Where does a Red Hat Linux user go now?

At the end of April 2004, Red Hat will discontinue its support and maintenance of Red Hat Linux, leaving a good number of users in a lurch. While some users will likely switch to SUSE or Debian or others, the Fedora Project promises to take up where Red Hat's left off. But is Fedora a viable option? Here's a hands-on trial of Fedora Core 1.

In November 2003, Red Hat announced that “Red Hat will discontinue maintenance and errata support for Red Hat Linux 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, and 8.0 as of December 31, 2003.” The company’s message continued, “Red Hat will also discontinue maintenance and errata support for Red Hat Linux 9 as of April 30, 2004. Red Hat does not plan to release another product in the Red Hat Linux line.”

In other words, “No more free Red Hat software.” Red Hat’s missive confirmed that it was going to focus its efforts on large, enterprise-wide Linux installations and suggested that Red Hat Linux users migrate to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, albeit at a significantly increased annual cost.

At face value, Red Hat’s announcement seemed like terrible news. A significant, influential, and popular Linux distribution was being obsoleted, seemingly leaving serious hobbyists, developers, and small businesses in a lurch. Yet buried in Red Hat’s announcement was a reference to the Fedora Project, a “development forum for new Linux and open source technology” sponsored by Red Hat. A merger between Red Hat Linux and the Fedora Linux project, a community project dedicated to building high-quality, third-party RPMs for Red Hat Linux, the Fedora Project promised hope for those migrating from existing Red Hat installations.

But is Fedora a viable option? And for whom? Anxious to answer some burning questions, we doffed the Red Hat and donned a Fedora to find out just how well the new hat fits.

Recently, the Fedora Project (http://fedora.redhat.com) released the Fedora Core 1 Linux distribution. Anchored by the Anaconda installer, Fedora Core 1 includes the Linux kernel and associated sub-systems such as Apache, PHP, GCC, X, and almost all of the other software you’re used to finding in Red Hat distributions.

To investigate just how smoothly the Fedora distribution integrates with existing Red Hat installations, we installed Fedora Core 1 on several different system configurations. To represent the breadth and variety of Linux systems, we chose a home-built desktop computer, a laptop, and a server. The workstation got a completely fresh installation of Fedora, while the laptop and the server were upgraded from Red Hat 9. (Figure One shows the Fedora Core splash screen.)

Figure One: The Fedora splash screen

The Fedora Core 1 distribution is not available (yet) as a shrink-wrapped distribution, so you must download and build your own set of disk images. Since each of these images is around 640 MB in size, just downloading these images can be a significant investment in time. Over a T-1 (1.54 Mbps), downloading a single CD ISO image takes about 70 minutes. The same image downloaded over a 30 Mbit line takes about 14 minutes. You must download the three CD images even if you are planning a hard disk install.

Before installing, check the release notes for any hardware issues. You should also scan the fedora-list archives at http://www.redhat.com/archives/fedora-list to see if anyone is reporting problems with (and solutions for) your configuration. The Fedora Core 1 release boasts an excellent set of release notes (located at http://fedora.redhat.com/docs/release-notes) and installation instructions, and additional “live” support can be obtained from the Fedora IRC channels (see http://fedora.redhat.com/participate/communicate).

You should also verify your (CD) media before you start the install. Verification doesn’t take that long, and many of the error reports on fedora-list can be traced back to defective media. You should check all three CDs before starting the install. (A variant of Murphy’s Law asserts that if the install is going to fail, it will always happen during the third CD.)

Fresh Install on a Simple Box

Our first “guinea pig” was a handmade personal computer built three years ago. It has an old Athlon processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a 40 GB Maxtor hard drive, which was added recently when prices for disk drives fell considerably. The box runs continuously, attached to a LinkSys DSL router through a D-Link RTL8139 Ethernet card.

The existing Linux partition was wiped clean during the first phase of the install (see Figure Two) and installation ran without problems. It was very reassuring to see the familiar and professional-looking Anaconda screens come up. The actual install took a long time — over two hours — but Red Hat 9 installations take a comparable amount of time.

Figure Two: Electing to wipe out the existing Linux distro

After the install finished, we only had a few problems. For some reason, Fedora insisted on a graphical login screen (run level 5). The installer didn’t provide any option to disable the GUI login, and a thorough search through the System Settings and System Tools menus to reset it proved fruitless. Maybe that’s just how it goes with a “friendly” distribution. Indeed, according to the Fedora web site, all fresh installs of Fedora Core 1 are configured to use a graphical boot screen. You can disable it by changing the value of the GRAPHICAL line in /etc/sysconfig/init file to no. (The upgrade process does not force this behavior and may require you to install the rhgb package and add the rhgb boot-time parameter to your bootloader configuration.)

Another problem was the Red Hat Network Alert Icon on the Genome panel. As originally installed in Fedora Core 1, the Alert, which checks for system software updates, would not communicate with Fedora’s update site. Additionally, the GUI version of up2date kept complaining that we weren’t registered with the Red Hat Network. However, up2date ran fine and found a boatload of updates. That’s pretty much the point of the Fedora project.

After a day or so, one of the updates straightened out the Alert Icon and up2date. You should run up2date -u immediately after completing an install (either from scratch or upgrade), then stand back and wait for a lot of traffic.

Finally, we’re still struggling with Samba, or actually with ipchains. A Windows box attached to the same network is only able to see the Samba shares on the Linux desktop when the firewall is disabled entirely.

