Caldera Network Desktop Preview II

by Eric Goebelbecker

The Caldera Network Desktop is an operating environment based on the Linux operating system and bundled with commercial software that is licensed and/or developed by Caldera, Inc. It provides an interface and value-added features that could help Linux reach a wider market. In addition to the important features offered by the Network Desktop, Caldera has announced they will be offering additional products for Linux, including a version of WordPerfect 6.0 native to Linux and priced competitively with Windows applications. For these reasons, the Network Desktop is an important product for the Linux community, and it deserves some attention.

The Network Desktop offers an installation and software management system that makes it easier to manage and install for end users and system administrators. The package management system, which is Red Hat Software's RPM, is superior to any software management system I've ever seen on any commercial Unix or DOS/Windows environment. It also provides a network backup utility with a graphical interface, automation capabilities, a distributed database and compatibility with other versions of UNIX running the same tool. Caldera also bundles in a font server that further simplifies managing enterprise networks and supports font formats normally not available with Linux.

For greater interoperability, Caldera has licensed Netware 4.x client code directly from Novell. They have developed a netware automounter and a full access to Netware 4.x directory services.

Caldera also includes precompiled and configured internet tools such as a web browser, web server, configurable FTP server and an important TCP security tool.

And, of course, Caldera also provides the desktop shell featured prominently in their advertisements.

I installed the Network Desktop Preview II on a 90MHz Pentium system with 24MB of RAM and two 525MB IDE hard drives. The Preview II release is based on Red Hat Commercial Linux Release 2.x, which includes Linux kernel version 1.2.13, XFree86 version 3.1.2, and gcc version 2.7.0.

Caldera's (and to be fair, Red Hat's) installation procedure is definitely one of this product's strong points. Installing the Network Desktop is arguably easier than installing Windows 95 or OS/2. This is because of two important features: Caldera's documentation and Red Hat's installation program and package management tools.

One way Linux can reach a wider market is by becoming more accessible to the “average” user. While many of us long-time Linux users consider the discovery process involved with getting a new CDROM or downloading new software from the Net part of the fun, many users who would love to learn more about UNIX and computing don't have the time, skill, or patience that is sometimes necessary to build and maintain their first Linux system.

The Network Desktop installation procedure addresses this issue beautifully. Since I've never had a Red Hat Linux CD (a circumstance that I do plan on changing), I don't know where Red Hat's installation ends and Caldera's modifications begin. Regardless, the final product is a pleasure.

Caldera's Getting Started guide has eight pages on how to install the Network Desktop on a PC. After covering the hardware requirements, the chapter gets at the information necessary to continue the installation by asking the installer a series of questions about his target PC. Installers are instructed to record their answers; these responses constitute the information regarding network configuration necessary to successfully complete the process.

Following this section is an excellent discussion about memory requirements, booting multiple operating systems, and several other topics new users need to be familiar with. After covering this information, the installer must choose the appropriate kernel.

The manual contains a few charts and a table that find the right image based on the network card, SCSI adaptor and CDROM; these are especially useful to someone installing Linux for the first time. The installer is led through the process of creating 4 floppies for building the system. This is a process common to just about every recent Linux distribution.

For people upgrading from an earlier release of Linux, Caldera offers something very convenient. The CDROM contains a set of PERL scripts that prompt the installer for the information necessary to select a kernel. The scripts save the XF86Config file and mouse device link (for X-Windows), the fstab (for file systems) and the workstation IP address. If there is no Ethernet card, the script warns the upgrader that PPP/SLIP configuration information will not be saved. The scripts then create the floppies.

The process of booting from the floppies and preparing for the transfer of the software from CD is pretty routine. The partitioning process is smooth and well-documented, and as I said earlier, Caldera does a fantastic job of explaining the process of booting multiple operating systems.

I did find one possible problem for some users later in the install. I do not have an Ethernet card in my system, and since I only use PPP for networking, I doubt I am in the minority.

The network configuration portion of the installation prompts the user for the necessary information, saves the information to the system configuration files, and attempts to configure the first Ethernet interface. If there is no interface, the procedure displays an error. To the user, the failure indication looks like the entire network configuration process has been aborted, when in fact the only error is that the interface could not be set up.

There is no option to skip configuring the Ethernet interface while still entering the other network information such as the host and domain name. In addition, the boot scripts attempt to configure the nonexistent interface during every restart. Since the installer is given the choice of selecting a kernel image with no Ethernet drivers, this doesn't make sense. There is also no way to skip configuring networking completely and still come out of the process with a hostname.

Since the Network Desktop ships with so many Internet tools, and since Caldera also provides the bulk of their support and documentation over the Net (more on that later), I expect that many users will want to use it to dial into the Internet via PPP and SLIP. Automated configuration tools for dip and pppd would be a welcome addition.

After entering the configuration parameters and selecting the disk partitions, the user can either choose the express installation or opt to install each package separately. To select the packages individually, the installer uses glint, the Red Hat package tool, which I will cover later.

When the software installation is done, the install program will configure X-Windows (if the user doing a first-time install rather than an upgrade) and also configure LILO. I was quite impressed with the X-Windows automatic configuration.

In addition to the thorough installation instructions and explanation of basic concepts. Caldera's Getting Started guide provides a wealth of information for new as well as experienced users. The introductory chapters also cover the GNU General Public License (GPL), which components of the Desktop are redistributable, what conditions they can be redistributed under, and which components are copyrighted. The full text of the GPL and other licenses are included in one of the appendices.

