| DistroWatch Weekly
|DistroWatch Weekly, Issue 519, 5 August 2013
Welcome to this year's 31st issue of DistroWatch Weekly!
In the sea of open source software the winds are always changing. Projects alter course, divide or even merge. This week we learn of Kubuntu's long-term plans for handling the distribution's graphic stack and how they vary from Ubuntu's roadmap. We also talk about Mandriva's new resource for users of the project's Business Server edition. Plus we will hear about plans for merging two lightweight desktop environments. In this week's feature Jesse Smith looks at a flexible and unusual distribution named Porteus and reports on his first impressions of the project. Also in this week's issue we will talk about swappiness, what it is and how it can affect system performance. As usual we will talk about distributions released over the past week and look forward to upcoming developments. We, here at DistroWatch, wish you all a pleasant week and happy reading.
|Feature Story (by Jesse Smith)
First Impressions of Porteus 2.0
I've received a few requests to review the Porteus distribution, an unusual project which has its roots in the Slackware and Slax distributions. Porteus is not intended to be installed on a hard drive and run like a typical operating system. Instead the Porteus distro is usually used as a live CD or run from a USB thumb drive. Porteus can also be installed in a "frugal mode" where the operating system resides on the hard drive and may co-exist with other operating systems. In this manner Porteus appears to be philosophically similar to Puppy Linux -- small, fast and typically run as a live CD.
Something Porteus inherits from the Slax project is the use of modules. When users install software on Porteus it isn't handled the same way as packages are on most other distributions. Porteus bundles files used by a given application into modules, a kind of standalone object, rather than spreading the files for a package all across the operating system. Modules are not so much installed and removed as they are activated and deactivated. This means we may have a Porteus module saved somewhere on our system, but its contents aren't available to users until the module is loaded and activated by the administrator. When the module is deactivated its contents are no longer available to the system's users, but the module archive remains saved on our disk. It is an interesting concept which I'll talk about more later.
Porteus 2.0 -- Local help files
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The Porteus distribution comes in a few different flavours. There is a 32-bit build which comes with the Razor-Qt desktop and a 64-bit build that ships with both the KDE and LXDE desktops included. There are also 32-bit and 64-bit builds of a Xfce spin of Porteus. I ended up downloading two Porteus ISO images, the 32-bit build of Xfce (which was 195MB in size) and the 64-bit build that came with LXDE & KDE (which weighed in at 227MB). Booting from the Porteus live CD brings up a menu with a few options. We can launch a live desktop environment, we can boot to a text console, we can start a live desktop environment with the entire distro loaded into RAM if we want a super-fast experience. We can also tell Porteus to boot and then run a PXE network service so that other computers on the network can be booted into Porteus over the LAN. It's all quite flexible and I appreciate that.
Most of the time I was playing with Porteus it was while running the distribution from a CD and I was typically using the Xfce edition. At times I switched over to using the LXDE/KDE flavour of Porteus and found the experience to be, aside from a few minor desktop features, virtually an identical experience. I liked this as it meant I could switch between editions of the distribution and things worked consistently and I had access to similar tool sets. This is in contrast with some distributions which bundle completely different software with each spin. Porteus comes with the Firefox web browser and the Adobe Flash plugin. The Pidgin instant messenger client is installed as are the Transmission bittorrent client and the gFTP file transfer software. We're given an image viewer, a PDF viewer and each edition comes with a small drawing application. I found the AbiWord and Gnumeric productivity software in the application menu. The Audacious music player was included as was MPlayer for viewing videos. I found multimedia codecs were included for playing most audio formats, though some videos did not play. We're also given the GParted partition manager, text editors, archive managers and a virtual calculator. Each desktop comes with its own collection of small configuration apps for changing the look & feel of the graphical interface. Porteus uses Network Manager to get us on-line and to configure network connections. Each edition, I found, also comes with the GNU Compiler Collection installed. The Linux kernel, version 3.7, runs in the background.
