Dig into Fedora 7

This month I had a chance to install and test Fedora 7, the latest community-based release from the folks at Red Hat. Fedora and Novell’s OpenSuse are Ubuntu Linux’s two chief “competitors,” if you care to frame things that way. All three distros are free downloads; all have vibrant online communities where you can go for tips, troubleshooting, and advice; and all three will hook you up with a modern, friendly environment that you can start exploring right away. If you don’t rely much on proprietary, Windows-only applications, you may be able to get to work right away, too.

The Big Three Free Linuxes differ mainly in their focus. Fedora and OpenSuse both serve as proving grounds for new technologies and new approaches; you see new features and capabilities in these distros long before the features and capabilities appear in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise. So Fedora and OpenSuse both do a good job of evolving — and that suits the companies that fund and steer these projects, as their commercial products directly benefit from the evolution.

Ubuntu Linux is good at evolving, too; but in its case, no separate, commercial distribution is ultimately the parent organization’s fair-haired child. Ubuntu is just Ubuntu, and as it evolves, it does so with one chief goal in mind: fixing Ubuntu Bug #1. Follow the link in the previous sentence, and you’ll arrive at Ubuntu Linux’s bug-tracking site, where you will see that Bug #1, the biggest problem (in the eyes of Mark Shuttleworth, whom we might as well think of as Mr. Ubuntu), is that most people are still running one disappointing variant or another of that commercial operating system that hails from Washington state.
So as Ubuntu grows, the focus is more or less always on the user — specifically, on potential converts who can help fix Ubuntu Bug #1 — whereas Fedora and OpenSuse sometimes grow with users in mind, sometimes with system administrators in mind, sometimes with developers in mind, and so forth. I had forgotten how much this difference in focus can affect the user experience until I spent some time with Fedora 7.

Donning the hat
To install Fedora 7, you have two choices. Your first option, the installation DVD, contains a whole boatload of software packages (and of course is itself a mighty big download of nearly 3GB). The DVD boots directly to the Fedora installer.
Alternatively, you can download Fedora 7 Live CD. This smaller download provides a bootable CD that fires up a working Fedora 7 environment, so you can test your sound card, your network connectivity, and so forth before deciding to install. You end up with fewer esoteric packages installed, too. Live CD installers are extremely cool from the user’s perspective (heck, you can even browse the Web while the installer does its work), so I give Fedora big points for heading in this direction.

But whether you run it from the Live CD environment or from the DVD, the Fedora installer disappoints in a few respects. First, as has always been the case with Red Hat offerings, it provides very little support for existing non-Linux partitions. Most Linux newcomers have a Windows installation on their drive already, usually in a partition that takes up the whole drive. The Fedora installer, however, can choose only to ignore that partition or remove it, whereas other distributions (including OpenSuse and, yes, Ubuntu) can shrink the Windows partition and free up space for Linux, leaving you with a machine that can boot into either OS.

The Fedora installer has almost none of these smarts; to shrink your existing Windows partition, you’ll need a tool like the GParted Live CD or a commercial alternative that I cannot in good conscience recommend, given how good a job GParted does these days.

Once you’ve shrunk your Windows partition and left a bunch of free space on the drive, give Fedora a shot. If you’ve tried other Linuxes and you pay close attention when Fedora sets up its partitions, you’ll notice an approach that may be new to you: a smallish (roughly 100MB) “boot” partition and one large partition for everything else, including swap space, all handled by the Linux Logical Volume Manager. My advice is to pay no mind and let Fedora do its thing. It’s a different approach than you’ve seen before (with benefits that are largely irrelevant unless you’re building a server), but it works just fine.

Fedora, like other modern Linuxes, won’t ask scary or oddball questions about your hardware at installation time. It will, however, ask you to assign a password to the “root” account, the account for the system administrator. Remember the password you assign here; you’ll need it later when you tweak system settings and such. I think this is a usability bummer for anybody who’s not a sysadmin — in other words, pretty much everybody. I prefer Ubuntu’s approach, which has no separate administrator account and therefore no separate password to remember. When you do system-level configuration changes in Ubuntu, you’re asked for your own user password, similar to what happens in Mac OS X.

Everyday Fedora
On first boot, Fedora pops open a wizard to ask a few final questions. You’ll be given a chance to enable a software firewall — very nice indeed, and Ubuntu could learn something here. You’ll also (finally) create your user account and password, and confirm your sound settings.

You’ll also get a chance to review the system’s SELinux settings. SELinux is a security feature originally developed by the NSA, and you can choose to disable it or leave its default settings in place. I chose the latter and never heard a peep from SELinux; but if you find (as some people do) that SELinux gets in your way, you can easily disable it via the System, Administration menu on the Fedora desktop.

When you finally reach the Fedora log-in screen for the first time, it may feel like fairy-tale land, what with the billowing clouds and the hot-air balloons on display. This theme, which always makes me think Peter Pan, is also waiting for you on your desktop once you’ve logged in, along with the standard Gnome setup of one panel across the top of the screen and another along the bottom. In Fedora’s case, the top panel is for launching programs, switching users (a very nice feature, right where it belongs, too), setting the volume, selecting a wireless network, and interacting with the Gnome equivalents of what Windows users call system tray icons.

