Red Hat 6.1: It's all in the install

Monday Nov 1st 1999 by Michael Heller
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Installing Red Hat 6.1 can be a pleasant surprise. Some say the installer may be the nicest around.


linux install

Usually a .1 upgrade doesn't get half as much buzz as has Red Hat's release of Red Hat Linux 6.1. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was all about. What was the big deal? I carved out a recent evening at home to research the matter. Witness my journey below.


The test machine
A home built 450 MHz Celeron 300a with 256MB of RAM and a 6 GB disk. If Red Hat didn't install on this machine, it wouldn't install anywhere.

The software box
Red Hat Linux 6.1 Standard comes with an installation manual, a reference guide, a boot diskette, a CD-ROM, and three cool stickers. My computer was adorned seconds after the box was opened.


A friendlier install

I'm going to attempt the proverbial Christmas morning install (sans manual) because in my experience, no one ever looks at the install manual unless there is a major problem. Also, I had heard the new installer makes the manual superfluous.
Installation now seems more like choosing the options for a new car than anything else.
Indeed, the installer of Red Hat 6.1 - written in Python - is very nice, possibly the nicest I have seen for any operating system. All the right questions are asked and installation now seems more like choosing the options for a new car than anything else.

Users have the choice of the default installation and the expert installation. The expert mode shows you all available options to hand-pick from. Expert is also required when your hardware isn't automatically detected - the installer will then prompt you for a driver disk, much like a Windows installation. This is particularly relevant if you have a new or previously unsupported device for which drivers have only recently become available.

For the disk configuration step, default users are presented with only the Disk Druid for partitioning. Disk Druid provides a simplified interface to the mundane task of partitioning disks and doesn't require you to memorize partition types or single letter commands. Expert mode continues to offer the additional choice of fdisk.

While I will be dual-booting my system, I decided to add a second disk solely for Red Hat. I suggest that users install a drive dedicated to Linux if they plan on dual booting. If a single disk is to be used for more than one operating system, the partitioning tool FIPS is required to resize the existing partitions and can sometimes be tricky. Disk configuration is really determined by the application of the machine - I chose the following for my workstation:

/dev/hdb1 /boot 50M 
/dev/hdb5 /home 3000M 
/dev/hdb6 /usr 1500M 
/dev/hdb7  512M
/dev/hdb8 /var 400M 
/dev/hdb9 / 100M 
I really wished I had had another drive lying around to play with the new RAID configuration in the Red Hat installer. RAID support has been present in previous versions of the Linux kernel and thus Red Hat for some time now. Taking that support one step further, the Red Hat team's integration of RAID into the 6.1 installer makes installation of professional workstations and servers much easier.

One thing I immediately noticed about the new installer (and the kernel) is that the maximum swapfile size of 127MB has been eliminated.

The maximum swapfile size has been eliminated ... surely good news for large-system administrators.
This will surely come as good news for large-system administrators: it's far easier to administer one single 1 GB slice than eight 127MB partitions of swap.

As you continue, you are prompted for the partitions to format and whether or not you would like to check for bad blocks during the format process. I recommend you do. Better to find out before you put the machine into service whether your disk has issues - a house is only as strong as its foundation.

LILO, tattoos, and meatloaf
The next menu asks you where you would like to install LILO, the LInux LOader. I like the ease of having my operating systems in a menu when I start up, so I chose to install LILO in the Master Boot Record (MBR). If you do this, you need to choose which operating system will boot if you're looking out the window when you turn on your computer. If you choose not to use LILO in the MBR, you can create a boot disk.

After choosing alternate partitions to boot from (i.e., Windows NT or Solaris), you get to choose your hostname and IP address information if your network card was detected. This part of the installation is most like getting a tattoo: You're likely to stick with the hostname you choose at installation, so be creative. If at this point you are unsure about what to enter into the IP address fields, consult your network administrator.

Cool ...
In Red Hat 6.1, selecting your TIME ZONE just got cool: Point to where you live on a digitized map of the Earth. While the old method of picking a time zone from a list of locations or hours removed from GMT was adequate, the map makes choosing a time zone so much more fun. :-)

You will now be asked to enter the root password - the keys to the city, the Holy Grail of those who want to break into your system and steal Aunt Matilda's meatloaf recipe. Try and make this one difficult to guess.

6.1 has added to the installer the ability to create a user other than "root." As the dialog states, this will make it less likely for those new to Linux to mess it up 15 minutes after braving the installation. I suggest home users leave the next dialog alone as it unwisely allows you to disable shadow passwords, which are highly recommended. You will also be prompted for NIS (Network Information Services) information. Adding this to the installer is a wise move for Red Hat if it intends to target the technical workstation market, but home users can safely ignore it.

Packing privacy
Next comes the fun part of selecting the packages to be installed. I always feel like a kid in a toy store going through all of the individual packages. For those who aren't sure about what they want or need, selecting one of the preset install types allows for a reasonable variety of tools and applications. By choosing the "Select individual packages" radio button, you are presented with a nice exploding list of, well, individual packages. Look through all of the packages. It's easier to install them now than to use Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) later on.



