Red Hat 7.2

by JT Traub

I have quite a bit of familiarity with Red Hat, as I have used it on various computers since around the time of Red Hat 3.0. My most recent experience with Red Hat came when I installed version 7.2 on my laptop. This laptop, an ASUS MP8300, has been finicky and has given me problems in the past when I installed other distributions of Linux, as well as other UNIX operating systems.

Installation

Red Hat's installer ran without a hitch and was straightforward and logical in its organization. When it could do so, it automatically probed and detected the hardware, and then it presented me with the option to accept the choice or manually choose one of the options. When it was unable to detect an answer automatically, such as whether to use DHCP or a static IP address for networking, the installer phrased the questions such that a novice user would not feel overwhelmed. At the same time, it did not talk down to a more experienced user. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the installer correctly detected all of the hardware in my laptop and performed the correct configuration for them, even for slightly odd hardware such as the Silicon Motion Lynx video chip.

The installer also gave the option of choosing a predefined setup, such as workstation or server. The caution I would offer here is if you just select the server or workstation and do not select packages individually, then a very general system will result. Choosing the server selection will install most of the common services but may also leave you with more services running by default than you wish. This can result in a higher-than-expected potential for security holes.

Additionally, you cannot choose either the server or workstation option unless you are willing to dedicate the entire machine, since both of those options will completely reformat the hard disk. If you intend to dual boot, you will need to perform a custom install. This necessity may create a bad situation for many neophyte users of Linux, who are likely to desire a dual boot in order to retain a partition for Microsoft Windows. These same users are also, unfortunately, the ones most likely to want to click one button to install.

The simplest solution, which Red Hat might wish to consider, is to have the workstation or desktop choice split into two options. The first of these would act as it does now and reformat the hard drive. The other would walk the user through a dual boot setup.

One of the nicer things Red Hat does offer is the option of using either GRUB or LILO as the boot loader. While I have been a LILO user in the past, I decided to try GRUB for the laptop. I have found it to be much cleaner and easier to work with than LILO ever was.

Configuration

In most cases the defaults offered by the installer were correct, and I did not need to go back and do further configuration. What little bit I did have to do was quickly accomplished with a quick edit of the correct file. For users with less experience, Red Hat provides a large selection of graphical tools to help manage everything from adding new users to configuring the DNS service.

One change in this version that I found and disliked was the default method for configuring the Gnome desktop. Gnome itself uses the Gnome Control Center, which has a nice and clean layout, for configuration. This tool is still available in the Red Hat 7.2 distribution, but Red Hat installs a different tool as the default on the Gnome panel. This new tool, named "Start Here", is a web browser based configuration tool that encompasses a variety of system configuration tasks, including Gnome configuration.

Unfortunately, this new tool attempts to do too much by combining a desktop user setup with system and desktop configuration options. This use of one tool and one interface for all things makes it particularly suited for none and makes it harder to use any of these pieces effectively. A system administrator needs different tools than a user configuring Gnome or a user working in the desktop environment. Naming that tool "Start Here" implies that system customization is a frequently performed tasked when, in reality, it is not. Removing the desktop bits and leaving them in the desktop environment, where they belong, would be a good first step. Additionally, using a web browser based configuration tool is slower and more cumbersome than using the individual tools it is replacing. From a usability standpoint, the new tool is a step in the wrong direction. It makes the system more complex than it needs to be for new users but too cluttered for more experienced users.

Package Overview

Red Hat 7.2 provides a generous selection of packages. The standard components needed to run a desktop or server system are included, ranging from X, Gnome and KDE to Netscape, Sendmail, bind and Apache. Some of the boxed sets also contain demos from Loki Games, the full version of Star Office, and additional CDs of games and other applications. The packages on these CDs are not available by default, but they are easy to install in the future via the RPM command-line tools or graphical tools, such as GnoRPM.

At least one option from each of the various classes of servers is offered, such as mail, web servers and mailing list managers, which means that you can easily get a system that handles your needs up and running. The drawback is usually only one option for each class of programs is offered. For example, if you prefer a different mail server, such as my preference for Postfix, it is necessary to go hunting through the other CDs to find that package.

