The concept of source-based distributions, where all software is compiled from source code locally for maximum control and performance, took off with the introduction of Gentoo Linux and its wonderful package management called Portage. But Gentoo, popular as it may be, is not the only source-based distributions; in fact it is not even the oldest. ROCK Linux existed long before Gentoo and there are other independently developed projects. Andrew Fries has taken to the task of investigating the often overlooked source-based distributions - Sorcerer, Source Mage GNU/Linux, Lunar Linux and Onebase Linux. His conclusion: try Source Mage and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
|I've been using Linux as my only OS for over two years now. I started
with SuSE, but soon I was exploring other options. These days I use
Libranet and Arch Linux and they serve me well, but I was curious about
the world of source based systems. Gentoo is a popular choice for people
reaching this point, but I wanted to explore some lesser known
alternatives instead - for a while now I've been curious about Sorcerer,
and when I read about a new contender called Onebase Linux, I decided to
take it for a spin too.
My test system is an Athlon 1800 XP on Gigabyte GA-7VRX motherboard with
on-board sound and ethernet, generic GeForce 4 MMX video card, 512 MB of
RAM, 80 GB hard disk and Liteon CD-ROM/burner. My internet connection is
handled by an old Pentium running Smoothwall.
|Sorcerer, Source Mage, Lunar Linux...
|Sorcerer was the original source based distro but apparently due to some
internal conflicts it ended up splitting into three separate yet similar
projects: Source Mage and Lunar Linux as well as the original Sorcerer.
l didn't have enough information to have a strong preference one way or
another. How did I end up with Source Mage then? Well, it just turned
out to be the one I was able to install easily. Lunar Linux would go
through the motions but somehow in three attempts I could not get a
booting system, no doubt due to my own ignorance. Sorcerer bailed out
early: it just refused to create reiserfs on my root partition and I
don't know how I could be to blame for this one... Sure, I could've
tried using ext3 instead, but I had my heart set on either reiserfs or
xfs, and the way I see it there isn't much point in installing a
source-based distro if I still can't have it the way I want it. So I
moved on to Source Mage, and finally hit the jackpot. I hope to revisit
Lunar and Sorcerer some other time on another machine, but for now,
Source Mage it is.
|This is a brand new distribution, developed from scratch. The first beta
appeared only around June or July, version 1.0 was released early
September and was quickly followed by two minor revisions. I downloaded
the latest of these, 1.2. Release 2.0 is just around the corner as I
|As Source Mage proclaims in their "mission statement" their goal is to
give total control back to system administrators. They are not kidding.
It is very clear this system means business and is not intended for
beginners. Onebase on the other hand aspires to being easy to install
and use even for less experienced users, as well as being flexible and
powerful, yet transparent. To this end it provides a tool, OLM, intended
for both configuring and managing the system. I was very curious to see
how it will achieve these somewhat conflicting goals.
|Installing Source Mage is in fact a very simple affair and probably the
quickest install I've ever done: under 15 minutes from start to finish.
The simplest sequence of steps is: Boot from the CD, select settings for
language, font and editor, make partitions with cfdisk, fdisk or parted,
chose and mount your filesystems, transfer the system, select time zone,
select optimizations, reconfigure lilo, configure networking, reboot.
Settings for language, fonts and editor work just fine if left alone.
I chose a simple partition scheme: 100 MB for boot (ext3), 1 GB for swap
(a lot of swap is recommended), and the remaining 70-odd GB for the main
partition (xfs). Selecting optimizations is easy as well, because
thankfully menus present the choices in simple terms like architecture,
optimize for speed, optimize for size, and so on, rather than asking for
specific compiler flags. Reconfiguring lilo in my case just meant
adjusting one line in /etc/lilo.conf to put it in MBR, and this was
described in the documentation. Configure networking allowed me to enter
hostname, configure eth0 and select dhcp, although as I was about to
find out that didn't work. As it happens the version I downloaded (0.6)
differs from the others in that it dispenses with configuring and
compiling kernel at installation time, and just goes ahead with the
default kernel (2.4.20). I thought it was an excellent choice: it made
installation simple and quick, and I could always tweak my kernel later
- at this point I was eager to just get this thing going! But I guess
I'd feel differently if my hardware wasn't supported by the default
kernel. In any case I believe the option to configure kernel is back in
the installer for version 0.7.
When I rebooted my system I found the
network was missing but luckily I remembered a review of Sorcerer on
Distrowatch mentioned steps the reviewer took to set up his network, so I
followed his example: I added "alias eth0 8139too" to /etc/modules.conf,
then run "modprobe eth0". 'lsmod' showed the module was now loaded, so I
started dhcpcd and all was well. At this point howto recommended
updating sorcery and grimmoire (that is, collection of spells -
installation scripts), casting spells to get current versions of gcc,
gettext and glibc, then rebuilding the whole system. That's what I did,
and some 10 hours later I had my base system recompiled - except Perl
now developed problems because some dependencies were not found or
downloaded properly. At this point I took a break. When I came back the
next day I did another sorcery update, and bingo - Perl fixed itself.
