publish them. (This means there's no excuse for running an out of date system with known security holes!) Note that autorpm works with the new rpm 3.0 format; ithis is approaching the Debian package system in terms of flexibility and power, including the ability to install packages via HTTP or FTP and to authenticate PGP-signed packages.

A new graphical installer comes along with their system; not as slick as Corel's, it's nevertheless a good match for the Caldera LIZARD (which set the standard for Linux installers before Corel's release). Unlike Caldera and SuSE (who provide a limited OSS license and Open Sound System drivers) or Corel (who provide just the bog-standard kernel sound modules, which require much agony to configure), Red Hat supply their own sndconf sound configuration system; it works on more standard sound cards than before, although it's arguably behind OSS. (As the guys at 4Front live or die by the quality of their sound drivers, this is no surprise.)

Red Hat 6.1 comes with XFree86 3.3.5, the latest released version of X11; to which Red Hat have added TrueType font support and utilities to add and remove fonts on both X11 and the Ghostscript print engine simultaneously (chkfontpath does the job). This is a major boon; one of the traditional weaknesses of X environments has been getting what's on screen onto paper effectively. Doubtless when XFree86 4.0 ships in Q2 2000 peace on earth and goodwill to all hackers will arrive -- XFree86 4.0 is due to have TrueType support, real SGI-licensed OpenGL, and loads of other goodies -- but until then, this is pretty slick for a free X setup.

Unlike almost all the other distributions, Red Hat uses GNOME as the default desktop. KDE seems to have more momentum than GNOME, and more application support; on the other hand, GNOME's object-based architecture is one jump ahead of KDE (at least until KDE 2.0 matures in early 2000). However, if you're used to KDE you can select KDE as your desktop; since Troll Tech announced that the next release of the Qt library KDE is built on will be released under a free software definition compliant license Red Hat have caved in and begun including KDE.

A comparison of GNOME and KDE will have to wait; it's a feature-length article in its own right. Suffice to say, I've used both -- KDE looks better finished, but somehow slightly more plodding. GNOME has more rough edges, and more flair. Both of them will be around for a while and the developers are working on making them interoperate better; this isn't Microsoft v. Netscape. By the time you see this article, GNOME 1.2 should be frozen and KDE 2.0 will be just a beta release away, so the race is far from over.

The desktop is a bit better integrated than in previous versions; it's possible to install just about everything you can possibly need for a working environment off the commercial Red Hat kits. On the other hand, it's inarguably much less slick than Corel's Linux desktop. You will need to get acquainted with the UNIX command line, if you plan to do much work with it (although, to be fair, this is nothing like as painful as prior experience with MS-DOS and Windows might lead you to believe).

On the server side, there are some subtle additions; Clustering support is built into the standard kernel and accessed via the rather impressive Piranha graphical tool; you can use this to build Linux Virtual Servers consisting of two or more nodes, and a master server that hands requests off to whichever one is least heavily loaded. This will be a boon for those of us who have to run heavyweight internet services (for example, CGI-based web portals where each page served is actually the output of a database application) that get bogged down when hit by a number of simultaneous requests. Add software RAID support (Red Hat's kernel can cope with striping, mirroring, and RAID4/5) and you have the ability to do some seriously hairy serving.

The Red Hat Linux box has fissioned into a range of products aimed at different people: Standard (with installation support and priority FTP access to the updates FTP site), Deluxe (with extra documentation, the Red Hat Powertools CD, and a bit more), and Professional (with a secure web server -- in the USA -- and a web builder toolkit). It's also got more expensive, as Red Hat try to position themselves as a premium product. You can still download the GPL'd free Red Hat distribution for free, and obtain updates for free; but purchasing the big red box gets you priority access (to a server reserved for paying customers), telephone installation support on the more expensive products, and so on. Red Hat are also working with Oracle on a joint distribution that will include Oracle 8i Server -- the mother of all database engines -- and it may be presumed that this will have decent support, too. Word is out of a link-up with Computer Associates, whose enterprise management software will soon appear on Red Hat. And in the next release, Red Hat (like Caldera, SuSE, and probably Corel) will be shipping IBM's Java environment (taking a leapfrog approach to the slow project of the Blackdown project's port of the Sun JVM, which has been handicapped by threading issues and Sun's uncooperative approach to the Linux community).

