Open Source

Chasing Roswell (or Getting wowed by Red Hat 7.2)

Jack Wallen, Jr., has found the truth: Red Hat Linux will soon release the best Linux distribution ever, which includes the ext3 journaling filesystem and KDE 2.2. Find out what Jack thinks of the beta for the yet-to-be-released 7.2.


It seems that the red hats from Durham, NC, can't do any wrong these days. About two weeks ago, I downloaded the latest serving of what Red Hat calls Linux, and each and every time I sit down to test the machines sporting the new look, I find myself excited about yet another awesome tweak.

Before I go any further, although you may be tempted to download the iso images from the Red Hat ftp site, just remember that this is the first beta release and should be treated as such. Do not use this release for production machines. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's find out what makes this puppy howl.

Installation
For the most part, the installation has not changed. If you’re doing a manual partition of your drive, you’ll notice one significant alteration that should excite the database managers and the server farm wranglers to no end. Red Hat has moved away from the aging ext2 filesystem and opted for the much improved ext3 journaling filesystem. If you've been following the Linux community closely, you know what kind of controversy this has kicked up. Controversy or no, Red Hat made the move, and later we'll find out if this was a wise move or not. Also provided in the new installation process is the ability to install software RAID partitions, another welcome change for many users.

The other major change in the installation process is the ability to choose your boot loader. Before, you were limited to one: LILO. Now, however, Red Hat has included both LILO and GRUB. I opted for GRUB to see how it performed and, quite frankly, it did. One added bonus of using the GRUB bootloader is the option to tag on a boot password. For many instances (sensitive data, for example), this added level of protection is welcome. For other instances (servers that must be able to reboot to a prompt without administration), this is best avoided.

Regardless of changes, the installation process is pretty much business as usual for the 7.0 or later releases.

Changes from 7.1
Suffice it to say that the addition of KDE 2.2-4 should be plenty to bring Linux users, in droves, to Red Hat 7.2. The updates that the KDE team has made have completely changed my mind about KDE. No longer does it have the feeling of instability and the hint of old school in its look and feel. KDE is polished. KDE kicks.

It's not just the desktop environment that has seen major updates. One tool that is sure to draw the crowds is the Konqueror browser. Up until the latest release of Konqueror, the TechProGuild site rendered something like the screen shown in Figure A.

Figure A
Notice the misplaced call to action, poll, and banner in this earlier Konqueror browser.


With the release of 2.2, the Konqueror browser has, well, conquered the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) issues and now renders the TechProGuild site perfectly, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
Look closely, all you naysayers! Linux has a full-fledged, fully open Web browser.


Even though most will pay the price of admission just to get the update on Konqueror, it's not all about the browser. Along with the network-inclined, the office-inclined will be happy to know that the KOffice application has also seen some beefy updates in 2.2. I've been using the Applixware Office suite for quite some time (primarily for the word processor), and it will take one heck of a suite of tools to get me to migrate from that application. The KOffice suite is pretty close to managing that task. Although not nearly as compatible with the current standard for office documents as Applix, StarOffice, or MS Office, KOffice 2.2 comes much closer to meeting those standards than any other incarnation of the suite.

While working with KOffice 2.2, I was able to safely open MS Word 2000 and MS Excel 2000 documents, but I was unable to save in either format. Instead, KWord and KSpread allowed me to save in their native formats, kwd and ksp, or in rich text format for word documents and Gnumeric Spreadsheet format for spreadsheets. This is a limitation that will keep many users from adopting the KOffice application.

I will say that in the native formats, the KOffice 2.2 application performs wonderfully. A selection of updates from the previous release includes:
  • Rich text formatting included
  • Autosaving added
  • Print preview feature added to KWord
  • KWord file size is now smaller
  • Better table support in KWord
  • KWord find/replace improved
  • Actual bullets now used (instead of characters) for bulleted lists
  • Undo/Redo now functioning properly
  • Embedding of objects such as KPresenter presentations works (also, KWord can be embedded into other KOffice documents)
  • Data validation in KSpread
  • Support for applying attribute changes to complete rows/columns in KSpread
  • Copy and paste with insertion in KSpread

Another very nice little change is that sound is automatically configured upon installation. Typically, after an installation, one of the first things I would have to do was su to root and run the sndconfig application to get sound running. With 7.2, that's all handled for you. We've come a long way, baby.

Journaling filesystems
The Red Hat Linux 7.2 (Roswell) migration from the ext2 filesystem to the much improved ext3 journaling filesystem is embraced for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being data integrity. Because of the way journaling filesystems work (data is always written to the disk so as to keep the filesystem consistent) when your machine suffers from a power outage, accidental shutdown, or reboot, there is a much lesser chance for corruption.

To test this, I put one of my Roswell machines through a number of stress tests by randomly pulling the power on the machine. Each time I took its life and then returned it, the boot process would report that it was "recovering journal" and would very quickly boot to the log in prompt. The only loss I experienced was a configuration change I had made to dictate that the desktop use small icons. No great loss if you're running an enterprise server, eh?

Another coup for the ext3 journaling filesystem is that, because journaling optimizes hard drive head motion, you will find higher data throughput rates. The optimization of hard drive head motion can actually be configured in one of three different manners. The first, data=writeback, limits the data integrity and allows old data to show up in files after a crash. This type gives potential increases in speed in some setups. The main benefit of the data=writeback setup is avoidance of filesystem check upon reboot (after an unexpected shutdown). The second configuration, data=ordered, is the default mode for the ext3 filesystem. This configuration guarantees that the data is consistent with the filesystem and, should a crash occur, the recent data writes will not appear. The final type of configuration, data=journal, is often recommended for database operation because it uses a larger journal for reasonable speed. The trade-off is that this configuration takes longer to recover in case of unclean shutdown.

The Evolution hurdle
I really enjoy Ximian's Evolution groupware suite. One of the first things I had to do upon installing 7.2 was open a console window and enter the command
lynx —source http://www.go-gnome.com|sh

to start installing the Ximian desktop so that I could get the latest snapshot of Evolution.

Much to my chagrin, the installation failed and I was unable to get the Red Carpet update agent so that I could enjoy Evolution. I somehow had to get this groupware suite installed. After much downloading from the Ximian ftp site, breaking my GnuCash installation, and about an hour and a half of my time, I managed to get Evolution installed and running. I don't recommend trying this at home. Although the idea of churning through dependencies for an hour and a half might appeal to some, breaking certain applications (such as Guppi and GnuCash) could leave you high and dry. I'm sure the monkeys at Ximian will have it supported in no time.

Lasting thoughts
I'm a pretty devout fan of Red Hat Linux. I've been using their distribution since my introduction into the land of Linux and I've rarely been disappointed. This time, 7.2 is no exception. With the changes, both major and minor, Red Hat has really found its groove and is finally suited for all levels of requirements. For everyone from the home user to the enterprise level, Red Hat Linux 7.2, when released to the world, should prove to be the best Linux distribution yet.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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