Up Close With the Distributions

Caldera OpenLinux Server 3.1.1

The Caldera distribution is based on the older 2.4.13 kernel and does not include the Gnome desktop.

Caldera's installation lacks the aesthetic appeal most of the distributions provide. It does, however, take a fast-track approach to the installation, clocking in at only 27 minutes for a complete installation of all packages. For custom setups, there are far too many choices to call the installation simple. Once the required software options are selected, installation begins as configuration settings, such as network settings and user accounts, are requested.

User creation was one area that bothered the reviewers. To continue installation, a user besides "root" had to be created. Most administrators would probably prefer to create user accounts after installation is complete. The installer does not reboot the system after it is complete, nor does it eject the CD, which caused the installation to restart once the system was rebooted. Finally, the screensaver killed the online updater. It had to be restarted to finish updating. It would pick up from where it died, but anytime the screensaver kicked in, the updater would die.

As far as management goes, OpenLinux relies heavily on KDE control center for system configuration. The control center provides thorough management capabilities in the XWindows environment. Other utilities are available from the preferences menu as well. However, if you are planning to run without KDE, you will be limited in management programs.

Mandrake 8.2

The overall look of the DrakX install is appealing, and it provides a logical flow to the installation process.

Choosing the default install provides quick and simple options for a bare-bones server setup. The install breaks the choices into four logical categories:

Server, graphical environment, development and utilities. The server options include standard options such as Web and file servers, as well as firewall/router and directory options. KDE and Gnome, as well as other desktop-windowing systems, are supported. Only SSH server and network utilities monitoring were included in the default installation.

A feature unique to Mandrake is the ability to update your system with the latest patches at the end of the install. This feature should be a standard part of all Linux setup programs. Without the update, the default install took 11 minutes.

The install detected all peripheral devices except the Microsoft IntelliMouse, though support for it was available. The ability to change the physical type of keyboard would also be a welcome enhancement.

The management utilities are robust and the Mandrake control center allows most server settings to be managed with a single interface. Of note, however, is that the Mandrake wizards for setting up server services insisted on running the network setup wizard, which could not find the current settings for the two network interfaces that ifconfig did find. Having to use the wizard to set up the network interfaces a second time is an extra step, but once past it, configuration of the services is simple. We would definitely recommend Mandrake to first-time Linux users.

Red Hat 7.3

Installation starts out on the right foot with Red Hat's boot-up. Not only does the boot ask whether you want a GUI or text-based install, but it provides multiple recovery and upgrade options as well. The Anaconda installation is clean and pleasant to use, but after selecting a server install, the choices were mixed with windowing systems like KDE and Gnome being included with server options. The default install included only XWindows and no server options.

Disk partitioning was handled automatically. The install did offer a firewall option. GRUB is offered as the default boot loader, however LILO is also an option. The time to complete the install was 21 minutes for the bare-bones server. The installation-status monitoring facility is a nice touch that wasn't as readily available in other distributions.

While the management of Red Hat's distribution is not difficult, it is disjointed. Red Hat uses multiple applications for configuring the server and does not maintain consistency in the interface. They can, however, be easily found in the system settings group. It will meet an administrator's needs, but not as well as other distributions.

Slackware 8.0 Server

Some tout this Linux distribution as highly customizable. Don't be fooled. The installer is text-based and requires the user to perform most tasks manually. While it might be inferred that makes more options available, KeyLabs found almost all tasks were performed by the other distributions with the same amount of customization with far superior interfaces.

There is no status available during any of the installation, which is probably intentional because the default install of all packages took 39 minutes. This was the most time-consuming installation of any distribution. Slackware's kernel is also behind, as it is based on the 2.2.19 kernel. Installations often failed on the Compaq DeskPro systems due to problems with the disk partitions and boot loader. The installation could not be completed on the Compaq Proliant DL580 server because Slackware did not recognize the Compaq SmartArray Controller.

The management applications provided for Slackware itself are lacking. Systems administration is not easy. The GUI control center for the KDE or Gnome is adequate, but it doesn't configure the OS or settings, so the administrator is left to manually configure everything else in the system. This distribution is definitely not for the faint of heart.

SuSE 8.0

The boot from the install CD offers GUI or text installs as well as recovery options. All detected hardware is listed on a single page and the user is able to make changes. The default install included StarOffice 5.2, though it would not be included in a downloaded version of SuSE 8.0. Configuring other options is not as straightforward as the Mandrake installer, but it is not difficult.

While the installer is performing system configurations, it displays the actions that are being performed. The installer, however, does not eject the final CD, though it should not cause the install to restart on bootup like Caldera's distribution did. The hefty install completed in a respectable 22 minutes.

Also included is YaST2, Linux's best configuration utility. With a centralized configuration utility, the look and feel of management is not even an issue. Whether you use the GUI or text-based version, the ability to control and manage your installation is simple and fast.

Turbolinux 7.0

The boot from the install CD offers GUI or text-based installs reminiscent of DOS program installations from the mid-80s. Once the GUI portion of the install starts, it is much easier to use.

The package-selection process is not stellar. The check boxes the installation program uses are confusing and often cumbersome. The interface is nice-looking, but the functionality of the install program makes the installation seem harder than it should be. The XWindows configuration is not as simple as other distributions, yet the speed of the installation was good.

The management applications provided for Turbolinux itself are useful, but lacking. Network and user administration is easy with the text-based tools, but the lack of tools for the services configuration leaves the installation incomplete. The lack of a GUI interface also leaves the administrator feeling the installation is immature.

The GUI control center for the KDE is adequate, but it doesn't configure the OS or hardware settings, so the administrator is left to manually configure anything that's not supported by Turbolinux tools.