Test Driving Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 5:53 AM

OFB's Ed Hurst continues his quest for the perfect UNIX or Linux operating system by looking at a recently released beta of Red Hat's upcoming Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6. Is it the Linux nirvana? Read on to find out.

Some things are worth waiting for, and some are worth jumping the gun. Having enjoyed so much CentOS 5, I was looking forward to the long delayed version 6. But it wasn't the fault of the CentOS folks it took so long. I knew the project leaders were not going to issue a 6-beta from the upstream Red Hat sources, so I took the offer of free use for bug testing purposes. CentOS 5 ran okay on my hardware, but having tested Ubuntu 9.10 and 10.04 on it, I knew some things would be improved with later software.

The machine in question is a home-built tower incorporating:

  • Gigabyte's M61PME-SE2 mobo
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core Processor 4000+
  • 3GB RAM
  • Seagate Barracuda 250GB (ST3250624A) on the PATA host (the target for this installation)
  • Western Digital Caviar 160GB (WD1600AAJS) on the SATA host (Ubuntu 10.04)
  • ASUS Lightscribe DVD±RW (DRW-2014L1T) also on the SATA host
  • Diamond Multimedia Radeon HD 4350 PCI Express
  • Dell 23” (S2309W) LCD

The last two items were expected to be the only real challenge. CentOS 5 did well enough with the combination until I could manually install the ATI Catalyst driver, with decent results, but some conflicts. Ubuntu's recent releases also did rather well, installing the Fglrx driver pretty much automatically. Then again, Debian-based distros always do strange things with fonts, and it's never quite satisfactory. I typically get better results from Red Hat and friends.

I note for now the ATI Catalyst driver does not seem to support X.org's 1.7.5 release. I've seen a limited number of successes getting it to work at all on recent Fedoras, and the procedures are quite intricate. I opted to make use of the bundled effort in the mesa-dri-drivers-experimental package, which brought my GLXgears up from about 250FPS to over 800. Not as good as the 3000 I get on Ubuntu, but good enough for what I do. I'll wait to see what ATI and/or the Open Source developers come up with later.

There is no need here to duplicate the installation walk-through provided by Red Hat. There was one surprise for me. I found myself just a bit confused by the changes in the storage selection routine. Since I keep backups, there was no panic. Had I managed to wipe the Ubuntu installation I planned to keep, I could have recovered, but it would be a hassle. While the installer was checking the drives, it would pause long between steps, rechecking the hardware. At one point, I realized I had made a mistake. To amuse myself, I pretended to panic and clicked on the “Back” button repeatedly, knowing nothing would happen. Except, something did happen. The installer dropped back to the first storage device selection page. I don't know if it was stopped by my artificially induced interrupt storm or something else, but it gave me a chance to do it over.

Also, this was the first installer I have ever seen which scaled properly to the native pixel resolution of the monitor in both text and graphical mode. Instead of huge, distorted images and text at 80×25 characters, RHEL 6 recognized the parameters and everything was sharply defined at 1920×1080.

Since I am not a sysadmin, I simply chose the Desktop profile and accepted the default package selection. The only thing I really dislike is quite minor: the boot splash is a blinding red screen in that same high resolution. There is a cute little pie-chart progress meter, which resolves to the Red Hat logo, before switching to GDM.

A couple of issues confronted me. The network was not active, and I had to manually check the box for “Connect automatically;” otherwise that part was already working. The package selection utility required closing in order to refresh properly. The left window offered some strange duplication from time to time. I found the new layout for selecting the developer package groups a little disorienting from the previous releases, but since I like Yum on the CLI, it really didn't matter. One of the first things I had to add was the xterm and xorg-x11-fonts-misc to get a working Xterm. I'm no fan of the GNOME Terminal. Meanwhile, the whole thing felt really snappy and quick, noticeably more so than any incarnation of Ubuntu, for example.

My first plunge into building was fixing the Freetype2 library to include bytecode and subpixel rendering. Instead of hacking the SPEC file, one now simply adds switches on the RPMBuild command. This was the first time I had seen the whole tree planted inside root's home directory, under rpmbuild, instead of the usual /usr/src/redhat. It worked fine, and I got the sharpest font rendering ever seen on this hardware.

There are as yet no third party repositories for this release. I did create the Yum repo for Google's Chrome browser, which works fine in RHEL 6, but not at all on previous releases. It opens instantly on my system.

To get all the nice multimedia extras is not so simple. While RHEL 6 is based largely on Fedora 12, it's not precisely the same. Simply installing the existing collection of multimedia goodies will raise conflicts. I chose to build from SRPMs. That would be worth another article by itself, but anyone really interested is likely to do it better than I. Aside from adding Flashplayer and the Mplayer codecs, it's a matter of chasing down dozens of dependencies, sometimes 5 deep, before returning the main tree just to get a fully loaded gstreamer-plugins-bad. In the end, I had to go back and recompile Totem to make use of all this stuff. On my third try, I got the SPEC file right and my Totem now plays everything I've thrown at it.

It was entertainment for me just to hack away at it. However, I suspect the RPMFusion Project and Fedora's EPEL Project will eventually come online with later versions of what I just built. For now, I have until the projected full release date in September this year before I lose the updates for the base system. My intent was for once to attempt my own personal Red Hat clone, and simply keep an eye on the security updates and build them from the source RPMs as needed, since I'm pretty sure I can't afford the support contract to access their official updates. If all else fails, I suppose I can wait until CentOS has a chance to repackage it, but I've gotten a good head start on learning the peculiarities.

For the non-profit computer ministry I'm running, I would say the new CentOS 6 is going to become one of our flagship distros based on what I've seen in RHEL 6 Beta. Give it a test drive!

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

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