The Open Source

SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - Xfree86 4.0, released last week (visit for details), is a free, open-source version of the graphics system called X11.

X11 is the foundation upon which graphical environments for Unix are built. The unique thing about X11 as compared to Windows is that it was designed from the outset to be a networked system. As a result, a desktop computer running X11 behaves like a display terminal and doesn't care where applications are running.

For example, you could install StarOffice on a user's PC and set it up to run the suite locally. Or you could install StarOffice on a server and set up the user's workstation to execute it remotely, perhaps with the rexec command. In the latter case, StarOffice is running on the server, not on the user's PC. But either way, once that user has launched StarOffice, it all looks and works the same as far as the user is concerned. Outside of granting the necessary permissions for users to run graphical applications remotely, there is no special setup to run your enterprise this way. It's just the way X11 works.

The reported improvements in Version 4.0 are many, including increased performance. XFree86 has always been fast on my system, so it feels about the same to me. But you may notice a difference depending on the display hardware you're using. Xfree86 also includes new 3D acceleration features, although they are largely untapped right now because they are only supported on a handful of display cards.

XFree86 4.0 is much more modular than previous versions. The more monolithic design of previous versions made it necessary to expose the source code for all display-card drivers. The new modular design makes it possible for display-card vendors to produce binary-only drivers. This is both good news and bad news. On the upside, we'll probably see more display-card vendors supporting Linux because they no longer have to open their source code. On the downside, the open-source community won't be able to fix driver bugs when they occur. They'll have to wait for the vendors to fix them.

Right now you'll have to compile Version 4.0 yourself if you want to run it on Linux. As of this writing, the only binaries that are available from or its mirror sites are for FreeBSD 3.x, FreeBSD 4.x, and OpenBSD 2.6. Most of you will probably want to wait until someone builds custom installation files for your Linux distribution.

Fortunately for us geeks obsessed with having the latest and greatest, compiling XFree86 4.0 is pretty easy, and it is well-enough documented on the XFree86 site. There are very few steps you need to take to build this version.

The only reason it is time-consuming is because it takes so long for the code to compile -- about an hour, even on a fast machine.

Unfortunately, once you have it installed, it isn't as easy getting it configured for your display card and monitor. The process isn't at all well-documented, and because it breaks all the easy X11 configuration programs, you'll have to go back to the unfriendly xf86config program or even edit the text configuration files manually.

If you have a pretty standard video card, xf86config should do the trick. Just follow the prompts as best you can. You can also run XFree86 -configure, but that will only get X11 working at its lowest resolution (at least that's all it would do for me). But I managed to get everything running smoothly in less than a half-hour, not including compile time. That's because the configuration file XF86Config resembles the old format closely enough that if you are familiar with the old format, you won't have many problems. The differences are minor, and they are well-documented at the XFree86 site.

Here's one tip for the courageous among you: You no longer need to run a separate font server to get TrueType fonts to work under X11. Version 4.0 supports TrueType fonts "out of the box." You can even select TrueType fonts in StarOffice, an application that was finicky about TrueType in the past.

Are you one of those daring souls who will leap at the chance to run XFree86 4.0? If so, drop me a note describing your experience getting it running, and I'll pass along any tips or warnings in a future column.

Nicholas Petreley is contributing editor at LinuxWorld ( and InfoWorld and works with the Linux Standard Base. Reach him at

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