Red Hat IPO

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at
Sat Aug 14 00:33:03 PDT 1999

I don't know much about Red Hat or Linux for that matter, since I use another unix based system, FreeBSD. But, I am assuming the general situation is similar.

The basic OS includes the command sets, the device drivers for basic text based video, memory, disk drives, interfaces with networks, modems, or other cards, emulation modules for Linux, SCO, along with the shells (the different variants of the command set), but it is only part of the system. All the graphic interface is taken care of by X-windows--which runs its own video drivers and the underlying page system, memory, and interacts with the kernel (the unix OS). X-windows is a big hunk of the package. Almost all the user applications beyond the basic shells are supplied by GNU, including many of the X-Window utilities. After GNU, come dozens of small single purpose apps some of which are included in the basic system (sendmail), but most are add ons. On top of this stack comes the GUI toolkits that provide all the look and feel of the GUI. So there is the old TWM which I use, along with Athena, Motif, KDE, GTK and others. The current hot trip is GNOME (GTK)--it just won an award at the Linux show in San Jose(?) this week. GNOME is a whole other organization that deals primarily with graphics. (see, follow links to screenshots)

I mention all this because no matter what Red Hat supplies, in a sense it doesn't matter--it's a convenience. Even a quick install kit isn't the killer it sounds like, since in the FreeBSD world, the set-up is run through an extended script that is either downloaded or run off a CD. But the real point here is that Red Hat, for better or worse probably can't screw this scene up with profit motives and the like, because they don't and can't control or manage all the pieces that fit together to make up this system.

Niether can FreeBSD. FreeBSD is packaged by Walnut Creek CDROM as a four CD set. I think WC CDROM also offers Slackware's version of Linux. I am guessing that the difference in installation is that with FreeBSD, you have to know what to pick from the menus. I assume Red Hat supplies defaults. Unfortunately, FreeBSD doesn't, and it should at least supply something like the FreeBSD for Idiots package--as a novice option. I mean there is something like a novice option, but it ain't for idiots. I certainly could have used something like that a year and half ago when I started on this trip.

In any event there is also CVS (concurrent version system?) and the Ports collection that can be set up to upgrade an existing installation automatically--by the week, month, or quarter. The maintenance is taken care through what is called a port, which is a little script that installs or uninstalls a particular package. These ports form a huge catalogue under their directory subtree. Each entry has its own script that will check the existing system entry. If there are newer versions, the Port system will download, compile, and install it automatically. The CVS and Port system includes literally hundreds of small programs, utilities, and applications. You can script CVS so it does the whole system or any part of it.

This isn't to put Red Hat down, but the really liberating aspect of the entire scene is the ability to assemble your own system to look, feel, and work the way you need and want it to. I am assuming that Red Hat has put together a complete package from the above systems that provides a uniform look and feel with a particular character.

This spring I got together three 486 throw aways and took my well used copy of _Unix for Dummies_ and configured the boxes to look and act exactly like this book. The point was to create a system that could be duplicated and handed out. While this turned out to be a failed plan (nobody was interested), the process taught me a lot. I was attempting to set up a fast, uniform, and complete network system on pathetic hardware at absolutely minimal cost. The trick is to pick a theme, a particular collection of apps and utilities that give a characteristic look and feel, so that what people experience is a particular interface that is absolutely uniform. What I picked was classic text based unix. The reason for this choice was that the monitors and display cards for this home net were real garbage (10yr old nameless vga cards with 256k memory). The only way I could get these machines to run X-windows with acceptable screen refresh speeds was to run the monochrome X server with the TWM window manager. This is an ugly GUI, but it is fast.

The whole system cost about 200.00 (memory, network cards, hub, and cable). It is almost impossible to tell the difference between this home network on the command line interface and the CLI at UCB's Plant Microbial Dept which is run on several Sun workstations (SunOS 5.6).

As a closing note to Kelley, I run StarOffice on my main home computer (gateway for my trash local net). It works fine. It takes a while to load, but once up, it runs faster than the MSOffice suite I have on the other drive. It is completely compatible with MSWord and WordPerfect files, it reads news and sends mail, has a browser, and html web editor, etc. It also comes with libraries full of little graphic do-dads, and animated gifs and so on.

But I find that I mostly use Emacs because it is more uniform, it runs on all of the trash machines and usually I don't use any of the features that StarOffice offers. If I really need to work on somebody else's document, then I will crank up SO 4.0 on the main box and run it (no I haven't bothered to upgrade).

This is turning into a rambling sales pitch. Oh, well. I think if you spent some time sorting through the GNOME toolkit and put it together with some of the newer graphics, office apps and Netscape as the browser you could probably blow NT out of the water on look and feel alone. It's no contest on technical issues of network speed, scaling, reliability, efficient use of resources, ease and cost of maintenance, and compliance with internet standards. MS sucks on any and all of these issues..

Meanwhile this email is coming out of a 486SX. I literally found the box, floppy drive and power supply in a pile of junk in a vacant lot in Emeryville. Doug Keachie gave me the monitor (a PS2, thanks Doug K) and some extra memory.

But you know I am glad corporate america is stuck on MS. Good for them. I hope they stroke on it.

Chuck Grimes

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