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The Answer Guy

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

(?)More on Distribution Preferences

From mlees on 20 Aug 1998

Answerguy, What do you think of this distribution? Mike

OpenLinux Base

OpenLinux®: A complete Linux operating system with all the system tools you’ll need. Plus valuable add-ons, like Netscape® Communicator and backup utilities.

US and Canadian orders can take advantage of a $20.00 rebate from Caldera, bringing the price of OpenLinux Base to $31.95

(!)I haven't used any of the Caldera distributions recently. This is a much more recent version the those that I've used. So, I don't have an informed opinion on them.
Since you just asked about Yggdrasil yesterday I'm wondering if this is a pattern. I hope you aren't going to send me of these every day.
My opinion about Caldera Standard is that it is the best choice for a site that has existing Netware servers or clients. It was also the first distribution that was supported by WordPerfect for Linux. There are a number of other commercial software companies that work with Caldera for releasing Linux versions of their product.
If the Caldera Base includes a copy of StarOffice (as your press release says it does) than that is a very good reason to try it. (The installation of StarOffice that I have from an early 4.0 CD is very unstable --- it dies quickly and horribly under my S.u.S.E. 5.1 system. I've heard that that there are new libraries and releases that fix that --- but I haven't been particularly motivated to go get them since I still mostly live in text consoles).
StarOffice is a very promising product --- and the competition between it Corel Office, and Applixware should be interesting. The most important feature of either is to provide me with stable, reliable access to MS Office .DOC and .XLS files. The first one to successfully do that with MS Office '97 wins my vote. (Since that is one of the few reasons for me to get out of a text console and into X --- the others being Netscape Navigator (when I need something that just doesn't look right in Lynx), 'xfig' (to draw diagrams for the book that I'm working on), and 'xdvi', and 'gv' (to preview the LaTeX and dvips output for same).
At the same time I recognize the potential of these office suites (and some others). As these get better we see Linux as a more serious contender on the desktops of home and corporate users. According to some surveys we're already winning against NT in a number of server categories (including web, mail, DNS, and SMB/Samba). We've gained a lot of ground in the technical and scientific workstation market (although the push to get EDA and CAD/CAM suites ported is just barely started). But all the "mom's" and "pop's" out there that have their college kids buying systems for them need something a bit less intimidating than 'emacs' and 'vi' --- and TeX and friends.
KDE and GNOME will provide the main interface and many of the toys and widgets. StarOffice, Applixware, Corel Office, SIAG, LyX, Wingz, Xess, and others are all vying to provide the main user applications.
(I personally think we'll also need multi-media GUI "Welcome to Linux/XFree86/KDE" and "Welcome to Linux/XFree86/GNOME" interactive tutorials --- with sound, music, via, and a dancing, talking Tux. I want a system I can install on a box and send to my Mom!).
Getting back to your implicit question:
Which Linux distribution should you try?
... the answer is:
I have no idea!
Unlike the marketeering weenies that you encounter in every magazine, and newspaper, on every TV and radio show and on billboard and busses every time you drive anywhere ... unlike them, I don't want to push a bunch of features on you and I have nothing to sell you (except my time --- which is pretty expensive).
Helping someone select a Linux distribution (or anything else) is a matter of requirements analysis. What do you need? What do you want? How much are you willing to spend? (Time and money). It is quite possible that I would recommend FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, BSDI/OS, or even Win '95, NT, or MS-DOS --- if I understood your requirements sufficiently.
Before you send me a list or essay on your requirements consider that the Answer Guy is time I volunteer to show my appreciation for all the work that people like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, Arnold Robbins, and so many others have put into the GNU project, Linux and other freeware. I try to answer questions that I think are of broad interest to many Linux users and potential Linux users. (And possibly of interest to *BSD'ers and eventually GNU HURD'ers).
The easy answer to selecting a distribution is: pick one! Since many of them are freely distributable you might want to start with one of those. Debian and Red Hat are definitely freely accessible. I think Slackware is still available online --- and I suspect that it's perfectly O.K. to borrow a friend's copy of the CD. Walnut Creek might have exclusive rights on CD distribution of Slackware --- I don't know. I think S.u.S.E. is free for "personal" use (although it is a bit unclear my S.u.S.E. 5.2 manual says:
Copyright This work is copyrighted [sic] by S.u.S.E. GmbH and is placed under conditions of the GNU General Public License.
You may copy it in whole or in part as long as the copies retain this copyright statement.
... (overleaf of the title page). It's not clear whether "this work" is intended to refer to the book or to the distribution that included it. The box and CD case (4CD's) don't list any other copyright or licensing notices that I can find. The only index entry under the term "license" points that the Appendix of their manual that contains the full text of the FSF GPL. That would suggest that you can borrow my set of S.u.S.E. CD's and install it, and would even suggest that someone could start creating derivative works (other CD sets) to sell in competition with S.u.S.E.
