Currently in a beta stage named Fedora Core 1.90, work is quickly progressing on what will become Fedora Core 2. The February 15-release ISOs offer useful business software KDE 3.2.1, Gnome 2.5 and OpenOffice 1.1 “out of the box” and subsequent development work has already added RPMs for many other applications.
As a result, this is a review of the ISO install, and of the same install once heavily upgraded with the apt package manager.
Hints that this is a work in progress decorate the install and subsequent configuration. On install, for example, we saw a Python error message:
“Duplicate specifications for /var/lib/dhcp?”
The Anaconda install’s final-step offer to create a floppy boot disk led to a message saying the 2.6.1 kernel is too big to fit on a floppy. It will be interesting to see how the Fedora team resolves the floppy boot and rescue disk problem in the final product.
Given that we tested Core 1.90 on a dual head desktop, we were not surprised to see that on first boot, Core 1.90 was unable to start X-Windows. A quick jaunt through /etc/X11/XF86config confirmed the OS’s hardware detection had configured around the secondary Matrox Millennium card but not the default S3 ViRGE/MX on which its LCD monitor was running.
That led us to the first configuration difference with Fedora Core 1. To fix XF86config problems you usually make a pass with the /usr/bin/redhat-config-xfree86 tool but it is not in the ISO install. Fedora Core 1.90 has renamed all the redhat-config-* toolset to system-config-*.
That change is likely to last into the release version and will hamper anyone who doesn’t catch on.
Knowing that many Gnome 2.5.3 apps in the ISO version were crash-fiends, our first move was to update with the default yum package manager. Five minutes of “404 file not found” messages followed by 55 minutes of exploring sparse yum config documentation on Fedora Core 1.90 mirrors saw us abandon yum for apt. Two minutes of configuration time later, we were downloading 207MB worth of updated RPMs. That’s not a comment on the apt versus yum wars, but be aware that if you favour yum, this beta may initially leave you disadvantaged.
Expect also to start climbing new learning curves as soon as you log on as a non-root user at the console. A few updates after our install, Fedora’s team added the US National Security Agency’s SELinux code. It appears when users supply a correct logon password, with Core 1.90 asking:
“Would you like enter a security context? [y]”
Answer “yes” and the system will ask for “role”, followed by “type”.
Users can’t just enter made-up roles. Nor could we find root-user tools to manage these security contexts, though when they appear, the obvious place for them will be in the main menu’s System Settings menu, along with “Security level”, “Authentication”, “Users and Groups” tools.
During our testing, although root could log into the root account without the security context challenge, if root tried to switch to a non-root user without passing SElinux’s user challenge, root was unable to gain access to the user’s environment variables.
The take-away here is that Fedora Core 1.90 contains new, critical, security management features whose administration tools are unknown. You may also need to find and read how to handle SELinux’s security concepts - no easy task today.
Continuing to test the system as root, we found many small touches that significantly improved overall user-level usability.
The Fedora team has added a “Computer” icon to the desktop that gives a view of file system, removable and SMB shares through a Network, Windows Network combination. This was being actively developed while we tested and SMB share hosts were not showing up in its Windows Network browser but, when finished, the tool will clearly offer a very similar feel to Windows Network Neighborhood. Note there were no signs of a network drive mapping option when we tested.
Nevertheless, tools for some everyday tasks - such as file management - remain somewhat hidden. The File Manager tool is a great example: it’s hidden in the main menu’s “Other” list - a list that is long enough to squash File Manager off-screen on our test box’s 1078x768 display. Clicking File Manager unleashes Konqueror - “unleash” probably being the correct word to describe Konqueror’s busy interface. It’s a close relation to Windows Explorer though suffers for the screen space lost to its bigger fonts.
Ximian Evolution was there but marked as unstable in the menu. KDE tools were limited to Address Manager, Kontact, KOrganizer but the full OpenOffice 1.1 suite was available.
Although stable, this improved OpenOffice may expose users to unwelcome usability challenges. For example, create a new document in Writer. Save it. This first save will trigger a pop-up light bulb that is horribly reminiscent of Clippy, the screen-tapping Office Helper that Microsoft created to make Office a better “productivity suite” for underpowered users. Writer’s more discreet light bulb silently prompts file-saving users to click on him so he can display a screed on XML file formats. While geeks might see the relevance to their recent file-save operation, this is unlikely to awe average users. And they will subsequently discover that clicking the top right-hand “X” box on the screed box will close down Writer too. That is an uncomfortable user experience.
We were pleased to see crash monitor Bug Buddy tracking known bugs and automating bug submission. There is an inherent problem in reporting only those bugs that have not yet been filed. It’s that developers do not see the frequency of each bug. Microsoft’s sudden stability leap between applications on NT4 and on Windows 2000 owed a lot to Microsoft’s counting bug and crash frequency then eliminating the bugs that caused most crashes.
However, beating Microsoft on the desktop is clearly Fedora’s goal. Hedge your bets by learning SELinux and trying Fedora Core 1.90 now.


OUR VERDICT

Despite the confusion over Red Hat’s goals when it merged its retail operating system into Fedora, it is increasingly clear that Fedora is a stable, forward-looking OS. Better yet, the Fedora team’s ability to cherry-pick late-version applications is quickly bringing on-stream software that is developed with business use and security in mind, such as KDE and SELinux. Try it as a small office server, or as free trial of future Red Hat Enterprise Workstation.