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SEUL: Review of RedHat distribution 4.1
It is my belief than we must conduct an evaluation on as much
distributions distributions as possible on the user-friendliness point
of view. The goal of this being to pick as many ideas as possible and
to select the most adequate distribution (ie the one requiring the
minimum of work) for building SEUL.
Although about the RedHat distribution I have already posted an
evaluation on the RPM package management system so I will not
RedHat requires installation only 1 floppy if you install from CD
and is pretty straightforward. It boots and prompts you from what
media you installing (CD, HD, network (for the later you need a second
floppy)). If you have to enter parameters like an IRQ for your CD then
you will need to type it as if you were using a US keyboard. That is
annoying when you have a non-US keyboard.
I don't recall how the partitionning was done I think I was dropped
into fdisk. RedHat automatically detects swap partitions and will
prompt you if it detects one. You also get prompts for affecting
partitions to mount points. I don't remember if I had my national
keyboard available at this point. To my sense the partitionning and
the choosing of mounting points should be more directive in SEUL
because our public will not be familiar with the UNIX directory tree.
You are prompted for networking parameters during installation making
it very easy to set up if you are in an Ethernet. However you will
have to do it yourself if you have a dial up account (tool provided).
For package selection the process is very flexible because it allows
individual selection of packages, selection by categories (C
programming, graphics...), or block (minimal, recommended, complete)
installation. That makes it pretty good for people with little
knowledege or having to deploy dozens of Linux machines. Another
valuable feature is than the initial installation completes
automatically any missing dependencies. I found this far less
confusing than the Debian method where you are prompted (and
subprompted) each time you SELECT a package without all its
At the end of install it tries to help you in installing X, but it
starts X and that can spoil the installation if the X config has gone
bad. I think it should be a two part install, prompting you to login as
root, configuring X, mounting ro the disks and then trying X so if X
locks the display you still have an installation intact.
RedHat also allows the upgrade in place of the entire distribution
and it will save the config files. The restoration is up to you but
it is not difficult (find / -name '*.rpmsave' -o -name '*.rpmorig')
however it would be best if we had a tool for this.
Configuration at machine level.
RedHAt delivers a kernel with few compiled in drivers (the rest are
modules). The kernel boots fast (no long waits for non-existent
devices) and it is not very big. RedHat is probably the only
distribution you can live without recompiling the kernel. The kernel
is not optimal but it is good enough you are not forced to recompile
When you reboot after installing REdHAt you find a lot of servers.
RedHat has booted you in runlevel 3 so you have to edit the inittab
for making runlevel 2 (workstation type machine) the default. It
would be better if it asked during install.
REdHat provides you with tools for configuring and they are ALL Gpled.
Configuring X is not too difficult in RedHat because in addition to
the traditional xf86config and to the newer XF86Setup from XFree,
Redhat provides you with a curses based installation. That is
specially useful if your card is not supported by the VGA16 server
(NVidia cards for instance) needed by XF86Stup because it gives you a
FAR easier way to configure X than resorting to xf86config.
For general machine configuration RedHAt provides control-panel a TK
based application (so unusable outside of X). Basically it provides a
way to access some modules each one specialized in one aspect of the
machine. Provided modules are: File system configuration (mount,
umount and create mounting points), package management, kernel daemon
(makes easier to operate with kerneld), network configuration, time
management, Runlevel editor (configure what daemons are started at
boot time), printtool, user and group management. Some of this modules
are good like the network configurator but with others like the file
system module you end up doing things by hand.
RedHat uses the SystemV style of init. RedHat's deamon installation
procedures take advantage of this for a very simple and secure way to
add the daemon to the list of daemons to be started at boot. Because
the SystemV init scans a directory, the installation procedure of a
daemon only needs to add (or delete if uninstalling) a startup file to
this directory. It never modifies a file using an automatic edition
(so you can edit the file manually without fear). And this way of
starting things allows to make a user friendly tool (provided by
RedHAt) for customizing the startup of daemons.
RedHat takes advantage of this technique (directory scanning) to allow
installation procedures automatically set environment variables and
starting of the application using cron so the user has no editing to
do. Respective to CRON the only weakness of the RedHat setting is
that it assumes than your box is powered 24 hours a day. Perhaps we
should ask the person about a convenient hour for these cleanup tasks
than must be done daily.
Unfortunately for now there is no way to update the HTML and INFO
trees when installing or uninstalling apps.
The network configurator in RedHat is acceptable and allows you to
configure PPP. However if your link is an UUCP link you are on your
own. Mail is handled by sendmail. RedHAt provides with config files
who allow you to send and receive mail in minutes if you are in a
conventional environment: permanent link to the Net. However if your
link is UUCP or if you use dialup-IP with a maskeraded hostname then
you are in trouble. It can be questioned why RedHat sticks to
sendmail when qmail is much easier to configure and more secure. For
news RedHat uses INN. In 3.0.3 RedHAt's INN came with scripts who
configured the thing at install time so you had nothing to do (I don't
resist to tell than our NT gourou needed WEEKS for installing a news
server under NT, and I needed only ten minutes using RedHat 3.0.3 and
I had no previous experience), again if you were on a local network.
The installation scripts who made the INN instaliing so pleasant are
no longer present. I don't know the reason. Besides they never
covered UUCP or dial-up IP transport. I find this a big weakness in
RedHat because if you have problems with mail and news you cannot ask
for help until you fix them and then you will not need help :-).
Providing RedHat with the means to get mail and news in the typical
home user environment (UUCP and dialup IP) would be a giant step for
making it usable by home users.
User level customization.
The window manager used in RedHAt is FVWM95 with its startup files
preprocessed by TheNextLevel m4 scripts. While a lot of people have
flamed RedHat for choosing a Windows95 look there is a very good point
in it: when you add or remove an application it will also appear and
disappear of the FVWM95 menus (when you restart it) so beginners are
not left wondering why the app does not show in the menus and why
nothing happens when they select that attractive but not installed
A good number of apps come with resources set so from the start the
window is reasonably sized and comes with attractive colors. I regret
DOTFILES not being incorporated into RedHAt, it would make
customization of some apps a lot easier. Because Redhat is sold
commercially it cannot come with some apps which impose restrictions
on distribution like XForms (and its derived software. I miss xfmail)
and Redhat is reluctant to include Qt or sharewares like FileRunner in
RedHat uses ghostview as front end to ghostscript I would prefer gv.
Conclusion: RedHat is reasonably easy to install, it provides tools
for configuring most aspects at machine level and you can live without
recompiling the kernel. X is easier to configure than in other
distributions. At user level it provides the user with an
autoconfiguring window manager and most X apps come with resource
files dood enough you will not need to hack them. Its biggest
drawback is than RedHat is positionned as a server: you need to edit
the inittab, mail and news are built on the assumption you are on a
local network and the RedHat distribution is a bit short in "fun"
software like games, raytracers or The GIMP. However we can get
hundreds of prebuilt packages on ftp sites.
Jean Francois Martinez
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