Looking through my options, I was quite pleased to see the addition of GnuPG to the U.S. version of the distribution. GnuPG, an open source alternative to Pretty Good Privacy, allows users to encrypt files on their computer or send and receive encrypted e-mail. Another convenient feature is the inclusion of Netscape Navigator with 128 bit encryption. This saves the end user the hassle of downloading it later.

If you've selected any individual packages, you will be prompted to install the packages they depend on before you can continue. This sanity check prevents users from installing packages in an unusable state.

Configuring X
Following the selection of packages, you are presented with the X server configuration. My video card was correctly detected but there was no native accelerated X server included, so the installer chose the SVGA generic package. If you have a Voodoo3 card like me, don't fret. There is a beta X server for this card available for free from www.3dfx.com. You can install this later for a more closely matched hardware/software setup. You can test your X window configuration by clicking on, not surprisingly, "Test this configuration."

If all is well, congratulations! If not, as the text on the left frame of the installer states, you will be presented with a selection of video cards to choose from. You can also select a graphical login now so that when you restart your machine, a nice colorful login screen will greet you. I prefer to have a text login in the event that I want to do some quick configuring without X, but it is nice to have the choice.

Select the "Customize X Configuration" button to choose video modes and color depth. There isn't much to mess up here because you can test your selections against your hardware with the click of a button. I suggest you do.

Once you're done with your X server settings, you are ready to begin the install. Behind the scenes, Red Hat is formatting your drives and using the RPM to install your selections. This may take a good long while, depending on the size of your disk, so now is a good time to peruse the included manuals for snafus and pointers. This version's install manual has me pretty satisfied. Users get introduced to a lot of the installable packages and possible uses toward the back.


Post-install eval

Red Hat has included an interactive startup option to allow you to "yea" or "nay" nearly any aspect of the system initialization. I recall several times when an improper DNS, NFS, or Sendmail setting hung my system for a long time. I sure wish I'd had this feature back then. I'm a hands-on kind of guy so I decided to go over all of the configuration settings that the installer determined I would want.

Security hazard
My first stop is to /etc, where all the mistakes get made. I see that the filesystem permissions and unnecessary daemons are configured basically as I would have configured them myself.
A useful feature of the next installer would be a dialog asking users how secure they want their systems.
However, I am a little disturbed at some of the services left open in /etc/inetd.conf.

A useful feature of the next installer would be a dialog asking users how secure they want their systems. First-time users won't know that they are susceptible to attack or even know where to turn services off. Because I have DSL, I always have to be on the lookout for holes in my computers since they are constantly open to attack.

X Windows
Can you say beautiful? Enlightenment is just that. Clean, useful, and pretty - just the way a window manager should be. I could spend all day choosing a screensaver. With Enlightenment's backgrounds, themes, key shortcuts, window behavior, and special effects, there is no end how your computer can look and feel.

You can even switch between Enlightenment, KDE, twm, and Afterstep without restarting the machine, killing apps, or losing your X windows session info. The help balloons will be quite useful to users new to X windows, and the ability to create desktop shortcuts to frequently used URLs and applications makes using Enlightenment on GNOME (the GNU configurable desktop environment) a dream to do real work. I rate the windowing aspect of Red Hat 6.1 a perfect 10.

StarOffice
Ok, so this isn't a feature of Red Hat's distro, but it came in the box and I'm in a reviewing kind of mood. I would have preferred the optional Java runtime environment to be included on the installation CD for StarOffice 5.1, but it was a snap to download from www.blackdown.org. (Due to Sun's Java licensing restrictions, Red Hat cannot redistribute its Java products.)

To test the compatibility of the MS Word filters I opened a Word 97 document. After playing around with this feature, I am really tempted to replace Windows with Linux on my PC at work. I'm actually typing up the finishing touches on this review in StarOffice and can hardly notice the difference from Word. This product will contribute much toward the widespread acceptance of Linux by home and corporate users as a desktop operating system.


Verdict and recommendations

Although there are some security issues to address, Red Hat has done a superb job on this release. The installer coupled with StarOffice 5.1 and the ability to perform automated installs with kickstart make this distribution a realistic replacement for Windows for corporate users and technically savvy consumers.

The release's integration of RAID in the installer promises significant progress in targeting the professional workstation and server market. This is one of the last frontiers for Linux in the competition with the big Unix vendors. The gap should close even further when Linux logical volume support à la Veritas is finalized.

The addition of VMware from www.vmware.com would nicely round out the functionality of this Linux system by adding support for native Windows-based software. VMware uses virtual machines to accomplish its magic, which means there is a real version of Windows running side by side with your Linux installation. It's a simple way of running applications that haven't been ported to Linux yet.

Now if only there were more games for Linux ...ø (The penguin went to Tustin)


Related resources

1. VMware for Linux: A preview. An open source IT review of this virtual machine program, pre-release.
2. Using RPM. Get a basic overview of the Red Hat Package Manager.
3. Enlightenment.org Ground zero for information on the window manager included in 6.1.

Michael Heller is lead systems engineer at EarthWeb, parent of open source IT. When he's not nose deep in networking books, he's nose deep in networking books.


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