Heading Uptown to See Fedora Linux – A Tale of Science, Secret Agents and Corporate War

After a night and a day of feeling at home and happy with an “unstable” Debian, last night I decided to get a taste of another distribution. First, I quit Ubuntu, ending up with the rough and tumble Arch Linux, then back home to my old flame Debian. But I’m not yet ready to settle down.

By the way, I’ve been helpfully “educated” a few times by people telling me I should use virtualization to try out other distributions, rather than installing them outright on the workstation. Yes, I am already aware that several virtualization technologies exist and I am completely comfortable using three of them. But the virtualization experience is never the experience you have on your bare metal workstation. Your workstation can run virtualizations. I’m looking to replace my workstation. I want to know how it looks, how it feels to drive it, its subtleties and idiosyncrasies on the bare metal. Virtualization cannot fully provide this.

So during this experimental phase, I’m using various LVM volumes on the workstation to install the OS’s. Last night I was planning on wiping out the Fedora one and trying Pinguy OS, at the suggestion of someone named “Anon”. I like the story of it: someone wanting to take Ubuntu and dress it up with all the things to it that a normal person would want, like a stock DLNA server, for example, and rich media capabilities already installed and made lovely. And, apparently, a bazillion mozilla browser plugins pre-installed for you. That’s where I started thinking, this Pinguy OS might be just a little too eager to please. I’m not really wanting to be drown in gifts and attention. I’ll feel awkward. It ended up making me want to run. Perhaps I just don’t deserve Pinguy OS’s lavish generosity. But my primary reason for deciding against it is that it’s built upon Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is why I’m in this homeless mess right now. Well, not really. It’s all my fault.

So I decided not to blow away my Fedora volume, and instead thought to give it another go. Off I went, booting into Fedora 15. It was right in the grub menu, where Debian put it, having detected it from the last couple installs. Debian put all my possible boot OS’s into grub menus for me. What a sweetheart.

Up comes Fedora. It’s a striking Gnome 3 environment, just like unstable Debian, and unlike the phony Ubuntu unity. I ran the software updates and it found quite a few, which took quite some time to install. For a very well-performing OS, Fedora seems to have a very slow software package management system. Perhaps it’s just very careful, and that takes time. Or maybe it’s written in Python (oh no he didn’t!).

Of course, I need Flash in the browser so I can watch… videos. So I went out searching for the “special” Fedora way to install Flash — I don’t want to gum up their works and get punished later. That’s not a dig on Fedora really — lots of distributions have their own special ways for Flash. By the way, why won’t Flash die? I think Silverlight did today at least.

Then I remembered a guy potentially named Mike mentioning rpmfusion; a Fedora repository that contains all the seedy, unclean software like Flash, supported by Fedora and absolutely not supported by Fedora. You know how it goes. But I discovered while reading the instructions that Fedora 16 had arrived already. That was fast. So I thought, yes! Let’s experience a Fedora revision update!

Well, the little 100M standalone partition I had made to install the /boot in Fedora 15 (to get around lack of LVM) wasn’t large enough to handle an upgrade (which is fairly ridiculous) so I decided to do a fresh install of Fedora 16 instead. So I did end up wiping the Fedora volume, to be replaced with a new Fedora – which understood both RAID and LVM during the install process! Many cheers for Fedora, and Red Hat. It’s incredibly gratifying to find this level of quality in a Linux install.

And I have to say, the install process was both simple and even a little beautiful to watch. They did a very slick job. And it was fast. I very much liked the thoroughness of their user creation step, too, allowing you to specify custom uid & gid (without having to pre-create a gid). They also have seemingly excellent support for installation onto SANs, and even iSCSI doohickies across the network. Most impressive. I was really starting to feel this Fedora, and I was liking the feeling.

Fedora felt fresh, clean and surgically well-organized. A kind of tight business suit, styled up, with hair pulled back in a bun so tight the face contorts into an implied grin (or maybe grimace). I couldn’t help getting a little thrill of memories of my days spent working in an IBM shop, where everything is documented and thoroughly planned, even the errors. They supported all the right stuff there on install, and even offered support for encrypting your swap area. I’m at the FBI here. And it felt nice.

