Conectiva Linux 4.0

by Jason Kroll

Over 500 million people speak Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Conectiva brings Linux to them.

At the last COMDEX, I had the pleasure of chatting with the Conectiva folks who flew all the way up to Las Vegas from Brazil for the Linux Business Expo. LJ was very enthusiastic when we heard some time ago that Conectiva was translating every man page, system message and other documentation into Spanish and Portuguese, thus making Linux much more accessible to an enormous user base. It has been wonderful to see how far Conectiva has come in its endeavor to bring Linux to Latin America. Already there are several software packages, as well as an exciting new Brazilian magazine Revista do Linux.

Circumstances of continental drift have brought North, Central and South America fairly close together, and we have a lot of shared history, although not all of it is particularly positive. Nevertheless, one must put a regional perspective on the whole affair to appreciate the enthusiasm many of us have had for this project. Indeed, as Europeans often learn English in school, English-speaking Americans are often taught Spanish. Public telephones, ATMs, advertisements and more than a few signs are often bilingual (although this might be largely a West Coast and Southwest thing), so one cannot help but feel a kind of victory to see Linux become translated into not just Spanish but also Portuguese (which has typically been overshadowed by its more widely spoken relatives). In fact, Conectiva is actually Brazilian, so the Spanish translation was a secondary but much appreciated endeavor.

Latin America is a bit behind the U.S. in terms of keeping up with the latest in hardware, so on average, there are slower processors, less RAM and smaller hard drives, making it difficult and painful (if not impossible) to run the latest bloated proprietary wares. Additionally, most people do not have the money to waste on proprietary software, let alone expensive development kits and the requisite fancy computers. When you look at the situation in businesses which require several or even dozens of computers, and especially the typically less-than-well-financed universities, the price of licensing software is too high. Out of necessity, this has led to the choice between having enough computers and paying licensing fees for the software. When you would be paying licensing fees to multi-billion-dollar corporations in some foreign nation, the choice is fairly obvious. Even without these considerations, the choice is obvious—you don't pay the fees.

Unfortunately, every time money is involved with something, people start pointing guns at each other. The Conectiva folks told me stories of corporations being raided and executives leaving in handcuffs, as well as universities being harassed and intimidated. Apparently, it's a common occurrence (and we thought the “hang your boss” campaign was going way too far). Alas, the zealous persecution of software users in Brazil is driving businesses and universities away from proprietary software and toward Linux.

GNU/Linux is the ideal operating system for Latin America because it provides everything universities, home users and businesses need, all free of charge; it runs extremely well on minimal hardware; and, of course, all the source code is available and often well-annotated. A free C compiler alone is worth a fortune. One need merely peruse the directories at Metalab to see the wealth of free software (remember your first visit to sunsite or the GNU archives?). Higher quality, completely for free, and most relieving of all, no more living in fear of the police. You can buy one copy of Linux and install it on every computer in your lab. And you don't need anything more than a 486/33 (though the new release will be Pentium optimized), so you can dig up any old PC you've got lying around and have one more for your lab.

Networking is a breeze; that's probably what Linux does best, and the free support from the community is priceless. Linux users have typically been most fond not as much of the free price but of the free source. Sometimes we forget that Linux also wins economically.

Conectiva estimated at least 500,000 users in Brazil alone (as of last November), with an expectation of one million in Latin America by early 2000; that's a lot of users! Just think of what one million more users will mean, in all areas from coding to kernel hacking, debugging to support, evangelizing and even just adding to that “network externality” effect. With Portuguese and Spanish as the first languages of over 500 million people, one million users is just the beginning.

Conectiva's translations have been thorough, compared to typical commercial software which is only half-heartedly translated (witness, for example, the Microsoft attempts at invading Asia; in particular, the Korea fiasco). In the past, typical translations from proprietary houses have had buggy character sets and ended up with a weird mix of English and whichever language. You'd pop up a menu, and some of the entries would be translated, but some not; every time something unexpected happened, the machine would lapse back into English. With Conectiva, you don't have these problems. Pop up any weird man page, contrive your machine to spit out error messages, and you'll get them in Portuguese. Together with the translation efforts of the KDE and GNOME projects, you've got double coverage. And should something untranslated come up, I'm sure the “open-source” approach to software building also works just fine for translation.

What Exactly is Conectiva Linux?

Conectiva Linux is a company that concentrates on translating Linux into Portuguese and Spanish. Its distribution, as one might infer, is called Conectiva Linux. Translation is the primary concern, so rather than creating the universe and assembling a distribution from scratch, Conectiva based its wares on Red Hat and worked from there. It's a reasonable decision, and Conectiva went its own way right from the start—it's definitely not a hacked Red Hat. While the typical hacker might have preferred a Debian base, that's all in the past and Conectiva is what it is now. Conectiva offers a standard edition and a server edition in either Portuguese or Spanish, although many packages bundle various oddities such as mouse pads, pins, pens, shirts, stickers, books and the like. Honestly, I don't understand why distributors like to have so many different packages, one package with different installation options might be easier. Still, since Conectiva sees fit to divide Linux between server and standard, let's have a look at what each edition includes.

The standard edition is what you'd expect from a Linux distribution, translated into Portuguese and Spanish. A normal installation proceeds via the Red Hat installer, and even though during one install I got a couple of warning messages about RPMs, everything went along just fine, and on reboot, up popped the K display manager (KDM).

