June saw new releases of two of the worlds most significant Linux distributions—Red Hat Inc.s Fedora Core and Software in the Public Interest Inc.s Debian—both of which are popular, freely available and capable of serving well in roles from the server room to the desktop.
Fedora Core 4, which undergoes a version upgrade two to three times a year, represents the vanguard of open-source software and tends to lead other distributions in the implementation of new technologies, such as SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) and Logical Volume Management.
Version 4 performed solidly in eWEEK Labs tests, as have previous versions of Fedora, but the distributions rapid release pace means that organizations will have to upgrade about once a year to keep up with the projects security updates.
Fedoras fast pace works best in desktop roles, where up-to-date end-user software quickly accrues the most noticeable improvements. Version 4 ships with KDE 3.4 and GNOME 2.10, a prerelease version of OpenOffice.org 2.0, a kernel based on Linux 2.6.11, and Version 4 of GCC (GNU Compiler Collection).
In addition, Fedora ships with a set of configuration tools that are easier to use than those that come with the newest release of Debian, 3.1.
In particular, while using Debian, we missed Fedoras display and service configuration and utilities, as well as Fedoras handy NetworkManager subsystem, which makes switching among network connections much simpler than on Debian systems.
In stark contrast to Fedora, Debian is (in)famous for its road-map conservatism—the last stable version of Debian to ship, code-named Woody, was released nearly three years ago. In the interim, the Debian project has updated Woody only to patch security vulnerabilities.
Debian is also available in Testing and Unstable branches, but these versions gain up-to-date software at the expense of the security update coverage that the Stable branch enjoys. The Debian team plans to continue offering security updates to Woody for the next year, after which time organizations running Woody should upgrade to Version 3.1, also known as Sarge.
The typically long life of Debians Stable branch makes the distribution a good fit for server implementations, in which stability is usually more important than currency. In addition, Debian boasts the best software management tools of any operating system weve tested, Linux-based or otherwise.
As to components, although Debian is still, for the most part, a step behind Fedora, Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux Professional and other distributions, Debian is fairly up-to-date for now—Sarge ships with GNOME 2.8, KDE 3.3, OpenOffice.org 1.1.3 and GCC 3.3.5.
Sarge is built on either Linux kernel Version 2.4.27 or Version 2.6.8. We chose the 2.4.27 kernel at installation time, and Debians software management tools made it easy for us to later upgrade our kernel to 2.6.8.
Organizations enamored of Debians structure (as we have become) but interested in running newer packages, particularly for desktop deployments, can look to one of the many Debian-derived distributions, such as the excellent Ubuntu Linux.
As with previous Fedora versions, Fedora Core 4 supports Intel Corp.s x86-64 and i386 processor architectures; new in this version is support for IBMs PowerPC and PowerPC64 systems.
Broad processor architecture support has long been a competitive advantage for Debian, which supports 11 processor architectures, including the i386 and PowerPC chips on which Fedora runs.
Support for x86-64 in Sarge wasnt complete in time for the official release, but the x86-64 port team has released a stable version of Debian for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s AMD64 and Intels EMT64 (Extended Memory Technology 64) processors. This stable Debian version will receive security updates over the same term as the rest of the Sarge ports.
For more information about the architectures on which Debian runs, see www.debian.org/ports.
Although its possible to install any application that runs on Linux on any Linux distribution, the simplest and most manageable means of installing, updating and removing applications and components on a Linux system is through software packages—collections of binaries and configuration files rolled together with information about dependencies and locations for installing these files.
RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) and Deb, the package systems for Fedora and Debian, respectively, are the two most popular package systems for Linux.
Debians biggest advantage over rival distributions, including Fedora, is the huge number of software packages that ship as part of the distribution. All told, Sarge comprises 15,197 software packages spanning two DVDs.
To compare, Fedora Core 4 comprises 1,853 packages, with 1,052 more available in the Fedora Extras channel that makes its debut in Fedora 4 as a site for packages that fall outside the core.
This isnt to say that Fedora doesnt include a comprehensive set of software; it certainly does, and the Sarge test system we configured as a desktop client had only 869 packages installed.
However, the breadth of available packages on Sarge, which we accessed for download through the two DVD images that wed downloaded on BitTorrent and made available to our network as NFS (Network File System) shares, makes Debian the best distribution weve tested for sampling whats available in the open-source world; weve spent hours trolling the Debian package lists through Synaptic, the distributions included graphical front end to its APT (Advanced Packaging Tool) software installation tool.
Also new in this version of Debian is Aptitude, which is a command-line-based but nonetheless relatively rich front end to APT. According to project officials, Aptitude does a better job sorting out package dependencies than APT alone.
Fedora Core 4 ships with a command-line software update tool, called yum, thats similar to APT. Fedora still lacks a graphical front end for yum, which isnt really needed for simple installation or removal operations, but which makes it much easier to view the software on your system.
Debian supports direct upgrades from Woody to Sarge—a transition that can be as easy as running a command from the command line. However, some users have reported upgrade troubles. Read the Sarge release notes (at www.debian.org/releases/sarge/releasenotes), and you should be fine.
For clean installations, we really appreciated the new and improved installer application that Debian now sports. Although the text-based application isnt as attractive-looking as Fedoras Anaconda installer program, we found Debian 3.1s installer at least as easy to use.
Developers from the Fedora project counsel against similarly upgrading Fedora 3 to 4, but we upgraded a Fedora 3 system we had in the Labs by installing an RPM that tagged our Fedora 3 machine as a Fedora 4 box, then letting yum pull down and install the appropriate packages.
Over the past few Fedora releases, weve been tracking the progress of the distributions implementation of SELinux, which was developed by the National Security Administration and brings fine-grained access controls to Linux. Were impressed with the progress weve seen.
The targeted policy (so-called because rather than police every process on the system, the targeted policy aims at a subset of most potentially vulnerable services) has grown to cover 91 services in Fedora 4—up from 11 in the previous version.
Fedora Core 4 is the first Fedora version to ship with the Java-based Eclipse development platform. The Eclipse version that ships with Fedora is built with the open-source GCJ (GNU Compiler for Java) to run natively on Linux, due to intellectual property concerns that these distributions have with Mono. As with Java, we had to turn to third-party resources to acquire Mono on our test systems—theres a generic Linux installer for Mono available for free download at www.mono-project.com/downloads.
Out-of-the-box support for components such as Mono, Java and Flash is one of the advantages that commercial distributions such as SuSE Linux Professional 9.3 enjoy over Debian and Fedora.
Eclipse and GCJ form the core of an all-free Java development stack on Fedora, but accessing Java applets on Web pages still requires downloading and installing a JRE (Java Runtime Environment). The same is true for Sarge.
While Suns JRE is freely available from its Web site, the company places redistribution limitations on the software that prevent all-free distributions such as Debian and Fedora from bundling it. For the same reason, neither distribution ships with support for Flash or MP3 playback, both of which also require separate software downloads.
Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 Offer easy-to-use administration tools and wide support for proprietary and open-source software (www.microsoft.com)
Novells SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 and Red Hats Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 These enterprise Linux distributions offer software slates similar to those of Debian and Fedora while adding support, certification and per-system license costs (www.novell.com and www.redhat.com)
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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