Upgrade of a Touchy Laptop

Next, we upgraded a rather “touchy” laptop, a reasonably new Dell Inspiron 8500, which is somewhat ahead of Linux in the driver department. Red Hat 9 was already running on the Inspiron — but only after a Google search yielded a good deal of information and hints on getting Linux running on that specific machine. (An excellent source of information on the Inspiron can be found at G. Wilford’s site at http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Personal/G.Wilford/Inspiron8500).

On the Inspiron, we performed an upgrade rather than a fresh install, largely because the laptop’s already configured for tricky things like the Python M2Crypto module, and because the laptop dual boots with Windows XP using Grub. We also wanted to test Fedora’s upgrade capabilities.

Anaconda picked up the existing Red Hat 9 installation and offered to upgrade. We chose that option and all the subsequent defaults. The install finished without errors.

While Fedora Core 1 had some newer drivers than Red Hat 9 — it had drivers for the Inspiron’s sound card and Ethernet card that were lacking in Red Hat 9 — it was still unable to recognize a D-Link wireless card. But the real problem was with video. The Inspiron 8500 is listed as a “portable desktop” because it has a high-resolution 15-inch screen with a 64 MB NVidia GeForce4 video card. It looks beautiful when running Windows, but the Red Hat (and Fedora) drivers just don’t seem to work very well with the newer NVidia boards. (There’s a lot of traffic on fedora-list about problems with NVidia video in general.)

Wilford’s advice was to download the Linux driver from NVidia. We did that and it worked fine with Red Hat 9, but the NVidia setup script wants to build a kernel module and this failed under Fedora Core 1. More research on fedora-list showed that Fedora has a newer, incompatible version of gcc. This can be worked around by setting export CC=gcc32 at the command-line.

After intermittent struggle and research, we finally got the beautiful video working. Solving the video problem is a good example of the process involved in working with Fedora. There are problems, but there are also solutions. You just can’t call Red Hat technical support.

Upgrade of a Server

After the desktop system and the laptop, it was time to see how smoothly Fedora Core 1 could upgrade a server. The target server was a 750 Mhz Athlon with 386 MB of memory, running Horde to provide web-based email access to a small business’s email server. We chose to upgrade this server rather than complete a fresh install due to the large number of dependencies and prerequisites involved in reinstalling Horde. (The basic Horde installation requires Apache, PHP, and PEAR. An enhanced installation like the version running on our test server also has links to a variety of other sub-systems.)

Once again, the upgrade went quite smoothly. Anaconda found the Red Hat 9 installation and started the upgrade. The upgrade process found and upgraded Apache, PHP, and PEAR to the most recent versions. However, the PHP upgrade missed DOM XML support and the PEAR upgrade broke the Date module, thus disabling Horde.

It took about an hour to diagnose and correct the upgrade shortcomings. The Horde test page quickly identified the missing components. The PHP problem was fixed by installing the php-domxml-4.3.3-6.i386.rpm RPM. The PEAR issues were a bit more difficult to track down and correct. The first step involved using the PEAR command-line install feature to re-install the Date package. Horde still complained about missing the Date/Calc.php package. Copying this file from a backup PEAR installation fixed the problem.

Additional testing of the upgrade revealed that the PHP upgrade had broken the Horde code used for periodic update of comics and news. This was a case where the Horde code made some assumptions about return values from PHP functions to determine if the PHP script was running from the command line or from Apache. A quick change to the Horde function that determined the running state of PHP fixed the problem.

The Warm Fuzzies

While Red Hat’s Linux distribution is on the wane, the wide world of open source provides any number of alternatives, including SUSE, Gentoo, SlackWare, and Knoppix, just to name a few. To be sure, each distribution is remarkable and quite capable, but differences do exist, so moving to a new distribution can be onerous as you become familiar with its idiosyncrasies.

Overall, we like Fedora. There are some rough edges,but we’re sold on the new distro as a stepping stone away from Red Hat Linux. Perhaps Fedora Core 1 should be called “Red Hat Linux 10″ or maybe “9.1.” It’s a point release, not a radical departure. There are some newer drivers, some different graphics, and a newer kernel. There are problems with some packages on some platforms, but on the whole it’s an improvement on Red Hat Linux 9.

If you need an enterprise level operating system, buy a subscription to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (or SUSE, or another enterprise level distribution). It’s not that expensive.

Red Hat also offers its Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation, which you might want to keep as a reference platform for software development. At we go to press, Enterprise Workstations is $179 (USD), and there is some kind of half price offer.

On the other hand, if you’re just an individual Red Hat Linux user looking for a place to go, give Fedora Core a try.

The Future Fedora

Fedora Core 2 is currently scheduled for release on April 5, 2004. Fedora Core 2 will include the Linux 2.6 kernel and will support Security-Enhanced Linux (SELinux). (In fact, the release schedule will slip if there are any problems with those two features.) The release team is also planning on including GNOME 2.6, KDE 3.2, additional Java software and applications, including Ant, Tomcat, and Jakarta. Core 2 will not include Mozilla Java plug-ins, AWT, or Swing.

Fedora Core 2 will be even more fun than Core 1. Test versions will be available by the time this article is published. So let’s get on it!

Joe Griffin is the managing partner at Downright Software, LLC, a company specializing in helping clients identify performance issues in web-based or n-tier applications. He was first exposed to Unix in 1975, and started using Red Hat Linux in 1997. He can be reached at jgriffin@downright.com. Doug Fort is a consulting programmer and can be reached at http://www.dougfort.com. He started out writing COBOL on Hollerith cards, and has worked on just about everything else while waiting for Linus to grow up and invent Linux.

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