Review: Fedora 7

Tuesday May 29th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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Fedora 7 has its oddities, but overall it's a polished distribution.

Fedora 7 helps to convince me that the time when the major GNU/Linux distributions were distinctive is rapidly passing. These days, innovation seems centered on the desktop or the individual program. Major distributions have become so mature that their role is mostly integration, and they are starting to look increasingly the same.

Not long ago, Fedora was known for such firsts as implementing a philosophically free Java that allowed users to take full advantage of OpenOffice.org's features, and adding SELinux for enhanced security. Now, Fedora 7 is simply a well-rounded distribution designed for beginners, and its technical innovations are mostly minor.

Not that innovation isn't happening behind the scenes. At the release management level, Fedora 7 is the first release to merge the Fedora Core and Fedora Extras package repositories under one set of packaging policies (which explains the change of name from "Fedora Core" to plain "Fedora"). Moreover, according to Fedora chair Max Spevack, Fedora 7 is the first release in which all the software used is released under a free license, and all decision-making is made in public. In addition, Fedora 7 is the first release to benefit from the fully organized testing sub-project that was established last year under Will Woods.

However, little of these changes are observable to the average user at the desktop. If Test 4, the release candidate used in this review is any indication, what Fedora offers from a user's perspective is a mature product at every stage, from installation to the desktop through to software installation and security. Rather than being radically new, much of Fedora 7 is a legacy of features -- many polished, a few flawed -- that has been slowly built up during successive releases.

Downloading and Installation

Fedora 7 downloads are available in several forms, including live CDs with either the GNOME or the KDE desktop and a 2.7 gigabyte DVD. All are available as either .ISO images or as BitTorrent downloads.

As has been the case for several releases (at least for me), Anaconda, Fedora's installation program, consistently reports downloaded images as corrupt -- so I recommend using the BitTorrent downloads instead. By now, Anaconda must be the oldest continually-used graphical installer for GNU/Linux, and the incarnation in Fedora 7 offers few surprises.

Apart from some small innovations, such as the ability to specify additional package repositories to use, and some additional parameters for the kickstart file -- the log of installation choices used to produce identical installs on other machines -- the most obvious change is the additional choices, such as additional desktops, virtualization tools, and extra language support. These changes aside, once you get past the changes in wallpaper, Anaconda is much the same as it has always been. Like earlier versions, it features an installation medium check at the start, and clear and concise instructions built into the interface, but has yet to add support for more than the ext2 and ext3 filesystems directly from the interface.

In Fedora 7, it offers a moderate set of options, which give more installation choices than Ubuntu, but fewer than Debian. The only thing to watch is that, as a result of changes in IDE disk drivers, all drives are now labeled as if they were SCSI or USB drives, so that the first partition on the first hard drive is now /dev/sda1 instead of /dev/hda1.

If you are upgrading an existing installation, then this change could interfere with scripts and possibly some configuration files. It may also be confusing if you are unaware of the change and do any command line work with drives.

Desktop and Software Selection

Fedora 7 boots in a mixture of log messages and splash screens. The first time you log in, the first-boot configuration wizard completes installation by displaying a license notice and stepping you through creating an everyday user and configuring security settings and sound -- although not, for some reason, printers.

The wizard ends with Smolt, a new hardware sniffer that asks to send a summary of your equipment back to the Fedora project for development purposes. You can read the summary before you do anything, and the default is not to send the summary (although that selection triggers a confirmation dialog asking you to reconsider). Still, coming after the security configuration, Smolt does seem to send mixed signals to users.

Like the installation program and the login screen, the default desktop features the Flying High theme by Diana Fong. Predominantly blue and vaguely reminiscent of artwork by Corel, the theme consists of towering clouds and mountains, and an armada of balloons rising towards a quarter moon. What you think of this design will depend on what you think of New Age air-brushed artwork and about having your distro's name on the desktop.