Installation of Onebase consisted of even fewer steps, although it did
involve compiling the kernel. Only two partitions are required - root
and swap. Lilo is the only bootloader on offer. As for file systems,
ext3, reiserfs and xfs are available. The only optimization in Onebase
is specifying the architecture - more detailed settings can be applied,
but only by editing installation scripts directly. After reboot its time
to call olm for further configuration. Olm turned out to be just a
little script that calls various standard programs to perform actual
tasks - for example help and any info is displayed by calling up vi,
"install apps" calls links (console web browser) to download scripts,
and "configure video" calls standard configuration tool that comes with
xfree. On one hand this is good because unlike in other distros
everything in Onebase is completely standard and visible. On the other
hand, it means using olm is not a huge improvement over calling these
tools directly, as it only creates a central point of access.
|Sorcery appears to be a rich, powerful system and I am only beginning to
explore what it can do. It preserves copies of installed programs so
botched updates can be rolled back. It has ability to self-heal, as it
did with my Perl. It offers a number of logs, and ways of viewing them.
There are many options to tweak, but even more importantly, the defaults
work just fine. Most important to me, it performed flawlessly every
spell I tried so far, including KDE and Gnome. One time I messed up a
spell by selecting wrong option, but it was easy to "cast --reconfigure"
to fix that. And since all downloaded sources are preserved, if I want
to install Source Mage on another machine I don't have to waste time and
bandwidth downloading them again - I can just copy /var/spool/sorcery
Onebase's approach is beautiful in its simplicity: there is no local
collection of scripts at all. They are just downloaded as needed from
the website, at first using links browser from the console. But
naturally once the desktop environment is up and running any browser
will do just as well. Once downloaded, scripts are run from the command
line. There is no need to worry about keeping them up to date, and there
are no archives and backups to manage either: each script downloads all
it needs into empty /usr/src/olm, does all its work there, then deletes
all contents leaving it blank again. Successful script will list what it
installed in a log, /root/apps-install. If it fails it will make an
entry in /root/apps-errors instead. And that really is all there is to
it! While I found this approach clean and simple, I suspect serious
system administrators might frown at lack of features. I frowned too
when I realized that if a download is interrupted for any reason, the
only way to continue is right from the beginning, downloading everything
all over again. This might not matter much for small applications, or
for those blessed with unlimited bandwidth and reliable connections, but
it could be a pain for the rest of us! There might be a way around this
though: installation scripts are very clean, simple and written in bash,
so it will be easy enough to modify them somehow if needed. And in fact
editing is the only way of adjusting script's actions.
Screenshot: Onebase Linux desktop configuration menu
I was especially excited because Onebase promised Gnome 2.4rc1 (this was
just before Gnome 2.4 was officially released). But my excitement soon
turned to disappointment because Gnome failed to build and to make
things even worse, so did KDE. I was able to install Fluxbox, Mozilla
and a couple of smaller applications just to test the system, but that's
all. Later on I read on the forums that KDE was fixed, but by then I had
to move on to Source Mage to finish this little project in the time I
allocated for it, and I also knew Onebase developers were already
focusing on developing version 2.0 so it seemed rather pointless to persist.
|Right now Source Mage is the clear winner in my book simply because it
managed to install KDE and Gnome, while Onebase failed on both. It also
has more applications available. But I realize these are very early days
of a small distro so I don't consider these problems serious at this
stage. Let's assume the details have been sorted out, and just look at
the concept. Is Onebase interesting and different? Yes, I think so. Is
it easy to use for beginners? Yes, if they can compile their kernel,
configure xfree using its default tools, and perform various tasks such
as creating users and groups from the command line. However I'd say
someone with these skills will also be able to deal with Source Mage. In
the end, it might simply be a matter of personal preference... what do
you value more: features or simplicity? Or it could be the matter of
intended environment and function. Administrators managing a number of
machines or servers critical for their business will be better served by
Source Mage with its roll-back, healing, archiving and logging. Users
wanting to set up a single system with as little fuss and overhead as
possible in a source-based distro might do well to consider Onebase -
but wait for the next release.
|Copyright (C) 2003
Verbatim copying and distribution of this article is permitted in any
medium, provided this copyright notice is preserved.
|AMD Athlon 1800 XP
|Gigabyte GA-7VRX motherboard
|nVidia GeForce 4 MMX
|Private Internet Access
For complete privacy and anonymity on your desktop computers and mobile devices, use a personal VPN from Private Internet Access, the award-winning, no logs VPN service named PC Mag.com Editors' Choice.