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Linux examined: Fedora 9

The community edition of Red Hat's distro works well and is widely supported -- but it can be a difficult install.

By James Turner
May 14, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For many of us, our first painful introduction to old-school Linux installs came from installing early versions of Red Hat. Like most early Linux installs, it was a highly technical, highly finicky process that was best left to the experts.

Well, times have changed. Today, many Linux users are getting blasé about the ease with which we can install Linux. We've been spoiled by distributions such as Ubuntu, which is actually easier to install than Windows. Unfortunately, Fedora 9, the community edition of Red Hat, was a bit too much of a blast from the past for me.

This new release keeps Fedora in step with the rest of the popular distributions, updating Gnome and KDE to recent releases, improving the network management capability, freshening the kernel and adding a USB booting capability.

At a Glance

Fedora 9

Pros: Extensive repository of prebuilt software, good hardware support.

Cons: Installation may intimidate nontechnical people, and may not deal well with multiboot environments.

Who should use this: Experienced Linux users who want an enterprise-grade distribution or will be deploying software to Red Hat Enterprise.

However, when comparing Linux distributions today, the differentiating factors are fairly limited -- a 2.6.x kernel is a 2.6.x kernel, Gnome is Gnome, KDE is KDE and so on. So you have to look at a few specific factors. How easy is the install? How well does it recognize and accommodate different operating systems that share the disk? What's the package manager like? Does the distribution offer you the chance to use proprietary drivers for your hardware? How well does it work with Wi-Fi?

Install troubles

Unfortunately, it was with that first question -- the install -- that I almost hit a wall with Fedora. All installation experiences are by their nature anecdotal. Everyone has different hardware and makes different decisions during an installation. What is a nightmare for one person may be a walk through the park for another with a different system. Still, when you install a different version of Linux practically every week as I do, you get a good feel for the relative stability (or, in this case, the instability) of the install process.

What follows is a brief diary of my attempts to install the preview release of Fedora 9 on my HP Pavilion laptop as a multiboot operating system alongside Ubuntu.

  • Try 1: Downloaded and burned Fedora to a DVD. Booted off the DVD. Chose a graphical (rather than text-based) install. Requested to reuse a partition that had formerly held a SUSE install as my root partition. Chose my software packages, username, networking and so on. Got an error from the Python installer and couldn't proceed.

    Fedora's installation process.
    Click to view larger image
  • Try 2: Booted off the DVD. Chose a text install. Decided to make sure the DVD was good. Ran the verification check to ensure the DVD wasn't corrupted. At the end, the DVD popped out, and I was informed it had successfully verified. Put the DVD back in and found myself in an error loop when I kept getting the same error window when I tried to proceed.

  • Try 3: Booted off the DVD. Chose the text install. Managed to make it all the way through the installation process and rebooted. Seemed to be booting, then left me with an honest-to-goodness Blue Screen of Linux Death (in this case, a solid blue screen with my mouse tracking). Finally hit ctrl-alt-return to restart the window manager and found it had hung trying to mount swap off the fstab. For some reason, the installer didn't like trying to reuse the swap partition left over from the previous install, and it made something go pear-shaped during the initial boot.

  • Try 4: Reported installer bug to Red Hat. Tried again, telling Fedora to use the entire disk, instead of just the existing partition I was trying to reuse. This time it installed and booted correctly.

Apart from the problems mentioned above, Fedora's install also failed to identify the version of Ubuntu that was installed on an alternate partition and placed it in the GRUB boot menu (GRand Unified Bootloader, or GRUB, is a tool that lets you select between various operating systems in a dual/multiboot environment.) Other distributions seem to have no problem finding and add existing Linux and Windows installations to the boot menu.

The install process also fails the Newbie Test badly. There's no way I'd expect a nontechnical person to be able to reasonably answer a few of the questions asked during the install. For example, asking if IPv6 support should be enabled for a network card and if the host name should be set via DHCP is going to be a bit intimidating for nongeeks.



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