The Getting Started guide also explains how to get support for the Desktop. Another of the unique features of Caldera's Network Desktop is that Caldera plans on taking full advantage of the Internet as a primary mechanism for supporting clients. The ntroduction lists all of the necessary e-mail addresses and information about Caldera's Web site.

In the appendices, Caldera covers the Linux File System Standard (FSSTND), explains how their product deviates from it, and gives a representation of the kernel source tree. They also cover what users and groups are created, and how Red Hat Linux uses the System V init scripts to start and shutdown subsystems.

In addition to the Getting Started guide, Caldera supplies a large amount of documentation in HTML. This information is tied together with a Caldera_Info page that appears as an icon on the desktop. There are also links to Caldera Web Server. I really can't stress the value of Caldera's and Red Hat's documentation enough. The information available to a user of the Network Desktop is broad and abundant.

The Desktop Application itself is a File Manager/Finder like shell for X-Windows. However, it doesn't just act as a “launching pad” for existing programs; Caldera provides utilities for adding and removing users, setting the system time, and managing file-systems as well. A screen capture of the User Configuration tool screens is shown in Figure 1. The tools make tasks such as adding printers and filesystems much easier. The most important, however, is the package maintenance tool, glint.

Figure 1a: Group Manager Screen

Figure 1b: Edit User Screen

Glint facilitates the addition or removal of software from an existing system. Figure 2 shows the initial display when glint is activated. Red Hat packages are organized in hierarchies. For example, X11 is a “root” hierarchy. Under it are Applications, XFree86, Libraries, etc. Under XFree86 is Servers and then finally some packages, such as XFree86-fonts, XFree86-devel and XFree86 itself. Each of these packages also has a version number that is used to identify upgrades.

Figure 2. Initial glint Screen

Figure 3 displays what an installer sees when the font package is selected and the Query button is clicked: a description of the package is displayed with a list of all of the files contained in it. From here the package's contents can be verified if a problem is suspected or if a user needs to know what files are installed on a workstation.

Figure 3. Font Query Screen

In order to add packages, the installer simply specifies the package location with the Configure button (the packages can come from CDROM or an NFS mounted volume) and then selects the Available button.

The Desktop provides support for associating files with default actions. For example, when double clicked, the Caldera_Info icon (see Figure 4) launches the Arena Web Browser with the contents of the Calder_Info file.

Figure 4. Caldera Network Desktop

The Desktop itself can be configured as a window, as shown in Figure 4, or as the root window, much like MacIntosh's Finder.

Directories can be opened into windows similar to the desktop. For example, if the user wishes to add an icon for Seyon to the desktop area, the /usr/X11R6/bin directory could be opened and the icon for Seyon could be dragged into the Desktop window. This doesn't move the file: it simply creates an icon.

There are many more features offered by the Desktop—covering all of them would make this article far too long—and duplicate the included HTML documentation.

A demo version of the CRISP editor is also included, which is configured as the default desktop action for text files, and as the default text editor. The full version is available to Linux users for a discounted price. It is a very complete editor for programmers and system administrators, from what I can see. (Unfortunately, we can only read about these features, since almost all of them are disabled in the “lite” version offered for preview, which has fewer features than emacs or vi.)

I was unable to try out the Netware Client features, since the Novell Servers at my office were already “having some problems” (it's a long story). Since Caldera has a working relationship with Novell, I don't think I would have found any problems. Caldera made an effort to integrate Netware support in a way that fits the Linux/Unix file-system paradigm, and from the looks of the documentation, they succeeded. The client locates servers for the user and auto-mounts directory and objects. After being authenticated, the user has automated access to the files for which the account has permissions.

The Caldera Font Server supports TrueType, Postscript and SPEEDO fonts, an easily overlooked feature. Access to these fonts will make software such as WordPerfect even more valuable. It also offers a graphical management tool that allows the administrator to view, install and delete fonts. The BACKUP.UUNET utility is a backup system licensed from MTI, a RAID system manufacturer. This utility alone would be worth devoting a separate review to.

Bundling in a product like this is a key feature of the Network Desktop. This product provides comprehensive network backup and restore capabilities, and makes the idea of supporting an entire office or enterprise system running Caldera Network Desktop a serious possibility.

For Internet connectivity the Network Desktop includes a Web Browser, Web server, compiled versions of pppd and dip, and the tcpd wrapper program. The tcpd program provides a very important security feature by allowing the administrator to control who can access workstation services.

In conclusion, the Caldera Network Desktop is a worthwhile product for Linux users of all levels. I read once that the measure of usability for an operating system is this: Which one would you recommend to your computer illiterate friends? Previous to the Network Desktop, recommending a Linux release to these friends meant agreeing to provide unlimited free technical support. With the Network Desktop, Linux becomes in many ways a better bet than Windows 95 or OS/2. For experienced Linux users, the Network Desktop is an excellent bundling of the important network support tools, a beautiful mechanism for installing and removing software, and a handy collection of third party tools.

Figure 5. Sample Directory on CND

As I said earlier, Caldera Network Desktop is more than a single product, and a single article like this cannot provide a fully comprehensive review. I hope, however, I have provided you with enough information to decide whether or not to use or recommend CND.

Eric Goebelbecker ( is a systems analyst for Reuters America, Inc. He supports clients (mostly financial institutions) who use market data retrieval and manipulation APIs in trading rooms and back office operations. In his spare time (about 15 minutes a week...), he reads about philosophy and hacks around with Linux.

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