This Daily Drill Down is part one of a two-part, in-depth series that will examine the latest release of Red Hat Linux: 6.1. In order to cover the true scope of what the Durham-based company is offering, I will first drill into the installation of the latest release. Part two of this series will take an in-depth look at what’s happening post-install. Although the number implies that it is an insignificant upgrade, 6.1 offers a subtle shift in the paradigm of what Linux is about to become!
Red Hat Linux generously (and quickly, I might add) sent me a review copy of their newest offering—6.1. After using 6.0 for less than a year, I wasn't sure that I wanted to risk leaving behind what, to me, was the strongest Red Hat version to date. 6.0 had run without failure on my desktop since its installation and had caused me no problems (outside of updating to the newest release of GNOME on a weekly basis—kudos to the GNOME team!). I was leery. However, Red Hat has been faithful in their upgrades, and each new release has been an improvement (well...there was the small dark spot that was known as 5.1, but I won’t talk about it). I was fairly confident that 6.1 would prove to be a huge success.
I wasn’t disappointed!
What arrived at my office was the 6.1 Deluxe box set, which includes: 6.1, 6.1 Powertools, a CD of third party workstation applications (mostly demos), Sun's StarOffice 5.1 (including the full version of StarOffice for Linux, Windows, Sun, and OS/2), three manuals, and two stickers. Support for this box set features 180-days FREE priority FTP access (get the official updates from Red Hat quickly and easily), 30-days telephone support for immediate answers, and 90-days Web-based installation support. The box set sells for $79.99 and can be purchased from Red Hat .
I was excited.
I decided to perform three different installs of the new Red Hat 6.1. The first would become an intranet server that would have no GUI but all of the server bells and whistles. The second install would replace Mandrake 6.0, which was dual-booting my laptop (the dual booting with Windows 98 would remain). The third, and most crucial, install would upgrade my file server from 6.0 to 6.1. The third install was crucial because of all of the time that I had invested in the configuration of its network capabilities (including Samba).
The machine that was to become the intranet server was an older IBM P200. The machine had already been set up with Red Hat 6.0. However, the GUI was broken, and very little work had been done on the intranet. A complete install would be just fine.
The big shock….
After booting the machine with the Red Hat 6.1 CD, the first thing that caught my eye was the choice of text or graphical install. Graphical installation is the default for 6.1. To continue with text-based installation, you can type text and press [Enter]. I’ve grown accustomed to the Red Hat text install, and I like the simple and clean interface; however, I simply couldn't resist seeing what Red Hat had done.
The GUI install is very similar to the Caldera Open Linux 2.2/2.3 installation; only it’s much faster, more intuitive, and much cleaner. Where the Caldera Open Linux GUI installation seems sluggish and unresponsive, the Red Hat GUI is speedy and efficient. As the installation of the system progressed, I was treated to a handsome interface. I was allowed to configure the system on the fly and to test the choices that I’d made, which would be very handy if you’re installing the X Window System. Although the text installation offers the same feature (testing the configured X Server), it isn’t nearly as intuitive for new users as the newer, graphical system.
The difference between the server installation from 6.0 to 6.1 is fairly dramatic. With the 6.1 server installation, the X Window System isn’t installed. (In version 6.0, it was installed by default.) Although many users may frown upon this aspect, system administrators will look upon it as a wise move by Red Hat Linux. The role of a server installation is to provide speed and stability. Without the X Window System using precious resources, the server can do its job more efficiently and with greater stability.
The standard installation of Red Hat 6.1 offers subtle, yet noteworthy, differences. At first glance, these differences seem only aesthetic (such as the GUI installation), but there’s much more present under 6.1’s hood. Much more.
Let's look at the aesthetic differences. The first noticeable distinction is that you have a choice of a GNOME workstation or a KDE workstation. The two main desktop environments for Linux (GNOME and KDE) invite very polar users. The GNOME desktop is more in tune with users who are comfortable with configuration and pushing the envelope of the “look and feel” of their computing environments. The KDE environment is more in tune with Windows-migratory users. The 6.1 GNOME and KDE workstation installations enable users to choose either desktop environment but not both. In order to switch back and forth between the two desktop environments (via the switchdesk tool), users must brave a custom installation.
