Caldera OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4

by Jon Valesh

Enthusiasts have a real advantage in the Linux world. For them, the value of Linux is self-evident: it is Linux—Linux is cool. Spending long hours and sleepless nights keeping up with the latest drivers, the greatest new applications and all the hot news is entertainment for a real enthusiast. Like a video game or a puzzle, it is a chance to think, learn and show off. It can even be financially rewarding for those with talent.

Businesses have a different perspective. Hours spent working with Linux (or any OS) aren't fun or rewarding—they are a wasted resource, also known as lost money. Businesses, especially businesses that do more than develop tech gear for tech people, have real-world problems, and the only reason they want computers is to help solve those problems. They don't even care how the problems are solved, as long as the solution works, and when they choose a computer system or OS they aren't interested in new drivers, hot applications or cool news. They are interested in enhancing their bottom line.

Caldera Systems, one of the first companies formed specifically to “productize” Linux, understands the distinction. They know that, unlike the techno-freaks and Linux fanatics that give Linux its technical drive, business users don't care what goes on under the hood and behind the scenes in an OS, as long as it works. They understand that the people who make corporate technology decisions must justify—in cold, practical terms—the technology they adopt. They must be able to point to clear benefits that will positively affect the corporate bottom line, not just say, “This is neat, let's use it!” They must also be able to allay the fears of upper management, fears ranging from reliability and product support to the simple fear of change. They also know that if a technology change turns into a fiasco, they will have a long time to think about what went wrong as they search for another job.

Caldera understands the business view of technology and has been working for years to turn Linux into a product that businesses, businesspeople or anyone new to Linux can be comfortable using. The latest product in Caldera's business-friendly lineup is eDesktop 2.4, designed to bring the power and cost-effectiveness of Linux to the corporate and home desktop. It is easy to install, 99% pre-configured, uses the elegant and easy-to-use K Desktop Environment and comes with a complete set of administration tools, so anyone with even basic computer skills can configure and maintain their system. Caldera has also bundled, developed or encouraged the development of Linux versions of many of the tools, protocols and features that businesses want and IT managers need. Interoperability with NovelT NetWare servers, web-based remote administration and a suite of Internet applications, including Netscape Communicator 4.7 which is pre-loaded and provides most of the plug-ins people need (news, mail and chat clients), Macromedia Flash Player, Real Networks RealPlayer, Adobe Acrobat and a host of other applications and servers.

Caldera eDesktop 2.4 has a little something for everyone, including techno-freaks and Linux fanatics, but nowhere does it shine brighter than as a Linux for non-Linux users—at home or in the office.

Documentation

For anyone not totally committed to a self-image of superhuman technical ability, a well-written manual is important. When delving into an unfamiliar technology, the manual must be especially good. A poorly written manual can mean the difference between a useful product and a frustrating waste of money. Caldera obviously knows most of their target audience won't know a lot about Linux when they begin using eDesktop, and the manual is both well-written and complete. When it comes to pertinent, easy-to-follow documentation, Caldera has done their job by describing the installation, configuration and administration of eDesktop in excellent detail. They also include many references and links to other information sources for users who wish to learn more.

While the manual is very good, “User's Guide” may be a bit of a misnomer. It is more an “Installation and Administration Guide” for people new to Linux than a user's guide. The manual tackles, fearlessly and with admirable clarity, the task of getting first-time Linux users comfortable making configuration changes, managing users, working with the command-line interface and doing everything else that longtime Linux users take for granted. It spends very little time on the minutiae of actually using the eDesktop, which is perfect for home or small business users, who usually manage their own systems. Corporate IS departments will probably not want to hand out the manual to office staff who need to get up to speed on using Linux/KDE, though—of the roughly 500 pages of manual, about 75 are specific to using, rather than administering, OpenLinux eDesktop.

