Open Source

Red Hat 7.2: Pain-free Linux

With its simplified user interface, streamlined configuration, and stellar support, Red Hat 7.2 isn't quite a knife in the heart of Windows, but it may just nick a major artery.

By Bill O'Brien

It's rare that a mere point release merits more than a noteworthy blurb, but the release of Red Hat Linux 7.2—just six months after the company's last upgrade—is newsworthy. Red Hat has added significant new flavor to its Linux offering to help solidify its position as the Linux supplier of choice.

CNET and TechRepublic
This article first appeared on CNET's Enterprise Business site. TechRepublic is part of the CNET family of Web sites dedicated to educating and empowering people and businesses in the IT field.

What's new
Red Hat has kept its graphical interface for the installation, and the choice of installation modes (server, workstation, and so on) has remained the same, but the feel of the process has been refined. It's the type of change that, unless you've installed previous versions, you'll probably never notice. Everything just seems smoother. Heretical as it may sound to some, the installer has reached the point where—except for a few questions about boot options, users and passwords, screen resolution, and partition requirements (if you chose not to let the installer automatically create optimized partitions for you)—it runs as automatically as any Windows installer you'll encounter.

Gone is LILO, at least as the default bootloader, but it's not forgotten. You can select it optionally. In its place is GNU GRUB, a graphical bootloader that can also be used to start other operating systems. GRUB can pass parameters to the kernel and lets you password protect the procedure to prevent accidents. If you install Red Hat 7.2 on a symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) system, you'll end up with two versions of GRUB (or LILO), one with SMP support and one without. This safety measure boots the system into SMP mode by default but lets you select the single processor boot should you run into a problem with SMP mode. Except for the number of supported processors, the two are otherwise identical. Support has also been added for a larger number of network interface cards and for about 500 printer models.

Ext3 file system
Perhaps the most ambitious change in this release concerns the file system. Where ext2 had been the de facto standard in the past, Red Hat has now elected to use ext3, a journaling file system. A journaling file system maintains a special, noncached log (journal) describing transactions that occur within the file system. If the computer crashes, any unfinished file operations are completed using log entries once the machine is restarted. As well as greatly reducing the possibility of lost data, this process also reduces the delays encountered with forced fscks (a Linux file-system repair utility) after unexpected interruptions, making it a tremendous time-saver in multi-drive, multi-gigabyte environments.

GUI stuff
GNOME in Red Hat 7.2 has also been modified. At the very least, GNOME 1.4 with the Nautilus file manager has eliminated that distracting window option group that popped up any time the mouse crossed a desktop window's menu bar. Icons, rather than file lists, are the order of the day for file or application access. Never fear, Red Hat hasn't become an MS Windows clone. There isn't a folder icon in sight. The icons are pictorial representations of both the overall category of files and/or applications you'll reach by clicking them and the individual elements contained within those categories. If you're not happy with the looks of any of the default icons, they can be changed to any of the available list of icons provided with 7.2. And if you start to suffer icon-shock, you can return to the classical list views.

In keeping with the simplified user interface theme, the included Mozilla Web browser may not be Netscape but it acts the same and offers a more familiar browser interface, very much like the one Netscape seems to have abandoned with its garish 6.x releases.

Not everything is new in Red Hat 7.2. Much of what Red Hat already provided in earlier iterations of the distribution has been simplified. This includes network configuration and user management tools that offer consolidated—and in many cases, point-and-click—administration procedures. There's even a hardware-viewing tool that performs diagnostics and provides a visual inspection of the system. Red Hat also hasn't changed its tiered support programs that allow for a variety of support levels and pricing to meet end users' needs—rather than over-selling one huge plan or under-servicing its community to maintain a low-cost appearance. And, naturally, source code is provided should you want to dabble on your own.

Bottom line
Red Hat 7.2 isn't quite a knife in the heart of Windows yet. However, we can't help but feel that it will certainly nick a major artery. The simplified user interface, unified procedures, and product support go a long way to elevate Linux from the toolbox to the workplace. It's an upwardly mobile kick in the pants for Linux, and we're happy to see Red Hat do it.

This document was originally published by CNET November 1, 2001.

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