Red Hat metadistributions

A large chunk of Red Hat's distribution is free; you can download it, repackage it, and redistribute it as you desire. This isn't just the source to the packages, but the whole thing -- all the software Red Hat's programmers write (such as their control panel) is open source.

All distributions based on the RPM (redhat package manager) system interoperate fairly well; while nobody would say that Caldera OpenLinux was essentially a repackaged copy of Redhat Linux, I was able to install Redhat 6.1 on top of Caldera 2.3 using the "upgrade" option -- they keep their RPM databases in roughly the same place, both systems use the standard System V init scripts to control startup and shutdown, and apart from the Red Hat system retaining a Caldera logon banner, it worked fine. (I haven't tried this with SuSE Linux -- I suspect that would be a bit harder, as SuSE take an eccentric approach to system organisation -- but even so, installing Red Hat Source RPM files on SuSE should be eminently possible.)

It's even possible to convert a Red Hat system to Debian (the free distribution underlying Corel Linux); Debian linux is based in the Debian package manager, which is broadly equivalent to RPM. Consequently, tools (such as alien) exist for converting RPM files to DPKGs, other tools (such as KPackage) allow for the parallel maintenance of a DPKG and RPM database on the same machine, and it's even possible to take the RPM database and turn it into a Debian package database.

The existence of free "skeletons" such as RPM or DPKG, and of a whole bundle of thoroughly domesticated packages that are freely redistributable, has given rise to metadistributions. Corel Linux is a metadistribution of Debian linux -- basically, it's Debian plus a very slick installation manager, administration tools, KDE, Corel's own software (such as Word Perfect 8), and so on. And there are many metadistributions based on Red Hat's Linux (although as far as I know there are none based on Caldera OpenLinux).

In general, Red Hat metadistributions seem to get started when someone is dissatisfied with some aspect of Red Hat's standard product. It might be a case of Red Hat being compiled to support i386 processors; if you recompile the packages with Gcc optimizations for Pentium Pro switched on, the same software will run a bit faster on a Pentium Pro or Pentium II system. Or it might be a case of bits being left out by Red Hat for some reason or other. Or it might be a commercial venture, hinging on the ability of the people putting together the distribution to deliver solid technical support for a product they've taken to pieces and reassembled.

Linux Mandrake PowerPack

Linux Mandrake is produced by a small French company -- small compared to Red Hat or Corel, with their billion dollar stock market quotes -- called Mandrakesoft. Mandrake is based on Red Hat version 6.0, but adds extra features. As you'd expect, there's better support for French (with printed installation and "getting started" manuals available in French as well as English). There's also a potload of extra software, and different support arrangements. On the extra software front, Mandrake includes a CD full of user-contributed RPMs (somthing you don't get from Red Hat unless you buy the Deluxe kit), and two CD's containing demos (in some cases fully working) of commercial applications (including the obligatory copies of StarOffice and Word Perfect).

One interesting point is that Mandrake provides native pentium-optimized binaries of key system components, such as the XFree86 X server. This means that the whole system should feel faster and more responsive than a stock Red Hat installation (which supports everything from a 386 with 8Mb of RAM upwards). Again, the version of XFree86 shipped with the copy of Mandrake that we saw was a minor version number or so ahead of the version that shipped with Red Hat 6.0. Unlike Red Hat 6.0, Mandrakesoft believed in KDE; Red Hat didn't include KDE until release 6.1, when it was provided as an option, but Mandrake uses KDE as its standard desktop.

The Mandrake installation uses a modified version of the old Red Hat text-only installer. It's not incredibly good at coexisting with other systems; unless you select the "custom" option it will blow away any pre-existing Linux partitions on your machine. On the other hand, it takes care of re-partitioning your primary hard disk -- making it easier to use than the original Red Hat installer for setting up a clean new system. Once installed, Mandrake gives you a fairly standard KDE desktop environment, on top of Red Hat; Linuxconf is used for administration, along with some of the usual Red Hat control panel components (such as printconf) and command line utilities (such as sndconfig, the Red Hat sound card configuration tool).

The Mandrake Powerpack distribution comes with access to technical support; this is primarily provided by way of their website), with email access to a technical support team for installation help -- as with most distributors, they don't necessarily provide support for post-installation issues (as these can be remarkably wide-ranging). The basic support period is 100 days, compared to the 90-day web-based installation support (and 30-day telephone support) offered by Red Hat.