Porteus 2.0 -- Running applications on the Xfce desktop
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At first Porteus seemed like a fairly run of the mill live desktop distribution until I discovered three special utilities in the application menu. These were the Porteus settings manager, the Porteus system information utility and the Porteus package manager. As we might expect, the system information application helps us discover details about the system. Most of the information available to us deals with hardware and low-level settings, network connections and logs. The settings manager is aptly named and allows us to adjust several aspects of the operating system, particularly changing passwords, encrypting & decrypting files and updating system packages. We can also configure keyboards, set the date & time and dump changes we have made to the system to a module file (a sort of package file) so it can be read back later.
The package manager was, to me, the most interesting item in the menu. The Porteus package manager has a nice feature in that it will allow us to pull software from a variety of sources, including the Debian software repositories, Slackware's repositories and the Salix project. The Porteus package manager lets us browse through these repositories and search for programs by name. We can then download packages and Porteus will attempt to resolve any dependencies and then bundle the foreign software into a module Porteus can attach to our operating system. This means we have access to a huge amount of software (Debian's repositories alone are massive) and the package manager does an amazing job of juggling these repositories in a way which is both intuitive and requires very little effort on the part of the user. A mouse click selects a repository, another click selects the desired package, a third confirms we want to download the dependencies and bundle them together in a portable module. It's all quite slick and highly automated. Granted, I did run into a few cases where the Porteus package manager had trouble working out dependencies, it wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough most of the time and I was quite happy with the way I was able to add and remove software on the operating system.
I ran the distribution on my HP laptop (dual-core 2GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, Intel video card, Intel wireless card) and in a VirtualBox virtual machine. In both cases the Porteus distribution performed well. The little operating system booted quickly, the desktop typically remained responsive (though I found Xfce would sometimes lag slightly in the virtual environment). In fact, I was very impressed with the speed achieved by the distribution when running from a CD. The Porteus operating system boots in mere seconds and input was usually handled surprisingly quickly. I found Porteus detected and utilized my hardware without any problems. My desktop display was set to my laptop's maximum resolution, my wireless card worked out of the box and sound was set to a low, yet audible level. Since I ran three different desktop environments during the week, memory usage varied a lot. I found Porteus, when matched with the LXDE interface, used approximately 100MB of RAM. Running Xfce would require about 120MB of memory and KDE was the heavyweight at 230MB.
When I first started playing with Porteus I will admit I was a touch.... if not skeptical at the distribution's usefulness, at least unsure of whether I could find a good use for it. The project's website clearly states that Porteus is not intended to be installed locally to the hard drive like a regular operating system and the documentation goes so far as to recommend Slackware as an alternative for people who want a full featured, locally installed distribution. In the live disc arena Porteus is facing a lot of strong competition from such projects as Knoppix and Puppy Linux. So I spent a good part of the first two days of my week just poking at the distribution and trying to find what set it apart, what features might encourage me to use Porteus instead of another project. After some exploration and thought I came up with three key points that I believe Porteus does very well, perhaps better than other distributions in the lightweight, live CD category.
The first is the size and speed of Porteus. Some people might question how I can praise the size of the distribution (around 200MB) when there are other, smaller distros out there. In a world that includes Tiny Core and Puppy, what right does Porteus have to the label "lightweight"? The answer is in the features. While other projects are smaller, what Porteus manages to do is remain reasonably small while providing a great deal of features. Porteus comes with productivity software, a compiler, a full featured web browser, codecs, Flash, configuration tools, a PXE service and drawing programs. The distribution comes with KDE and LXDE on one CD image that is only 227MB. I've heard developers claim that KDE and codecs and office software can't be made to fit on a 700MB disc and here is Porteus taking up one-third of that space! I'm impressed by what the Porteus developers have managed to do. Their distro might not be quite as small as other projects, but it packs a lot of functionality and an attractive interface into a surprisingly compact package.
Porteus 2.0 -- Gathering information and changing system settings
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The second feature I quite enjoyed was the array of configuration and information gathering tools. Porteus comes with a few programs that give us easy access to information on our hardware and our system set up and the distribution makes it easy to create frugal installs. In addition it supports encryption of our files. Porteus is surprisingly flexible with its scenarios. I like that Porteus isn't just about size and speed, the developers have also taken the time to make the distribution look nice and they provide configuration tools that are easy to navigate. The only other mini distro I know that is so careful to explain configuration steps and make things easy for the user is Puppy. I might go so far as to say while Porteus isn't as small as the Puppy distribution I found its desktop environments and configuration tools more intuitive, at least to my way of thinking.
