Red Hat Makes Linux Better
You've grown weary of Windows and the rising level of processing power each new release requires to run smoothly. Or maybe you just want to try something different. Is there a viable alternative operating system for PCs? Maybe. Red Hat's Linux 6.0 is a stable, full-featured server operating system that will run on just about any PC, and it costs less than $100.
Red Hat's Linux versions have a deserved reputation for being well designed, and release 6.0 is no exception. Priced at $79.95, Red Hat Linux 6.0 is a strong, Internet-oriented server OS that will take well to an old 486--and fly on a Pentium PC. The new release is relatively easy to install and configure, gives you lots of setup options, and comes with two different graphical user interfaces--one of which is as stable and intuitive as Windows.
This generation of Red Hat Linux isn't quite as impressive as its predecessors in terms of performance, which may indicate that open source development has reached a plateau. Benchmark tests conducted by a number of organizations show that Windows NT outperforms Linux by a large margin, thanks to some fundamental deficiencies in the Linux OS design. The challenge for the Linux and open source communities will be to rectify those problems in the next release, kernel 2.4, expected to come out this fall.
But what the benchmark tests don't tell you is that in terms of value for money, Red Hat Linux 6.0 beats Windows NT hands down. There are no license fees for Red Hat 6.0, and the package includes a plethora of free applications that would cost thousands of dollars with NT. Plus, these applications are usable on machines that NT (not to mention Windows 2000) simply wouldn't run on.
Even so, Linux is at its best as a server operating system, and in my opinion, it's not quite ready for mainstream desktops. However, an initial look showed me that Red Hat 6.0 makes the best progress I've seen yet toward a mainstream Linux OS, so I was eager to dig deeper.
The Red Hat 6.0 installation scripts are much slicker than their 5.x predecessors, with on-screen help available for most items. The installation routine now automatically picks a kernel that's optimized for your processor: The operating system can be compiled to support specific features of 486, Pentium, Pentium II, and other processors. In the past, you had to recompile the kernel yourself to get CPU-specific optimizations.
Red Hat gives you three installation choices: the preset Workstation and Server options, and Custom. Most experienced Linux users will want to use the Custom option, but the other two are a good way for Linux novices to get off the ground quickly.
The Workstation option requires at least 16MB of RAM and 600MB of disk space, and gives you a configuration that includes the GNOME GUI and Internet connectivity. The Server option wants more hard disk space (1.6GB), and sets up a comprehensive server, including Samba file and print services for NT and Windows, NetWare file and print services, the Apache Web server, and FTP and Network File System services.
The installation defaults in both the Workstation and Server options give you a reasonable amount of control over disk partitioning and package selection. And if you don't like the GNOME interface, you can opt for the KDE GUI, which is also bundled with 6.0.
Like any other Linux distribution, Red Hat 6.0 can run on hardware that the newer Windows variants would choke on. I installed 6.0 successfully on two old portables--one with a 486DX-75 CPU and 20MB of RAM, the other with a Pentium-133 CPU and 16MB of RAM. The OS ran reasonably well on both machines. Operation was smoothest in character mode, of course, but performance in GUI mode (useful for running several terminal windows on the same screen) was also satisfactory.
On newer machines, Red Hat Linux 6.0 is a very snappy performer, especially compared with my Windows 2000 Beta 3 operating system. I installed 6.0 on a Gateway Pentium III-500 system with 128MB of RAM, a 13GB EIDE hard drive, and a 16MB Riva TNT graphics card without problems. On this system, program windows launched instantly; and even heavy-duty apps like Netscape Communicator felt incredibly responsive. Multitasking was also impressively smooth: I was able to launch a kernel recompile in a terminal window under the KDE GUI on a server that was routing Internet and intranet traffic at the same time. Even under this load, the system didn't skip a beat, and network throughput remained the same as under a light load.
The only exception to Red Hat Linux 6.0's strong performance was disk access. At times, the OS seemed to hesitate before reading from a disk. For example, on the same system and within similarly sized data sets, finding a file was much faster with Windows NT and NTFS than with Red Hat 6.0 and its Ext2fs file system.
