Waiting for Linus

Microsoft Corp. suffered so much deadline dilation with Windows 2000 that some analysts think it's probably the reason for Linux getting a solid foothold in the server market (latest IDC figures put the Linux share at between a quarter and a third of the NOS market, just behind Microsoft Windows NT).

However, Windows 2000 is now released, and selling fairly well according to Microsoft. Also, Service Pack 1, which is what careful and conservative corporate customers have been waiting for, is also out, further boosting prospects for Windows 2000.

It's therefore somewhat worrying for the Linuxista guerrillas that the release date for kernel 2.4 is being pushed forward in a similar fashion. The development work for 2.4 began as kernel 2.3 in May last year, and hopes were high it would be released in the first quarter of 2000, as a code freeze was announced in December 1999. Linus Torvalds also bumped up the version number for 2.3.99 to 2.4.0-test-x early this year, which naturally led people to think release was due soon. However, I'm writing this at the end of August 2000, and another release candidate, 2.4.0-test-7, was released a few days ago - and it's far from ready for public consumption, judging by reports on the Linux Kernel Mailing List and newsgroups.

Speculations for the delay include Torvalds being preoccupied with Transmeta and kernel-guru Alan Cox being busy renovating his newly bought house. The word on the Net is that kernel 2.4 should be released in two to three months time - perhaps.

In case you haven't seen the feature list for kernel 2.4 already, some of the goodies promised include; much-improved SMP support (up to 16 CPUs), USB and FireWire drivers, support for files larger than 2GB, support for up to 64GB RAM, scalability and performance enhancements to the TCP/IP stack and possibly also a journalled file system such as ReiserFS or Ext3fs. A new kernel HTTP daemon is also included, promisting a big boost in Web serving performance for Linux. The list is much longer and goes some way to explain why the release date delays.

Since kernel 2.2 took some two years to develop, expecting 2.4 to be ready in less time was too optimistic, in hindsight. However, the work on the 2.4 kernel has beneficial effects on the existing 2.2.x range. Many features such as USB support and hardware driver enhancements (for example, Intel's AGP GART module) are being "back-ported" into the 2.2.x source tree and included in some of the more adventurous distributions such as Linux-Mandrake.

I felt a bit adventurous too, so I downloaded and installed the beta of Red Hat Inc. 7.0 (actually version 6.95, code name "Pinstripe") to see how the biggest Linux distribution is preparing for kernel 2.4. But don't do what I did and run Pinstripe, unless you're prepared for breakages and plenty of trouble-shooting time. Pinstripe is still pretty "raw". Pinstripe actually comes with kernel 2.2.16, but has the kernel header files for version 2.4 installed so that you can download and install one of the test-2.4 kernels.

No release date is set for Red Hat 7.0, but it will probably come out before kernel 2.4, with a 2.2.x kernel instead; however, RHL 7.0 will be easily upgradeable to kernel 2.4 according to Red Hat.

New stuff at the system level in Pinstripe includes updated C libraries (RHL 7.0 will probably ship with Glibc 2.2) and compiler (GCC 2.96 - finally) and the Bash 2.04 shell. The old lpr printing system has been abandoned for LPRng but oddly enough, Red Hat didn't include the companion print filtering system, ifhp, for LPRng.

The Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) shifts to version 4.0, with a new database format. An updated version of RPM (3.0.5) is required to read RPM 4.x databases. The graphical subsystem X has been updated to XFree86 version 4.0.1, a major step forward from the previous 3.3.x version. Configuring X is now much easier (automatic in most cases) with much-improved hardware detection of video cards, monitors, and input devices.

In the "userland" section, new stuff includes a pre-release version of KDE 2. If there's a Linux GUI/desktop that could challenge Windows, it's KDE 2. It looks great, has an excellent "Web-enabled" file manager, and there are plenty of applications for it including an office productivity suite, KOffice. All the more pity then that the pre-release version in Pinstripe is buggy to the point of being unusable. Unofficially, Red Hat developers have expressed disappointment with the slow progress of KDE 2, and talk about going back to version 1.1.2 for RHL 7.0, with GNOME as the preferred desktop environment.

No journaling file system is included with Pinstripe, which is disappointing. Other distributions such as the German SuSE Linux AG's 7.0 and MandrakeSoft Inc.'s Linux 7.1 offer the ReiserFS journaling file system. As of writing, it's not certain that one will be included in RHL 7.0, but this might change as even Torvalds has come out in favour of ReiserFS as the choice of journaling file system for Linux. Once I removed KDE (and replaced it with the lightweight IceWM) and updated the kernel source in Pinstripe (and Glibc, RPM, plus a few other things), the OS has been running very well indeed for me. It doesn't feel very "bleeding edge" at all, performing more or less as well as a release version. This bodes well for 7.0 which should further cement Red Hat's position as the foremost Linux server distribution.

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