The final feather in the cap of this distribution is package management. Porteus attempts to connect users with packages from several locations, including Slackware's software repositories and Debian's massive collection of software. This is rather unusual as typically distributions encourage the use of only official (or specific third-party) package repositories. Porteus, on the other hand, has a package manager which lets us bounce back and forth between different repositories with the same ease we would typically switch between application windows on the desktop. The package manager attempts to resolve dependencies and build modules for us. It's pretty good about letting us know if an error has occurred and is highly automated. All we need to do is tell it which package we want and Porteus tries to handle the request as best it can, usually with positive results. The distribution takes an unusual approach to package management and does so surprisingly well, making it easy to find and maintain packages from a variety of sources with remarkably little effort.
My time with Porteus provided me with some pleasant surprises. What, at first, looked like a fairly standard live CD won my respect and provided more power than I had expected. The Porteus team has managed to put out a fast, flexible, attractive distribution that is fairly light on resources and comes with configuration tools which are both useful and friendly. The project is well worth a look, especially if you want a distribution to take with you on the road.
|Miscellaneous News (by Jesse Smith)
Kubuntu lays out plans for Wayland adoption, Mandriva improves MBS solutions, LXDE and Razor-qt to merge
Following the decision made by the Ubuntu team to embrace a new display server, called Mir, there were comments from several quarters questioning the move and worrying about fragmentation. With X, Wayland and Mir all becoming available graphics stacks, compatibility and divided work become an issue. The move by Ubuntu to adopt Mir also raised questions, such as whether the distributions based upon Ubuntu would follow. As it turns out Kubuntu is one Ubuntu derivative which will not be going along with the move to Mir. A post on vizZzion outlines the plans Kubuntu developers have for their project. Regarding plans for the upcoming Kubuntu release the post states "For Kubuntu-next (13.10), the answer is pretty easy: We'll be relying on plain old Xorg. End of story. Alternatives do not provide us any benefits." Future releases will slowly introduce the ability to test Wayland, with Kubuntu 14.10 probably becoming the first release to run a graphic stack using Wayland by default.
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Mandriva's ServicePlace, "a hub for professional applications and services that extend the existing capabilities of the Mandriva Business Server," has recently received an overhaul. The on-line portal provides system administrators who run Mandriva Business Server (MBS) with products and services designed to work as add-ons to the basic server package. Some of these services are provided by Mandriva and some are offered by third-parties. Items offered through the reformed ServicePlace include ownCloud installations, e-mail services, customer support services and advanced administrative controls. Users running (or interested in running) MBS can visit the on-line shop to see the latest offerings.
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When Canonical announced plans to make a smart phone which would run Ubuntu and Android it raised questions about the nature of the phone and the software it would run. The Free Software Foundation in particular put forward some important questions, asking whether the planned Ubuntu Edge device would ship with free drivers, a lack of digital rights management and free software applications. In a recent interview Mark Shuttleworth talked about Canonical's plans for the Ubuntu Edge and addressed the issue of free software, saying, "Yes, we'll ship this with Android and Ubuntu, no plans to put proprietary applications on it. We haven't finalised the silicon selection so we're looking at the next generation silicon from all major vendors. I would like to ship it with all free drivers." Though not a definite promise to stick with free software, it is nice to hear Shuttleworth affirm a preference for software freedom.
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Last week we ran a feature which talked about the current state of the Razor-qt desktop environment. In that review the Razor interface was compared with the lightweight, and popular, LXDE desktop. As some of our readers pointed out, the two projects are not just similar, they plan to merge. Since LXDE is currently planning to transition from the GTK+ (version 2) toolkit to the Qt framework and, since Razor already uses the Qt framework, the two projects have virtually identical goals. With this in mind, over the coming weeks, "our two teams will coordinate LXDE-Qt's first release and Razor-qt's official final release. The GTK version of LXDE will still be worked on and kept up to date with any improvement to the Qt version for the foreseeable future. In the longer term, most Razor-qt components will fully be integrated into the LXDE-Qt and both teams will focus on the same project." In the open source community we often see projects fork and divide resources, it is nice to see two similar projects come together to share their resources and components.
|Question and Answers (by Jesse Smith)
Adjusting system swappiness
When-to-swap asks: I have heard that changing the swappiness of my system will improve performance. How does this work and what is a good setting for swappiness?
