DistributionWatch: Another Tip of the Red Hat - Examining Red Hat 7.3
Overview and Installation
Because I tend to focus on the commercial and personal use of Linux as a full-time operating system, Red Hat has been my favorite x86 Linux distribution for years now. Yet even I greet each Red Hat release with a strange mixture of anticipation and fear, since everyone knows that Red Hat has made some spectacularly questionable decisions in past releases. Many people tend to avoid Red Hat's x.0 releases since they always seem a bit rough around the edges. Red Hat's premature incorporation of a development version of gcc (2.96) is an albatross that they are still dragging along into new releases today.
Part of the global awareness of Red Hat's successes and mistakes is due to their prominence in the Linux market - Red Hat has clearly won the Linux branding wars in the public's eyes, at least in the United States. As the best known Linux distribution, Red Hat is therefore more quickly slapped under a microscope to expose both features and flaws than any other Linux distribution. Which is exactly the point of this article - what's new and improved in Red Hat 7.3, and is Red Hat 7.3 a distribution that you should consider upgrading to?
Red Hat 7.3 provides no surprises to anyone who has installed earlier Red Hat 7.x distributions. By default, Red Hat 7.3 uses the same framebuffer-based X Window system graphical installer as previous releases. A text-only installation mode is also available for The graphically challenged, as well as a Kickstart installation mechanism that makes it easy for you to automate installing Red Hat in exactly the same way on multiple systems. This section describes the default graphical installer.
After asking the standard sorts of questions about your keyboard, language preferences, and mouse, Red Hat 7.3 offers a variety of installation classes. These consist of pre-selected groups of packages that are oriented towards workstations, servers, laptops, upgrading from a previous version of Red Hat, and my favorite, the Custom class, in which you can customize the list of packages that you want to install.
My favorite customization option is "Everything" which does exactly what the name suggests. In these days of relatively large disk drives, I'd rather install a few packages that I may not even know about than have to sift through the installation CDs to install and test some cool new utility that I happened to hear about. This will remain my favorite installation option as long as disk size stays ahead of Linux distribution size - which isn't guaranteed, given that the standard Red Hat 7.3 binary distribution now spans 3 CDs. Red Hat seems interested in challenging SuSE's title as the most expansive Linux distribution, and more power to them. I buy pre-packaged Linux distributions to get as much pre-compiled, pre-tested software as I can.
Once you've selected the class of installation that you want to perform and the packages, if necessary, the next step in the installation process is disk partitioning, which (in graphical mode) provides Red Hat's excellent Disk Druid package, which is only available during installation. Red Hat could win a few points from anyone who has to partition disks if they released a standalone version of Disk Druid, since it is both graphical and eminently usable, but perhaps they're too busy complaining about Sun and Microsoft.
A significant drawback of Disk Druid is that it only supports the ext2, ext3, and vfat filesystems. Its support for software RAID during installation is broken (though you can always do this after installing Red Hat 7.3, using standard Linux fdisk and the md/lvm tools. Fans of journaling filesystems will be disappointed - if you're a ReiserFS, JFS, or XFS fan, those simply are not options, which isn't all that surprising since Red Hat was the primary sponsor of the ext3 development effort. In Red Hat's defense, JFS and XFS have only been "officially" incorporated into the 2.5 development kernel, but I would have expected to at least see the ReiserFS in there, since it's been in the kernel forever.
The next few installation steps are Boot Loader Configuration (both GRUB and LILO are supported), Network Configuration, and Firewall Configuration, in which you can specify a default security level, specify trusted devices and the types of incoming connections and ports that you want to enable, and so on. Though Firewall Configuration has been a part of the Red Hat installation process since at least 7.2, Red Hat still deserves kudos for adding it in the first place, since this helps make Red Hat installations more secure out of the box.
The last few installation steps are Language Selection, Account Configuration, Authentication Configuration (supporting NIS, LDAP, Kerberos, and SMB, plus the standard MD5/shadow password options), Package Selection (only if you've specified the custom installation class), and initial Video Configuration. After installing the packages that you've selected or which are associated with the installation class you selected, the installer completes your X Window system configuration and lets you select the desktop that you want to use.
A nice addition here would be automatic support for just using an X Window system window manager rather than a complete desktop environment - even the laptop installation only lets you choose between GNOME and KDE. Support for a "Window-Manager Only" installation or a light-weight desktop such as XFCE would be a nice thing to add, though perhaps this would confuse more people than it would benefit.