||Libranet GNU/Linux, a commercial Linux distribution based on Debian, has been given increasingly positive coverage in Linux media. Its recipe for success is simple - it attempts to remedy some of the often cited shortcomings of Debian proper, by providing a simple installer, user-friendly system configuration tools and up-to-date selection of software packages. Combine that with a friendly user community and you have a winner. Let us investigate what Libranet is about and why you should give it a serious thought when choosing your Linux distribution.
|The Great Divide - APT vs. RPM|
|One of the greatest strengths - and also one of the greatest weaknesses - of GNU/Linux is the way that numerous developers have taken the OS and molded it the way they like it. Occasionally this produces a "fork" - two (or more) camps of devout users, both vehemently insisting that their way of doing things is best. The most prominent example of this is probably the great GUI debate (Is KDE or Gnome better?). Another equally important divide exists over the seemingly mundane issue of package management. The two biggest contenders are the Red Hat package manager (RPM, as it is popularly known) and Debian's Advanced Package Tool (APT, or apt-get) system.|
Until late 2002, it seemed as if the debate was all but over - RPM was winning by a landslide. All the major Linux distros - including but not limited to Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE, Caldera, and Conectiva - were RPM based. Furthermore, the LSB (Linux Standard Base) project endorsed RPM. To add insult to injury, the big-three Debian-based commercial distros failed in the marketplace - Stormix, Corel and Progeny.
Debian users had their loyalty tested when Linux kernel 2.4 was released in January, 2000. Within four months of the release, all the major RPM-based distros produced sets of nicely packaged CDs based on the new kernel. But for Debian users, the process of migrating to the new kernel took more than two years. During this interval, Debian was falling seriously behind the other well-known distros in terms of features.
Of course, one could argue that by constantly downloading the "testing" and "unstable" packages, Debian users could in fact enjoy the latest and greatest that the RPM-based competition had to offer. But "testing" and "unstable" are just what the names imply. Whether they wished to admit it or not, Debian's loyal fans were pining for the day when the new stable release would hit the ftp servers.
Debian 3.0 (code-named "Woody") was released on July 19, 2002. It was an occasion for much rejoicing - at last, Debian users had an up-to-date stable distro. Or did they? Stable, yes, but up-to-date was debatable. Linux development moves at nearly the speed of light, and by the time Woody was released, RPM-based distros were offering new features that Debian still relegated to the testing branch (now code-named "Sarge"), or the unstable branch (known as "Sid"). Furthermore, Debian continues to suffer from a relatively difficult-to-use installer, mediocre hardware detection, and somewhat complicated system administration.
None of the above should be taken as a fatal flaw of Debian - indeed, Debian's slowness to market might even be considered a "feature". The Debian philosophy has always been "release when ready". As a result, Debian has bragging rights as one of the most stable distros around. Furthermore, Debian also can boast about being the largest Linux distro in existence - Woody includes 8710 packages. Creating and testing thousands of packages is no mean feat, and made more difficult by the fact that Debian is a non-commercial product, created by volunteers who also need to work day jobs to pay the bills. This is in sharp contrast to commercial distros such as Red Hat, where full-time programmers are employed.
Obviously, Debian's fortunes would be improved if commercial developers decided to produce their own Debian-based distros with cutting-edge features. And rather suddenly, this has happened. Following fast on the heels of Woody, there were milestone releases of new Debian-based distros - Lindows 3.0, Xandros 1.0, Knoppix 3.1, and Libranet 2.7. Lindows and Xandros are both commercial distros, notable for their ease-of-use that will help Windows users make an almost painless transition to Linux. Knoppix is a different animal - a unique non-commercial distro that runs entirely off a CD-ROM. And then there is Libranet.
Libranet is Debian made easy. The product of Jon and Tal Danzig - two programmers based in Vancouver, Canada - Libranet is a commercial Debian-based distro "that just works". Almost overnight, Libranet seems to have leaped out of obscurity and is now getting serious attention as a potential major contender in the distro wars.
