New Releases: Fedora 13 and Slackware 13.1

Two brand new Linux distribution releases: the Fedora Project releases Fedora 13, and Patrick Volkerding (et al) releases Slackware 13.1.

Fedora is, of course, the proving ground for new features for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and contains cutting edge technologies in its releases. Fedora releases are always available at http://fedoraproject.org/get-fedora.html. Fedora 13 (Desktop) CDROMs are available for ix86 32-bit and ix86 64-bit. If you’re looking for a different “spin” – such as a different desktop or specialized for a particular purpose – be sure to check out Fedora Spins. For system and network administrators, the most interesting is probably the Fedora Security Spin.

If you don’t want to try the cutting edge Fedora, try the next generation of Red Hat Enterprise: Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 Beta 1.

Patrick Volkerding, the driving force behind Slackware from the beginning, announced release 13.1. Slackware is the oldest Linux distribution out there, and perhaps the most “BSD-like” of any of them. One doesn’t hear about Slackware servers nor about commercial support for Slackware servers, but it’s certainly a viable alternative if you’re able to choose anything you like. Downloads for Slackware are available at all the mirrors; the site lists USA mirrors here.

Slackware (as driven by Patrick) doesn’t run on multiple architectures, but folks have ported Slackware to other processors such as ARM, SPARC, IBM S/390, and Macintosh PowerPC. However, the ARM port seems to be the only current one; the others have fallen behind.

If you’re serious about using Slackware (sometimes called “Slack”) check out the SlackBuild repository; they offer scripts that will help you consistently build your software for Slackware.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 Approaches End-of-Life

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 will be end-of-life on 31 October 2010 (about six months away). Red Hat gives details about their product lifecycle on their web site.

RHEL 4 will reach end-of-life on 29 February 2012, and RHEL 5 will reach end-of-life on 31 March 2014 – so for them, there is several years left. The CentOS distributionCentOS distribution has CentOS 4 and 5 available for download – CentOS is an open source build of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

RHEL 6 entered beta a little while ago, and is available for testing. CentOS 6 does not seem to exist yet.

Red Hat Drops Xen for KVM in Red Hat Enterprise 6

With the introduction of Red Hat Enterprise 6 Beta, Red Hat has changed direction in their choice of virtualization: they have dropped Xen entirely in favor of KVM.

This is not entirely a surprise, since Red Hat bought Qumranet, a company active early on in KVM development.

What does this mean for us as administrators? This means that we will have to convert any Xen virtual machines to KVM machines if there is to be support from Red Hat. Alternately, support for Xen will have to come from Citrix. This means either internal costs (such as labor, downtime, etc.) to migrate from Xen to KVM or external costs in adding Citrix support of Xen to the costs of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

With this in mind, even if we do not have Xen virtual machines, we need to learn a new virtual environment before we are called on to support it in-house. When the company calls on you to support a KVM virtual machine, you will be ready.

Microsoft Joins Red Hat in Dropping Itanium Support

Red Hat announced at the end of 2009 that Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 will not support Itanium, and now Microsoft has announced that Windows Server 2008 R2 will be the last version to support Itanium.

This is not good. HP is the largest vendor of Itanium systems – they should be, since Itanium was an HP-Intel joint venture. Intel just introduced the new Tukwila chip in January, and now Windows and Red Hat Enterprise Linux will not be found on the chip.

Most pertinently for HP, this means that Integrity Virtual Machines running Microsoft Windows and Red Hat Enterprise Linux will neither be available nor supported.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) is still available for Itanium, as is HP-UX, and OpenVMS is due soon. Time will tell if this bailout by Red Hat and Microsoft will affect HP’s bottom line; Intel should be relatively unscathed.

UPDATE: Fixed factual error.

System Management Software (Spacewalk and Landscape)

System management software is a nebulous term; the discussion here is about software to provision new servers, manage packages, control updates, and monitor servers, all from a central location. This does not necessarily include server hardware inventory, software build management, and other related tasks.

The Red Hat Network is a perfect example; Spacewalk is the open-source version of the Red Hat Network Satellite. Spacewalk has been out for a while, and recently released version 0.7. Originally, Spacewalk required Oracle as the back-end database; they may have been able to remove this dependency (replacing Oracle with PostgreSQL). The CentOS Wiki has a very nice HowTo describing how to install and run Spacewalk.

However, before implementing Spacewalk 0.7, note that Lee Verbern notes that the 0.7 client is broken (rhnsd does not work properly). The problems should be fixed in the next release.

Canonical’s Landscape is a counterpart to the Red Hat Network and is available for Ubuntu systems. Like the Red Hat Network, Canonical’s Landscape is a commercial product and closed source. Canonical has a blog for Landscape news, but the blog hasn’t been updated since November 2009. The Landscape project has a nice page with links to descriptions, tours, frequently asked questions, and more.

The blog WorkswithU has a nice article describing Landscape (albeit from February 2009).

Amazingly, the Canonical Landscape team even has a YouTube account with many valuable videos describing Landscape as well as many tutorials. They have a video introduction to Landscape you might want to see.

Finding an open source provisioning tool (outside of Spacewalk) is difficult; these tools are not common nor are they used by the average user.