The new and improved custom installation with Red Hat 6.1
Before 6.1, any user wanting to perform a custom installation was forced to run with the text-based disk druid or the Linux fdisk application. Both text-only applications are very powerful and intuitive—if you have a solid grasp on command line interface. Without an understanding of the command line, most users would resort to opting for the workstation-only installation and would miss out on some very powerful and integral applications and environments. The new GUI installation smoothes this rough edge. The only foreknowledge that you must now have (when performing a partition scheme for a custom installation) is that the primary partition (the first partition you will set) must have a mount point of “/”.
The only other partition that you’re required to set is the swap partition. (Note: be generous with the swap partition. If you have enough room, go for the maximum amount allowed—120MB.)
Once you’ve set up these two partitions, you can set up Linux Loader (LILO). You’ll have to decide where you want to place LILO, which allows your machine to boot the Linux OS. If Linux is your only OS, LILO must be placed on your master boot record. If you’re dual booting between Linux and Windows 9x, you’ll want LILO in your master boot record. But if you’re dual booting between Linux and Windows NT, you’ll want to keep LILO on the primary (or root) Linux partition so that NT’s own boot loader can be used.
Red Hat 6.1 makes LILO very simple by including its own configuration screen. The default configuration for LILO is a single boot machine where LILO resides on the master boot record. The LILO installation screen is very straightforward, and if you’re performing a single boot installation, you can keep the default values.
At this point in the installation, it’s important to note that, depending on the speed of your system (CPU and RAM), it may seem as though the installation has stopped. It isn’t so. The Red Hat 6.1 GUI installation doesn’t display a status bar while the file system is being prepared. Allow this action to continue, or you’ll run the risk of corrupting the file system creation and having to start the process again.
Now that the hard drive is partitioned and LILO is installed, you may opt to run through a very simple network configuration screen. You’ll be prompted to provide such information as the IP address, Netmask, Network, Broadcast, Hostname, Gateway, Primary DNS, Secondary DNS, and Ternary DNS. You also need to decide if you want to configure with DHCP and if you want to activate on boot. It isn’t very different from the earlier installs; however, the GUI allows for a much more intuitive network configuration.
The next step is a simple time zone configuration. The 6.1 time zone configuration routine seems to have been lifted directly from the Caldera 2.2 install. It’s not a bad thing. A map of the planet is displayed, with all major cities designated. All you have to do is select the appropriate location. It’s a simple pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. When you’re finished setting the time zone, you’ll see something that Red Hat has needed for a long time. Red Hat used to require you to choose a root password and then to add the normal user accounts after the installation. It has finally caught on to the idea that users are using their OS on the desktop. Finally, you can add a standard (not root) account during the installation. Hooray, Red Hat! Most of the other distributions have already jumped on the desktop bandwagon, and only now, with 6.1, has the leader in Linux opened its eyes. Bravo.
The final step before the package selection begins is authentication configuration, which deals with passwords and networking services (MD5, Shadow, NIS, NIS Domain, and NIS Server). Once you've completed this step, you can finalize the installation. Again, the Red Hat GUI installation doesn’t provide a status bar to let you know how the installation is progressing. Allow the installation to continue, or you may risk corrupting your file system and have to start the installation process again.
After the authentication configuration is complete you’ll have to select the packages that you wish to install. As with older Red Hat releases, package installation is simply a matter of selecting the appropriate check boxes (only this time you’ll do it with your mouse, not with your space bar).
After this information is entered, the OS searches for video hardware. At this point, you’ll see something that’s unusual for Linux: On four different installations of Red Hat 6.1 (on four different machines) the OS installation DETECTED ALL OF THE NECESSARY HARDWARE! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Linux has grown up and now plays with the big kids. The only choices to be made are the type of mouse and the resolution of the monitor being used. It came as a complete and joyous surprise! Of the four machines that I tested, only one had a problem. This “problem” machine was “frankensteined” together, and the NIC wasn’t working properly, which wasn’t a fault of the OS in any case. This situation was easily rectified because the OS runs a check for new hardware each time that the new release is booted. It’s an efficient and quick means to solve many problems.