However, I've always been under the impression that S.u.S.E. is a commercial distribution. I purchased both of my copies for it -- 5.1 and 5.2 --- and I've purchased many copies of various Red Hat versions (the boxed set and the lower-priced archives sets). So, you might want to ask a S.u.S.E. rep before you go into production against them. However, I doubt that they'd even want you to waste their time asking if it's O.K. to install from a friend's set on an evaluation basis.
You're clearly willing to buy some distribution once you find one you like. Personally I usually select Red Hat for my customers (after I've considered their needs) simply because Red Hat has a pretty good balance of the various factors they care about.
Debian has more packages (slightly) -- but the last copy of dpkg that I used was very convoluted (I'm hoping to get a 2.0 CD as soon as it goes out of beta). Slackware was nice when I needed it --- but most of my customers aren't interested in fussing with tarballs --- they want something with a decent package manager (one that can be operated easily from command lines as well as throught a GUI).
Under RH it's pretty simple to write a script to poll an internal FTP site for package updates and automatically apply any of them that appear. (I think there's a package called 'rpmwatch' floating around some 'contrib' directories somewhere that does precisely that). I haven't looked at RH 5.1 yet.
S.u.S.E. and Caldera both use the RPM format.
S.u.S.E. includes more packages that the last couple RH CD's I used (4.2 and 5.0). It seems to have a pretty good installation interface though I have mixed feelings about their interpretation of the SysV init scripts. They have a large shell script named /etc/rc.config (mine is about 770 lines long --- of which about 500 are comments). This file contains a long list of shell variables and values. You can edit this file by hand or you can use YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) which is their curses based system's administration interface. The idea is that the other scripts all "source" this one file and use the variables that apply to their operation.
On the one hand this is very nice. Concievably I could create a particular installation profile (which they support via their installation interface), install the system, configure it via YaST and put it into production.
Let's assume I use the 'chattr +i +d' (immutable and no-dump) flags on all the files that came with the distribution and unset them as a pair whenever I change any of them; this would allow me to use the 'dump' program and never backup files that were from the initial installation off of the CD). This is for a "data+config" backup strategy.
If I've stored the rescue floppy they created, and the rc.config file --- I should be able to restore the whole system to its configuration with just my installation CD's, my rescue diskette, and the rc.config file. (Naturally, I'll have to restore all my data as well).
Another nice thing is that I might be able to create a little script to generate new rc.config files from a master form and a couple of other data files. If I have lots of new machine trickling in I might have a few files that contain lists of IP addresses, hostnames, NIS domain names, shared printers, and other local (LAN) data. I might conceivably be able to generate a new custom rc.config file for each new box and automate even more of the deployment.
Under other distributions I have to mess with over a dozen separate files. Unfortunately it's not that easy even under S.u.S.E. If you use NFS you really want to use NIS or synchronize the 'passwd' and 'group' files across your systems (since maintaining ugidd maps is not scaleable and NFS relies on the uid/gid values to determine access and permissions.
None of the distributions I've seen prompt me for a passwd/group file set prior to installation. So, if I use Red Hat on one system and S.u.S.E. on another (I do) --- there will be some base files that differ between them (most of the uid's created by most of the distributions do match -- there were only a couple that I had to run through a "masschown" script). (Distribution Dudes!: This is my enhancement plea for the month! Please let me hand you a passwd/group file set --- from floppy or over ftp/nfs/http --- and use that to map the ownership as you install).
These days, for large sites, I recommend creating one "template" installation one a typical box, cutting that whole installation to tape or CDR after configuration but before any use (data). Now you can do all new system installations as "restores" from your backups. You can also take that opportunity to make sure that your recovery plans, rescue diskettes and backup media are all in working order. One reason I recommend that is that it takes me about four hours to fix various permissions and configurations (hosts.allow, hosts.deny, etc) after I've completed a new installation.
One final note about choosing a distribution: don't just ask me. I'm only one person. I've only used about a half dozen Linux distributions (some of which no longer exist!). Don't just go to the newsgroups and mailings lists and ask "Which is best?"
Ask questions that relate to your situation: Will you be integrating this into a Novell network? Do you have friends or family that will be working on your Linux box? Do any of them have experience with a Linux distribution? Do any of them use some other form of Unix (free or otherwise)? Do you have any particular applications preferences? Is system security a concern? What are the risk profiles that are acceptable to you? What is your native language (German speakers will probably be much happier with the German S.u.S.E. or the DLD (?) distributions, Japanese users seem to prefer FreeBSD, the French have their own distribution, etc.)?

Copyright © 1998, James T. Dennis
Published in Linux Gazette Issue 32 September 1998

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