Reviewed: Fedora 11
Leonidas (either named after the king of Sparta who led his troops to victorious annihilation in the Peloponnese or the chain of chocolate shops), is the 11th release of the Fedora operating system. Along the way there have been a few duds, but in recent times Fedora has been really delivering on its promise of the four Fs: "Freedom, Friends, Features, First". Fedora 10 was a rock-steady release that introduced a slew of new features, and Leonidas is promising more of the same.
Other smart folk were quick off the bat to review Fedora 11, but we're not like that. Instead, it takes us a few weeks to properly settle down into a distro to see what we make of it. Read on for our findings, then read the comments to our earlier post to see what other people think...
Installing the system is as straightforward as you could possibly hope. Installers usually tread the fine line between making the process easy and supplying the advanced options that power users need. The only area where Fedora 11 possibly falls down is the disk space provisioning: the default option at install time is always to hijack the main boot drive or replace an existing Linux install. The custom route leads you into a graphical parted system, which, while comprehensive, is not often as easy to follow as you might wish. At least it handles all sorts of storage, including iSCSI.
The alternative to the install CD is to run a live CD and install from there. This is still the recommended route if you're installing on a laptop, as you can ensure that troublesome but key components actually work before you scrub the HD. As previously, both standard Gnome and alternative (spicy flavour) KDE live CDs are available, and there will no doubt be a whole slew of respins flavoured to meet more esoteric needs.
The delights of KDE 4.2 are yours to enjoy, though it still needs a bit of tweaking.
Updating from Fedora 10
It used to be that you needed nerves of steel and three levels of backup data before you would risk a running upgrade to a distro. Well, the backups are still a good idea, but it is less risky to try an upgrade these days. You can upgrade using the install media, or direct through the package manager. In the latter case, run yum update then yum clean all as root first. Then you can install the pre-upgrade package and run it to complete the task.
For clean systems, there shouldn't be any problems - you're only likely to get into difficulty if you have a load of software that hasn't been installed through the package manager.
Post-install, things get more interesting, and the first changes appear before you even log in. The boot-up routine is now so smooth that there is no need to hide it from your Mac-appreciating friends. A smooth transition from the PC POST screen takes you to the login screen in 25 seconds or less. Well, it does on our test machine (which takes 31 seconds to get to the same spot in Ubuntu). When you get there you may be confused by the addition of a new widget above the list of login names. That's because Fedora 11 supports fingerprint logins with supported hardware (www.reactivated.net/fprint/wiki/Supported_devices).
Part of the speed increase may be down to the use of the ext4 filesystem as default. There are some spurious benchmark figures circulating about the speed increase, but without getting weighed down in the veracity of benchmarking when it comes to real world use, most people will see an appreciable difference in speed.
I want my MP3
For newcomers, Linux can be a scary place, usually because they quickly find that they can't do 'normal' things on it, like play DVDs or listen to MP3 music files. However, Fedora 11 handles such things magnificently if you have added an external file repository like RPM Fusion. The use of PackageKit in this release has been well integrated into the desktop environment - try to play a WMV file on a base install for example, and Totem (the default movie player) will claim not to be able to read it, but it will offer you the choice of searching for it. PackageKit links into the package manager to search for something that will solve the problem. This currently works with audio and movie formats as well as fonts.
That links nicely into the general area of packaging - one of the few areas where mainstream Linux distributions still differ. The venerable and much maligned Yum package manager gets a boost in the form of Presto (not to be confused with the games library of the same name). This plugin supports the use of delta RPMs for faster system updates, as you only need to download the changes to installed files rather than the whole thing. Fedora is very late to the party on this, and it is still not enabled as default - you'll have to install the yum-presto package yourself.
The official mirrors do support it, but if you're using a local repository you may find that the deltas are not enabled. This seems to be because processor and I/O overhead at the server end is more 'expensive' than bandwidth, but that may only be a temporary excuse. If you can get a link to a delta-supporting site, think how much time you'll save when OpenOffice.org 3.2 comes out...
In another case of out-with-the-old, the hardware abstraction layer, HAL is being reworked. At the moment, the most visible signs of this are DeviceKit, which is a sort of super-HAL for block devices with a pleasant front-end called Palimpsest. If you are wondering about the name, it comes from the practice of re-using parchment, wax tablets or papyrus by scraping it clean and then writing on it again.
Palimpsest the utility enumerates devices on the system and enables the user (with the correct password) to format, check mount and unmount devices. It may seem pretty straightforward, but a utility with this scope has been sorely missed from the Fedora desktop for some time.
Finally, Fedora gets a useful disk management tool, in the guise of Palimpsest.
DeviceKit can also keep a health check on your drives or RAID arrays and will pop up helpful warnings when bad sectors have been reallocated. Smart tests can be run from within the utility if you want to check the drive manually, or even if you're just interested in the range of noises that a multi-platter device can make when spinning at 10,000rpm with the heads flicking about.
KDE 4.2 was flagged up as one of the major inclusions in Leonidas, and indeed, it is here, and it does indeed work. One can't help feeling that nobody wants you to actually use it though. Red Hat has a long relationship with the Gnome desktop, and many years ago refused to include KDE in its official releases because of its reliance on a non-free (in those days) library, Qt.
Even though KDE was welcomed to the fold before the Fedora project even started, it has always felt like an add-on. There just isn't the same care and integration. As a Linux desktop it works fine, but it seems somewhat disconnected from the Fedora system tools in many respects. Try switching to a new session from KDE for example and see what happens. If you really want to run KDE as the main desktop, you had better try it out through the KDE live distro first.
This aside, Leonidas is a competent and comprehensive release. Some may balk at some of the beta software included (Firefox 3.5 most notably, but this has been patched after release), but the balancing act between cutting-edginess and stability has been well maintained. This isn't a must-have release in the same way that Fedora 8 or Fedora 10 were, but sometimes little skips are better than great leaps.
Our verdict: Other distros are in danger of being outbuntu'd by this freedom loving, Gnome-centric star performer.9/10.
Virtual machines made easy
Open Virt-Manager: Virtual Machine Manager (aka Virt-Manager) enables you to easily set up and manage Qemu- or Xen-based virtual machines.
Configure: You'll need to allocate some memory, configure storage options and set up networking options for the guest OS.
Install: Boot from an ISO image or install from a network or a real device. Your piggyback OS will be running in mere seconds.
First published in Linux Format magazine