Red Hat 7.3 slick but fat

Most people will come into direct contact with open source software through Linux.

Most people will come into direct contact with open source software through Linux.

Furthermore, it’s likely to be the Red Hat Linux distribution. Our friends at IDC reckon that well over half of Linux installations don the Red Hat, which leaves it well ahead of other distributions.

It’s easy to see why business customers feel comfortable with Red Hat. It’s a professionally packaged product, with a support infrastructure that helps ease migration pains from other platforms. The latest version of Red Hat Linux, 7.3, looks set to increase the North Carolina company’s foothold in the corporate market, thanks to slick features, versatility and of course that legendary Linux reliability – minus the budget-bursting licensing costs associated with non-open source operating systems.

Red Hat Asia-Pacific’s website lists two versions of 7.3: Personal and Professional. The first is tailored for workstations while the other is aimed at server installations. Personal comes on six CDs, and includes 30 days of web-based installation support and the Basic Red Hat Network (RHN) updating service. Documentation is on CD-Rom only. Buyers of Professional receive printed documentation, 60 days of support (phone and web), plus 90 days' free RHN updates. Together with the server applications disk, Professional weighs in at a meaty nine CDs.

New Zealand pricing is not mentioned on the website, but it looks to be $53.90 for Personal and $328.90 for Professional, ex GST, from distributor Tech Pacific.

The US Red Hat site also carries the Advanced Server version of 7.3, aimed at enterprises looking for scalability, high availability, clustering and symmetrical multi-processing, and kernels tuned for large-memory configurations.

If you can live without support and nice boxes, you can download 7.3 CD ISO images from New Zealand FTP mirrors. As the product is so well-priced and New Zealand bandwidth so expensive, buying the boxed edition is recommended (you’ll have to download three ISO images, roughly 1.7GB in all).

At the core of RHL 7.3 is the Linux 2.4.18 kernel. Preceding versions of the 2.4 kernel were dogged by performance issues with the virtual memory subsystem, but 2.4.18 (which also has the low-latency patch) is smooth and fast.

Other noteworthy components include glibc 2.2.4 shared C libraries, and the graphical subsystem comprises XFree86 4.2 with both KDE 3.0 and GNOME 1.4 as the window managers/user interfaces. Red Hat sticks with gcc 2.96 as its preferred compiler, claiming it’s more standards-compliant than older versions, and it handles C++ code better.

Installing 7.3 on supported hardware is a no-brainer, light-years away from the old days of arcane command-line juju. Hardware detection works beautifully, and everything was set up correctly on three test systems of varying age – even the video card and X, plus USB. Some unnecessary services were installed and started, like portmapper, however. Cautious admins will do well to check for these before hooking up their new RHL boxes to the internet.

Linux has proven itself as an excellent server choice, and with KDE 3.0 and XF86 4.2 on newer hardware it’s almost there as a desktop too. In my opinion, Linux GUIs are still not as pretty, stable or functional as, for example, MacOS X or Windows XP, but they're getting closer and closer.

The RHN up2date tool now works without hiccups, and makes it easy to apply security patches over the internet.

RHL 7.3 looks good, installation is a cinch and it runs well. Is it perfect? Well, no: surprising for an OS that will often be installed sans a GUI, Red Hat provides no text-mode system administration tools apart from the standard GNU user-land ones.

Linuxconf was deservedly put out to graze a few releases ago, but it would be nice to ncurses or s/lang interface tools to perform common management functions. Another nuisance is that the GUI admin tools require GNOME with many megabytes of libraries and other dependent components, just to run a simple network configuration program.

Also, needing three CDs for the installation is rather excessive. Red Hat needs to send its distribution to the fat farm, methinks.

Code-bloat aside, version 7.3 is a pleasant introduction to the world of open source, and earns a 9/10 final score.

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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