SCO OpenServer

by Ken Collins
  • Manufacturer: The Santa Cruz Operation

  • Phone: 1-800-SCO-UNIX

  • URL: http://www.sco.com/

  • Price: $19.00 US (media)

  • Reviewer: Ken Collins

Compulsive operating system collectors can now add another partition to their hard disk and another OS to their stockpile. The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO, http://www.sco.com/) has a new strategy for attracting users to its OpenServer Desktop System. SCO is giving it away for free, or at least nearly for free.

Though the company could claim 40% of the Unix market share a couple of years ago, it's now facing serious pressure from Windows NT and of course, Linux. Because the OS is priced similarly to NT, it has traditionally been out of the reach of students, educators and the idle curious. While there are a vast number of commercial applications running on OpenServer (it's often employed as a base for retail database systems, thus its market share), the company obviously wants to interest a new generation of developers and administrators.

To further its aims, SCO has made its single-user license free. The catch is that you still have to purchase the media. The OpenServer package, which includes a CD-ROM, a boot disk, a disk of drivers and a small pamphlet costs $19.00 US. If you're used to downloading your distributions at no cost, that's not an option, but SCO has also been handing out their OS gratis at trade shows. You won't be able to download the source anywhere. OpenServer may be free, but it's not “open”. Additionally, the single-user license is intended for educational use only. If you want to run OpenServer as part of your business, you're supposed to purchase a license.

Getting started

While you're at the SCO site signing up for your license (http://www.sco.com/offers/index.html), you might also want to take a look at the on-line documentation for the installation procedure (http://www3.sco.com/Products/freeunix/suppinst.html) and the hardware compatibility handbook (http://scaffold.sco.com/chwp/owa/hch_search_form). Unfortunately, the pamphlet included with the installation disks only includes the following instructions for first-time users: “Boot from the supplied boot floppy and follow onscreen instructions.”

While not overly difficult, the installation is far from intuitive. In fact, the first screen will throw all but the most adventurous installers. It asks for your installation media and offers a number of options, but gives no indication that you can install from an IDE CD-ROM. If you use the SCSI CD-ROM setting, follow the on-line documentation directions for the other settings and if the drivers are on the disk, it should recognize your drive. The rest of the process is familiar to Linux users. You can select portions of the software to install (including a lot of support for Novell networking), and you can use fdisk to partition your drive.

While you're going through this process, OpenServer is merrily overwriting your master boot record and wiping it free of LILO. After some serious wrangling, I gave up on getting the OS to cooperate with Linux. With LILO installed in my Linux partition and OpenServer in its own half of the drive, I couldn't find a boot loader that would get SCO to start up, nor could I coax OpenServer into recognizing my Linux partition from its boot prompt. For the time being, I let OpenServer have its way with my system, fdisking back and forth when I needed one or the other, but serious dual users will have to come to terms with this problem. It may be a job for V Communications' System Commander.

Inside the OS

Once inside the OpenServer environment, you're given the opportunity to log on as root or proceed to an SCO-centric xdm login prompt. If you're wary of X, the system offers as many virtual consoles as you have function keys. However, without bash, tcsh or whatever shell you favor, the console is pretty tedious. OpenServer comes with the Korn shell, the C shell and its own scosh. This means if you're a filename completion junkie or you're fond of browsing your command history with the arrow keys, one of the first things you'll want to do is port the appropriate shell to your system.

The scosh is a world unto itself and deserves some mention. The name seems to suggest that it's a shell, but it's closer to an MVS era menu system. After invoking scosh, it takes over your console or xterm and pops up a calendar, a series of menus and a listing of the current directory. The xterm becomes mouse sensitive, and you can use it or the cursor keys to select from the various options. It presents a fairly complex interface; it provides a front end to navigate the file system, check e-mail, edit files, set permissions, print, create archives and move files around. Even so, SCO's addition to the world's shell archives isn't much of a shell. It does everything it can to keep you away from Unix, and devotees of the elegance and ease of the command line may find scosh an unpleasant and unnecessary feature.

