Red Hat Linux recently released “Fisher” into the beta wild, and I decided to download it “hot off the presses” and take it for a spin. What I found is a beta that’s far superior to most other distributions. I also found some issues that caused me to look twice at what I was getting into.

Red Hat has moved the game up a notch within the Linux distributions. This step up left much of the competition behind and, at the same time, caused a bit of a ruckus within the Linux community. (Ruckus within the Linux community? You have to be kidding.) Well, anytime you break backwards compatibility within a development community, you run the risk of starting fires you may not be able to put out. Whether or not Red Hat can put these fires out, only time will tell. Let’s hope.

The advancements
Whoa! I’ve mentioned the fires but not what started the flames. Red Hat Linux pulled out all the stops on the Fisher beta and added the following technological advancements.

General system improvements:

  • Itanium architecture support is included.
  • Installer has many improvements and fixes, including basic firewall configuration.
  • Workstation installs are network-secure (services are off by default).
  • Japanese support is fully integrated.
  • Graphical kickstart configuration program is included.

Core system components:

  • kernel 2.4.0 and many fixes
  • glibc 2.2.1
  • XFree86 4.0.2
  • XFree86 3.3.6 X servers included for maximum hardware compatibility
  • KDE 2.1 beta release snapshot
  • GNOME libs 1.2.8, core 1.2.4
  • GCC 2.96-RH

Expanded hardware support:

  • Improved USB
  • IDE UltraDMA 66/100
  • IEEE1394 (FireWire)
  • ATM networking
  • WiFI wireless Ethernet cards
  • ESS Maestro3 and newer Crystal audio

System service changes:

  • New network-transparent configuration subsystem
  • Configuration tools for BIND, Apache, and printing

A sampling of package upgrades:

  • GIMP 1.2.1
  • Tcl/Tk 8.3.2
  • BIND 9.1.0
  • Pine 4.32
  • Vim 6.0 prerelease
  • XMMS 1.2.4

A sampling of package additions:

  • OGG/Vorbis audio encoder/decoder
  • Mozilla

It’s a long list, but what exactly does it represent? What does it break and what does it fix? Let’s take a look at the above list and see what kind of conclusions we can draw.

General system improvements
From an initial usability perspective, the biggest improvements do not come from within this category. Sure, the installation is cleaner looking and easier to use (although at this stage it takes forever for the installation GUI to appear), and it certainly is a step ahead when you can choose which level of security you want as your base (low, medium, high), but the most notable differences do not fall into this category.

Core system components
Now we’re talking change! It seems like it’s been forever in coming, but the 2.4 kernel has arrived, and Red Hat 7.1 will don this underbelly that has been promising to take Linux to new heights.

But it’s not all about the kernel in Fisher. The 7.1 release will include the newer gcc-2.96. This is where the Linux community begins to split, with half hooraying and the other half booing. According to TechProGuild contributing writer Vincent Danen, “gcc-2.96 is an alpha compiler that is midway between 2.95.2 (stable) and 3.0 (next stable). If you look at the gcc site, they do not recommend using 2.96 for anything because the binaries it produces are neither compatible with 2.95.x nor will they be compatible with 3.0 when it comes out. RH had to create compatibility libraries for 2.95 in order to run those executables under 7.0, and when 3.0 comes out, they will have to do the same for 2.95.x and 2.96 in order to run old libraries.”

So why is half of the Linux community up in arms about this change? The “midway” release of gcc conforms more to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards than previous releases, which causes some code (sloppy code) to choke. People are having to go back and make their older code more compliant with the ANSI standards. This does not make for happy hackers!

According to Danen, however, gcc 2.96 isn’t all that bad. “I think it just really took people by surprise that they would do this. We use 2.96 in Mandrake’s cooker [which means I’m running it], and it’s a better compiler.”

So, for the end user, is this a nonissue? Almost. I’ve managed to compile and install many of the same applications I’ve used for a long time: StarOffice, OpenOffice, Bluefish, etc. These applications installed without issues. Problems did rear their ugly heads on two occasions. I discovered this ugliness when attempting to upgrade the included GNOME to Ximian’s GNOME and to install my favorite office suite, Applixware. Both of these applications failed because of the new compilers and requisite libraries.

This raises a big issue: Whose responsibility is it to fix? Is Vistasource responsible for making sure their Applixware Office Suite can install on the various gcc compilers? Is it Red Hat’s responsibility to issue a fix? Hello, Linux Standards Base, where are you?

Fortunately, this will only be an issue until the gcc 3.0 is released. By that time, everyone will more than likely be pressured into stepping up to the new technology.

I even took a chance and compiled some of my own “sloppy” C++ code on the machine, and it compiled without a hitch. Of course it was a simple application so it really didn’t test the boundaries of the gcc compilers.