But what it really takes to make a great operating system is a good interface.
Unlike Windows, Linux doesn't come with a standard GUI. Instead, you select a window manager for the X graphical subsystem. There are several to choose from, each with its own weaknesses and strengths, but until recently, none has been as good as the Windows interface.
With 6.0, Red Hat defaults to the GNOME/Enlightenment GUI, which looks and feels every bit as snazzy and functional as Windows. It's much more customizable, but the version shipped with 6.0 is pretty raw--stability is below par, with applications crashing for no apparent reason. At times the GUI itself freezes, locking the keyboard.
Until the bugs are worked out, forget about GNOME/Enlightenment. Instead, use the excellent KDE GUI, also bundled with 6.0. For some reason, Red Hat has included a prerelease version of KDE 1.1.1 with 6.0, but if you upgrade to the release version, you'll have a highly functional and full-featured GUI most Windows users will feel at home with.
Red Hat Linux 6.0 comes with kernel 2.2.5-15, which supports more hardware, with more device drivers, than the 2.0.x series kernels used in version 5.0. The new kernel supports up to four x86 CPUs per system.
Version 6.0 also adds limited support for Plug and Play devices--mostly parallel port peripherals. And support for software RAID levels 0, 1, 4, and 5 is standard, although hardware RAID is recommended for mission-critical servers.
Another key improvement in version 6.0 is the enhancement of Linuxconf, the administrator tool favored by Red Hat. With Linuxconf you can manage not only system settings, but also servers such as DNS, Samba, and Apache. In addition, you can set up firewall policies and view system information. Linuxconf is a great tool that will cut down on administration time because with it, you no longer need to edit myriad text files scattered all over the system. What's more, you can access Linuxconf remotely with a Web browser and add new administrator functions.
Red Hat 6.0 also adds support for TrueType fonts, which eliminates one of the prime deficiencies of any UNIX variant: a poor selection of screen fonts. TrueType support gives you fonts as good-looking as those on any Windows system.
These improvements are great, but there's a lot missing from Red Hat Linux 6.0. First, the 2.2 kernel still doesn't support some of the hottest PC technologies such as the Universal Serial Bus and FireWire interfaces, DVD, ACPI, and the ATM networking protocol. To take advantage of these, you have to run Windows.
More serious for a server operating system are the limits on system memory and file sizes. Red Hat 6.0 can use a maximum of 960MB of RAM, and its Ext2fs file system allows a maximum file size of 2GB. In comparison, NT can use 4GB of RAM and supports file sizes up to 64GB.
Notes posted on the Web and Usenet newsgroups by Linux kernel developers indicate that many of these omissions and limitations will be rectified with the release of kernel 2.4 this fall. But it's still disappointing that multimedia technologies are so poorly supported in kernel 2.2.
Which brings us to the question of desktop use.
Despite its Workstation installation option, Red Hat categorizes 6.0 as a server operating system. This might seem odd, because Red Hat now has an eminently usable and stable GUI in KDE, as well as a good choice of office productivity application suites, including Corel WordPerfect, StarDivision StarOffice, and ApplixWare.
But Red Hat Linux 6.0 doesn't quite cut it as a desktop OS--at least not compared with Windows. It's still too hard to work with for nontechnical users. And more important, it doesn't have the wealth of slick applications that Windows enjoys.
Also, apart from lacking support for the new hardware technologies required by many of today's multimedia apps, Red Hat Linux 6.0 has no support for 3D graphics out of the box. It can be made to support OpenGL, but that's a complex process involving use of unsupported third-party graphics libraries and graphics board drivers.
Moreover, UNIX quirks--such as having to become a "superuser" (administrator) in order to read floppy disks and CD-ROMs--and inconsistent online help make it difficult to deploy Red Hat Linux in an organization without extensive user training.
Finally, while Linux gamers will be pleased that the number of titles available for the OS is increasing all the time, they'll still have to boot into Windows 98 to play the latest and greatest games.
Still, it's worth noting how quickly the work on making Linux a viable desktop OS has progressed. Red Hat Linux 6.0 is a huge step in the right direction, and I expect the next generation to be very impressive.