However, one major weakness is the cursor icon that indicates that a process is underway. Featuring a segmented blue line orbiting the pointer, the cursor is effective by itself, but becomes almost invisible on top of many of the blues in the wallpaper. The desktop itself is sparsely populated, with icons for web browsing, mail, and OpenOffice.org applications in the top panel. The menu is similarly plain, with listings for only the most commonly used applications.

The result is a desktop unlikely to intimidate new users, although the menu might have included the Alacarte menu editor for those who want to add items. The software selection is mostly a roundup of the usual suspects found in any distribution, such as the GIMP and Firefox, with version numbers that are current as of late spring 2007.

However, several features are included by default that most users do not need, such as support for Bluetooth file transfers and Wacom drawing tablets. By contrast, a few near-standards are not included, such as Scribus and Inkscape. Even some old perennials like AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Epiphany are missing, no doubt on the principle of including only one type of application to avoid creating anxiety options in new users.

Admittedly, pleasing everyone with defaults is impossible, but, Fedora 7's selection does seem less well-rounded than it could be. The one real standout in the software selection is Revisor, a wizard that helps users to create their own custom distribution based on the repositories and software that they choose. According to Spevack, the creation of Revisor is a direct result of Fedora opening up its release management process, and the tool is at once so obvious and so useful that it justifies the changes in Fedora's operations by itself. Revisor was not included in the release candidate I tested, but I understand that it should be in the package repositories for the final release.

Software Installation and Updates

Like its predecessors, Fedora 7 depends on Yum for installing software packages. As command line tools go, Yum is easy enough to learn that you don't really need a graphical interface for it. Nor, so far as I know, do any graphical equivalents offer the complete functionality of Yum.

All the same, in keeping with its desktop orientation, Fedora 7 continues the tradition of including Pup and Pirut. Pup is a system updater, similar to Update Manager in Debian and Ubuntu. Although available from the menu, it is also a panel app that sits in the notification tray -- where, at login, it delays the loading of the desktop and acts as nag-ware, reminding you of all available updates.

The problem with this arrangement is that it encourages users to install every possible update, rather than a more cautious approach that might prevent accidentally breaking a system with unnecessary updates. Compared to Pup, Pirut is designed for much more responsible package management. In one tab, it lists packages by the same general categories as the installer. In another tab, it allows you to search the package repositories. Before installing, you can view a brief summary of each package's purpose.

At the start of installation, Pirut presents a summary of your requests, then displays the dependencies for each of your choices so that you can make an informed decision about what you are about to do. My recommendation is to use Pup as a convenient list, and do all package installation from Pirut if you are not using Yum.

Security

The first-boot configuration wizard gives you a chance to enable an iptables-based firewall and to set SELinux to an "enabled" or "permissive" setting. These choices are handy for new users who want the assurance that their systems are protected without the trouble of checking for themselves.

The only trouble is, what these settings mean is obscure. "Enabled" presumably means that the default settings are used, but what exactly are they? And how permissive is "permissive"? To answer these questions, more experienced or conscientious users will want to go to the System - > Administration menu and use the more detailed versions of the tools in the wizard to determine exactly what is going on.

First introduced in Fedora Core 6, these tools go a long way towards clarifying security topics that mystify many users. The SELinux Management, which details possible settings, and SELinux Troubleshooter, which lists possible problems and briefly suggests solutions, are particularly useful.

However, all of them could provide more information to help users decide what features they want -- something, perhaps, along the lines of what Bastille provides. It might be useful for users to know that they can add a custom rules file for iptables, but without information about how to write such a file, they are only slightly better off for the knowledge. All the same, these tools do represent a step in the right direction.

Conclusion

If these comments seem to nitpick or damn with faint praise, they also reflect the growing maturity of major distributions like Fedora. For the most part, Fedora 7 is a polished and stable distribution that almost anyone can use -- but it is by no means a revolutionary departure from earlier releases. The trouble is that, these days, there is simply less to say about most distributions -- and that, in itself, gives the lie to any claims that GNU/Linux is not ready for the desktop.

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