Red Hat Linux 6.0
Manufacturer: Red Hat Software, Inc.
Reviewer: Jason Kroll
Red Hat Linux 6.0 is Red Hat's latest distribution, and it has improved noticeably since the days of version 5. In keeping with the high standards of modern distributions, Red Hat Linux 6.0 is relatively easy to install, preconfigured, aesthetic and functional. It comes with the standard Linux applications (including Netscape) and also includes a special applications CD, with over 50 various commercial applications (most of which are demo versions which expire or are disabled). GNOME (running by default with the Enlightenment window manager), Red Hat's desktop environment, is well-configured and attractive. In addition to aesthetic improvements, Red Hat made some significant technical changes in its newest distribution, including the complete adoption of the EGCS (Experimental GNU Compiler System). Still, many things will be familiar to users of previous Red Hat releases.
Red Hat Linux 6.0 comes with three CDs (and a floppy, just in case), the first being an auto-booting installer which looks rather like previous Red Hat installers. It presents three installation options: Workstation-class, Server-class and Custom. The 400+ page installation guide contains very little information regarding the installation options, but having tested them, I really recommend a custom install.
Before proceeding with any kind of installation, however, the installer offers a choice of eleven languages which are mostly implemented (though some need more work than others). These are mainly just for the installation process, although GNOME does support a few languages; so if you install in another language for the fun of it, your system could end up running in it. After language selection, the installer offers a choice between installation and upgrade.
Upgrading is a rather quick process; a large part of the convenience aspect of Red Hat is the ability to upgrade, whether one is dealing with individual packages (via RPM/GnoRPM) or a complete system. Upgrading is rather automated compared to installation, which presents various options.
The workstation-class installation is quite functional and easy to use but is not as complete or fun as a custom installation; KDE, among other things, is noticeably missing. The server-class installation is meant for servers and will be of little interest except to network enthusiasts. It is not exactly up-to-date, and still runs FVWM2 (AnotherLevel) instead of the newer desktop environments; it is reminiscent of Red Hat releases from quite a while ago. The custom installation is probably what most users would want, and is simple enough to make if one knows what hardware is inside the machine.
Custom installation allows the user to choose packages either categorically or one by one; in the latter case, the installer keeps track of dependencies between packages. The user is also given the choice of which programs to be launched automatically at startup, and is required to partition his own drives. A choice of either Disk Druid or fdisk is given for partitioning the drives. Disk Druid is menu-driven and simple enough, as long as one is familiar with partitioning; the time-tested fdisk is just as adequate. Although both partitioning programs perform the same task in basically the same way (selecting partitions, sizes and mount points), using a menuing system seems to be easier for most people.
Video configuration can be a bit problematic. Curiously, although the lists of available monitors and video cards are quite long, the installer cannot probe for the video card. Probing for a card instead of querying the user should not be very difficult to implement, since X can probe successfully. The video mode tests failed even though my card and monitor were listed, but after installation, X worked fine. Also, if one could test various preconfigured monitor frequencies against the standard X test pattern, a better picture could be had. Since you will presumably have this Linux system for a while before reinstalling, it would be worth the effort to have an optimally configured display. Too bad this option is not available.
If you do not know your hardware, installation can be a hang-up. The only thing the installer could successfully detect was my mouse; everything else had to be entered manually. Again, this is fine if you know your hardware, and it is probably even safer than probing. However, new Linux users to whom Red Hat is often recommended and people who do not know what is inside their computers might prefer the computer to figure out for itself what hardware is present. Certain other installers probe successfully, so accurate probing is possible. Since ease of use has long been one of Red Hat's main attractions, it seems the installer could stand to be brought up to a level on a par with the overall quality of the distribution.
Despite the need to enter hardware information manually, installation is not exactly difficult and an experienced user could reasonably expect to complete an installation in approximately thirty minutes. Once the installation process is at an end, the option is presented to have X start up by default at boot time. If you answer yes, reboot and log in, you will be greeted by a mysterious footprint on the desktop, shaped oddly enough like a G with toes.
Red Hat has taken an active role in supporting the production of GNOME, a high-quality desktop environment based entirely on free software. Red Hat Linux 6.0 installs GNOME on workstation and custom installations. GNOME is not actually a window manager in itself—it is a desktop environment which allows you to use the compatible window manager of your choice (Enlightenment, by default).
One of the particularly nice characteristics of modern distributions is that their desktop environments come thoroughly configured. This means you can bring up menus, point and click, drag and drop, etc. without having to configure the menus, and the menu options actually correspond to the programs on your system. On Red Hat Linux 6.0, GNOME is better configured than KDE or AnotherLevel (FVWM2), both of which menus are incorporated into GNOME's menuing system. GNOME also has the remarkable program GnoRPM, which is a Red Hat Package Manager for GNOME. This graphical program offers a simple point-and-click system for installing, upgrading, uninstalling, querying, verifying and searching through RPM packages. In conjunction with LinuxConf and various control panels, this makes for easy point-and-click administration and configuration.