Screenshot 1: Libranet's IceWM desktop
|Apologies if all the above introductory rhetoric seemed like a long-winded sermon. Many reviews start with installation issues, and Libranet is exceptional in this regard. Total Linux neophytes may be a little put off by the fact that Libranet's installation routine is not graphical, but rather occurs in menu-based text mode. Refugees from Windows may be intimidated by the fact that they cannot point-and-click their way through the installation, but will have to maneuver the menus with the TAB, arrow keys, and ENTER. First-timers with no Linux experience might also be a little confused by terms such as /dev/hda and eth0. Adding to newbie terror is also the fact that Libranet comes with little documentation.|
On the other hand, users with even a modicum of Linux experience inevitably find the installation procedure to be dead easy. Little documentation is required because little is needed. Hardware detection is nothing short of excellent, and the whole installation experience feels simple, clean, and fast (and infinitely easier than Debian's). You can allow the installation program to partition your hard disk automatically, but REAL Linux users think that auto-partitioning is for wimps, and will no doubt want to do it manually. The "parted" utility is accessible from within the installer - this will allow you to resize an existing Windows partition to make room for Linux. Other than deciding how to partition your hard drive, one of the few decisions you'll have to make is deciding if you want to format your Libranet partitions with the ReiserFS or ext3 file system. Most choose ReiserFS for its speed, but the ultra-cautious might want to create a separate partition for /home and format it with ext3. Libranet installs GRUB (the Grand Unified Boot Loader), which you can set up to multi-boot with Windows and other operating systems.
Perhaps the biggest complaint expressed by veterans of the Libranet install is that one cannot choose individual packages during the procedure. Rather, you are presented with a number of package groups, as follows:
[ ] PCMCIA software (laptop ONLY)
[ ] Laptop software
[ ] Chat software
[ ] Dictionaries
[ ] Documentation
[ ] Text and programming editors
[ ] File management software
[ ] Financial software
[ ] Games (~400MB)
[ ] GNOME Desktop Environment
[ ] Graphics software
[ ] KDE Desktop environment
[ ] E-mail software
[ ] Office software
[ ] Personal management Software
[ ] Printing software
[ ] Shells and terminal emulators
[ ] Audio software
[ ] Toys
[ ] System utilities
[ ] Picture and video viewing software
[ ] Internet software
[ ] Window Managers
[ ] Java 2 runtime environment
[ ] OpenOffice.org Office Suite
[ ] Math software
[ ] CD-R/RW recording software
[ ] KDE language packages
[ ] Emulators
[ ] EMACS
[ ] LaTex Software
[ ] Development software and libraries
[ ] GTK/GNOME development environment
[ ] QT/KDE development environment
[ ] Networking software
[ ] DNS server
[ ] MySQL database
[ ] NFS
[ ] FTP server
[ ] SAMBA clients
[ ] SAMBA server
[ ] Apache webserver
[ ] PHP4 MySQL modules
[ ] ISDN utilities
[ ] WordPerfect 8 compatibility
As above should make obvious, Libranet comes with a large selection of packages. Although the product ships on only two CDs, a full install will leave you with hundreds of applications occupying over two gigabytes of hard disk space. This includes many of the "big guns" such as OpenOffice, Mozilla, Evolution, Gimp, Adobe Acrobat Reader, along with obscure utilities that you've probably never heard of.
|After the install, you can of course add and remove individual packages with the apt-get tool, or its more sophisticated front ends, "Aptitude" (text-based), "Gnome-apt" (graphics-based) and "Synaptic" (also graphics-based). Furthermore, you are not just limited to Libranet's packages, but rather you have access to the complete 8710 stable packages on the debian.org web site. You can get a complete listing of these packages here. If you don't have a fast Internet connection, you might prefer to order a set of cheap Debian 3.0 CDs from various online retailers.
Screenshot 2: Package installation with Synaptic
Probably the first thing you'll notice when you boot into Libranet is that rather than the conventional choice of KDE or Gnome as the default GUI, you will instead find yourself in IceWM (the Ice Window Manager). This comes as a surprise to many, but the choice of Ice was a shrewd one. Libranet is built for speed, and Ice is a fast window manager. Your computer may give you the feeling that you've suddenly doubled the amount of RAM and dropped in a new over-clocked processor. For many users, the speed boost is reason enough to prefer Libranet over other major distros.
In case you don't like Ice, you can switch the display to a number of other installed window managers including WindowMaker, Enlightenment, Fluxbox, Blackbox, Sawfish, FVWM2, QVWM, XFce, KDE 3.0.3 or Gnome 2.0.1. It's worth noting that Libranet's window managers are more up-to-date than Debian's (Woody installs KDE 2.2 and Gnome 1.4). Equally important, Libranet is cutting edge by setting up your graphics card with XFree86 4.2.