As noted earlier, Mandrakesoft are based in France -- making them the distributor of choice if you're looking for support in French, or localisation in non-English language variants. UNIX (and Linux) internationalisation is a sore point. UNIX was written internally at AT&T's Bell Laboratories, in the USA; internationalisation wasn't even on the cards until SVR3 was released in the early eighties, by which time it was more than a decade old. Mandrake are concentrating on tackling the backlog of work and achieving a definitive lead in the internationalisation stakes -- while other distributors (such as TurboLinux or Red Flag Linux) focus on specific national markets (Japan and China respectively), Mandrake claim to support more locale files and non-English fonts than any other distribution, and a brief look at their web site substantiates this; if you want to run Linux in Welsh, (or French, Greek, Turkish, Chinese or a host of other languages) this is the way to do it.

A point worth noting here is that Mandrake are working on a number of software projects that show considerable promise. First and foremost is DiskDrake, a user-friendly graphical hard disk partitioning tool. Next on the list is Lothar, a set of tools for intelligent hardware detection and automatic configuration. However, all this development work is still in the early stages; it will undoubtedly show up in later releases, as Caldera's COAS administration system did, but as of January 2000 it's not much in evidence.

Definite Linux 7

If the emphasis in Mandrake was on user-friendliness (by way of the KDE desktop), the emphasis in Definite Linux is on security. Definite Linux, by Definite Software (of Stockport), is a British-built metadistribution. Definite Linux comes with 90 days installation support via fax or email; a premium-rate support phone line is in the works. The first and most obvious difference between Definite Linux and Red Hat is the installer; as of release 7 it's still basically the Red Hat 5.0 character-mode installation script, with numerous options disabled (leaving CDROM and disk partition as basically the only supported sources). Work is under way on developing a new installation system. Once past the installer, things are a bit more promising. Definite Linux includes all the security patches that you would normally expect to download from Red Hat. More to the point, it includes all the security tools that Red Hat are forced to omit from their distribution due to brain-dead American government export controls, which put tools for encrypting email in the same class as guided missiles. (Note that recent changes in US crypto export regulations may alter this -- but details are still a bit hazy, due to the notoriously complex legal situation.)

A word about encryption and security. If you run a server on the public internet, you are by definition vulnerable to hacker attacks. For every talented security whizz who can identify a hole in some standard server, there are ten crackers who will write tools that attack a system through such a vulnerability. And for every cracker who writes their own tools, there are a hundred idiot script kiddies who can -- and will -- download those tools and point them at every computer their port scanner can find. These are automated hacking tools, operated by kids with little insight into their use, or the damage they can do, and they can target a prodigious number of machines in parallel. The advent of distributed cracking tools such as Trin00 or Tribe Flood Network (highlighted by a CERT conference in November 1999) makes the threat even worse; some loser can take a dislike to you for any reason or none and direct thousands, or tens of thousands, of machines on the internet to attack you (machines which have themselves been cracked and taken over because their administrators failed to secure them). And as cable modems, ADSL, and unlimited dialup hosts become commoner, so will this sort of abuse.

Definite Linux doesn't provide a panacaea against such attacks, but it's a good start. You get PGP and a version of Netscape that's been Fortified -- Fortify is a piece of freeware that patches an export version of Netscape Navigator, upgrading the encryption key length used for SSL (secure socket layer -- encrypted web connections) from a laughable 40 bits to a slightly better 128 bits. More importantly, you get ssh and open SSL. Ssh (secure shell) is a protocol that is similar in use to, but far more secure than, rlogin; it is encrypted by default, and you can tunnel other protocols across it. (Thus, connections between hosts that go via ssh are not very vulnerable to snoopers listening in in order to grab passwords -- important for administering mission-critical servers over the public internet.) There's also a version of Apache with SSL support compiled in; you'll still need to buy a site certificate and figure out the ins and outs of configuring a secure web server, but this is something you won't get from most other distributors -- secure web servers are apparently as dangerous as machine guns in the eyes of the US State Department.

One note about ssh. Ssh itself is semi-commercial; while ssh 1.2 is free for general use, ssh 2 requires a license. Because of this, the OpenBSD developers spawned the OpenSSH project; they took ssh 1.2, stripped out the proprietary parts, replaced them with appropriate encryption software, and released a free version of ssh. This will probably show up in Definite Linux real soon now, and may boost the uptake of ssh in the community at large (although more user-friendly documentation would help, too).