Because they thought it all out, right? They got it all planned. They’ve got a pride in perfection. And I’m lucky to be using it. Really, they’ve done a lot. And Red Hat contributes so much back to Linux. Fedora absolutely reeks of class. And up-tightness. And strategy. I swear to God I’m back in an IBM shop, at the FBI.

So onto the Gnome 3 desktop I go. Beautiful work. And my first order of business, assigning a keyboard shortcut to open a terminal. Easy enough. But when I go to use the shortcut I just defined, I’m told that no terminal program has been defined. What? The gnome-terminal, you git. Okay, I can live with that. So then I fire up a software update, and get a load of new things, which seemed to install noticeably faster than Fedora 15, which was a relief. Happy. Firefox starting up, version 7. Then adding the repositories for that filthy Flash. Also, the nvidia proprietary drivers instead of the nouveau ones that don’t offer full 3d acceleration…

And the nvidia kernel drivers are built. It’s time to reboot. What a joy. I could stay with Fedora easy – the model of beauty and efficiency. Then the grub boot menu comes up. What! You psycho! All my other operating systems have disappeared from the menu, except for Windows. Now this kind of thuggish behavior I would expect from Arch Linux, but from you!? Fedora? Arch Linux just doesn’t know any better. But you, what the hell is your excuse!? Are you going to play dumb? Tell me you didn’t plan this? Well, fine. No big deal. I can set you straight in a minute here, and we can just move on from this. But seriously, even the brute gave me fair warning, and an out, before taking a club to me!

Then the screen flashes. Just like a X video driver problem. I ran the damn script to update the Xorg.conf file to use the nvidia module. I even double-checked it. Oh, I see, but for some reason you stubbornly loaded the nouveau kernel module instead. So somebody didn’t bother updating the initramfs for boot, or they left out an autoload definition. OK. I’ll go figure out the “special” Fedora way for keeping that driver out, and bringing the nvidia one in. Done. Rebuilding the init image. Reboot. Hey, it’s starting up! The video screen displays a crisp, sharp gdm background image. Then a flash! And are you serious? You’re giving me a sad mac picture in the middle of my screen, telling me to contact my system administrator? You know what? Who needs you, you up-tight psycho – playing at being all sane, together and professional. What an act. Oh, I’m sure you’re just great when everything is going your way. But one little thing, and you just explode!? Cya!

So, to the reset button, and up comes my vandalized grub menu, the last claw-slash that Fedora will get into me this time. I manually set grub to boot back to the unstable Debian installation, which is proving to be anything but unstable. Back to the beautiful desktop, with the nvidia drivers working just fine – never a hassle. Ah, Debian, I really don’t deserve you. Even when you’re supposedly “unstable”, you’re a saint.

Now, to be fair, the Fedora issue is a little overly dramatic. Could you tell? It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal to get the nvidia drivers working with it. I did see a mention at one point about their being a “conflict” with that version of the gnuc libraries in a Fedora 16 beta, and the nvidia drivers, with Fedora claiming it was nvidia’s fault. Get out the cannons, boys. Point the fingers and guns. I’m happy in a just as functional and more solid unstable Debian.

And here it is. I really liked Fedora. Truly. I may head back later and tinker with the video driver. Fedora feels like science. It feels like Engineering. With all the coldness in between. I like that. But I also like the more ruffled homey-ness of Debian. Debian somehow manages to be just as science-like and engineered, but somehow with a sweet little breath of magic. It’s the difference between a ultra-sleek corporate-styled modern living room that looks amazing and you want it – and you get it – but after a little while it’s more like you’re intruding in IT, than it’s being a living room for you. I don’t know what it is that Debian does differently here. Maybe it’s just the cartoon stars and rocket ships! Or the genie swirl.

But the thing for me is, Fedora felt like the old IBM shop I worked in. So perfect and engineered. Always an answer. When something’s broke, it’s broke for a specific reason. This page intentionally left blank. It’s a little exciting, in that leathery-bondage kinda way. Or should I say cellophane wrap. A cat-o-nine-tails to tell me how it is. How I’m going to like it. Whereas back here with unstable Debian from the future, we’re just chillin, and everything is right as rain.