On Dec. 22, 1999, MandrakeSoft unveiled the future of Linux Mandrake with its beta version of Linux Mandrake 7.0 (code named Oxygen). Some of the features included in this version are the new perl/gtk-based graphical installation tool called Drakx, which possesses multiple language support and integrates MandrakeSoft’s DiskDrake disk partitioning tool. It also features supermount, which will mount devices like CD-ROMs and ZIP drives on the fly. Other enhancements include different types of Linux security with multiple security levels and improved desktop integration with new MandrakeSoft tools, such as DrakConf (a configuration utility) and rpmdrake (an RPM management program). Whether or not these enhancements warrant a major version increase is a subject for debate, but Linux Mandrake 7.0 seems to be quite a step above the current Linux Mandrake 6.1 for users.

I mirrored the beta on the same day that it was released for installation and reviewing purposes. It was clearly labeled as a beta made available for testing purposes. So, I was prepared to take the whole installation experience with a grain of salt, knowing that it was a beta and not a complete product.

Installation via Drakx
The computer upon which I performed the installation had the following setup:

  • Pentium II, 350 MHz
  • 64MB RAM
  • No-name SVGA monitor that was capable of 1024×768 and 32-bit color
  • 1 GB partition for the installation
  • PCI NE2000 Ethernet card connected to a cable modem
  • SoundBlaster 16 ISA sound card
  • AHA1542 Adaptec SCSI card
  • ATI Xpert98 AGP video card
  • External SCSI ZIP drive

The computer already had an existing Linux Mandrake 6.1 installation that dual-booted with Windows 98.

To take advantage of the Drakx GUI installer, I used the gi_hd.img file to create the installation floppy disk. After booting from the floppy disk, Drakx loaded quickly. The new GUI installer looks nice and is very easy to use. It includes a status bar that shows you which major operations of the installation are left to perform (denoted by a red button), which operations have been completed (denoted by a green button), and which are currently running (denoted by a yellow button). Drakx is very straightforward, without a lot of frills and extras. The bottom portion of the screen contains information about the current operation and selectable options.

The first thing Drakx asked for was the installation method: Install or Upgrade. I chose Install. It then prompted me for an installation type and gave me three choices: Recommended (for newcomers to Linux), Customized, and Expert. The latter two choices were broken down into Normal (all-purpose workstation-like), Development (for programming), and Server (name says it all) installation types. I selected Recommended to see how friendly Drakx would be to new Linux users.

Next, Drakx went into the disk-partitioning menu. Disk partitioning is similar to using Disk Druid in a text-mode installation, but it has some nice graphs that show partition sizes and tabs for the different disks. You also can resize your partitions with the DiskDrake free partitioning tool that MandrakeSoft authored.

After I selected my 1-GB free partition for the installation and gave it the root (/) mount point, Drakx immediately started the installation. The installation selects several pre-determined packages, including all of the popular packages, such as KDE, GNOME, Netscape, xmms, xchat, and so forth. The estimated time for installation was 13 minutes—very close to my actual installation time of 12:40. The final size of the installation was 786 MB.

After the packages were installed, I realized that Drakx hadn’t asked me about SCSI cards. I noticed that the SCSI install button was green, which meant that I had already configured it. Fortunately, I was able to go back, open the SCSI adapter dialogue, and select my AHA1542 card. Autoprobing worked fine, so I went back to where I had left off and selected the printer setup.

The printer setup was the same as always, but it now included an option for printing a test page—a very nice touch. That way, users can ensure that the printer is set up properly before they continue with the installation.

Shock and LILO
Next, I was prompted for my root password. I was shocked to see a button labeled “No password.” Why Corel included this button in their distribution is beyond me, but for MandrakeSoft to make the same grave error is unforgivable. No system—I don’t care how isolated—should ever have an empty password for root. It’s just bad practice, and I’m sure that a moral question comes into play, too. I strongly recommend that, although this option is available, no one use it. Root is a very powerful user on your system (super user, in fact), and by not specifying a password, you’re begging for your system to be compromised by an outside intruder, whether it’s someone a thousand miles away or a child at home.

After choosing my root password, Drakx gave me the option of setting up multiple users. Instead of allowing you to set up only one unprivileged user, Drakx lets you set up as many as you like, which makes it much nicer than previous versions.

