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gnotebook: Midnight Travels With Progeny

Failing hard drives, GNOMEish Configlets, and the Progeny Solution

  • April 13, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

It may be because I spend over ten hours a day in its immediate vicinity that I had a sudden and unexplainable urge to go out and buy a new hard drive last night.

It turned out to be a good urge, because around 11 last night, sudden and rampant problems with my existing hard drive managed to manifest themselves and blow large holes in a few file systems even as I was thinking of adding the new drive to my server to accomodate an inexplicably large and growing collection of Rosemary Clooney and Leonard Nimoy MP3's.

It was a good urge, in fact, that was matched only by another good urge I'd written off as unhappy compulsiveness just a few days ago when I downloaded and burned both discs from Progeny Debian GNU/Linux 1.0 the day it came out.

So there I was: an ailing disk, a spanking new hard drive, and two freshly burned CD's I hadn't needed two days ago, plus a gaping hole in the space where the ISO's to burn those CD's had been just hours before.

I'm saving a real review of Progeny for a few weeks from now, when the company releases the shrinkwrap version of the distro, but this is a bit of a pocket review from a GNOME fan's point of view because there are a couple of things that make the Progeny option pretty attractive: it's made GNOME its default desktop; it's managed to integrate some basic system configuration tasks with GNOME in a clean, usable way; and if you're a craven binary addict who doesn't want to bother with building GNOME 1.4 from source, a Progeny developer has something for you already.

Progeny is built on Debian's Woody branch. The Debian project maintains three development branches: Stable/Potato, Testing/Woody, and Unstable/Sid. Potato doesn't change much unless there's a security update or a serious bug fix; Woody is fed by the unstable branch but with a little lag time to make sure packages being introduced aren't truly ill-behaved; and Sid is for people who need to keep up with the latest and greatest no matter what it might do to them if a serious enough bug makes it through. Sid users, for instance, have been getting binary packages of things like Nautilus for months now, and packages for GNOME 1.4 were turning up within hours of its release.

Progeny's taken Woody, pleasantly current enough for most of us, and added some QA and testing plus some configuration tools and a new installer to build a business-friendly version of Debian designed to do for the distro much what past Debian derivatives like Storm and Corel have done: give users an already excellent distribution with some usability enhancements that flatten out a little of the learning curve.

I've done a few Progeny installs since the installable betas of the final version started coming out, and it's always been pleasant enough when viewed through the eyes of someone who has the luxury of tossing it onto a test box. I also installed it as an update to Debian Potato, where adding a few lines to /etc/apt/sources.list and apt-get dist-upgrade-ing it made the process of going from the world of XFree86 3.3.6 and Debian's somewhat miserly approach to device support to XFree 4 and out-of-the-box support for USB and sound a pleasure. Under the pressure of needing to get back to work as quickly as possible, though, the installation became even more apparently pleasant. I don't know how many months or years of experience in installing a Linux box are effectively lost when you're in the midst of trying to get back up and running to meet a deadline and making stupid mistakes, but the Progeny installer offset all of that.

Though Progeny provides KDE2, GNOME 1.2 is its default desktop. Progeny has provided some "configlets" (check out the screenshots) that integrate with the GNOME Control Center. While they don't do everything something like Linuxconf does, for instance, they do provide a way to configure printers, networking, time settings, X configuration, and basic e-mail transport settings. It's nice to be able to deal with these things from the same place the desktop environment itself is maintained.

Existing Debian Potato users can make the hop to Progeny with real ease, too, using apt-get. The instructions on Progeny's download page spell it all out.

Progeny is also shaping up to present itself as a GNOME-friendly distribution for tracking newer releases of the project, thanks to the efforts of Eric Gillespie, Jr. a developer for the company who has created an apt-gettable archive of the GNOME 1.4RC1 (at the moment) release, including Mozilla 0.8 and Nautilus.

At the moment, Eric's quick to point out that his packages are still being tested and prepared for release so they aren't, as he puts it, "of the utmost quality." On the other hand, they're pretty good from an end user point of view and they'll put GNOME 1.4 on your desktop in short order as an apt-gettable set.

They can be had by adding:

deb http://www.indy.progeny.com/~epg/gnome-1.4rc1/ ./

to /etc/apt/sources.list, and running apt-get update, apt-get install gnome-desktop, and then sucking in some outstanding dependencies with apt-get dist-upgrade .

There are a few caveats to remember: Eric's own that these are a work in progress, and the fact that these will not play nicely with existing Ximian packages. It's a very good idea to remove any Ximian lines from /etc/apt/sources.list before doing the upgrade, and there's a chance you'll need to remove a few Ximian packages on your own due to differences in packaging approaches and naming conventions.

All that said, having used the packages on a Progeny system using Ximian's packages that I'd upgraded from Potato and on my pure Progeny install, I can assert that there are few gotchas present. I'm looking forward to their final release. One tip to offer is that xalf, which provides application launch feedback, can cause some problems with applications where you've created your own panel launcher. In particular, my nightly builds of Mozilla refused to run from a launcher until I turned xalf off. Nothing turned up in GNOME's bugzilla, but it appears to be related to a problem referenced in the xalf FAQ.

Eric also tells me that he and Christian Marillat, one of Debian's GNOME maintainers, are working to provide the packages for GNOME 1.4 to Debian Potato users soon, as well. This will be a welcome addition to the ever-growing list of unofficial sources for Debian that help to offset the relative slowness with which the distribution updates its official stable releases. They also address some of the issues between mainline Debian developers and the Ximian GNOME releases, which generally fit into a running Potato (or Progeny) system fairly well but demonstrate a few irregularities in terms of version and package naming that sometimes create problems.

Eric and Christian's efforts, combined with those of Ivan Moore (who maintains a very current KDE2 distribution for Debian) will provide Debian users with the very latest in the two major desktop environments.

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