The next step forward for 6.1 is the support of symmetric multi-processing (SMP). During the installation, if 6.1 detects an SMP (dual processor) motherboard, it creates two lilo.conf files (the file responsible for booting your system). The first lilo.conf file (linux) is the standard, single processor boot entry. The second lilo.conf file (linux-up) is responsible for booting the dual processor functionality. Fortunately, Red Hat was intuitive enough to know that problems might ensue; it created the dual lilo.conf method. If a post-installation problem arises and the SMP support doesn’t work, type linux (at the LILO prompt) instead of linux-up.
The upgrade installation of Red Hat 6.1 was quite a blessing in disGUIse. After spending weeks to get my system and network running to my satisfaction, I was hesitant to take any drastic measures, but the lure of having the more stable packages and the newer, more efficient kernel was too good to pass up.
At the onset of the upgrade installation, the installation routine checks all of the packages for dependency issues. A dependency occurs when a program that’s going to be installed requires certain libraries or applications that aren’t currently present on the system. Dependency problems can be a pain to resolve, but the Linux dependency check renders this issue moot. If any dependency problems are found, the OS install resolves those problems for you. During the different upgrade installations, my system managed to catch two critical dependencies and resolved them quickly and easily.
Once the dependencies are resolved, the install routine allows you to choose which packages to upgrade, or it will perform the upgrade for all packages found on the system. If space is a concern, consider making the choices on your own. If space isn’t an issue, allow the system to make the choices, which results in a more stable and complete package.
After the first upgrade was complete, I ran into what, at first, seemed like a total disaster. When the machine rebooted (initial reboot upon installation), the screen was filled with nothing but garbage. Fortunately, after restarting the machine, all was well. In fact, upon the second boot of the upgraded machine, I noticed something new and much needed—a new hardware detection agent. Kudzu is the application that Red Hat included with the 6.1 release in order to check whether any hardware was removed or added to the system since the last time you booted. If Kudzu detects any changes, it will ask you if you wish to drop the old configurations, create new configurations, or migrate old configurations over to the new hardware. It’s certainly a sound investment in Linux’s future.
The upgrade installation was flawless! All present data was unharmed, all directories and files were unchanged, all permissions and ownerships were intact, and the network settings were perfect. Red Hat even takes into consideration that there may be problems; therefore, it preserves all existing configuration files by using an .rpmsave extension (i.e. sendmail.cf.rpmsave). There is also a log of all upgrade actions in the file /tmp/upgrade.log.
Once the installation was complete, it was just a matter of “checking under the hat.” At boot, 6.1 defaults to the standard, non-interactive boot mode; however, it’s possible (by typing I) to drop into an interactive boot mode.
Red Hat 6.1 is solid—it’s built upon already outstanding technologies—and offers a faster and more enjoyable computing experience. The majority of the changes are subtle. GNOME's facelift seems primarily aesthetic. However, if you've followed the development of the desktop environment, you’ll know that the changes are vast and that the results are incredible.
The newest release from Durham is rock-solid and has brought the IT industry what it has been pining for: Windows-like usability! From the tiniest additions of the new Red Hat PPP dialer to the more noticeable kernel upgrades to the advanced hardware detection of Kudzu, the newest installment of Red Hat has taken the Linux Community one step closer to fulfilling the dream of a much larger user-base. (Most would like to say “world domination.”)
Watch for part two in this series when I’ll take a deep look into the heart of the new offering from Durham and drill into the OS, the applications, and the improvements. We’ll find out for sure how close Red Hat Linux is to creating THE Linux distribution.
Jack Wallen, Jr. is the author of "Get Jack'd" and the editor in chief of Linux content at TechRepublic. Jack is an expert on the many flavors of Linux, as well as other prominent operating systems. His columns offer up a weekly dose of the "attitude" that’s so familiar with Linux, and he plumbs the deeper depths of technology by drilling down into the heart of the applications and systems. And, much to everyone's surprise, Jack is not permanently connected to his computer.The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
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.