The bottom panel provides a taskbar, a Show Desktop button, a virtual workspace switcher, and a Trash applet. Ubuntu Linux introduced the Trash applet to the Gnome world out of necessity, there being no Trash icon on the Ubuntu desktop. Fedora places its Computer, Home folder, and Trash icons on the desktop, so why also a Trash applet in the bottom panel? I couldn’t say.

Click any of those icons to start exploring your system, and you get Nautilus, the Gnome file manager, in “spatial mode,” in which a new window pops up for every folder you visit. I love this behavior (perhaps because I cut my GUI teeth on old Macintoshes, which also behaved this way) but many folks don’t; in fact, Ubuntu turns it off by default, and you can do the same via System, Preferences, Personal File Management. Seek out the ‘Always open in browser windows’ option on the Behavior tab.

OpenOffice.org was not installed on my test system; I imagine that this is because I went with the smaller CD-based installer. Thus did Fedora’s package management tools get their first test. I selected Applications, Add/Remove Software; a dialog box came up, saying I needed to enter my root password to run ‘pirut’. Uh, okay. Then I got a friendly window (friendly, yes, informative, not so much — and yowza, why are those fonts so big?) named Package Manager, and I could easily select OpenOffice.org for installation.

The Package Manager downloaded and installed the office suite without a hitch, although, oddly, the new entries in the Applications menu had generic labels like ‘Word Processor’ and ‘Spreadsheet’.

In fact, this foolishness is scattered throughout the Applications menu. Pidgin, the venerable IM client that was until recently known as Gaim, is listed simply as ‘Instant Messenger’. The GIMP, on the other hand, is not listed as ‘Image Editor’, but as ‘The GIMP’. Firefox has it both ways, appearing as ‘Firefox Web Browser’.

Members of the Gnome community have disagreed for years about how these listings should appear; Fedora demonstrates that the debate rages on. (Ubuntu, on the other hand, has chosen a side in the fight and has mostly standardized its menu entries, providing the name of the application as well as a hint to its purpose, similar to the Firefox entry in Fedora.)

I used the Package Manager to download several other favorite Linux apps, and everything was fine until I booted the machine on my second day of testing. After a while, I saw a text screen that read: ‘The display server has been shut down about 6 times in the last 90 seconds. It is likely that something bad is going on. Waiting for 2 minutes before trying again on display :0.’

Now then. I’m a longtime Linux user, so I understood what this message was telling me. But a newbie would have no chance at all. What is a display server? What do you mean, ‘something bad is going on’? Oh crap, have I been hacked? Of course not, but this message isn’t going to put a novice’s mind at ease. It’s exactly the sort of message people use to make the point that Linux isn’t ready for the masses yet.

At any rate, I knew what the message meant, but I knew how to fix the problem only on systems built in the Debian style — Ubuntu, for example. Troubleshooting this particular problem on a Red Hat-ish Linux is different, and I wasn’t up to speed. Google wasn’t turning up answers for me, either; in fact, I was blown away by the fact that as I searched, even when I specified “Fedora 7” in my queries, I kept getting results for Ubuntu users, a clear sign of Ubuntu’s popularity.

Ultimately I gave up (embarrassing to admit, but these things happen when you write on deadline) and tried to reinstall Fedora. That didn’t go well, either. When I booted up the Live CD and ran the installer, it reported, ‘The partition table on device sda was unreadable’ — sda being the device name for the first hard drive, as far as Fedora is concerned. It then gave me the option of initializing the entire drive, blowing away all partitions, including the Windows one. Sigh. The Fedora installer was the last application to touch the partition table; how did it manage to render it unreadable? I couldn’t say.

I finally got myself up and running again (the details are boring and irrelevant) for a bit more poking around. I found that I could easily access shared resources on the network here at PC World HQ, but I didn’t seem to have a way to connect to printers attached to Windows servers, nor could I find a way to share folders from my Fedora desktop on the network. Perhaps it’s just that I know the Ubuntu way of doing things and am looking in the wrong places, but, feeling pretty confident that I covered all the bases, I chalk this up to a matter of focus. Fedora seems geared toward environments where all the machines are running Fedora (or at least some flavour of Linux); Ubuntu seems more ready to be at home in whatever environment you drop it into.

Lastly, let me address the topic of “batteries.” As I’ve mentioned many times before, most Linuxes — especially the ones you download for free — don’t come with support for proprietary formats built in. Proprietary formats include DVDs, Flash content on the Web, MP3 audio files, and more. Fedora supports none of these formats out of the box; to add support, you end up doing some legwork that is similar to what you’d do with other distributions.

I’m not aware of any Fedora equivalent of Automatix (the automated battery installer for Ubuntu); you’re probably going to spend some time on the command line getting this work done. Like everything else I’ve noted here, this arrangement is a result of Fedora’s focus: Fedora is very Free Software-centric — far more so than Ubuntu, which ships with some proprietary components (including 3D graphics drivers) that Fedora steadfastly eschews on principle.

Fedora is solid, and the people who use it and hack on it love it, and I don’t think these people are crazy in the slightest. I do think, however, that Ubuntu, because of its different focus, ends up being a more inviting environment for Linux newcomers. With that thought, I’ll end this column (which wasn’t supposed to be about Ubuntu but ended up kinda being about Ubuntu) with a promise: Next month, Free Agent will have no Linux at all. How’s that for a tease? Until then, stay as Free as you can.

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