By Jeffrey Carl
Boardwatch Magazine was the place to go for Internet Service Provider industry news, opinions and gossip for much of the 1990s. It was founded by the iconoclastic and opinionated Jack Rickard in the commercial Internet’s early days, and by the time I joined it had a niche following but an influential among ISPs, particularly for its annual ranking of Tier 1 ISPs and through the ISPcon tradeshow. Writing and speaking for Boardwatch was one of my fondest memories of the first dot-com age.
This column was originally supposed to be about supporting FrontPage users on Unix, but Boardwatch’s editors edited all the swear words out of my 2,000 word column and were left with a total of 12. So instead, I turned to Macmillan’s Linux-Mandrake 7.0.
Linux-Mandrake 7 is earning rave reviews all over the place right now, and with pretty good reason. Linux-Mandrake is heavily optimized for Intel Pentium-family chips, but should run fairly well on AMD or Cyrix-based systems. System requirements are listed as any 586 (Pentium-equivalent) or higher CPU, 16 MB RAM (64 MB recommended), 500 MB disk space minimum (1 GB+ recommended), and a 3.5″ floppy drive or CD-ROM drive for installation.
Linux-Mandrake 7 is available free via FTP from http://www.linux-mandrake.com/en/ftp.php3. It comes in standard FTP install format, as well as a downloadable ISO 9660 CD image. MandrakeSoft itself sells distro CDs, and Macmillan also distributes and sells three shrink-wrapped versions of Linux-Mandrake 7.0: Complete, Deluxe and Secure Server (see below in the interview for more information on what the different packages contain). The Complete package retails for $29.95 (although I found mine at Wal-Mart for $25); Deluxe sells for $55-$60, and the Secure Server package sells for about $100.
The distribution is pretty up-to-date (at least as of this writing). It includes kernel 2.2.14, glibc 2.1.2, XFree86 3.3.6, and more. All of the defaults here are stable – you won’t find anything too bleeding edge in the included components, so if you want to wreck your system with the development kernel or XFree 4.0 beta du jour, you’ll need to go out and download it for yourself.
Most of the clamor for Linux-Mandrake 7 has been over the reports that it’s the easiest Linux distribution ever for a new user to install and set up. Mandrake’s efforts in this direction are focused on three new (or at least fairly new) tools.
The first and second are DrakX, first introduced with Mandrake 6.1, and DiskDrake. DrakX is the new all-singing, all-dancing, all-graphical installation tool – and it’s certainly the most user-friendly install tool that I’ve seen for a Freenix (an install tool with themes?). It handles all of the basics you’d expect, as well as taking a good stab at autoconfiguring the LILO boot loader and X Windows (plenty of drivers for popular video cards are included). DiskDrake is the graphical disk-partitioning tool for use with DrakX, although you can also use good old fdisk or cfdisk.
The third new tool is DrakConf, which bundles in LinuxConf as well as its own versions of hardware, software, networking and security tweaking tools. For a user or administrator new to the platform, DrakConf keeps a lot of common tools very handy. Also available are RPMdrake (for RedHat Package Manager installations) and Lothar, a nifty program for autoconfiguring sound cards and other audio-related devices.
So, what’s not to like? With all of the goodies in this distribution, Mandrake has its sights squarely focused on its intended consumer – and that consumer probably isn’t you. Linux newbies and desktop/workstation users are the target market here, and it isn’t evident that much has been done to optimize or enhance Linux-Mandrake’s performance specifically as an Internet server.
However, that last assessment may be a little too harsh (or too much to expect). Regardless of what type of user you are, good administration tools help everybody; and the Pentium optimization certainly helps if you’re running an Intel-based server. And to some extent, every Linux distribution uses some version of the same kernel, so there isn’t much you can expect Mandrake to do to increase the performance of the Linux TCP stack.
To find out more about the appeal of Linux-Mandrake 7 for ISP/webhosting users, I asked Steve Schafer, the Senior Title Manager for Linux at Macmillan.
Jeff: Can you give a brief history of Linux-Mandrake?
Steve Schafer: Linux-Mandrake started as a volunteer project to help make the standard Red Hat Linux distribution more robust and yet more user friendly. Approximately two years ago the principals of the project created a company, MandrakeSoft, to oversee and lead the project into a retail venture. Version 5.3 of Mandrake was built from the Red Hat 5.2 distribution and was distributed through outlets like LinuxMall. The distribution continued to gain a following for power and ease of use. Versions 6.0 and 6.1 went on to win the “Editor’s Choice: Product of the Year” award at LinuxWorld in 1999, and various kudos for being a “better Red Hat than Red Hat.” Mandrake 7.0 raises the bar even further as you will see below.
J: Why should I use Linux instead of another Freenix like FreeBSD or OpenBSD?
SS: One word: support. Linux remains on the cutting edge of technology, with solid support both online and paid, the latter provided through retail purchase or a support contract through a dedicated Linux support organization like Linuxcare. The interface and standards continue to evolve, presenting a clean, more user-friendly environment for a technical OS.
J: What’s new with Linux-Mandrake 7?
SS: The main differences in 7.0 come in the way of installation and configuration. The new graphical install (DrakX) can be tailored for each user’s tastes and technical level – the “Recommended” install provides for less decision making on the part of the user and makes various assumptions about the target machine to make the install fairly seamless, while the “Expert” install allows the user full-control over how the OS will be installed. Several new customization utilities allow the user to quickly and effectively change the configuration once the OS is installed, changing the interface, security options, adding and configuring hardware, and more. Mandrake continues their tradition of offering more base utilities and pre-configured desktops as well.
J: How does Linux-Mandrake perform for Internet serving tasks in relation to other Linux distros? Is the differentiation something other than performance (e.g., ease of use, pre-installed apps, etc.)?