Drakx skipped the LILO (LInux LOader) installation, or at least it didn’t prompt me to indicate where I wanted LILO installed. Later on, I found that it installed into the Master Boot Record (MBR) by default. This automatic installation didn’t impress me, considering that I had installed LILO already and planned to modify my current LILO configuration in my other Linux Mandrake installation. I’m assuming that it was done because I selected the Recommended installation method. (With the number of assumptions that it makes, perhaps it should be called Dummy-mode.)

I was able to configure X, and I was prompted to remove my installation floppy disk and reboot the system. When LILO came up this time, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it offered two options on the menu not found on previous versions: an item for floppy boots and an item for booting into Windows 98. Drakx had found and auto-configured LILO to boot into Windows 98, which will allow new Linux users (who already have Windows installed) to install Linux and dual-boot with ease. No more reading various HOW-TOs on getting LILO to load Windows (which may make LILO more palatable to many users).

Drakx was smart enough to detect OS/2, DOS, and BeOS systems. However, the folks at MandrakeSoft have informed me that the auto-configuration of LILO doesn’t work with BeOS, so if you dual-boot with BeOS, you’ll have to set it up in LILO yourself. There’s also no way to merge an existing LILO with a new LILO. For example, the LILO setup I have with Mandrake 6.1 can’t be incorporated with the LILO setup of Mandrake 7.0 if I choose to install LILO again. I must set up LILO for one of my Linux systems manually.

One very important piece missing from the installation was the network configuration—no option existed to configure the network. I found this fact extremely odd because, as far as I’m concerned, it should be integral to the initial installation.

During boot-up, a prompt indicated that I could press [I] for interactive startup. Being curious (and never having seen it before), I pressed [I] during the boot-up and was prompted if it should load any given service. This function will come in very handy if a service gives you problems that may lock up the entire system. (It’s happened before.) Perhaps this interactive startup will prevent users from having to boot Linux into rescue mode in order to disable an errant service.

I was thrown into runlevel 5 by default (which means that X started automatically). The graphical login manager prompted me to log in as root or as any of the users that I had configured during installation. I was given a list of window managers to use at login, but I was disappointed to see that Window Maker and Xfce weren’t on the list. I’m not sure if it differs between installation levels. (Perhaps if I had installed as Expert, they would have been available.) Then again, Drakx installed the RPM for Window Maker, so why it was missing from the list is beyond me. I’d also like to see an option to start Enlightenment independently. As much as I like GNOME, I’ve been using Enlightenment independently more often than not (without GNOME as the desktop manager), and I would like an easy “out-of-the-box” way of starting Enlightenment alone.

KDE is the default desktop manager for the system again. On the GUI login window, you can select GNOME, AfterStep, IceWM, and AnotherLevel as window managers for your login session. When you select your user name, Mandrake remembers which window manager you were using previously and selects it. If you don’t use KDE, you won’t have to select your window manager from the pull-down list each time that you log in (which you were required to do on earlier versions).

The new version of Linux Mandrake comes with an exciting feature called supermount. Supermount is a patch to the kernel that will mount and unmount removable filesystems on the fly. You no longer need to mount and unmount CD-ROMs, floppy disks, ZIP disks, and so forth manually. This feature is very welcome because other operating systems had the ability to change removable media with a minimal amount of fussing long before Linux. It is, although not essential, a definite time saver.

During the install, Mandrake detected all of the removable media on my system and created mount points for it automatically. I was pleased to find a series of mount points under the /mnt directory. A mount point was created for my IDE CD-ROM drive (as /mnt/cdrom), my SCSI CD-RW drive (as /mnt/cdrom2), my floppy disk drive (/mnt/floppy), and my SCSI ZIP drive (as /mnt/zip). I was even more pleased to see that it had mounted the FAT32 partitions of my Windows 98 installation as /mnt/DOS_hda1 and /mnt/DOS_hda2 (both partitions of my primary hard disk). I did notice, however, that it made no mount points for the other Linux partitions of my Mandrake 6.1 installation.

