Test Center preview: Fedora turns 10

Red Hat's open source standard bearer and mineshaft canary is still everything to every Linux power user

There comes a point in the life of any hard-core Linux user when the idea of digging about to find yet another obscure piece of software, compiling the code, and integrating it into your daily routine just seems annoying, not compelling. This is where Fedora comes through. Because more of the popular and necessary packages "just work" with Fedora, less time is burned spinning wheels and more time is available for productive tasks.

To those who grew up with Red Hat Linux, the birth of Fedora was a bit of a surprise. In 2003, Fedora rose from the ashes of Red Hat Linux when Red Hat commercialized its Linux offering under the now-familiar name of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and made Fedora its open source initiative. As it played out, Fedora was, and is, essentially the beta release of Red Hat Enterprise Server. When a Fedora distribution has been released and used the world over for a significant period of time, it forks to become the next iteration of RHEL. Thus, Fedora has always been a community-supported preview of the next version of RHEL.

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Fedora is clearly meant to be a Swiss Army knife, with not just something for everyone, but nearly everything for everyone. Fedora is at home providing an attractive and responsive desktop experience, but it's also nicely equipped to run server tasks without a GUI, and offers a myriad of out-of-the-box development and administration tools that just make life simpler for Linux admins.

For many in the Linux community, Fedora has become the mainstay of projects big and small. Legend has it that Linus Torvalds uses Fedora. It runs on desktops and servers, serving as a foundation to myriad tools and projects, and is generally viewed as a generally stable Linux distribution, but one that can and does change radically from release to release. As befits what is essentially beta code, those releases tend to come fast and furious. Fedora 10 is no exception.

Fedora 10, code-named Cambridge, incorporates some significant changes from Fedora 9, such as a whole new boot process, dubbed Plymouth; support for the ext4 file system; inclusion of the Sugar GUI, originally developed for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative; updates to both Gnome and KDE; and a new theme, dubbed Solar. The good news is that users who stay current with Fedora releases can update their existing Fedora systems with a few commands rather than a wholesale reinstall.

On the inside
Under the covers, Fedora 10 offers updates to several key elements (such as to kernel version 2.6.27) and incorporates a wide variety of coding tools, from Java, Ruby, Python, Perl, and even Haskell, to the Eclipse IDE, as well as supporting players. Most of these are part and parcel of any Fedora release, of course.

Virtualization is provided in the form of Xen, with options during installation to include and boot a Xen-enabled kernel to perform paravirtualization of Linux VMs running under the main system. Clustering support is there as well.

Among the new features, a few stand out, such as the First Aid Kit. It's essentially a rescue environment that can help fix a broken system by offering dmraid rebuild and recovery options, bootloader and initrd reinstallation and re-creation, and potentially even some base package reinstallation. In a pinch, it could certainly prove helpful.

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Also, Fedora 10 includes sectool, which is a system-integrity scanning tool that can check the system for possible security issues by evaluating various OS components and comparing them against known-good states.

One oddity is the default addition of /sbin, /usr/sbin, and /usr/local/sbin to the normal user default path. Since the dawn of time, only root has included these elements in the default path, because the tools residing in those directories are generally for admins only, not normal users. In Fedora 10, every user's default path has them. Ostensibly, this is to eliminate problems with novice users who don't understand pathing and tool location, but I don't know that I see any real benefit, because normal users shouldn't need lsmod, mke2fs, and so forth.

First impressions
The installation process -- generally the same as in previous releases, using the Anaconda installer -- is smooth and surprisingly attractive, offering support for encrypted file systems, ext3 and NTFS resizing, and fluid repository inclusion. Some of these features were present in Fedora 9, but are somehow better integrated into the new version. All in all, installing Fedora 10 is a very simple and straightforward process.

Following installation, the familiar firstboot process allows the creation of local users and post-installation tweaks. Then, it's a GUI login prompt and the introduction to the Solar theme. Gnome panels slide into place rather than just appearing, window corners are rounded, and the overall experience is attractive and polished. There's something different about Linux desktops today, and not just the menu layouts and other GUI elements; they just feel slicker, yet somehow more utilitarian all at once. Gnome 2.24 and the Solar theme are no different in this regard. One relative oddity is the "Leave Message" option when the screen is locked. This feature was introduced in Gnome 2.20 and allows someone to wake a locked system and type a message that will be displayed when the owner logs in.

As with any new distribution, Fedora 10 will undoubtedly reveal some rough edges. There will be some hardware issues, there will be some significant updates, and there will be untold discussion of this package and that kernel module on the forums and wikis. My exploration of Fedora 10 has been fairly straightforward, and so far, so good. I'm sure that I won't be running Fedora 10 on mission-critical commercial production systems, but I have been running Fedora on my main workstation and Linux laptop since FC1, and will be updating as soon as I can.

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