Product review: Easy install puts Red Hat 5.2 on top

If you have never worked with Linux, there is only one way to get started: buy a copy of Red Hat Linux 5.2. This latest release helps Red Hat Software maintain its reputation as the easiest Linux to run.

Unlike OpenLinux, Red Hat's installation process is capable of coping with multiple SCSI controllers, as well as mixed IDE and SCSI drives. Advances in this release include new video card and network drivers, and the latest stable Linux kernel (2.0.36). There were rumours before the release of 5.2 that it would include software RAID support. However, I didn't find this true in the new product and could find no mention of the rumours on the Red Hat Web site. A beta version of Linux software RAID is on the CDs, but RAID configuration is manual, daunting, and poorly documented.

Also new to Red Hat 5.2 is a pair of canned configurations: workstation and server. If you have a very basic configuration and you want the installer to make all your decisions for you, use one of the setups and walk away.

My test system -- a 300MHz Pentium II with a Maxtor IDE drive, a Seagate Barracuda ultrawide SCSI drive, and an Iomega SCSI Jaz -- brought the installer to a halt. To its credit, it told me I needed to insert a cartridge into the Jaz drive and try again.

Red Hat's custom installation, which I recommend, is easier than any other Linux vendor's automatic setup. You partition your hard drive with a Red Hat tool called Disk Druid -- an improvement over DOS' fdisk command. Whatever you forget, Disk Druid reminds you to do. Trying to throw it a curve, I configured two swap partitions. These are limited to 128Mbytes each, so if you want more swap space you need to break it up into 128Mbyte chunks. Red Hat figured this out, formatting and configuring both swap partitions for me automatically.

Unlike Caldera, Red Hat doesn't need to reboot after disk partitioning, which saves lots of time. A complete custom Red Hat install took about 10 minutes from the time I booted from the Red Hat CD-ROM. A boot diskette is in the box, too, in case your system won't boot from a CD.

Red Hat's hardware probing function -- which automatically identifies the cards in your system's bus -- is fast, automatic, and accurate. I tested it against several combinations of network, SCSI, and video cards. In every case but one, it spotted and configured all of my cards. The only failure was a video card which I knew wasn't on Red Hat's approved list. Instead of stopping, the installer presented me with a list of supported video cards, just in case one came close to my model. That's class.

Red Hat 5.2 includes the latest versions of key Linux services and applications such as Apache HTTP, sendmail, Perl, and the astounding GIMP graphics tool (think Photoshop on Unix and acid). Red Hat lacks the K Desktop Environment shell that makes Caldera a tempting desktop buy, but Red Hat bests its rival with a newer Linux kernel and identical packaging of Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise. You won't know Sybase is there unless you load and explore the third CD-ROM, and if you do you'll find all kinds of other pleasant surprises there as well.

Red Hat Linux 5.2 is the Linux to buy, not only for those just starting with Linux, but also for those putting Linux to serious server use. With it, you're only 10-15 minutes away from a solid, running server.

Tom Yager (tyager@maxx.net) is a project lead at Healthweb Systems Ltd.

THE BOTTOM LINE: EXCELLENT

Red Hat Linux 5.2

This three-CD package contains the Linux OS, tools and applications, source code, and commercial trial software. The installation process is a breeze.

Pros: Fast, effortless install; good selection of extra applications.

Cons: Homely, outmoded standard graphical shell; lacks software RAID support.

Red Hat Software; www.redhat.com.

Price: $US49.95

Platforms: Intel, Alpha, Sparc.

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