The World Series of Linux: Round 2

CMP Channel Test Center conducted its first-ever World Series of Linux, looking at six desktop distributions of the Open Source OS. Over three rounds, they were put through the paces to see if Linux is ready for prime time.

In Round 1 of The World Series of Linux, Ubuntu 7.10 "Gutsy Gibbon" outperformed both Freespire and Xandros in a series of real-world office tests conducted by the CMP Channel Test Center.

Ubuntu has seen its share of headlines over the past year, including coverage of PC maker Dell's decision to pre-load the distro onto select models of desktops and notebooks built by the Round Rock, Texas-based company. But headlines don't necessarily add up to great performance, or even better performance than competitors. So, while Ubuntu sits and waits to take on the best RPM distribution in our testing, here's the lineup for Round 2.

Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. This distribution has performed very well in previous Test Center evaluations, with a graphical UI and ease of use that makes it very competitive with Microsoft's Windows Vista.

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PCLinuxOS. This is a distribution that is easily downloadable over the Web and has been noted by some solution providers in recent months as a steady, stable preferred version in some customer deployments. This test gave us an opportunity to get a better look at this distribution of the desktop Linux OS.

Fedora 7. Red Hat makes a good amount of its money on its RHEL enterprise version of Linux, in addition to support and service, but it has also spearheaded formation of The Fedora Project -- an open source version of the Linux OS. While Fedora 8 is now on the open market and available for download, the Test Center wanted to look at the earlier version instead since it has been on the market longer and had undergone more testing in the marketplace.

Test Center engineers have had good experiences with SUSE in the past, so Novell's SLED 10 led off the RPM's turn. The install CD goes straight into the installer, without bothering with a Live desktop. Like Xandros, it is very clear this is an enterprise product. The installation is also much more complex than non-enterprise distros. For example, it asks about networking, partitioning drives, setting up domain hosts and offering various encryption options. The distribution includes the XEN host server and Novell applications. The printer was automatically detected and installed.

Compared to the older lpr system, CUPS -- the Common Unix (and Linux) Printing System -- makes printing on Linux a breeze. With the OfficeJet Pro officially supported by CUPS, engineers avoided any problems.

Slide Show: Walk through screen by screen as we pit SLED 10 vs. Fedora 7 vs. PCLinuxOS.

SLED 10 comes with built in VNC (Virtual Network Computing) for remote administration and proprietary filters for migrating Office documents. It has automatic multi-user support, and can work with LDAP.

With all this, it was a bit of a shock that SLED 10 also failed to set up a LAN connection. Novell said SLED 10 didn't support Attansic L2 yet in its enterprise version. According to Novell, the company undergoes a long and extensive testing cycle before including drivers, so even though the chipset wasn't all that new, it hadn't made it into the enterprise product yet. The spokesperson assured engineers OpenSUSE, the free version, would have no trouble.

To make the long story short, engineers downloaded OpenSUSE and tried again, but had no luck.

The second RPM-contender, PC Linux OS 2007, was a disappointment. The installer started from the Live CD but it failed to get a LAN connection. Sound just didn't work. There was no obvious reason for sound failure, and it was the only distribution installed on the Systemax hardware that failed in this regard. Printer installation was also much more difficult, compared to all the earlier distributions. The printer installer defaulted the driver to OfficeJet Pro 1150. The printer finally worked after installing the printer as OfficeJet Pro 1170, oddly enough.

Both LAN, sound, and printing could have been fixed with some effort, but engineers refrained. For this part of testing, engineers were channeling an office admin, so were looking for straightforward and easy to manage processes. Anything complex at this stage was an automatic disqualification.

NEXT: Bring On More Hardware!

PC Linux OS had a very primitive KDE type interface. All the options were hidden in a maze of nested menus, making it almost impossible to find anything. Considering how far Linux distributions have come in recent years, PC Linux OS felt like it had taken several steps back.

Fedora was the third one up. The installer took about the same amount of time as Ubuntu, clocking in at 20 minutes. The installer was text-based, very old-style, which was quite a contrast to the competitors' snazzy graphical installers. Fedora organizes its software packages into three options: Office and productivity, software development, and Web server. During installation, all three options can be installed, or any combination of the three. This flexibility is handy, since there's no need to put in compilers on a business machine, but image editors might not be as much of a requirement for a codemonkey.

After installation, before going to the desktop, Fedora configures the network and the firewall, asking which protocols should be allowed (HTTPS, FTP, SSH, Samba) and whether SELinux should be enabled or not. As was the case with the previous RPM-distros, Fedora did not support the Attansic chipset for networking. A thorough search on Fedora's forums revealed there was no support for Attansic in the mainline kernel at this point, although it may be added at a later date.

Everything else worked fine -- sound, printing and detecting an external USB drive. The interface was also very comfortable to use, if not a little too blue. Fedora uses Gnome for its desktop environment, so everything was organized in a fairly logical way.

At this point, none of the RPM-distros had made it out of the first round to face Ubuntu in the final round. Test Center engineers tried out Mandriva without any luck. The installer asked users to select what should go in to the boot loader menu, which seemed unnecessarily complicated: what do basic users need to know about a boot loader?

Mandriva does not use CUPS as a default for printer, but rather the Generic Unix LPD Print System. It didn't detect the OfficeJet, and it had trouble switching to CUPS.

So: No RPM distros supported the Attansic chipset during Round 2. What to do, what to do?

Here's how the umpiring crew decided to call this controversy:

We moved to a neutral field. We loaded each distribution onto an HP Compaq desktop running an AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3800+, with an NVIDIA nForce Networking controller (PCI card, not onboard), 960 Mb of memory, an 80 Gb hard drive and an ASUS NAOS motherboard. The RPMs supported the chipset and, again, we went to work. Fedora, SLED 10 and PC Linux OS all connected to the network. (To be fair, we ran the three Debian distros - - from Round 1 -- on the HP Compaq and they all worked just fine.)

In each test bed, Fedora integrated with the printer with ease. However, on the HP Compaq device, Novell took more hands-on configuration to integrate with the printer. On balance, that left Fedora the winner of Round 2 - - but just barely - - over SLED 10.

Again, a few notes are in order. Novell does provide 30 days of telephone support with SLED 10, but it's not free. (There's a nominal, annual licensing fee for the distro.) We've long been a fan of Novell's work on SLED 10, and we continue to like it. In a head to head with Fedora, though, it didn't stand out. We lost time trying to work with OpenSUSE to see if that provided networking support (it did not). Novell has a long history of providing support and partnership to the channel, so solution providers can judge on a case-by-case basis if that partnership can be a boost in smoothing out any deployment issues that arise -- like an Attansic chipset. For now, SLED 10 might adopt the old Brooklyn Dodgers' motto: Wait 'til next year.

Slide Show: Walk through screen by screen as we pit SLED 10 vs. Fedora 7 vs. PCLinuxOS.

Also, as we said earlier, PC Linux OS has been a favorite of some integrators and resellers from whom we often hear. Well, it just didn't do it for us. We'll have to think twice before we consider it for next year's World Series of Linux.

Fedora 7 wasn't perfect, but of the RPM flavors it just did the best job in our testing. It will now take part in the money round: the championships.