Linux examined: Fedora 9
- 15 May, 2008 09:59
For many of us, our first painful introduction to old-school Linux installs came from installing early versions of Red Hat. Like most early Linux installs, it was a highly technical, highly finicky process that was best left to the experts.
Well, times have changed. Today, many Linux users are getting blase about the ease with which we can install Linux. We've been spoiled by distributions such as Ubuntu, which is actually easier to install than Windows. Unfortunately, Fedora 9, the community edition of Red Hat, was a bit too much of a blast from the past for me.
This new release keeps Fedora in step with the rest of the popular distributions, updating Gnome and KDE to recent releases, improving the network management capability, freshening the kernel and adding a USB booting capability.
However, when comparing Linux distributions today, the differentiating factors are fairly limited -- a 2.6.x kernel is a 2.6.x kernel, Gnome is Gnome, KDE is KDE and so on. So you have to look at a few specific factors. How easy is the install? How well does it recognize and accommodate different operating systems that share the disk? What's the package manager like? Does the distribution offer you the chance to use proprietary drivers for your hardware? How well does it work with Wi-Fi?
Unfortunately, it was with that first question -- the install -- that I almost hit a wall with Fedora. All installation experiences are by their nature anecdotal. Everyone has different hardware and makes different decisions during an installation. What is a nightmare for one person may be a walk through the park for another with a different system. Still, when you install a different version of Linux practically every week as I do, you get a good feel for the relative stability (or, in this case, the instability) of the install process.
What follows is a brief diary of my attempts to install the preview release of Fedora 9 on my HP Pavilion laptop as a multiboot operating system alongside Ubuntu.
Try 1: Downloaded and burned Fedora to a DVD. Booted off the DVD. Chose a graphical (rather than text-based) install. Requested to reuse a partition that had formerly held a SUSE install as my root partition. Chose my software packages, username, networking and so on. Got an error from the Python installer and couldn't proceed. Fedora's installation process. Click to view larger image
Try 2: Booted off the DVD. Chose a text install. Decided to make sure the DVD was good. Ran the verification check to ensure the DVD wasn't corrupted. At the end, the DVD popped out, and I was informed it had successfully verified. Put the DVD back in and found myself in an error loop when I kept getting the same error window when I tried to proceed.
Try 3: Booted off the DVD. Chose the text install. Managed to make it all the way through the installation process and rebooted. Seemed to be booting, then left me with an honest-to-goodness Blue Screen of Linux Death (in this case, a solid blue screen with my mouse tracking). Finally hit ctrl-alt-return to restart the window manager and found it had hung trying to mountswap off the fstab . For some reason, the installer didn't like trying to reuse the swap partition left over from the previous install, and it made something go pear-shaped during the initial boot.
Try 4: Reported installer bug to Red Hat. Tried again, telling Fedora to use the entire disk, instead of just the existing partition I was trying to reuse. This time it installed and booted correctly.
Apart from the problems mentioned above, Fedora's install also failed to identify the version of Ubuntu that was installed on an alternate partition and placed it in the GRUB boot menu (GRand Unified Bootloader, or GRUB, is a tool that lets you select between various operating systems in a dual/multiboot environment.) Other distributions seem to have no problem finding and add existing Linux and Windows installations to the boot menu.
The install process also fails the Newbie Test badly. There's no way I'd expect a nontechnical person to be able to reasonably answer a few of the questions asked during the install. For example, asking if IPv6 support should be enabled for a network card and if the host name should be set via DHCP is going to be a bit intimidating for nongeeks.
The good news is that once I finally got Fedora installed, it performed admirably in the "stuff just worked out of the box" department. My sound, Wi-Fi and Intel video driver all showed up for duty when the install was complete. The webcam didn't work, but I haven't found a Linux distribution yet that can cope with the perversity of the Ricoh webcam in the Pavilion notebook. At the end of the day, I was left with a GNOME-based desktop pretty much like any other GNOME desktop.
Fedora, like Red Hat, is an RPM-based system. RPM is perhaps the most widely supported open-source package management system (illustrated by the ease with which I installed Skype, even though the Skype site claimed it only worked with Fedora 7).
It also uses the Yum software package manager, which makes installing from the command line a breeze. I just had to type in "yum install audacity" and I was the proud user of Audacity, the outstanding audio editor for Linux.
One caveat: I'm not a big fan of the "Add/Remove Programs" GUI tool that Fedora comes with, which acts as a front end to Yum. It takes forever to do a search for anything or update a display when you click on a new category; I'd recommend sticking with the command line interface.
Incidentally, it's a good idea to start with Fedora if you're part of a business that may want to transition to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) sometime in the future. Since work done on Fedora flows into Red Hat, this allows for a fairly simple transition from Fedora to RHEL.
However, if you're an individual user who just wants to purchase technical support for Fedora, this does present a bit of a quandary, because you can't purchase Fedora support from Red Hat. For that, you'll need to install RHEL. This is in contrast to Ubuntu, for example, where the same distribution comes with supported and unsupported versions.
Of course, open-source operating systems can enjoy quick fixes to problems, and it's possible that some of these problems may be corrected soon (or may already be corrected when you read this). However, until they are, they represent areas of serious concern, at least to this author.
On the whole, Fedora is a solid Linux distribution that will probably serve you well for desktop usage. Red Hat can rightly claim extensive experience as a commercial Linux vendor; it practically invented the market. Installing Fedora is a good way to ensure an extensive repository of prebuilt software. The hardware support is right up there with any other user-friendly distribution.
But my experiences with trying a multiboot install make me leery of recommending it to anyone who wants to use it in a dual-boot environment. The distribution may be robust, but the installer needs to learn to play better with others. It's also a little too intimidating for nongeek users, so if you're going to get any less-experienced friends on Fedora, you might want to schedule an afternoon to help them out.