(linux & !debian = bad news), Sun, Solaris

Posted on May 14, 2004

This got longer than I expected and needs more polish, but rather than sit on it forever, it’s here.

Playing Games

As previously mentioned, Sam is to be a guinea pig for JDS/Linux at our house. Straight-forward things seem to be working out okay - web browsing, etc. At the weekend it seems that we tried to push things a bit too far.

The Playstation 2 in his room is currently connected to an old Sony Trinitron television. The remote doesn’t work, the colour balance is all off (it’s too red) and the cabinet is pretty huge. By contrast, the PC has a nice LCD monitor that works rather well, so it seems reasonable to try and figure out how to get the Playstation to talk to the LCD panel. Various solutions exist for this in the market, but all seem to have oddities - only working with some games, requiring a pre-boot CD, … Basically, all too much hassle. We hit on the approach of adding a PCI TV card to the PC and then feeding the Playstation video in through that.

Finding an old bt848 based TV card, installing it and watching the linux kernel find it was all easy. It worked first time. Then the fun begins. How do you actually display the picture? In days gone by I recall that xawtv was the way to go, though it seems that tvtime may have taken over now. No problem, this is linux, so I’ll just download the necessary packages and install.

This is where it gets silly. JDS/Linux is a derivative of something that is a derivative of SUSE LINUX 8.1 (don’t blame me for the capitalisation). Actually figuring out that the chain ends at 8.1 took a while, but was not so bad. SUSE themselves have now moved on to 9.1 and the tvtime developers (or their friends) are somewhere in between, so the pre-built packages are for 8.2. They don’t install on JDS (trust me, I tried). rpmfind.net was good and discovered a package for xawtv that was built for 8.1 and a couple of minutes later we were ready to install. Except, of course, xawtv wants a bunch of other libraries and stuff that we don’t have - perhaps 5 more packages in total. Perhaps rpmfind.net has them, but I was getting a bit fed up at this point - it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Application Availability

One of the reasons that people allegedly stay with Microsoft products (in particular the operating systems) is application availability. In the case of the bt848 card we talking about here, that means that the card arrived with drivers for lots of versions of Windows, an application for watching TV (including simple PVR functions) and a web-server based teletext service.

The wide variety, which probably applies to quality as well as functionality, is one of the reasons that occasionally it’s interesting to install the latest version of Windows, Office, etc. and look around at other new stuff to see what is happening. The vibrancy of the development community is appealing, but the irritations with Windows surface after a while and I scurry off again.

Linux is also attractive in this respect. There are lots of tools and applications across a wide range of interest. Not as wide as Windows and on average perhaps lower quality (though the good stuff is really good). Easy availability of these applications is what makes switching to linux both easy and interesting.

For the average user Solaris lags behind. Many of the key applications are present (Mozilla, StarOffice, ..) in a standard install, but there’s just not the breadth and depth of easily available tools. The developer scene is better, but in the end developers are users too, so they would lose out.

In all of this comparison, note that it’s not important whether Windows or Linux or Solaris is better in an underlying technical sense. They all meet some minimal level of stability.

“Everyone hates Redhat”

I’ve heard quite a few people recently assert that no-one likes Redhat the company. The people who don’t like Redhat aren’t all linux haters - quite the opposite. Part of the reason to dislike Redhat is that they are selling you stuff that it feels as though you should get for free. I mean, almost all of the components of Redhat Enterprise Linux 3.0 are available for free, so why am I paying for it? Support and stability are the obvious answers, and these are important things. Whether Redhat support and stability are actually worth the money is not something that is easy to judge - I don’t have an answer.

Like JDS/Linux, Redhat should probably be considered a proprietary variant of linux. It shares most of the characteristics of a proprietary OS (cost, stability, support, application certification, shelf-life, …). It’s nice that you get the source, but can you afford to use it?

Partly because they are proprietary variants it can be hard to get third party applications to use. My problems with xawtv and tvtime are just the tip of the iceberg - finding binary packages to install on Redhat Enterprise Linux 3.0 was even harder, as I wasn’t even sure if there was an underlying distribution I could use as a base (is it Redhat 9, Fedora Core 1, …?).

One of the solutions to this is the Fedora project. It’s the bleeding edge of Redhat distributions - more current, more variable and less expensive (free, if your time is free). Of course, there’s no support and less stability, but it’s easier to get the latest and greatest toys because it’s one of the places the hacker community hang out.

If you examine package availability for Solaris vs. these proprietary linux variants, it may even be the case that Solaris comes out on top. Sure, there’s less in the base distribution, but adding in the contents of the Software Companion CD evens things out. The arrival of JDS/Solaris will put the two at parity “out of the box” and, perhaps, Solaris ahead on “easy to acquire”.

Another approach is Debian. It’s free (except for your time). The Debian developers do a good job of maintaining a stable distribution, but the cost of this is that many of the components of that distribution are old (perhaps even “stale”). That’s okay - they have “testing” and “unstable” distributions you can use as well.

Pretty much every bit of software you can think of is already packaged for Debian and the project itself provides a network install mechanism. If you can find out the name for something you can probably have it in short order.

Even if the Debian project itself doesn’t provide something, the installation tools are happy to add an archive created by a third party to the set you can use. Companies could distribute their own software by creating a Debian package archive - an update mechanism is built in.

Sun should ‘do Debian’

Rather than persist with the proprietary SUSE variant, Sun should pick Debian as its linux distribution of choice. The stability options are there for customers that need it and the new toys and tools are available for the people who want to play with updated bits.

It’s true that various third-party applications may not be certified on Debian, but really that’s no different than the situation with the current ‘derivative of’ approach that we take at the moment. Killing Sun Linux for just this reason, then re-inventing it in the JDS/Linux variant is very strange.

In fact, Sun should ‘do Solaris’

Even more importantly, the Debian approach to package distribution and the three tiered stability mechanism should be adopted for Solaris. There are already sites, such as blastwave.org and Sunfreeware.com who are spending time building and packaging tools - let’s take that effort and integrate it into the way we distribute Solaris generally. Oh, and we can deprecate pkgadd while we’re at it :-)