The Desktop

In any case, with the OpenServer desktop up and running, scosh's text interface is rendered moot. Most of its functionality is right on the desktop, which combines features of the Macintosh and Windows GUI. You can browse the file system Mac style, with windows, files and folders, but copying documents requires a click of the right mouse button as in Windows 95. There are also the ubiquitous “File” and “Edit” menus at the top of every window. Lest you forget you're using Unix, the window manager features a four-panel desktop panner, and you can bring up a shell from the Unix icon. Pop-up menus that follow the mouse mimic most of the menu system functions and round out the desktop's basic features. Anyone familiar with FVWM will feel right at home with the look and feel of SCO's window manager, and it maintains a solid balance between functionality and desktop clutter.

You'll probably first want to explore the system administration folder, which offers some graphic front ends to the process of fine tuning SCO. I say some because often the interface reverts from a full, icon-based system to a window with a text prompt. Unfortunately, the treatment is pretty uneven; the file-system manager presents friendly disk pictograms that you can mount and configure while the floppy-file-system manager leaves you grappling with its multiple-choice text menus.

While noodling around in the administration folder, I found the hardware/kernel manager pleasantly easy to use—it was pretty simple to build DOS file-system recognition into the kernel when I wanted to get at a floppy. However, after the joys of RedHat's configX, SCO's video configuration manager was somewhat disappointing. It doesn't offer much flexibility when it comes to fine tuning your setup; you can select your monitor, video card and whatever resolutions are supported. If you get the wrong one and your screen is suddenly tweaked, it's not easy to back out to a better choice. My video card wasn't included in the defaults, so I was sent scrambling for SCO's advanced hardware supplement, which is included on the CD-ROM.

Within the networks folder, similar surprises awaited me. I was hoping to set up PPP, but there were options only for configuring a LAN or a WAN. As a last act of desperation, I consulted the OpenServer help system. To SCO's credit, the help application is well constructed and easy to use. Though it's not innovative—it uses a web browser style interface—it's easy to navigate, and help menus in every window provide the opportunity for context-sensitive clues. The documentation is no worse than your average HOWTO, though they lack the personal touch of Linux collaborations. I was pleased to find numerous examples in both the help system, and, after abandoning the GUI, in the configuration file comments. (It turns out that PPP can be configured partially as a WAN network and partially using the UUCP dial-up tools.)

Beyond noodling with the system configuration, there isn't much else to do with OpenServer. There are tools to define aspects of the display, and the distribution includes the usual generic calendar application, text editor and even Mosaic.

Unfortunately, while SCO provides an OS, it doesn't offer much in the way of a distribution. And, before you're able to port your favorite applications, you may have dig up a compiler. After several tries, I finally got the installer to recognize my free license for the OpenServer Development System. I had to install the non-developer version, then use the SCO software installer to import the developer version from the CD-ROM. This process provides a prompt for the developer license, and this time, the free license worked. It never did accept the license from the main install screen. This problem should be partially remedied by UnixWare, which SCO has just started offering for “free” (again, $19.00US). UnixWare includes Netscape Navigator Gold, the UnixWare Software Development Kit and Netscape's FastTrack Server, so it will save you downloading time and give you more to play with.

Most of what you gain by installing SCO is an appreciation for Linux and its model for system development. Though many of my complaints about OpenServer could easily be turned against various Linux distributions, OpenServer clearly demonstrates that Linux is at least comparable to and may even surpass SCO's commercial Unix in its general functionality.

I can't say that I found a truly compelling reason to use SCO, nor did I uncover any features that Linux seems to lack. Moreover, if I was forced to use OpenServer, I'd have to spend a considerable amount of time outfitting it with the standard shells and tools that I've come to expect with any Unix. Given the OS's restrictive licensing agreement, it's difficult to believe that SCO will be able to attract any serious new believers even at their clearance price. But, if you can pick OpenServer up for free, it's the best proof that Linux has really become a commercial-grade product.

Ken Collins is an Internet software developer at Neoglyphics in Chicago. To keep his right brain from crystallizing he tries to stay current on Soviet history, dabbles in postmodern theory and writes for the New Art Examiner. He can be reached at panic@suba.com.
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