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.comment: The Price of the Bleeding - page 2

Deja Vu All Over Again

  • October 11, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Red Hat Linux has always had a particular, unique "flavor," as has each of the other leading distributions. Even as Debian has been extremely circumspect and careful, as Caldera has put stability above all, Red Hat has sought and held the leading edge. Red Hat was the first to jump to glibc, for instance, in the 5.0 distribution that few remember very happily. (Even 5.1 had upwards of 60 megs of errata within weeks of its release.) But for users who expected a rough go of it, it was fine. Red Hat was doing what Red Hat did, and aside from the usual distributional chauvanism no one had much of a problem with it--though no one deleted a working Red Hat 4.2 partition then, either.

It would be easy to argue that if a business wanted to get into Linux and happened to settle upon Red Hat 5.0, well, that was its tough luck. A little research would have shown that a different distribution would probably have been better suited for many business purposes.

That argument can no longer be made. It is Red Hat that has made the claim that Linux is Red Hat Linux. It is Red Hat that has established associations with businesses such that there are proprietary software products and hardware drivers not for Linux but for Red Hat Linux.

Well, Red Hat, you can't have it both ways. You can be the bleeding-edge hacker distribution, or you can be the bulletproof business distribution. You can't be both, and any attempt to do so will hurt not just you but Linux in general.

There are businesses out there who will look at things like market capitalization, the flavors of Linux that companies such as Hewlett-Packard support, and your own PR, and these things will lead them to go with Red Hat. They're likely to go with the current distribution on the belief, common in the software world, that the current version is probably better than earlier versions.

Soon, they'll be hiring exterminators to come and tent their computers. And in their minds they will have learned the terrible price of straying from the Microsoft fold.

glibc-2.0.7 Redux

This time it isn't glibc-2.0.7 but gcc-2.96. Just as there was no actual glibc version 2.07, there is no actual gcc-2.96. This fact has not, however, stopped Red Hat from shipping gcc-2.96 in its 7.0 Linux product.

For those who aren't yet familiar with these things, gcc is the C and C++ compiler. It is the engine that, in association with other programs, converts source code to executable binaries. This makes it very important if you plan ever to compile any software. Which, whether you know it yet or not, you do.

Among the things a compiler ought to be able to do is compile a Linux kernel. Linux 2.4, with a multitude of new and useful features, will be released by year's end, and many, many people will want to upgrade to it. This is nontrivial, but it is also not difficult. Unless you are using gcc-2.96. (To be fair, there was a stretch when the current versions of gcc and its parallel compiler project, egcs, wouldn't reliably burn a kernel, either, so distributions typically shipped gcc-2.7.2.x pretty much entirely for kernel compilation. But this stretch is now over, though with gcc-2.96 a new one may have begun.)

How bad is it? Bad enough that last week the gcc organization was moved to comment.

"We would like to point out that GCC 2.96 is not a formal GCC release nor will there ever be such a release. Rather, GCC 2.96 has been the code-name for our development branch that will eventually become GCC 3.0," wrote gcc's Gerald Pfeifer. "Current snapshots of GCC, and any version labeled 2.96, produce object files that are not compatible with those produced by either GCC 2.95.2 or the forthcoming GCC 3.0. Therefore, programs built with these snapshots will not be compatible with any official GCC release."

So here we have the leading Linux distributor, by its own account, shipping a compiler that's incompatible with anything else--and selling it to businesses. Does Red Hat believe that it has achieved the power and stature to decree that the standard is the basically nonexistent gcc-2.96? One hopes not.

Big things are about to happen in the Linux world, and soon. This is the week that StarOffice gets GPLed. KDE2 will be golden in the next week or two. While Linus tells us that Linux-2.4 is still a couple of months away, it will be released by year's end. At least two of these--KDE2 and Linux--won't build with gcc-2.96. Red Hat is therefore shipping, again, a compiler dedicated to the kernel. Red Hat does not much care for KDE.

In an interview, a Red Hat spokesman said that it doesn't matter if the resulting binaries are incompatible, and that anybody seeking to do serious work with any software ought to test it thoroughly first, anyway (which is certainly true if the any software in question is a dot zero distribution from Red Hat). This view is a valid one, but not the only valid one. Another is that a company that advertises Linux for business might want to be a little less cavalier about whether or not the damned thing works.

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