It seems as if a new Linux-based operating system is born every day, with each facing the challenge of justifying its existence in a field that’s already rather crowded with mature Linux distributions boasting active user bases and organized bodies to back them.
But one relatively young Linux distribution worth keeping an eye on is Foresight Linux, a desktop-oriented distribution that hit its 1.0 release milestone at the end of January.
What sets Foresight apart from the rest of the fledgling distro pack is the software management framework on which its built.
Foresight is one of the most active projects based on rPath’s Conary software management system, which offers administrators a great balance of flexibility and control in deploying and maintaining applications on Linux.
rPath builds and maintains a reference distribution, called rPath Linux, along with a set of tools for packaging up software applications with rPath Linux to create software appliances. ISVs can then concentrate on their own code, while rPath maintains the operating system components on which the ISVs’ applications rely.
This also means that Foresight developers have been able to focus on offering up-to-date, and thoughtfully integrated, versions of the GNOME-based applications around which Foresight revolves.
What’s more, Foresight’s rPath platform underpinnings make it fairly easy to fold new applications into the Conary management scheme-and very easy to update already-packaged applications to include newer code from an upstream project.
During tests, eWeek Labs set up a repository at rpath.org for hosting our own packages.
After spending a while getting the hang of Conary, we were able to update and modify several packages with fairly little hassle. For example, we rolled ourselves updated versions of the htop process manager application and the OpenOffice.org 2.1 productivity suite, as well as a line of kernel packages containing our custom modifications.
Also noteworthy is the excellent support we received through Foresight’s IRC (Internet Relay Chat) chat room, a link to which lives in Foresight’s applications menu under the label Get Live Help.
What’s more, Foresight’s lead developer, Ken Van Dine, is an rPath employee, and several other rPath developers are directly involved in the project, which is helpful when tracking down under-the-hood issues.
However, Foresight Linux is not without its drawbacks. For starters, Conary is much younger and less well known than the RPM/YUM (Red Hat Package Manager)and DEB/APT packaging frameworks that underlie Fedora and Debian, respectively, or even the Portage software system on which Gentoo Linux is based. As a result, most newcomers to Conary will be starting from scratch, and since Conary introduces some concepts that are new to Linux distribution software management, the learning curve is a bit steeper than with other distributions.
Also, while we found it fairly easy to package applications into Foresight’s Conary-based format, there are many fewer pre-packaged applications currently available for Foresight and rPath Linux than there are for more established distributions. For example, while Foresight does a very good job at keeping up to date with the GNOME desktop environment and with popular GNOME-based applications, the system’s support for KDE and KDE-based applications doesn’t come close to matching what comparably positioned distributions such as Fedora, OpenSUSE, Debian/Ubuntu and Gentoo deliver.
Even if KDE is not to be a desktop environment option, GNOME users need the option of installing single KDE applications if need be. There’s a project under way to bring KDE to Foresight, but it’s currently in a somewhat rough test stage.
What’s more, the Foresight and rPath software repositories from which we fetched updates and new applications aren’t currently mirrored outside of the project hosting space that rPath freely offers to projects built on its platform, meaning slower download speeds than we’re accustomed to from more popular, heavily mirrored distributions.
rPath’s software management does provide for this sort of mirroring, and we’d like to see popular mirror sites add Foresight and rPath to the projects they mirror.
Foresight Linux 1.0 is freely downloadable from Foresightlinux.com/downloads, either as two CD images or one DVD image. Foresight Linux uses Red Hat’s anaconda installer application, as well as Red Hat’s firstboot facility for performing setup tasks after installation.
Foresight Linux sports a Web-based management interface, known as rAA, which rPath had designed for use with software appliances. From this interface, we could manage services and software updates, as well as review our system logs. We could access the interface with or without SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), and either locally or from another machine on our network. We’d prefer that the interface not be accessible remotely by defaulta change that’s easy to make by editing the rAA config file.
In addition to rAA, Foresight ships with some of the same administration tools that Red Hat and Fedora Linux include, such as those for configuring displays and authentication options.
Finally, Foresight includes all of the desktop configuration tools that ship with GNOME, which cover most desktop preference-setting tasks.
Foresight Linux 1.0 runs on x86 processor platforms. eWeek Labs tested Foresight on an IBM ThinkPad T41 with 1.5GB of RAM, as well as in a virtual machine running under VMware ESX Server on a Sun Microsystems Sun Fire x4200 server.
Initially, we were disappointed to find that neither suspend-to-RAM nor suspend-to-disk (also known as hibernate) worked on our Foresight test machine, but with help from rPath and Foresight developers, we managed to reconfigure our kernel to make the functions work for us. According to rPath’s kernel maintainer, the hibernation fixes should be integrated and available through update soon.
Foresight Linux ship with support for three-dimensional desktop effects, courtesy of the open-source compositing window manager Compiz. We could switch the 3D effects off and on from a taskbar applet, and the changes took effect without logging out and back in to our desktop session.
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