Let us imagine for a moment that on our Linux system we have one large pool of memory and this pool is divided into two parts. One part of the memory pool is our machine's RAM. RAM is very fast and in high demand, but there usually isn't a lot of it. The other part of the memory pool is called swap space. Swap space resides on the hard disk which is slow and typically in low demand.
In an ideal situation we would have lots of RAM and everything we need, applications and files, would stay in RAM where it would be accessed amazingly quickly. However, since RAM is relatively small and the hard disk relatively large, not everything we need will fit into RAM. This means the Linux kernel needs to make some tough choices. When the operating system starts to run out of room in RAM should the Linux kernel keep copies of files in memory and send the applications we are using into the slower swap space? Or should the kernel keep our programs in memory and drop files that it has copied into memory for quick access? It's a puzzle. Some applications will benefit from having files stored in RAM, but all processes (especially desktop programs we want to have respond quickly) will benefit from being kept in RAM too. Really, we want to rely on accessing the disk (and swap space) as little as possible.
What the swappiness parameter does is let us tell the Linux kernel our preference. Swappiness is expressed as a number from 0 to 100, inclusive. A high swappiness value (near 100) means that unused process memory should get removed from RAM and sent to swap space as much as possible. A low swappiness value (near 0) means the kernel will attempt to keep programs in memory and, if it needs RAM, cached files will be dropped from memory to free up space. Typically, on a desktop machine, we want a relatively low swappiness value. This means applications such as Firefox and our music player stay in memory and should remain responsive. To see what swappiness value our kernel is currently using we can run
Most modern distributions set the default swappiness value to the mid-range, typically 60. Often people running Linux on desktop/laptop machines like to set swappiness to a lower value. So how do we adjust the swappiness of the Linux kernel? First let's look at changing the level of swappiness on a running machine. To set our machine's swappiness level to 10, where applications are less likely to get transferred out of RAM, we can run the following at a command prompt as the root user:
To return the swappiness value to 60 we can run
Should we wish to make our new swappiness level permanent we can add a line to the text file /etc/sysctl.conf. This line will indicate the new swappiness value for the next time the system is booted. In this example I set swappiness to 10:
Most people will probably get along fine with the defaults, especially on a modern computer with lots of RAM. Swappiness is less of an issue if RAM isn't getting filled up, so if you have 8GB of RAM and only need 2GB for applications, swap space may not be used at all. On the other hand, if you have 1GB of RAM and you find your system is using swap space, then lowering the swappiness value is probably a good idea. If you are not sure if your operating system is making use of swap space, run the free command
The free command will show you, on the bottom line, the amount of total swap space available, how much is being used and how much is currently free (unused). If the value in the "used" column is zero then swap space isn't being used and swappiness won't matter much. A value above zero means swap space is used and your system may benefit from being tuned.
|Released Last Week
Wifislax 4.6, an updated build of the Slackware-based live CD with a collection of security and forensics tools, has been released. This is mostly a maintenance release to fix a serious bug in Reaver, a WiFi passphrase brute-force attack utility, the use of which resulted in segmentation fault in the previous release of Wifislax. The Linux kernel has been updated to version 3.6.11 with a number of new drivers to support tablets, touchscreen devices, multi-function printers, etc. The KDE desktop has been upgraded to version 4.10.5 and an option to boot into a lighter Xfce desktop remains available. Other package upgrades include Firefox 22.0, OpenJDK 7u25 and Wireshark 1.10.0, as well as the latest version of the Flash browser plugin. A number of new programs, such as nano and texinfo, have been added. The release announcement which contains a full changelog is in Spanish only, but the distribution itself can boot into either Spanish or English localisation of the KDE or Xfce desktops.