A key feature of Libranet is its proprietary system administration tools, the text-based Adminmenu or the graphics-based Xadminmenu. Sysadmin duties you can accomplish with this very easy-to-use utility include hardware reconfiguration, adding and removing Libranet's DEB packages, configuring X-Window, recompiling the kernel, setting the time and date, and pretty much anything else you could have done during the installation procedure itself. One thing still missing from Adminmenu is group administration - for this you must use old-fashioned command-line tools such as "addgroup" and "delgroup". Almost certainly, group administration will be added to the next rendition of Adminmenu, but for now it's a noticeable omission.
Screenshot 3: Xadminmenu - Kernel configuration
CD burners are very fashionable these days, and one of the neat little tricks that Adminmenu can do for you is to automatically set up IDE-based CD drives with SCSI emulation. Most distros still force you to perform this error-prone procedure manually, so its inclusion in Adminmenu is a very nice little feature that will save a number of people from banging their heads against the wall. Adminmenu also boasts a facility for setting up Zip drives.
In this age of rapacious evildoers lurking on the Internet, it's good to know that you can use Adminmenu to set up a firewall. Libranet's firewall is remarkably secure, and will make you almost invisible to script kiddies and other moral cretins looking to mug an online victim.
Screenshot 4: Xadminmenu - network configuration
If you've installed everything, one of the things you will notice on boot-up is that many services (daemons) are loaded, including some you probably could do without. Needless to say, running fewer services will speed up the booting process, but don't turn off something you really need. You cannot turn these services on or off with Adminmenu - for that, issue the command (as root) "rcconf", which is the standard Debian runlevel configuration tool.
In case you wish to run a mail server, Libranet (like most distros these days) installs Postfix by default, rather than Debian's industrial-strength Exim or the traditional (and much criticized) Sendmail.
Since much of the Linux world is biased towards RPM, commercial package such as StarOffice are offered only in RPM format. Fortunately, RPMs can be installed on Libranet using the Debian Alien program. There is an alternate method, though considered somewhat messier - as root create a directory /var/lib/rpm, cd to this directory and type the command rpm -initdb, and you'll be able to install RPMs.
|Libranet provides a very stable system, and users report that it seems to run forever without breaking. Nevertheless, bugs are not unknown, though most of these are either Debian bugs or bugs in the installed programs themselves.
Take, for example, Gnome 2.0. Compared to the old version 1.4, version 2.0 has caused a few grumbles, though none are fatal and most are fixable. On the other hand, many users feel it pays to be on the cutting edge, and Gnome 2.1 should be available as a download in the not-too-distant future. One of the more noticeable problems is that the .gnome folder seems to have the wrong permissions set (this can be easily fixed). More annoying is the fact that Gnome-spell doesn't seem to work. Furthermore, the Gnome-based spreadsheet, Gnumeric, loads with an unreadable default cell size of 10% (solve this by clicking on the zoom box on the upper right corner of the screen and set it back to 100%).
Users have reported that the Debian CUPS printing system is lacking support for a number of printer families. Whether or not this works on your printer, you will have to try and see. You don't necessarily have to use CUPS - Libranet also supports LPRng - but CUPS is fast becoming the default for most modern inkjets, and this is one area that Debian needs to fix.
|You can (and should) register your copy of Libranet. Online support only covers the installation, and rather few people actually require much help to get the basic system up and running. On the other hand, almost everyone has questions, and answers are available from the helpful and friendly Libranet community via the Libranet-users mailing list. Subscribe to the list at the Libranet web site. The list is small enough to be manageable, averaging around 30 to 50 posts per day (don't be surprised if it grows significantly in the next year). You can also subscribe to the Debian-users mailing list, but needless to say that has a much broader focus (not to mention the fact that you'll be flooded with at least 300 messages per day).
|Price and Availability|
|When version 2.7 was first announced, it proved to be so popular that all the CD sets in stock actually sold out, forcing anxious Libranet enthusiasts to wait for about two weeks while the CD factories churned out another big order. Happily, the disks are back in stock.