Logging in as a regular user with KDE brought me to another nicely customized desktop for KDE. Mandrake always has had a very nice configuration for its KDE desktops, and the beta version is no exception. Included on my desktop were sharper icons, several new icons for the various mount points that supermount set up, and new programs that MandrakeSoft is releasing for this new version.

A better kpackage?
First, I examined rpmdrake, which is a tool for making RPM management easier. The interface reminded me of the kpackage program for KDE, and for all intents and purposes, it worked much like kpackage. A nice feature of rpmdrake not seen in previous RPM tools was its ability to toggle between installed and uninstalled packages. The rpmdrake tool knows where to locate the installation CD-ROM (or in my case, hard drive partition) from which Mandrake was installed, and it allows you to install new packages easily. Gone are the days when you could uninstall an RPM from a GUI tool but had to type rpm on the command line to install or upgrade new packages. It even allows you to select new places from which to install RPMs—whether it’s a spot on your hard drive, a CD-ROM, or even an FTP site.

No more linuxconf
The next tool that I examined was DrakConf, the new configuration tool for Mandrake systems. DrakConf is a “portal” program and includes “hooks” to various programs in order to perform the actual configuration of your system. It includes a number of options that lead either to other configuration tools or to new MandrakeSoft tools that are designed to work specifically with DrakConf. Possible configuration options are:

  • Xconfig—Allows you to choose screen size, resolution, number of colors, and so forth
  • Keyboard selection
  • Security levels—Calls draksec, the security configuration tool by MandrakeSoft
  • LinuxConf
  • Printer configuration
  • Hardware configuration—Calls Lothar, a hardware detection tool by MandrakeSoft for detecting a wide variety of hardware
  • Startup services—Calls drakxservices, another MandrakeSoft tool
  • Package manager—Calls kpackage, not rpmdrake
  • Changes to the X resolution from DrakConf
  • Addition of new users
  • Network configuration—Calls the network configuration in LinuxConf

Draksec is the security configuration tool that enables you to select from three different security types: Low, Medium, and High. According to the Linux Mandrake Web site, the Medium security type is equivalent to security measures that are available in most Linux distributions by default. Draksec doesn’t provide any insight as to what security measures are involved if you select Low or High. The concept is good, and it might be an extremely useful feature. But it really needs to tell us how the security levels differ. Mandrake comes with the security level set to Medium by default.

Considering that there was no option for configuring the network during installation, I decided to use DrakConf to set it up now. Easy as pie. Using DHCP on my cable modem makes network configuration quite simple. Unfortunately, I quickly came to realize that, during the pre-selected package installation of my Recommended installation type, the dhcpcd and pump packages were not installed. Since I had no DHCP clients installed, I had to use rpmdrake to install dhcpcd. Then, the network began to work properly. All of this could have been avoided if setting up the network had been a part of the initial installation.

GNOME disappointment
Next, I decided to log out and log back in with GNOME. I was disappointed to see that the same work that had gone into KDE hadn’t go into GNOME. There were no new icons or any new icons for the new MandrakeSoft programs. Checking the GNOME menu was also unrewarding. Sure, you can go into the KDE programs and select rpmdrake (or any other new tool), but they really belong in the GNOME menu, too.

All in all, I’m very excited about this upcoming release. Keeping in mind that it’s only a beta release and that the majority of flaws and issues that I noticed during the installation should be addressed, I think that Linux Mandrake 7.0 will be a distribution to be reckoned with. Mandrake is a powerful distribution in its own right. Since its first release was based on Red Hat, it’s obvious that Mandrake has done so much to the distribution that to call it a “Red Hat for Pentiums” is very misleading. Mandrake has become more popular with every release, and I think that this release will make Mandrake a favorite distribution for many users.

Vincent Danen, a native Canadian in Edmonton, Alberta, has been computing since the age of 10,and hehas been using Linux for nearly two years. Prior to that, he used OS/2 exclusively for approximately four years. Vincent is a firm believer in the philosophy behind the Linux “revolution,” and heattempts to contribute to the Linux causein as many ways as possible—from his Freezer Burn Web site to building and submitting custom RPMs for the Linux Mandrake project. Vincent also has obtained his Linux Administrator certification from Tekmetrics.com.He hopes to tackle the RHCE once it can be taken in Canada.

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