SS: By and large, most Linux distributions perform the same types of serving tasks since they are all cut from basically the same mold. The difference Mandrake makes comes in two areas: customization and Pentium optimization. See the other section(s) for info on the customization (both what Mandrake does automatically, and what tools exist for the user). As for Pentium optimization: Mandrake recompiles ALL packages with Pentium optimization. Although the performance increase for workstations is slight, it is much more pronounced in the server environment. When a server is loaded with several users all utilizing resources, the faster the server can complete tasks, the better. (Of course, this is only true if the server’s processor is Pentium [or derivative] based.)
J: What are Linux-Mandrake’s different products, and whom are they intended for?
SS: Macmillan offers three distinct Linux-Mandrake products, geared toward specific Linux customers:
Complete: This value-packed product is geared toward the beginning user, or the user who is taking Linux for a “test drive.” Macmillan adds the following components to the base Linux-Mandrake OS:
• PartitionMagic and BootMagic – for ease of installation on a Windows machine for dual-booting between OSes. (Recent research showed that 70% of retail Linux purchasers install Linux in a dual-boot configuration.)
• StarOffice 5.2 – This powerful office suite provides word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and graphics functionality. Compatibility with Microsoft products ensures maximum data transportability.
• Linux Library – 3500 pages of additional Linux documentation (in electronic form) from the Macmillan imprints Que and Sams.
Deluxe: This six-CD set provides the most Linux content for the money. Geared to address the professional user, this product provides more of everything Linux. In addition to the base Mandrake OS and its sources, these additional 4 CDs are provided:
• Contributors CD: Close to 900 additional utilities, applications, documentation, etc from the Linux community.
• Contributors Source CD: Source code for the Contributors CD.
• Applications CDs (1 & 2): Over 30 commercial and demo applications, including StarOffice, WordPerfect for Linux, etc.
[Jeff’s Note: The Commercial Applications CDs (available with the Deluxe version) includes full and limited versions of some very tasty goodies including: Acrobat Reader 4; Executor (a MacOS emulator); IBM’s JDK, Lotus Notes and ViaVoice (voice recognition word processor). It also has demos of the games Civilization: Call to Power, Railroad Tycoon II and Myth II; an evaluation version of VMware; and WordPerfect. True, almost all of this is available via download – but if you’d like it all in one easy-to-install package, this is a mother lode.]
Secure Server: For the professional “with a purpose,” this product offers the base Mandrake OS bundled with a secure Web server for starting an e-commerce operation. Additional utilities and a custom Linux Library (over 4200 pages of electronic docs from Que and Sams) round out this product.
J: What are Linux-Mandrake’s particular strengths? What are its weaknesses?
SS: Mandrake’s strengths include:
• Red Hat compatibility
• Pentium optimization
• Cutting edge components (latest kernel, XFree, etc)
• Scalable graphical installation
• Pre-configured desktops and user interfaces
• Comprehensive graphical configuration tools
• Additional packages, drivers, utilities, apps and more
Honestly, it’s hard for me to think of weaknesses regarding Mandrake. This distribution has the depth to satisfy the hardcore user, but the simplicity (install and customization) to engage the beginner as well. Linux overall does have weaknesses, mostly surrounding the implications of open source and staying ahead of the technology curve. For example, there isn’t one multi-million-dollar firm behind the Linux distros (Microsoft) and the kernel has just begun to support technologies like USB. Keep in mind that these disadvantages exist across the spectrum of Linux, not just with Mandrake.
J: Why should I use Linux-Mandrake instead of another distro for my web, mail or dialup authentication server?
SS: All the reasons stated above, particularly the ability to support the latest hardware, ease of customization, bundled components, etc. This is true across the board of applications (web, mail, dialup authentication, etc).
J: What’s the recommended hardware for a Linux-Mandrake Internet server? Is there anything that works particularly well?
SS: The answer really depends on the workload and user load the particular box will experience. One prominent ISP (CiHost) uses Red Hat for their Web hosting servers which are dual-Pentium boxes. Recently LinuxWorld (February in New York) used Mandrake for their registration system, probably high-end Pentiums using dumb terminals (low-end boxes) for input.
When considering Linux-Mandrake, it’s important to consider running on a Pentium or derivative due to the recompilation using Pentium optimization.
J: How easy/difficult is it to migrate from another Linux distribution to Linux-Mandrake? Is there anything I should know?
SS: It depends on what you are migrating from. Although most Linux distros are pretty much the same, some vary considerably in customization, installed tool sets, libraries, etc. Like migrating between Windows versions, you want to ensure that your added tools (applications, utilities, etc) are compatible with the new system. Red Hat and derivative Linux distros use some different libraries than other distros, requiring different base level support for some programs.
J: On the client side, can ISPs support Linux-Mandrake dialup users easily? Why?
SS: You should be able to with no problem. Linux speaks the Internet natively (TCP/IP) so utilizing a PPP dialup is almost second nature to the OS. It’s a bit tougher [for the user] to set up than [for the ISP to] support really … the ISP shouldn’t have to change a thing.
As Linux distributions go, Linux-Mandrake 7.0 is very good. Aside from some strange gaps in documentation (for example, my Macmillan Linux-Mandrake Complete “User Guide and Reference Manual” didn’t even mention DrakConf), it seems pretty solid.
For the ISP/web user, there are two groups that will find it particularly compelling. First are new users/admins who want the easiest, most pain-free installation and setup. Second are users with Pentium-based machines, who may see impressive speed gains over other distributions. Note: I wasn’t able to throw enough machine load at my test server to test this out reasonably; if someone out there does, please let me know the results. For anyone, though, Linux-Mandrake 7 is certainly worth a look.