You can order directly from the Libranet web site. For personal use the price is US$59.95, corporate or institutional use US$99.95, students can get it for $39.95 and existing users pay US$44.95. Unless you're eligible for the student or existing-user discount, it's actually $10 cheaper if you order from Cheapbytes or from Linux Central. If ordering from Cheapbytes or Linux Central, you might want to take the opportunity to order a set of Woody disks for $20.00 (7-disk set) unless you have a fast Internet connection.
If all of the above is simply beyond your budget, it's worth knowing that you are allowed free downloads and/or copying of the next-to-the-last version, which in this case is Libranet version 2.0.
|For total newbies who have never seen a command line, Libranet may be just a bit too much, especially given the lack of documentation. Such users might want to go with Xandros as a first distro, and pick up Libranet later after they've learned why they should never type "rm -fr *" in an Xterm.
For anyone with even a little Linux/UNIX experience, Libranet offers compelling features. This distro is a pleasant fast track for people who have always wanted to install Debian, but have been reluctant to struggle with Debian's abysmal installer and lack of hardware detection. Furthermore, Libranet adds value with the excellent Adminmenu utility, which can save aspiring system administrators from ulcers and alcoholism. The fact that Libranet 2.7 is more up-to-date than Debian Woody is another plus, and you'll appreciate the speed and intelligent selection of menus in IceWM. The compatibility with Debian's vast archive of packages is icing on the cake.
For all of the above reasons, I have found Libranet compelling enough to start using it as my distribution of choice. While I maintain copies of other distros on my hard drive for experimentation and recreation, I find that the Libranet partition is getting the most use.
As for what misgivings I might have about Libranet, I can only think of one. The distro is maintained by Jon and Tal. That's a lot of responsibility for just two persons to bear, and all of us Libranet users have to hope that it is worth their while to continue. As the distro is growing rapidly in popularity, perhaps more developers will be added to the team, but we'll just have to wait and see.
|Copyright (C) 2002 Robert Storey|
Verbatim copying and distribution of this article is permitted in any medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.
|13 December 2002|
|About the Author|
|Formerly a well-known Asian-based travel writer, now certified Linux geek|
|The author would like to thank the following Libranet users for their comments and suggestions:
• Baxter Shepperson
• Bill Sconce
• Bob Calhoun
• Dave Kuhlman
• Erik Wessman
• Michael Valentine
• Rob Benton
• Ted Wager
• Todd Witter
• Win Carus
|AMD K7 400 MHz
|ASUS mainboard A7A133|
ALi M1647/M15350+ chipset
|SCSI Storage Controller|
|Artop Electronic Corp AEC6712S|
|Lemel nVidia AGP 4x/2x 32MB
|128 MB SDRAM|
|Seagate 40 GB, 7200 RPM|
|Genuine IDE CD-ROM 52x
TEAC SCSI CD-R 8x
Iomega Zip SCSI 250MB
|Ulycom LCD 15"|
|SoundBlaster PCI 64|
|4 September 2002|
• Pentium 200MHz processor|
• 16MB RAM (32MB and up recommended)
• 400MB hard disk space
• CD-ROM or floppy drive
• SuperVGA 640x480 (800x600 recommended)
|Hard Disk Requirements|
• Minimal install - 500MB|
• Full install - 3.0GB
• Recommended - 4.0GB
• IDE and SCSI supported
|i486 and higher|
• Automatic hardware detection & configuration|
• Pre-configured IceWM
• AbiWord 1.0.2|
• Apache 1.3.26
• Cups 1.1.15
• GCC 2.95.4
• Gimp 1.2.3
• glibc 2.2.5
• GTK+ 2.0.6
• KDE 3.0.3
• KOffice 1.2
• Mozilla 1.0
• MySQL 3.23.49
• OpenOffice 1.0.1
• Perl 5.6.1
• Python 2.1.3
• Samba 2.2.3a
• XFree86 4.2.0
• xine 0.9.13
• Xmms 1.2.7
• Home User: $59.95|
• Student: $39.95
• Corporation or Institution: $99.95
• Existing Libranet user: $44.95
• Cheapbytes: $49
• Linux Central: $49.95
• 30-day email installation support|
• User Forums
• Mailing List
|Libra Computer Systems Ltd is the company name but libra.com was taken, so net was added to libra to fit the developers vision of a worldwide 'network' of Libranet systems.|
|Libranet's administration and system configuration utility.|