Installation

OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4 can be installed a few different ways, but the easiest way is to insert the CD and reboot (a boot floppy is included for computers that cannot boot from CD). That allows you to install eDesktop in whatever free space is available on your hard disk or to overwrite any operating system you may have been using, and take up the whole disk. If you aren't ready to commit yourself to Linux completely, you will really appreciate the inclusion of PartitionMagic. PartitionMagic allows you to shrink your Windows partition without reformatting your hard disk or losing data. Just by inserting the eDesktop installation CD while running Windows, and walking through a few simple steps, you can make room for Linux without deleting your old operating system or data files. [The often-recommended advice of many computer professionals: make a backup of all important files or your entire hard drive, before doing any significant installation. —Editor]

While PartitionMagic is a great add-on for users wishing to try out Linux, the version shipped with eDesktop has one serious flaw. Because it is specifically for use with eDesktop, there are only a few partition sizes it will create. Specifically, there is “too small for eDesktop” and “too small for Windows”. You can create either a really small Linux partition (350MB), a slightly small Linux partition (700MB) or take everything but 100MB of the hard disk for Linux. The first two choices aren't good for much more than trying out eDesktop, and anyone familiar with Windows will recognize the problem with the third option—Windows with only 100 megabytes of free space is even less usable than normal.

Whatever first step you take, the second step for first-time installers is Caldera's slick graphical installation tool, which they call the Lizard. Lizard guides you through all of the important decisions about your installation: setting system information, partitioning the hard disk (if you didn't use PartitionMagic), selecting your monitor and other hardware, choosing the software to install, setting up user accounts and, perhaps most uniquely, configuring dialup Internet access.

Caldera has made some of the hardest parts of Linux installation easy by including a couple of impressive databases. Getting the most out of your video card and monitor, a task that usually requires a fair amount of trial-and-error, is easy with eDesktop because of the huge monitor selection database, which seems to contain just about every monitor ever produced. Also handy is the database of ISPs that covers most of the world and makes setting up dialup Internet access easy for customers of major ISPs.

Lizard is smart enough to start copying files as soon as it knows where to put them, so on a fast computer the actual installation process is very quick, not much longer than answering the configuration questions. If you finish configuring the system before all the files are copied, Caldera provides a bit of entertainment in the form of a game to pass the time.

Lizard is very easy to use but acts as a gatekeeper of sorts for eDesktop. Its first task is to perform a hardware compatibility test, and if it doesn't think eDesktop will run on your computer, it refuses to proceed with the installation. This would be fine, except that it is a bit too strict in its testing. Lizard sometimes refuses to install eDesktop on systems with newer video cards, even though the display driver, or X Server, that eDesktop uses is compatible with those cards. For example, Lizard refused to install eDesktop on a laptop with an ATI Rage LT video chipset that is supported by eDesktop's Xfree86 version 3.3.6 X server. On systems Lizard refuses to interact with, you can install eDesktop using a backup, text-mode installation program called LISA.

There are several automated installation methods for system administrators and IT departments that need to get a lot of systems up and running with identical configurations. If you have a LAN, you can set up an install server and quickly install eDesktop on any computer on your LAN. Just insert a floppy, reboot and the installation program takes care of the rest. You can also create a boot floppy with Lizard, configured to install the default configuration without prompting, or create a custom installation, specifying the exact programs you wish to install on each system.

Use

Perhaps the most significant aspect of using eDesktop 2.4 is there really isn't much to say about it. For the user interface, Caldera uses KDE, the K Desktop Environment, which has become the de facto standard for Linux desktops. With good reason, too: KDE is easy to use, looks great, is very configurable and uses an interface metaphor most Windows users are familiar with, the bottom-of-the-screen control bar, complete with a “start button” labelled “K”.

Most of the pre-installed and bundled applications work without much tinkering. The bundled commercial software must be installed after eDesktop is up and running, but the process is easy and fast. eDesktop is exactly what a business desktop OS should be: a gateway to the applications where you do your real work. It gets out of your way and lets you do your work, without forcing you to learn and re-learn its own features. That is not to say that it lacks features. KDE starts out with power-user features like multiple virtual desktops and is one of the most configurable user environments around, so you can tailor its look and behavior to your needs.

Administration

The three most common complaints new users have about Linux are it's too hard to install, has too few applications, and in the long term, probably the most important is that it's too difficult to “administer”. “Administer” in quotes, because that's probably the last term most new Linux users would think of; they just want to keep their computer running, their software up to date and their data safe. Whatever you call it, making a Linux system do what you want is often viewed as a dark art involving mysterious knowledge, and probably, animal sacrifice.

