Linux Distributions Compared

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.
Linux-FT 1.2

Linux-FT, by LaserMoon, Ltd., comes as a boxed set of two manuals (a 64 page installation and configuration guide and a Motif 2.0 user's guide) and 6 CD-ROMs. It is based on kernel 1.2.13 and uses the ELF file format. It is the only Linux distribution that is POSIX.1 certified.

Installation of FT is fairly easy. There are far fewer questions to answer compared to many other distributions. X configuration (which is an optional part of the installation process) is also very simple. Linux-FT does not use LILO but, instead, uses its own multi-OS boot loader. One of the most interesting and different things about Linux-FT's installation process is that hardly anything gets copied to your hard drive. Instead, the bare minimal operating system is installed, and from that point, the system reboots with the runtime CD mounted and uses what LaserMoon calls copy-cache technology. With copy-cache, whenever you attempt to run an application or use a package that does not exist on your hard drive, the software is transparently installed to it (from the mounted run-time CD-ROM) for later use.

Of course, once you have Linux-FT installed and X up and running, you can begin tweaking your system with “xadmin”, a very powerful, extremely thorough X-based configuration and maintenance utility, to explicitly install packages or remove them permanently, just as with any other distribution.

I was highly impressed to find that xadmin can do anything from configuring user and group settings to formatting a floppy disk. Some of its maintenance capabilities include NFS, lpd, PPP/SLIP, file system and hardware setup, package maintenance, process table and much more. It makes administration a whole lot easier and less time consuming.

Linux-FT includes mwm, the Motif Window Manager, and has shadow passwords, IP firewalling, iBCS and quota support in the kernel. There is a massive amount of software included with FT: three archive CD-ROMs which contain a lot of Linux-related material from all over the Internet, and also a separate web server CD, which contains both the Apache and NCSA web servers, as well as a good deal of HTML- and CGI-related material and web browsers. Additionally, there is the run-time CD, which has the Linux-FT distribution on it, and a source code CD which contains—you guessed it—source for many of the applications and tools on the run-time CD. If there's anything in the Linux-FT distribution that isn't in abundance, it would have to be printed documentation. There's not a lot of “how-to” information.

In my opinion, Linux-FT would be a good choice for any hard core professional Unix/Linux user who wants a powerful, flexible and high-quality, professional, POSIX.1-certified, UNIX-like work environment.

Linux Universe

Linux Universe is a book, with simple installation and configuration instructions and a small reference section, which includes a Linux distribution on CD-ROM. It's translated from German, and the distribution on it is also apparently translated from German, since some of the comments in the scripts are still in German.

Like Linux-FT, Linux Universe has its own full-screen boot loader (instead of using LILO) and is intended to be run with a minimum of software loaded onto the hard disk, caching other programs to the disk as they are needed.

Linux Universe is intended to be a companion to Linux—Unleashing the Workstation in your PC, by the same authors. You can purchase Linux Universe alone or in a kit with its companion volume. If you are not already familiar with Linux (or at least Unix), you will want to purchase the whole kit, not just Linux Universe.

The graphical configuration utility is simple to use and seems to work well. It works quickly and intelligently. When filling out the networking configuration, for example, it guesses most of the information once you type in the IP address.

Red Hat Linux 3.0.3

Red Hat Linux 3.0.3 comes as a boxed set of two CD-ROMs and a 190 page user's guide. There is no included boot disk, so you must make your own using another operating system, such as DOS or Unix. Red Hat comes with over 70 possible boot disk images to choose from, depending on your hardware configuration. Red Hat can be installed from floppy, FTP, CD-ROM, NFS, or pre-mounted local file system and will install from PCMCIA ethernet and CD-ROM. There is no support for a UMSDOS installation, although you can install from within DOS. Installing from DOS does not require making a boot floppy.

This latest version of Red Hat can be run live from CD-ROM (disc 2) and can also be installed in 4MB of RAM, provided you can perform a CD-ROM installation. All other types of installation require 8MB of RAM and two additional floppies, which are used to load the RAM disk.

Red Hat 3.0.3 is completely ELF and uses Linux kernel 1.2.13, libc-5.2.18, gcc-2.7.2 and XFree86-3.1.2. It also comes with the Metro Link X-server. Red Hat uses its own package format, Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). RPM packages are easy to install, upgrade and remove, and have built-in dependency checking. The RPM package format is primarily used for Red Hat Linux, but the software itself has the Gnu Public License and is and is gaining acceptance among commercial Linux developers.

The installation procedure is pretty well polished and feels nearly foolproof. You may choose to do either a text-based or an X-based installation. For both options, the script is intelligent and will correctly identify most of your hardware, providing you with sane defaults for most of the options, including what packages to install, LILO configuration and network setup. The X configuration is very simple and reliable; any novice with a video card manual should be able to get X Windows fired up in no time. This version of Red Hat by far surpasses the previous in package selection. There is simply a staggering number of packages available to install from the Red Hat CD. There are now almost 30 main groups of packages, each subdivided into several smaller groups, which are in turn subdivided into individual packages. This makes for an extremely fine degree of control over exactly what is and is not installed on your system. I noticed one possibly big drawback to such a high degree of control: there does not seem to be a foolproof package dependency system to ensure that required packages are installed, e.g., runtime libraries or the Tcl/TK utilities needed to run Red Hat's own setup and configuration tools. The installation program does have all required packages highlighted by default, so, as a word of advice to the novice, don't unselect anything unless you're sure about it.

Once the package installation is complete, you may reboot into your freshly installed Linux system. All system configuration and setup is done through the Control Panel. The Control Panel is an X Windows-based program that makes configuration of functions like network setup, account administration, and package management a simple process. Red Hat discourages you from indulging in the time-honored trade of editing configuration files by hand, and, instead, urges you to use Control Panel. The drawback to such an easy-to-use, point-and-click interface is if you can't run X, you can't run Control Panel.

I think Red Hat would be a good choice for anyone who is looking for a big distribution that is both fun to use and easy to maintain and install. Red Hat would be good, in particular, for a person new to Linux who may want to dive in head first after testing the water.