Conectiva chose KDE, GNOME, WindowMaker, MWM, FVWM and Icewm. Of these, FVWM, MWM and Icewm are about half translated, but the system has also been translated, so one isn't relying on the GUI for translation. These aren't just “alternatives” to KDE for those who won't conform. Every window manager actually works. KDE for all its perks does not look nearly sinister enough, and it's important to appreciate the variety of excellent window managers out there. Conectiva advertisements usually show funky WindowMaker or Enlightenment screenshots, and if one has an artistic flair, one might as well express it in all areas of life, including Linux.

Conectiva left off an entry GNOME/Enlightenment on the K display manager (accidentally, I presume). Therefore, if you want your life to look like a scene from The Matrix, you'll have to add an entry to KDM or start up GNOME by way of telinit 3; gnome & as root (oh no, not the GNOME warning message!). There is a general feeling that GNOME is the future (or at least has a very big future), especially considering Helix GNOME and even the Eazle project, so it would be nice if GNOME/Enlightenment were more highly featured. I look forward to the GNOME/Sawmill pairing, which I hope everyone including Conectiva picks up on, since it runs quite efficiently on minimal hardware. At the very least, GNOME's icons are outstanding.

Eu soy um Servidor

The server edition is a bigger installation in Portuguese and Spanish. “What's a distribution—a collection of software I can download for free on the Internet?” Caldera's Ransom Love once asked, and honestly, it's worth asking. Basically, that's exactly what a distribution is, with an installer, files placed into various directories and a bunch of configuration files all filled out. The server edition is packed with software that you can download over the Net, but it's probably most convenient for people who might not have high-bandwith connections. The documentation will walk you through complete networking server setup, configuration and administration.

Currently, the server distribution's number-one advantage comes in the form of four large manuals: Lars Wirzenius' Linux System Administrator's Guide, Olaf Kirch's Linux Network Administrators Guide, and Conectiva's Linux Server Guide and System Installation Guide. Altogether, 1708 pages of documentation, and I must say, quite a good collection of work. These manuals cover everything server-related, they're thorough, and that's probably why they're included in the Edi<\#231><\#227>o Servidor. They're not condescending, and would be nice for computer-proficient Linux newbies, but even complete neophytes should find these books make for rapid learning and valuable reference. Most normal users would probably choose the standard edition of Conectiva, so they'll miss out on these excellent texts unless Conectiva decides to include them next time around.

The Meaning of it, Mostly

The point of Conectiva is not that it's the be-all, end-all, fastest, best-configured Linux with all the software squeezed magically on a 1.44MB floppy, a sentient living HAL 2000 that will make tea and beat you at chess. The point of Conectiva is that it makes Linux more accessible for hundreds of millions of potential users, and it works just fine. I've been coding on it, networking, configuring and customizing, and everything else your typical user does, for several weeks now and everything works. RPM installations, tgz installations, everything works fine without a single glitch. The libraries are current and in the right places, ldconfig knows where to find everything, and only a couple of libraries needed to be updated specifically for what I was doing-->plug-and-program, an improvement on plug-and-play. Setting up networking meant editing the same files as on Red Hat or most anywhere else, and there is a supply of the standard commercial applications, such as Netscape and StarOffice. Conectiva is very easy to use, and I just cannot find anything particularly wrong with it. If Linux is going to be championed into new territories, it should be presented as well as possible. Conectiva in many ways does this better than many stateside distributors, from flashy ads and cool T-shirts to giving users a choice of many well-configured desktops, with easy installation and configuration, excellent manuals, support, and an enthusiastic focal point for the Portuguese and Spanish speaking Linux scene.

There are a couple of bugs to be ironed out, for example the occasional warnings during installation, the absence of GNOME from the KDM, the weird entries on the KDM login (gdm, postgress and xfs), and root's mailbox getting flooded with Radius error messages. SVGAlib needs to be updated, SDL is missing, and if you program, you'll want to get the newest versions of your favorite libraries. Since 4.0 came out a while back there is now much to update for the next release. However, with so much translation work already done, Conectiva will be more able to concentrate on polishing and maintaining the software.

There was a time when distributions had such different libraries and files in different places that certain software would work on some distributions but not on others. These days, we don't really have that problem. Distributions are kind of a fetish; we like the name Red Hat if we like Heinz ketchup, and if we instinctively avoid brand names we instinctively avoid Red Hat, but it doesn't matter half as much as it once did. Sure, there are different config files, but you can change those without suffering. And maybe some libraries are old and need to be replaced, but that's part of running Linux; you're always out of date (and perhaps without one).

The other part of running Linux is that it always works, whatever name is on the box. I suppose, then, that this isn't a review as much as an announcement of good news. Well, thank you to Conectiva and everyone who has helped in the translation process for making that possible.

More Good News

Conectiva is about to release its latest version, Conectiva Linux 5.0, and has just shipped the latest episode of its monthly magazine Revista do Linux. Periodicals, though they be murder on trees, can unify communities.

The Good/The Bad

Jason Kroll (hyena@ssc.com) is technical editor of Linux Journal. Even though he's a tad lazy, he tries to be an enthusiastic GNU/Linux cheerleader.
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