This is not true with eDesktop. Caldera has provided an overflowing banquet of administration tools in the form of two system administration interfaces which, if they don't actually guide you through every necessary administration task, at least provide a clear view of what you can and cannot change. COAS (Caldera Open Administration System) provides a graphical administration interface for use from the desktop, allowing you to configure most (but not all) system features without resorting to a shell or a text editor. For environments requiring more centralized management, there is Webmin, a new tool that allows you to perform most routine system administration tasks remotely from any computer with a web browser. COAS and Webmin don't change the need to administer, but they do make it easy for people who don't know—and don't want to know—about “traditional” Linux configuration files to get started administering their systems, without learning a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo.

There are still quite a few tasks that will require a text editor and shell knowledge. From compiling new kernels to reconfiguring LILO, many advanced (but necessary) administration tasks haven't made it into the graphical or web administration tools yet. Fortunately, the manual describes these tasks in detail, providing step-by-step instructions for the most common administration tasks that cannot be performed with the administration tools.

The system's native package tool—the program you use to install and remove most software—is the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). RPM is the most widely used package tool in the Linux community, and it is the most popular method for distributing third-party software. To easily manage installed packages, eDesktop uses Kpackage, which allows you to browse packages installed on your system and easily add or remove software.

Linux users familiar with package tools like Debian's dselect will suffer from Kpackage's inability to automatically download packages from Internet servers. To upgrade an installed package with OpenLinux, you must manually transfer the package to your system, and then install it. dselect can automatically retrieve a list of available packages from an Internet server, compare the package versions from that server to what is installed on your computer and (with your permission) download and install replacements for any older packages you might have. That sort of feature would go a long way toward enhancing Caldera's place in corporate IS department hearts, and it would help new Linux users by automating one of the most boring system administration tasks—upgrading older software and making sure that potentially security-compromised software is replaced promptly.

Neat Stuff

You will find a long list of neat add-on packages in the eDesktop 2.4 package. Depending on how you will use it, you may find some of the programs great—or totally useless. Corporate users in mixed computing environments may find the Citrix ICA and NetWare clients very useful. Web and Internet developers will like the Cameleo Lite graphics program, Omnis Studio Rapid Internet Application Development Environment, JDK 1.2.2, Apache and other Internet development tools. Small and home office users will find the StarOffice suite and the Moneydance personal finance application handy. There is something for everyone in the eDesktop box, but it is all rather straight-laced utilitarian software and much of it is very specialized. If you don't have a Citrix server, you don't have a use for the Citrix ICA client.

If you are looking for entertainment from your OS, you are going to have some shopping or downloading to do.

Problems

The single biggest problem with OpenLinux is Caldera's “simplicity by hiding details” design philosophy. Hiding irrelevant or distracting details is a good thing. Hiding the truly useless babble that Linux often displays can go beyond a good thing. However, unless details and babble are replaced with concise descriptions of what the system is doing, you can be left wondering and frustrated when problems occur. If you take away the information an “expert” would use to diagnose a problem, you need to replace it with software smart enough to figure out the problem on its own.

An example is the all-or-nothing installation: some systems that should be supported aren't, because Caldera, in their wish to keep the installation process simple for new users, went too far in checking the system for compatibility and removing the details of those checks from user view. It is a tradeoff, and users of mainstream hardware and software will benefit; however, I would like to see the Lizard and all of Caldera's software a little more willing to divulge troubleshooting information. Even a note about what went wrong, a query asking how to proceed and a warning that if you proceed, things might not work as expected, would let more people use the eDesktop. If Caldera invested the same effort, energy and skill they have contributed to COAS and Webmin in developing software that monitored the system status and reported—in plain language—everything that is going right and wrong, they would have the perfect counter to the “Linux is only for geeks” argument. Not only a counter argument, they would truly be simplifying, instead of hiding, the most complex part of using Linux.

Summary

You won't find a simpler or easier-to-use full-featured Linux distribution anywhere, though you may find another Linux distribution that is better suited for some uses. Caldera has done a lot to make Linux easy for new users to adopt by making eDesktop the easiest and least risky, commercial Linux distribution for people who want to learn about Linux.

The Good/The Bad

Born at the beginning of the Microcomputer age, Jon Valesh (jon@valesh.com) has pushed and been pushed by computers his entire life. Having run the gamut from game programmer to ISP system/network administrator, he now occupies himself by providing technical assistance to ISPs and small businesses whenever his day job doesn't get in the way.

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