So…what does this say? If you are a developer, you might want to shy away from Red Hat 7.1 (unless you want to get your coding up to ANSI snuff). If you’re not a developer—read on!

The kernel, the kernel!
Let’s step back to the issue of the kernel. So the big news is kernel 2.4. What does it really matter? That depends on how you intend to deploy Linux. As an enterprise user, you will benefit highly from the 2.4 kernel because of expanded SMP (symmetric multiprocessing server) support. Linux 2.4 can now handle eight or more processors on a single machine. Enterprise Linux users will also rejoice now that they can use 64 gigs of memory. Yes, that’s right; Linux can now use up to 64 gigs of RAM. These two features alone make Linux a must-have for enterprise server installs. Top that off with a completely rewritten (read: optimized) networking layer, as well as support for a larger number of users and file sizes, and you have the makings of one in-demand server installation!

For more information on what the 2.4 kernel has to offer, take a look at Jason Hiner’s “Don’t look now, but Linux 2.4 is enterprise-ready.”

Ooey GUI rich and chewy
Once again we’ll move beyond the kernel (let’s face it, 2.4 was big news) and to the desktop. It’s true that the Linux desktop has had its share of issues, but with the 7.1 release, these issues are slowly fading away. Let’s take a look at a key example. In Figure A, you see a typical Linux Netscape shot. As you can see, the text is, well, substandard. This has been the state of Linux and fonts for some time now.

Figure A
The text shown in Linux Netscape is less than desirable.

Figure B is done within the Konqueror browser that is shipped with Fisher. Here you see one of the first instances of antialiasing in Linux. The text is much cleaner and easier to read. No longer will Linux users spend tedious hours attempting to get Netscape to render their favorite sites readable.

Figure B
With Red Hat 7.1, the Linux community will enjoy antialiasing.

Antialiasing is not the only cheer coming from my office at the moment. For the longest time, I’ve had an NVIDIA GeForce2 MX video card waiting to be used. In order to get it working, there were numerous steps involved, including a kernel recompile, removal of certain OpenGL libraries, and the installation of a few rpms. This was time consuming and not for the weak at heart. With Fisher, I was able to shut down the machine, install the new card, have kudzu (the hardware detection agent) detect the new card, and run Xconfigurator. Once Xconfigurator was run, I was able to log in and start up the X session—and it looked prettier than ever.

Of course this method of installation did not install the proper X Server. I was still running with the old SVGA server that the VooDoo 3000 was using. This was easily rectified, and the GeForce is running strong. A major leap ahead!

The graphical portion of Fisher was much improved with the inclusion of KDE 2.1. Although KDE was very slow to release a new product, when the company did it was awe-inspiring, to say the least. Not only did KDE implement antialiasing into the Konqueror Web browser, it instilled each and every Kapplication with this cleansing fire. Now every element of KDE is super-clean and readable.

Gold stability in beta code
Sure it’s beta. Sure the warnings are all over the place:

This is a beta release of Red Hat Linux. It is not intended for mission-critical applications. It’s not even intended for nonmission-critical applications. Important data should not be entrusted to Fisher, as it may eat it and make loud belching noises.—from the Red Hat Fisher site

So I didn’t heed the warning signs and installed 7.1 on my own production machine. What horror has risen from the depths of my DMA drive’s soul? Other than not being able to install Applixware, none. The machine has ticked along without so much as a hiccup for a week and a half now—no reboots, no slowdowns, no issues of any sort. Of course, this machine is only used for word processing, communication, browsing, smb, some compilation, and music (the sweet sounds of Rush).

Even using 7.1 as a server surprised me. With the help of the new kernel and the rewritten network layer, the server functionality was lightning fast. Both ftp and http were far faster than with previous incarnations. And, as in earlier Red Hat releases, the server setup was simple to configure and was as stable as any server I’ve used.

Getting the image
If you’re interested in upgrading to or beta testing Fisher, the task is actually quite simple. Cruise on over to the Red Hat Fisher page, download both disk 1 and disk 2 images, burn them onto CDs, and load ’em up. You’ll need to pay attention to the burning process. You cannot simply create a data CD; you have to actually copy an image (using xcdroast, Nero, etc.) and not just a simple “data” CD.

Should you jump immediately into installing the beta version of Red Hat 7.1? If you are interested in seeing what it’s all about and don’t mind the possibility that there could be problems (although I discovered very few), you will certainly enjoy the experience. If you are looking for something to house mission-critical applications or data, I’d suggest you shy away.

This new release of Red Hat looks quite promising. With the inclusion of the new features, tools, and kernel, Red Hat is not only taking Linux into the enterprise but it is also making it even easier for the home or end user.

When Red Hat 7.1 is released, it stands a chance at breaking the age of the Red Hat curse of unstable x.1 releases. I have perfect faith that the Raleigh-Durham, NC, company will do just that.
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