Superb Mini Server 2.0.5
Superb Mini Server (SMS) 2.0.5 has been released. SMS is a Slackware-based distribution designed for servers and featuring Webmin, a web-based system administration utility. From the release announcement: "Superb Mini Server version 2.0.5 released (Linux kernel 3.4.55). SMS-2.0.5 features the latest LTS Linux kernel 3.4.55 and brings several server packages updates such as CUPS 1.6.3, Dovecot 2.2.4, httpd 2.2.25, PHP 5.3.27, Postfix 2.10.1, Samba 4.0.7 and many more. Two bugs fixed in this release since version 2.0.4 are HAL and phpMyAdmin - HAL detection has been restored in KDE fixing empty system:/media issue, and fixed wrong configuration in phpMyAdmin. New packages in this release are Fluxbox window manager - you need to choose it upon installation. MySQL is still our main database server in SMS 2.0.5, the latest MariaDB package is available. Again httpd 2.4.6 and PHP 5.4.17 are available under testing for those who want to upgrade their web server."
Parted Magic 2013_08_01
Patrick Verner has announced the release of Parted Magic 2013_08_01, the latest stable version of the specialist live CD featuring utilities for disk management and data rescue tasks: "Parted Magic 2013_08_01. This is probably the most thoroughly tested version of Parted Magic we've done in a while. More attention was given to fixing old problems then adding new features. That's not to say there are a few new ones. The program to download virus definitions has been overhauled to show more information after the download is complete. Such as the size of the files and the version. You can also decide to download the main, daily, or both. The program which displays what programs are installed has been split up into groups instead of a 1,000 package list. The EFI GRUB 2 menu and the syslinux menu have been completely overhauled from scratch." Visit the project's news page to read the release announcement.
OS4 OpenLinux 13.6
Roberto Dohnert has announced the release of OS4 OpenLinux 13.6, an Ubuntu-based distribution featuring a customised Xfce desktop environment: "Today we are releasing OS4 OpenLinux 13.6 and unveiling our new hardware initiative. This release comes with a lot of bug fixes and application updates. We also have brought new functionality and services. First, hardware services. As a licensed ACER dealer we are bringing about a new hardware initiative. We are bringing state of the art, powerful, beautiful and functional hardware to the OS4 and Linux communities. We believe state of the art software deserves state-of-the-art hardware. So we have a wide range of towers, laptops, all-in-ones and of course our most popular, OS4 BriQ, is still available. We also have the engineering marvel, the Vision 64 all-in-one keyboard PC from Cybernet available. All of these systems make great gifts and they make a great addition to any home or office." Read the rest of the release announcement for more information.
OS4 OpenLinux 13.6 -- Running the default Xfce desktop
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Josh Paetzel has announced the release of FreeNAS 9.1.0, an open-source and BSD-based NAS solution that enables the users to build networked storage devices on a multitude of hardware platforms: "The FreeNAS development team is delighted to announce the general release of FreeNAS 9.1.0. This release offers massive improvements to the usability, extensibility, stability, and performance of FreeNAS. Everything from the web user interface, plugin management system, base operating system, ZFS file system, and even the source control used to manage the project has been substantially improved. With FreeNAS 9.1.0, iXsystems sets a new level of excellence and power in open source storage solutions... The volume creation interface has been completely replaced with a new wizard that assists the user in creating the most ideal storage pool and optimal setup for the number of disks available, also helping those unfamiliar with ZFS to make correct early configuration decisions and avoid painful rebuilds later." Check the full release announcement for more information.
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Development, unannounced and minor bug-fix releases
|Upcoming Releases and Announcements
Summary of expected upcoming releases
New distributions added to waiting list|
- Robolinux. Robolinux is a distribution which tries to provide a safe and familiar computing interface for former Windows users.
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DistroWatch database summary
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This concludes this week's issue of DistroWatch Weekly. The next instalment will be published on Monday, 12 August 2013. To contact the authors please send email to:
- Jesse Smith (feedback, questions and suggestions: distribution reviews, questions and answers, tips and tricks)
- Ladislav Bodnar (feedback, questions, suggestions and corrections: news, donations, distribution submissions, comments)
- Bruce Patterson (feedback and suggestions: podcast edition)
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