April 17, 2014

.comment: Separated By a Common Operating System - page 2

From Disaster Arises . . . More Disaster

  • June 27, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

On the other hand, here was an opportunity to take a look at other distributions. While it's conceivable that I could have reconstructed my system, basing it once again on eDesktop 2.4, its been-there-done-that aspects were distasteful and I rejected the notion.

After some consideration, I decided I'd switch to one of two candidates: Progeny Debian or the new SuSE 7.2. I acquired 'em both; overnight delivery from SuSE cost as much as the distribution did, but until I fixed things I was stuck on the notebook, whose keyboard is among the worst I've ever used -- I think its previous owner bathed it in something sticky, and cleaning notebook keyboards isn't the trivial thing that cleaning desktop keyboards is. (I've actually washed the latter with warm water, after having removed keycaps and case, and left it to dry in the sun, resulting in full restoration of function. Pretty drastic, but if the keyboard is otherwise dead it's something to do before giving up entirely.)

Progeny seemed a good way to dip my toes into Debian. Previous commercial distributions based on Debian have not succeeded, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this had nothing to do with the underlying software. People who know and use Debian love it, and there must be a reason beyond the strong political component. And from what I've heard, it seems as if Progeny has done it right.

SuSE, as I've said before, seems to me to be Linux's best hope for a widespread desktop presence. SuSE Personal Edition is aimed squarely at the desktop user, installs and configures more easily than any distribution I've seen, has a lively and helpful user mailing list (two, now, actually, the second devoted to more general discussion that some believe is off-topic on the main list), and seems to have as great an understanding of my desktop of choice, KDE, as anyone.

What follows is not going to be a comparison of the two except in the most cursory sense.

I began by trying the SuSE update system on my wife's machine. In maybe 20 minutes, it had updated everything SuSE 7.1 on her hard drive to SuSE 7.2, keeping all the configuration information intact -- there was absolutely nothing to set up. Run the update program, reboot, that's it. Very nice. Nicer still, font anti-aliasing in KDE is enabled by default, and it worked out of the box on my wife's LCD panel. (Unfortunately, SuSE provides little in the way of TrueType fonts.)

The install on my desktop machine went very nicely, too, though it does some things and makes some choices that I didn't like. For instance, CD-R drives have been around for awhile. They require ide-scsi translation. SuSE missed this, about which more in a little bit. I have a G400 video card with 32 megs running a 19-inch monitor that I run at 1600x1200. That resolution was not offered in the video setup program, and it defaulted to 3-D being off. I really had to fight it tooth and nail to keep it from installing XFree86-3.3.6 as well as XFree86-4.03 -- this involved going through it package by package, unchecking the XFree86-3.3.6 stuff, and enduring the error messages that told me I didn't know what the hell I was doing. It also doesn't want to install a number of packages useful to people who regularly compile software. And I have yet to figure out why the OpenGL, lesstif, and OpenSSL stuff that it installs seems unrecognizable to the configure program. Additionally, its file system seems a weird hybrid of Slackware and Red Hat, with /var filled with unusual things such as /X11R6. This requires some sort of explanation unless we are to conclude that SuSE wants its users to get only binary packages from SuSE -- I suspect that I could do a world of harm by grabbing the source for XFree86-4.1 and building and installing it. Likewise, SuSE does some strange stuff with KDE. No, not throwing it into /usr -- I said strange, not stupid. But it makes /opt/kde and /opt/kde2, the former presumably for KDE-1.x stuff (which I told it not to install, so it made directories containing nothing), and there's a symlink somewhere in /usr/X11R6, too. I'm sure that there are perfectly good reasons for all of this, but it would be very helpful to users for SuSE to explain what it's done and why, so that those of us who tinker won't break more than we'd planned. To top it all off, the default prompts for user and root are not $ and # respectively on SuSE 7.2, a tradition broken for no good reason.

Progeny and I did not hit it off from the beginning, because it uses GRUB instead of lilo. I know and like lilo; I've gotten out of a world of hurt with lilo; and I have no opinion on GRUB except that I see no need for it. In any case, my first false start -- which led me, at first reboot, to face the dreaded "LI" where my boot choices should have been, and have to resort to a DOS boot floppy whence I ran fdisk /mbr to nuke lilo.

The installation program is about par for the graphical installation program course. I noted with delight that it recognized, right off the bat, the need for ide-scsi for the CD-R machine. Whatever one has to say about Progeny and its underlying Debian, technical shortcomings won't come up, because they don't exist (though the very latest code isn't going to be mentioned either; Debian is famous for its circumspection when it comes to new stuff).

Nor is Progeny the most likely candidate for, say, a Caldera refugee. I have not spent enough time in it to offer extensive details, but everything, from the file system to the package manager, is just a little different. This is not a criticism; it can be argued that in many ways Debian's approach is better. But someone switching to Progeny from the Red Hat/Mandrake/Caldera/SuSE side of things is not going to hit the ground running with Progeny in the the same sense that he or she might with a move among those distributions.

In the end, I chickened out. I have Progeny on a second hard drive, and plan to spend some time learning its unique features. But the day's goal was a working production machine to replace the installation I'd just destroyed, and this pretty well dictated SuSE. Comparing the two, which are both Linux but which are otherwise so different, I was reminded of Churchill's remark that America and Britain are two nations separated by a common language.

This did spawn a thought, which probably won't make anyone happy but which I think is a good idea. There has been a campaign of sorts to get Linux, when it is referred to, to be called GNU/Linux. Those who follow the FSF's political stance on software have pretty much done this, and those who don't pretty much haven't, for a variety of reasons. Yes, I have GNU stuff on my hard drive, but I have a whole lot of stuff from other people, too, and to adopt the argument that is often used, I'd have to call my system KDE/Sun/TrollTech/theKompany.com/somepeopleI'veforgotten/GNU/Linux, which is a little awkward. On the other hand, the differences between the Debian-based systems and the others (Slackware is in a category of its own) are considerable, and saying "Linux" to refer to all of them is as useful as saying BSD to refer to the many flavors of that operating system. It seems to me that to call Debian-derived stuff "GNU/Linux" would happily establish the distinction, and be entirely appropriate, given the Debian movement's particular care as to the licensing of code it includes. It strikes me as the perfect compromise.

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