A large part of the improvement Red Hat made from 5.2 to 6.0 comes from the technical changes in the various programs which make up the distribution. The core of the improvement is the 2.2 kernel (2.2.5-15 to be exact), which supports more hardware and file systems and is even better at networking than previous Linux kernels. It also has better SMP support and countless other improvements in areas ranging from networking to frame buffers, and is even more modular and easier to reconfigure and recompile. Recompilation is less necessary due to the new modular approach. Developers will likely appreciate that Red Hat has moved completely to the Experimental GNU Compiler System (EGCS), which offers advanced platform optimizations, integrated FORTRAN and a significantly improved C++ compiler. These days, as innovative hardware solutions push past the limits of conventional desktop processor speed and storage space, SMP and RAID support are increasingly valuable and, thanks to the new Linux kernel, available. In conjunction with Glibc 2.1.1 and the latest stable versions of various libraries and programs at the time of its release, Red Hat Linux 6.0 is up to date.
Security is an ever-present problem with network computers, and in this distribution, root access via TELNET has been removed and the X screen automatically locks when the screen saver comes on. Also, passwords are shadowed and, optionally, use MD5 encryption (as opposed to DES). For convenience, console users do have access to peripherals and can reboot, although this can be changed. Security risks are always a hazard, so it is a good idea to check periodically for recent patches. In fact, a few small potential security problems shipped with 6.0; the fixes (via RPM) are on Red Hat's web site, along with a list of rather minor errata.
Included in Red Hat Linux 6.0 and Red Hat EXTRA is an application CD with over 50 Linux applications, ranging from developmental software to productivity software, specialized commercial applications and more. According to the box, the CD is valued at over $1,000, and perhaps if it were full of commercial software instead of disabled and expiring demo versions, it would be worth that much. Nevertheless, the disc is an amazing testament to the proliferation of applications available for Linux, and some software packages are mostly or even fully functional while some don't work at all. The CD should be looked at as a bonus, because you could just download most of the software over the Net, if you knew it existed in the first place. The inclusion of commercial demos with Linux distributions is a good idea, and software vendors might want to pursue other distributors as well.
In the past, the majority of complaints about Red Hat seem to have involved the issue of support; perhaps this implies that the distribution itself leaves little to complain about. This time, Red Hat stepped up the efforts to provide support to registered users of Official Red Hat Linux 6.0. This may partially explain the rather high price of $79.95 for a collection of mostly free software.
Included with the Red Hat package is a large bright yellow slip of paper stating, “For Installation Support Go To: http://support.redhat.com”, from which one might surmise the source for installation support. In order to receive support, one must first register via Red Hat's web site. The registration program seems to work, and once registered, a user is entitled to 30 days of installation support via telephone and 90 days of installation support by way of e-mail. I would certainly expect that after 90 days, someone would have his system installed. Actually, support goes a bit further than initial installation; Red Hat is willing to help in the configuration of printers, sound cards and other hardware such as floppy and CD-ROM drives. There was no mention of Ethernet help, though this is usually easier than dealing with sound cards, so I hope Red Hat intends to help with this too.
Installation will take much longer than thirty minutes if you take the time to read the 400+ page “Installation Guide” and the 300-page “Getting Started Guide”. The Installation Guide is a comprehensive walk-through of the installation process, with a significant space dealing with system configuration and administration. The Installation Guide is rather thorough and contains enough information to turn a neophyte into a competent administrator of his own system. The Getting Started Guide is smaller, simpler and a bit friendlier. It covers many aspects of Enlightenment and GNOME, X, shell usage, administration, configuration and the like. Red Hat calls it “easy-to-read”--that is a fair assessment, to say the least.
In the event that someone finds 30 days of phone support, 90 days of e-mail support and 700 pages of textual support inadequate, Red Hat offers various commercial support packages ranging in price from $2,995 to $60,000. Obviously, these cover more than basic installation.
Red Hat Linux 6.0 is a modern, up-to-date, flexible distribution which finds itself at home in a number of areas ranging from small servers to home desktops to the business world. Many businesses and institutions rely on Red Hat, as do countless home users. At the very least, it has recent versions of packages and puts libraries in the right places, so things work. It does have a commercial feel to it—you know when a machine is running Red Hat. Also, it does not take a minimalist approach, so it could be a bit more complicated than a home user might want—some might even find it a bit bulky. Actually, for GNOME/Enlightenment to function in a timely way, 32MB of RAM seems inadequate. However, the distribution on the whole is reliable and functional. The price is a bit painful, so one might want to consider the many alternatives. But, if you need to be sure of a functional system with phone and e-mail support, manuals, applications and a Red Hat bumper sticker, the price may be worth it.