Review: Flying High with Fedora 7
Alolita Sharma and Robert Adkins also contributed to this review.
“Public forums. Open processes. Rapid innovation. Meritocracy and transparency. All in pursuit of the best operating system and platform that free software can provide” — these goals are the air beneath Fedora’s wings, lifting the distribution to new heights.
Competition is Good
Over the past couple of years, competition for the Linux desktop has heated up. Major distributions are vying for the best desktop user experience. If Ubuntu’s popularity is any indication, a smooth out-of-the-box experience matters a lot.
With the release of Fedora 7, it is refreshing to see the Fedora project back in the game ready to take on all comers. Fedora’s latest incarnation has better package management, open source release tools, and a sophisticated virtualization environment. In bringing Fedora 7 into the competitive arena of the open source desktop, Red Hat and the Fedora community have raised the bar for others to follow.
The merger of Fedora Core and Fedora Extras is a significant milestone that is already dramatically boosting the vitality of the project. Re-focusing the project structure to ramp up community participation across all parts of Fedora will help inject new ideas, latest technologies and more developers into the distribution. Benefits of this merger are already being seen in the software development cycle which is now simplified and easily accessible to all — Red Hat as well as community contributors.
Start the Engines
For this review, we installed Fedora 7 using the DVD ISO for both default as well as custom settings. Our test system was a Sony VAIO notebook (VGN-A600) with an Intel Mobile Pentium 2GHz processor and 2Gb system memory. But Fedora 7 runs on a wide range of hardware and is available for x86, x86-64, and PowerPC (ppc) platforms. In addition, Fedora 7 introduces GNOME and KDE specific Live-CDs and Live-DVDs for x86 and x86-64 platforms.
Using default settings suggested by the installer, a total of 805 packages were installed in about 30 minutes. An existing legacy operating system was detected and listed in the GRUB bootloader menu. Fedora was able to automatically configure the system’s sound card (HDA Intel), display resolution (1920×1200), and onboard wireless interface (Intel PRO/Wireless 2915ABG).
Fedora 7’s latest version of the Anaconda system installer gets high marks for its stability and improved visual appeal. For example, it sports the new “Flying High” artwork theme. And a new zoom widget in the timezone selector map makes it easy for users to drill down to their own locality (although when zoomed-in, the scroll buttons do not work). But missing is the ‘remaining time’ indicator under the progress bar that was a reassuring, if not always accurate, feature of Fedora Core 6 installations.
After completing package installation, the system reboots and comes to the firstboot “Setup Agent”. This tool walks you through configuration screens for the firewall, SELinux, date and time, sound and creating new users. A new screen invites you to send your hardware profile to Fedora HQ to improve quality assurance (QA) and troubleshooting.
When we selected a full installation of all three package sets (Office Productivity, Software Development, Web Server), the installation failed due to a missing dependency for ’system-config-lvm-1.1.1-1.0.fc7.noarch.rpm’. A closer look at the RPM files on the DVD revealed that this package was indeed missing.
We’d like to make a suggestion to Fedora about recovering gracefully from a failed installation: please provide the user with an option to retrieve missing packages from software repositories via a network connection, if available. It seems that the initial dependency check could flag such problems early on in the installation process. This would help prevent a frustrating user experience.
What’s new on the desktop
All major desktop components have been updated to their latest stable versions in Fedora 7, notably Firefox 2 (v220.127.116.11) is now the default. Other major components include GNOME 2.18, KDE 3.5.6, OpenOffice 2.2, Evolution 2.10.1, Pidgin 2.0, GIMP 2.2, Ekiga 2.0.9, RhythmBox 0.10, and Totem 2.18.1.
One of the most visible changes on Fedora’s desktop is the new “Flying High” artwork theme. It resonates Fedora’s message of “infinity, freedom, voice”. We were expecting to see the cool “Echo” icon theme but, alas, it was not ready to be shipped. It would have added even more bling. This will ultimately replace the current “Blue Curve” theme.
A quick look around the default GNOME desktop reveals new features – big and small.
Some of the highlights:
- Fonts: The new “Liberation” fonts make it easy for documents from MS Office to maintain a similar “look and feel” in Linux productivity applications such as OpenOffice.
- New Menu Items: The popular IM (instant messenger) client “Gaim” has been renamed to “Pidgin”. It can be found through the “Applications->Internet” menu. The “Places” menu now includes shortcuts to default folders for your documents, music, pictures, videos and downloads. The “System->Preferences” menu items have been grouped into broad categories for greater clarity.
