Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Slackware 11.0 RC-1

The next version of my favourite Linux distribution is on the verge of being released. Yes, Slackware has it's first 11.0 release candidate.

Normally, I don't chase the very latest versions of software until someone's tested them for me beforehand - for instance, my latest foray into the world of Opera version 9.0 was a bit dismal... most of the computers I installed it on had no problems at all but at least two showed severe random crashes that I could not track down for weeks. The funny thing was that both problematic installs were on different hardware and yet on two very-similar machines one version of Opera 9.0 worked flawlessly but another didn't.

Anyway, unusually for me, I've been closely tracking Slackware 11.0 since the last stable release, 10.2, which is currently powering my main desktop and a number of my servers and hobby machines (I always track updates to stable versions so my software is never vulnerable but I rarely use "beta" software of any kind). I've actually got an up-to-date mirror of the bleeding-edge -current version of Slackware (that will become 11.0) which I update every time the Changelog changes. I'm hoping in this way to not have to suffer traffic-lock when 11.0 is finally released - hopefully at worst a tiny update of a handful of packages will be all that's needed to create my own DVD-R instead of having to fight thousands of people trying to download all 4Gb of software swamping every mirror with traffic.

I have even gone to the effort of a test install of the RC-1 version on a seperate partition. Linux, and Slackware in particular, demonstrated its flexibility and user-focus once again - by booting from a Slackware DVD, I was able to install the full install to a blank partition without doing any more than a very basic check of the partition name (which I am always very careful to double-check by mounting the partition in question - never take partitioning or formatting of anything on a PC full of data lightly). Once it was installed to my spare partition, I was able to copy the kernel and modules directory from my "stable" partition to the new "current" partition and, with a little LILO magic, boot into the new version of Slackware without touching my previous installation in any way, but with the very latest 2.6 stable kernel and all the software of 11.0.

I have to say that it's not spectacular but it's not spectacular because it WORKS. It just does what you tell it. You boot it on your PC, it detects all your gear, you set a few options and you have a full desktop. You port your old settings and files over and everything just works again.

The simple fact was that, in under three minutes of the installation completing, I was in a fully kitted out Linux desktop with drivers for all my hardware without having to compile a single package - installation consisted of nothing more than an automated decompression of the packages to the partition in question and minor copies or edits of my previous configuration files (such as re-doing alsamixer settings, configuring X etc.). My old software worked (at worst requiring a recompile against latest headers), my settings transferred and my computer didn't crash or have to reboot seven zillion times.

New in Slackware 11.0 RC-1:

* Updated kernels (although the default still looks set to be a 2.4 kernel)

Obviously, although I would say that the kernel is the one thing not worth waiting for a Slackware package to come out for - just install the latest stable of 2.4 or 2.6 depending on your tastes... Slackware supports either seamlessly without needing any special setup (although you may find it convenient to stick with one of the two for compiling anything that reads from kernel headers). Don't forget that Slackware always comes with a .config for it's kernel that's fully modularised and ideal for "make oldconfig" when a new kernel comes out that you need to compile.

* Lots of init script fixes and features

* Updated hotplug / udev support

* X.org 6.9.0

* KDE 3.5.4

No more Gnome in Slackware unless you get it from somewhere else. Not a bad thing for me, given that Gnome always reminds me of the old Borland dialogs in Windows - it always looked clunky and out of place. You can still get Gnome for Slackware from many places but it was removed in the previous version because of an apparently horrid compilation rigmarole.

* Updated versions of just about everything else (Samba, Apache, MySQL, Java etc.)

The changes aren't massive - it's not even as if the previous version has software which is currently vulnerable (despite what some checkers may tell you if they only go by software version number rather than whether they've actually been patched!). The software isn't the very latest (but it is almost guaranteed to be the best tradeoff between features, security and code stability) but it's clean, it's quick, it's simple, it works and it's been designed to run on as many computers as possible by default.

Although not designed as a desktop distribution, it's easily subverted to that purpose by installing the right "extra" software but the fact is that you know what you are getting - a stable, safe system that works and is flexible.

I get to choose and keep my own firewall package - one I've grown to love and have integrated lots of my other scripts into, I get to keep my choice of kernels and even whether to go 2.4 or 2.6. Every piece of software has been updated but all my old settings port over easily (at worst requiring a diff of some sort). Every piece of hardware has modules ready-prepared for it so there's no need to keep recompiling to get support. The kernel is bog-standard kernel.org fare, so there's no vendor patches or compatibility problems to worry about. Everything is controlled by human-readable scripts, which upgrade cleanly over previous versions.

I'm planning on building some kind of workhorse headless server and it looks like Slackware 11.0 is going to be my choice, given it's proximity to release and its easy flexibility to be installed without X or other useless software. This server will be performing lots of tasks which I'm hoping to come to rely on - CCTV monitoring and other household security tasks, intranet web serving, firewall, NAT, printer server, transparent HTTP proxy, automated network antivirus scanner, email scanner proxy, Caller ID announcer, wireless gateway, network boot server and all manner of other custom projects. It will use relatively modern hardware, will require stability (as it will be expected to be running all day long), will not need any sort of graphics capability and have to be secure against attack. I don't want to have to compile anything from scratch or find out that I've forgotten package X, so a full install and then prune will be in order.

Slackware's reputation means that I'm quite happy to have waited nearly a year for this release - I haven't had a vulnerable system in that time due to strictly-monitored security fixes for the -stable version, I haven't had to fight with half-new features in things like udev and hotplug which would have caused me a lot of trouble and I'm going to a system that's just as stable albeit further updated.

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