Although Red Hat previously provided a companion product called "Power Tools", which contained most of these programs in one place, it is no longer provided with Red Hat 7.2. All of the packages are still available, though, and many authors do provide Red Hat packages for their programs. Unless you are willing to delve into the inner workings of constructing packages for Red Hat, however, you may find files installed in a variety of eccentric places. When previously provided by Red Hat, the packages were logically consistent with the rest of the file system layout. Now however, if the program does not exist on the distributed CDs, there are still options. First, it is often possible to use the version from the 7.1 Power Tools product. Next, packages from other RPM-based distributions, such as SuSE or Mandrake, will often work as long as there are not too many package dependencies. Finally, there is rpmfind.net, which maintains a large index of RPM packages for a variety of programs.

Documentation

The boxed set comes with three documentation booklets, in addition to the plethora of on-line resources and the recommended man pages and HOWTOs. For me, the on-line and installed resources are generally sufficient to answer the majority of my questions.

The three booklets gear themselves toward first-time users and after looking through them, they seem quite thorough. The "Installation Guide" covers the entire installation process systematically. Specifically, it includes advice concerning which of the specific options might be best for a given set of needs. The "Getting Started Guide" concerns itself with the various desktops that are available, configuring networking and printing and getting the Red Hat Network set up. The last booklet, the "Customization Guide," covers most of the system administration tasks that might be needed, such as adding users and groups or setting up Apache and bind. However, it only contains information about the graphical tools provided by Red Hat. Whether this is a good thing or not is a debatable issue. Personally, I would recommend that most people take the time to learn the actual configuration files for the various services. No matter how good the graphical tools are, and they are reasonably good, they can only cover the most common configurations. There will always be areas that require detailed knowledge of the configuration files. For this reason, I feel it is always best to learn the details of the configuration files from the outset.

Red Hat Network and Support

While the network installation does not come with official support from Red Hat via the Red Hat Network, this support is available at a cost of $19.95 per machine. Each box set purchased, however, includes one free entitlement, the term used for a machine covered through the Red Hat Network support option. I had previously purchased this support for my other machines that have Red Hat installed. As long as I am willing to take the time to swap around which two of my three machines are currently entitled, I can use the system update utility, up2date, to update all three of my machines. It is possible to upgrade these machines without using the Red Hat up2date service, but I find that up2date makes it more convenient and easier to keep things current.

One of the few problems I've noticed with up2date occurs if you install third-party replacements for system pieces, such as Ximian Gnome. In such instances, the update utility will report that you have packages to upgrade even when this is not the case. In many of these situations, the Red Hat package is actually a downgrade, since the Red Hat packages are often one or more revisions older than the currently installed packages. Unfortunately, there is currently no way to tell the update utility that you wish to treat those specific packages as newer than the ones provided by Red Hat. In order to make sure they are not downgraded, you must not select these packages during the update process. Due to this issue, if you customize system pieces with third-party replacements, I recommend leaving the automatic update feature turned off.

Conclusion

Overall, I am extremely pleased with Red Hat 7.2. Admittedly, part of this is the fact that I have been a fan of Red Hat and their distributions for a while. This distribution shows that Red Hat continues to improve and streamline their offerings. Apart from my bias, however, it installs cleanly, comes up without any problems, and it simply works. It offers sufficient options that bringing everything I need up and getting it running is possible to do quickly.

I can comfortably recommend Red Hat 7.2 for anyone. To the new person just trying Linux for the first time, it offers a smooth and hassle free installation process. The new user should be up and running in a minimal amount of time with sensible defaults and automatic detection of hardware. For the person of moderate familiarity, it offers choices and options which allows them the customization they might wish while at the same time helping them around hurdles that may arise. Finally, for the experienced user, it offers a robust system and tested packages, as well as allowing them to take complete control of the process when desired or needed.

Joseph "JT" Traub has been a UNIX software developer for 15 years and a Linux user for over eight years. He works as a software developer for pay and, in his spare time, contributes to multiple open-source projects, including the GPLd mailing-list software Ecartis.

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