Also on the plus side, Definite Linux (as reviewed) comes with an Applications CDROM (as with most of the other distributions, a repository of things ranging from StarOffice 5.1 and the excellent Tripwire security tool to less useful commercial demos), a handy Bookshelf CDROM (containing a large collection of Linux documentation presented as Acrobat files, including Internet RFCs, HOW-TOs, the Linux Documentation Project books, and so on), and support via email. On the minus side, production snarl-ups prevented the review copy from including a printed manual -- but this problem should be fixed by the time you read this. A new release, Definite Linux 8, is scheduled to ship shortly after Kernel 2.4 comes out, and may well turn out to be the first 2.4-based distribution available in the UK.

In summary, Definite Linux has paid useful attention on the security front; if you're going to run a publicly-accessible server and know what you're doing this is probably a better starting point than the standard Red Hat package, especially if you're based in the UK.

SUMMARY: So who wins?

In a nutshell: there are three flavours of Linux in common use -- RPM based distributions (Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera, and meta-distributions based on Red Hat), DPKG based distributions (Debian and Corel Linux), and tarball distributions (such as Slackware and Rock Linux). The latter should be avoided unless you know exactly what you're doing, because the only safe way to upgrade one is to compile everything by hand and keep a wary eye on the library dependencies. (On the other hand, if you're an old UNIX hand they can offer a degree of informal flexibility that the package-based systems don't; it all depends on whether you view this as freedom to shoot yourself in the foot or freedom to express yourself.)

Of the other two packaging types, Corel Linux is currently number one for user-friendliness on the desktop, and for introducing new users. Debian is considerably harder to install -- but it should be possible to add a whole load of Debian packages to a Corel Linux system and get something useful at the end. Meanwhile, Corel are distributing zillions of CD-ROMs with cheap motherboards this year; look to see Corel Linux become the standard entry-level PC operating system, unless Microsoft or Red Hat see how they're being outflanked and attempt to retaliate. Meanwhile, the Deluxe edition comes with support and extras -- and will probably be the first and most convenient way to obtain Corel Office 2000 for Linux when it ships. (Which will be soon, as Corel Draw 9 for Linux is already in beta test.)

For running a server, it's hard to say whether you'd be better off using Red Hat or Debian or a metadistribution. Both platforms, when properly tuned, are rock-solid. One point to watch out for is that you really need to pay attention to security if you're going to put your machine on the internet via a permanent connection. Of the metadistributions, Mandrake is undoubtedly better if you are most comfortable in a language other than English. If you already know Red Hat reasonably well, and you're wanting to run a server that will be publicly accessible, Definite Linux comes with most of the security tools and patches you'll need, and scores a big plus on system administrator convenience.

While these metadistributions currently resemble Red Hat rather strongly, they're diverging as fast as their developers can manage -- typically by staking out territory that Red Hat aren't paying enough attention to and focussing on developing it.

I've really only scratched the surface of Linux distributions in this review. SuSE, although an RPM-based distribution, is by no means a clone or metadistribution of Red Hat; it has its own way of doing things, and may well rival Mandrake in the internationalisation stakes. (See the review of SuSE 6.1 in Shopper 140; 6.3 is similar, modulo some improvements, upgrades and additions of new applications.) TurboLinux is another non-Red Hat RPM distribution, albeit not very common in the UK yet; it's big in Japan, though, where it outsells Windows 98 in the shrinkwrap market.

And there are exotica, too. Xi Graphics are normally known for developing commercial X servers, notably Accelerated X (which is where the cognoscenti turn if they have some exotic piece of new hardware that XFree86 simply doesn't support). However, their maXimum CDE/OS is a linux distribution in its own right; one that happens to come with the Accelerated X display server (which supports AGP cards among other things, and now supports a number of 3D hardware accelerators), Motif windowing library, CDE (Common Desktop Environment) as found on most heavyweight commercial UNIX workstations, and a slew of extras based on Red Hat. If you need to run a Linux workstation in the middle of an HP/UX or Solaris house, this may very well suit your needs better than the rest -- but it's obscure enough that most people don't even realise it's a distribution.

The moral of the story is to keep your eyes open, remember that there's more to the Linux world than Red Hat or Corel, and try to establish your requirements before you open your cheque book (or start that 18-hour download). There are a lot of cool surprises out there in Linux-land, and you may miss them if you stick rigidly to the mainstream.

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