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The tale of the gratuitous GUI

November 12, 1999
Web posted at: 9:38 a.m. EST (1438 GMT)

by Joe Barr


(IDG) -- Red Hat 6.1 has some interesting new twists, including, if you so choose, a graphical install tool. I prefer the text-based routine, but there are plenty of others who disagree with my choice of the path less pixeled. Luckily for me, Red Hat offers options in the matter.

I've been cobbling together a new server the past couple of months as time, money, and fluctuating memory prices have allowed, and I decided to pick up the standard version of Red Hat 6.1 at the local CompUSA and to christen the server with it. With an automatic $10 rebate given at the store, the new box of Red Hat was under $20. This is quite a bit less than I paid at the same location for Red Hat 6.0, though I did but that version in the deluxe edition, which included telephone support.

Linux-based Net appliance targets home
The server hardware consists of a pair of 500 MHz Celeron processors, an Abit BP-6 mainboard, a 128 MB stick of PC100, CAS 2 SDRAM, a 7200 rpm IDE drive, a Creative Labs Banshee Blaster video card with 16 MB of memory, an NE2K PCI NIC, an Xwave-192 Sound-Blaster-compatible sound card, a no-name ATAPI CD drive, and a floppy drive -- all stuffed comfortably into a midtower case with a 300 watt power supply.

The monitor (Sampo AlphaScan 711s), keyboard (Linux Cool Keyboards), and three button PS/2 style mouse (Belkin) are all shared with two other systems at the moment, thanks to the magic of an four way ATEN Master View CPU switch.

My new server may not be exactly awe-inspiring in these days of four- and eight-way Xeon monsters, but it is quite a step forward from the twin Pentium 120 box that it will be replacing.

At the start, I mentioned that Red Hat now allows you to choose your own installation poison. Actually, it allows three choices from the opening screen at installation. The default takes you through a graphical process; the expert version initially allows you to load any special drivers you might need for your hardware, then goes GUI for the rest of the install; and the text version follows the old text-based Red Hat install.

GNOME versus KDE -- with a handicap

Regardless of which interface selected, the path is familiar to anyone who has installed Red Hat before. You choose the language, identify your keyboard and mouse type, pick the type of installation you want, and partition the disk if needed; you configure LILO, network, time zone, root password and user account, password type, and X server; and, finally, you select the software packages to be installed.

I found it ironic that the GUI install, which is intended to make the process easier, doesn't really. In fact, in some cases, it doesn't at all. For instance, during network configuration, the GUI install asks you for network and broadcast IP addresses. In a text install, the question isn't necessary.

But that is a minor quibble, to be sure. I had a much bigger problem installing Red Hat 6.1 when I used the GUI tool: it refused to acknowledge that I deselected GNOME and selected KDE as my desktop. Every time I tried it -- and I repeated the process several times because I couldn't believe it -- GNOME would appear when I started X.

No biggie, I thought. I'll just use the cool little desktop utility called Switchdesk that Red Hat provides to painlessly change desktop environments. But when I did, Switchdesk complained that it couldn't find switchdesk-gnome and abruptly shut down.

In order to get to a KDE desktop, I had to use the text install and choose to install all packages. That still started me off, the first time I ran startx, in GNOME -- but at least Switchdesk did run and I was allowed to change to KDE.

Trouble with video cards

I also had problems with the GUI install in configuring X server. I began to think that perhaps my new Blaster Banshee was flaky, and, in truth, it did give bad vid at times, even in console mode. So rather than blame Red Hat for what might be a problem with misunderstood hardware, I yanked out the Banshee and replaced it with a Diamond Viper Ultra V770.

Back I went into the GUI install. By now well-versed as to when to point and what to click, I raced through the process one more time. Custom install. Check. Select the KDE package. Check. Deselect the GNOME package. Check.

The install correctly identified my video card but only gave me credit for half its 32 MB of memory. Stranger yet, it failed to recognize my monitor at all. When the Banshee was in place, it identified my Sampo as a plug-and-play monitor. With the Viper, it said it couldn't tell. That nit probably doesn't matter because, in both cases, I selected the Sampo AlphaScan from the list and continued.

Then it was time for the Electric Kool-Aid X Server Test, the moment of truth. I bypassed the creation of yet another boot diskette, clicked exit, and watched the screen go weird as the install shut down. The screen always did that at the end of the graphical install with the Banshee, too, as if the install program had seized the video card in a Vulcan death grip in order to have its way with it, and then released it suddenly, letting it slump unconscious to the floor as it let go.

Interrupting the reboot process only long enough to change the initial boot device in BIOS from CD-ROM to disk, I impatiently watched Linux boot, waiting for the login prompt to appear. When it did, I logged in at once and, in anticipation of final victory over the rogue install process, typed startx one more time.

But there was no joy in Mudville. GNOME, oblivious to my pain and blind to my desires, launched itself once more. Worse yet, when I tried to run Switchdesk, it shrugged off my request again like a New York cabbie giving the cold shoulder to a wannabe fare standing in a cold rain without an umbrella.

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Text marks the spot

That was enough of the gratuitous GUI for me. I went back to the legacy install by asking for text at the initial screen. This time I chose the custom install and requested everything. I didn't let the install probe my Viper, instead selecting the mode and bit density I wanted manually.

The install took longer this time, since every package was copied from the CD to my hard drive, but it was still only took about half an hour. As I expected it would, based on my previous efforts, GNOME showed its face when I started the X server the first time. But, at long last, I was at least allowed to switch to KDE.

Before I forget, let me mention that you don't want to select the server install package without carefully reading all about it first. The server package assumes it will not be dual booted, and therefore deletes all existing partitions, whether they are Linux partitions or not. I wince to think of the folks who will learn this the hard way, and come out of the install process without the Windows 98 or NT partitions they had when they began.

Just a pretty face?

As I noted at the beginning, some might prefer the pretty face that the GUI tool paints over the install process. I don't. There is no substantive advantage in clicking to choose a package as opposed to pressing a key to do the same thing.

It appears to me that, instead of improving the install process in 6.1, Red Hat has simply checked off a bullet point marked "GUI Install" from a list of things that could be perceived as improvements. This may well be the first marketing-driven enhancement to the post-IPO Red Hat. It is clearly a reaction to the much acclaimed graphical install of Caldera OpenLinux 2.3. But it is just as clearly not a step forward.

Here's another difference that I noted, present in both the text and GUI tools. Red Hat now wants you to add at least one user account during the installation process. This is in addition to setting the root password, as has always been required during an install.

The company's thinking is that it is safer and more secure to use the system from a user account than as root. I agree with that thinking, but I disagree that the install is necessarily the place to get into user account management.

The install process is a daunting and intimidating one for new Linux users. Adding items to the list of things to do during installation is not going to make it any more user friendly. Slapping a GUI over it doesn't add much either. I'll give Red Hat credit for making efforts to improve and simplify the process, but take points away on execution .

Joe Barr is a software professional, writer, and self-proclaimed dweeb. He has been working in the industry since 1974 as a programmer, analyst, consultant, and manager. In 1994 he began writing a monthly column called Papa Joe's Dweebspeak Primer in Austin, TX's Tech Connected magazine. The column exists today as an ezine and newsletter at, which has run on Linux since its inception.

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