- Power Management: On our test system, we found two features quite useful. “GNOME Power Manager” provides neat graphs of system power usage over time. It is accessed via the “Applications->System Tools->Power Statistics“. Also, you can control the brightness of your screen by using the “Brightness applet”. This applet is available through the “Add to panel” dialog when you right-click on the GNOME panel.
- Logins: “Fast User Switching” is now integrated with Fedora 7. This applet displays the name of the user currently logged-in at the top right hand corner. Right-clicking on it allows you to switch between sessions of multiple users who are logged in simultaneously.
- Printing: Adding a printer is painless using the revamped graphical tool (system-config-printer) that not only auto detects CUPS printers but also pre-configures most important settings.
- Network Administration: Network Manager, a graphical tool to manage wired and wireless network connections is installed by default now. To use it, you must enable the “NetworkManager” and “NetworkManagerDispatcher” services using the “System->Administration->Services” control panel. This tool also supports modem connections as well as some VPNs like OpenVPN and VPNC.
Managing the system
One of Fedora’s traditional strengths has been its system management tools. These tools have benefited from Red Hat’s RHEL work and add tremendously to Fedora’s system administration capabilities. Performance improvements of the system tools contribute noticeably to the responsiveness of this release. A lot of effort has gone into optimizing Fedora’s performance. A great example is yum and its GUI tools, “Pirut” and “Pup”, which are now significantly faster. To further test the tools, we tried installing the email client Thunderbird using “Pirut”, Fedora’s package installer. Although the installation worked fine, “Pirut” assumes the user is knowledgeable about the overall package installation process. A wizard approach where the user is guided through the package selection and installation process would be a welcome improvement.
“Pup”, Fedora’s package updater, has seen many improvements since it was introduced back in Fedora Core 5. During our review, “Pup” notified us (via “puplet”) that there were 37 updates available. So we ran “Pup”. All updates were successful. However, it would be nice if users could select a mirror site geographically closer to them, from a list of official mirrors.
Fedora 7 also features the latest upstream additions to the mainline Linux kernel. For the user that means broader support for wireless networking with a new mac80211 stack and better power management using kernel dynamic ticks.
Advanced users wanting to make use of the latest virtualization support in the Linux kernel can now efficiently manage their virtual machines (VMs) with both graphical “virt-manager” and command line “virsh” tools. These tools can administer virtual machines based on Xen, KVM and QEMU. Both “virt-manager” and “virsh” rely on “libvirt”, a C API toolkit.
SELinux (Security Enhanced Linux) implements Mandatory Access Control (MAC) and Role Based Access Control (RBAC) levels of security in Fedora. Deploying SELinux has become more practical with the addition of friendlier management tools. Fedora 7 adds a new graphical administration tool “system-config-selinux” to help set up and customize policies for your system. Another tool, “setroubleshoot”, notifies users about access denials and helps track down problems with better error reporting capabilities.
In the Pilot’s Seat
Spin Tools and Live CDs
Spins are variations of Fedora with custom software sets. The ability to remix user applications with a Fedora base onto a new bootable CD, DVD or even a USB key makes it attractive as an easy and convenient deployment platform. It can also facilitate deployment in bandwidth-constrained regions like India, SE Asia, Latin America and Africa. To make this complex process of creating spins simpler, Fedora has released its open source build toolchain consisting of “Pungi“, “Livecd-tools”, and “Revisor“. “Pungi” takes packages from repositories to produce a Fedora release tree and or ISO. Other tools can be built using “Pungi” through its Python API. “Livecd-tools” as the name suggests are tools to build ‘installable’ live CDs. “Revisor” is a GUI tool, that uses “Livecd-tools” and “Pungi” to create installation media as well as live media.
The Next Airfield
Features that did not make Fedora 7 are now targeted to land in Fedora 8, slated for October 2007.
Key areas expected to receive attention are sound-mixing, multimedia codec integration, and an ‘online-aware’ desktop to improve one’s overall user experience. More virtualization features are also planned for Fedora 8. Some packages addressing these key areas are:
- PulseAudio, a sophisticated sound server that allows multiple applications to share sound hardware and serves as a proxy for ALSA, EsounD and JACK based applications.
- CodecBuddy, a GUI tool to help users find support for restricted multimedia formats such as mpeg and mp3.
- BigBoard, a replacement for GNOME panel will make future Fedora desktops aware of your online presence, contacts, documents, spreadsheets, web mail, photos, etc. using MugShot’s infrastructure.
The Final Landing
As their “Flying High” theme promises, Fedora 7 is indeed a great plane to fly. It is a first class distro that demonstrates solid progress in improving the user experience, easing the move to virtualization and enabling the user to create their own flying machine through custom build tools. So grab your flight gear and take Fedora 7 for a spin. See you onboard!