Linux Distributions Compared

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Back in March, we compared the available Linux distributions. This review draws heavily from that work and offers updated infromations on what is available on PC platforms.
Debian .93R6

The only distribution in this lineup which is not developed on a commercial basis, Debian has been a long time in the making. Unlike all the other Linux distributions, Debian is put together by a team of volunteers. While a few people are in charge of a very small core of the distribution, almost all the decisions are made by consensus, and nearly all the packages are developed independently by members of a large development team.

By following a strict set of rules and using the most powerful packaging technology currently available for Linux, this team has achieved a remarkably coherent Linux package. Debian has complete dependencies: when you install one package, it checks to see if other needed packages are also installed. It also checks version numbers if requested; package A can insist that package B be installed and be version x or greater. This makes upgrading any package nearly foolproof. The installation program will also suggest installing other packages the user will likely want if he or she installs package A.

Debian installs the entire “base” system from floppy (three floppies) and then you reboot into the base system with enough software to install any other packages you like. This way, all the base system has to support is floppies and hard drives. During the initial “base” installation, you can choose which kernel modules to load, determining what hardware is supported. Debian is highly modularized.

All of Debian's packaging tools run in text mode, so X is not required to use any of Debian's sophisticated upgrade capabilities. The package tools are also very fast.

Debian is currently being transformed from an a.out-based distribution with optional ELF support to a fully ELF-based distribution. [At print time, Debian 1.1 beta was stable; this version will be reviewed in a future issue—Ed.]

Debian's home page can be found on the Web at www.debian.org.

Craftworks Linux 2.0

Craftworks Linux, by Craftwork Solutions, Ltd., comes as a boxed set of one CD-ROM, one floppy disk and a 70 page manual. The single floppy disk is both a boot and a root disk, alleviating the need to make any floppies. Craftworks will install from FTP, CD-ROM, NFS, locally mounted media, tape and PPP. It supports PCMCIA Ethernet and CD-ROM for installation, as well. It has no MS Windows or UMSDOS installation capability and requires 8MB of RAM to install. The distribution is all ELF.

Craftworks' installation utility prompts you for your desired partitioning scheme (and shows you a recommendation), the installation method you want, and what kind of system you want to install. It has three precompiled kernels to choose from: Cyclom, SoundBlaster and Generic. All are ELF 1.2.8 with AIC7xxx and iBCS patches and have support for the ftape loadable module (QIC-40, QIC-80, QIC-3010 and QIC-3020). The SoundBlaster kernel supports the SB-Pro and SB-16. The Cyclom kernel supports the Cyclades Cyclom-Y driver.

Craftworks Linux uses a unique system for installing packages, called Component Replacement And Fabrication Technology (CRAFT). This system does extensive package dependency checking to assure that all required packages for a particular utility are installed and that packages are intact according to files present, size and checksum. The software itself comes bundled in something called Component Catalogs, grouping together related packages. Installing additional software is as easy as mounting the media containing the catalog and running sysadm (see below) to select and install it.

There are three predefined choices for package installation: Minimal, Developer and X Workstation. The fourth choice is Custom, and it allows you to pick which packages you want to install ahead of time. Selecting any of the first three choices will begin installation without further delay. Package selection comes into play only if you choose Custom. The package selection is considerably more granular than many other big Linux distributions, giving you somewhat less control over exactly what is installed and what is not. Once the installation process has begun, it requires no further attendance. Take a little break, and when you return, simply reboot and your system will come up ready to run. If you chose to use LILO, it will have checked your partition table, and any partitions labeled DOS will have been automatically added to the LILO configuration for you to choose from at boot time.

Craftworks Linux comes with sysadm, a graphical utility that, from a single screen, lets you control many aspects of your system, including modification of user/group information, security settings, tcp wrappers, IP firewalling, X Windows setup, system backup, and much more. The fact that sysadm is a text-based application is another useful characteristic, as it will run in low memory and on inferior or unconfigured display cards, in addition to X Windows.

I was impressed to find that Craftworks comes with shadow password support, IP firewalling, FlexFax and APSfilter. I was even more impressed to find that it also comes with DOSemu, the MS-DOS emulator, and BRU, a high-quality commercial backup and restore utility, correctly configured.

Craftworks Linux is FSSTND-compliant and everything is laid out logically and sensibly. I could easily find all of the configuration files I needed, which were all stubbed out to provide consistent and useful examples.

I think Craftwork Solutions' distribution would be an excellent choice for serious Linux users who want a complete distribution that comes mostly preconfigured and is easy to use and maintain.

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