One apparently powerful tool seems to be ControlTier, although it leans more towards package (and service) management than provisioning. ControlTier seems to be extremely flexible, allowing you to write scripts to interface with a variety of products and systems. ControlTier also has a blog, though it hasn’t been updated since November 2009.

The ControlTier team worked with Reductive Labs (the folks behind the open source configuration management tool Puppet) to create an interesting whitepaper about integrating ControlTier with Puppet.

I think I’d like to try ControlTier with Puppet; in particular, learning Puppet would be a good thing. I’ll report my experiences.

UNIX and OpenVMS Online Resources

It is possible to get free online access to UNIX or to OpenVMS; these can be useful in building up your experience on a platform when starting from scratch – or when a review is required.

One of the oldest public access systems in the country is the Super Dimension Fortress (or SDF as it is usually called). SDF offers free accounts, but does ask for US$1 to gain standard access. This isn’t because access is expensive, but because too many people have used the facilities for nefarious purposes (the process suggests that the new user is not a person who will strike and leave).

SDF runs NetBSD on DEC Alphas; this was driven mainly by security and stability. Previously, Stephen Jones, the proprietor, ran SDF using Linux on Intel for several years (which he describes as “the dark years”). BSDTalk had an interview with him back in 2006.

You could also try PolarHome – this shell provider provides access to hosts running Linux (Red Hat, Debian, SUSE, Ubuntu, or Mandriva), OpenVMS (Alpha or VAX), OpenBSD, FreeBSD, NetBSD, HPUX, IRIX, QNX, Solaris, Ultrix, AIX, Tru64, and OpenStep. Unfortunately it requires payment for shell accounts – again because of abuse. The payment is 10 units of your local currency or US$2, whichever is more – and this is per host as well. No other site provides this diverse of a selection.

For truly free UNIX shell accounts, one can try Grex, which is a more professionally-run system (Polarhome and SDF are sole proprietorships). Grex offers totally free shell accounts, but also has memberships (for people to help support the site). It is possible that Grex has the most users as well. Like the others, paid membership does have its privileges – but unlike the others, membership is mainly to provide support for Grex, rather as a security feature.

For OpenVMS, there is a very unique online shell provider: Deathrow Cluster. This is a cluster of three machines running OpenVMS 7.3 – one VAX, one Alpha, and one emulated VAX (SIMH) on a dual Xeon machine. This last is a perfect example of what can be done with an emulator, especially with SIMH which can emulate all manner of old Digital and IBM hardware. However, SIMH does not emulate the Digital Alpha, unfortunately. Like Grex, Deathrow provides completely free shell accounts; like SDF and Polarhome, it is (or appears to be) mainly one person’s purpose to keep it running with a lot of volunteer help.

Any of these will be good sources to keep your shell skills sharp – and in some cases, programming as well. They’re also good people to support; why not offer them some donations if you can?

Is FreeBSD a better choice for the desktop? (or dispelling myths)

It’s strange I should come across this article in one of my favorite blogs just after I switched from my FreeBSD desktop to Kubuntu. I’m also surprised at the lack of knowledge and the propagation of some long-standing myths about Linux and FreeBSD for that matter.

There are some ways that FreeBSD (or better put, BSD) is better than Linux – but the comparisons must be valid and appropriate without myths and falsehoods.

Perhaps the primary myth is that FreeBSD is a complete operating system and Linux is a boat-load of different distributions in all different flavors with different setups and so on. However, FreeBSD also has a large number of alternatives, including OpenBSD, NetBSD, PCBSD, DesktopBSD, PicoBSD, and Dragonfly BSD to name just a few.

Another comparison is that FreeBSD is put together by the FreeBSD Core team and that this is better than Linux (which has a “benevolent dictator” model). There’s no discussion of OpenBSD, for instance, which also follows this “benevolent dictator” model. There’s also no comparison to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for example, which has a large number of people working towards putting together a complete distribution, not just the kernel.

The documentation is definitely an argument in favor of BSD – virtually everything that is in the system anywhere is documented in the online documentation, and the FreeBSD Handbook is without equal. It can be proven programmatically that there are commands in Red Hat (or other distributions) that are not documented. I daresay that the FreeBSD documentation beats other BSD variants as well.

Another benefit of FreeBSD specifically is the vast number of ports available. There are more ports for FreeBSD than any other system but Debian GNU/Linux. The sheer amount of packages available in both environments has made them appealing to me – and perhaps to others. Where else are you going to get Steel Bank Common Lisp for example? Both Debian and FreeBSD have it.

The article specifically asked about FreeBSD for the desktop: FreeBSD is definitely not ready for the desktop at all. When I installed it for my desktop (twice now), the basics are there certainly – but there were numerous problems that I had to overcome. Among them, I had to set up my own system bootsplash, and had to configure and set up my own login screen (kdm). USB devices plugged in weren’t properly recognized. Hibernation and sleep didn’t work. Flash doesn’t work. Unlike what has been said before, the drivers are much less available than they are for Linux: hardware manufacturers don’t see a need to support BSD, and many new UNIX users (and developers) don’t see a need to use anything but Linux. Wireless support is perhaps an exception, but that development is centered in OpenBSD, not FreeBSD.

There is also, in my mind, a benefit to BSD that goes often unmentioned: it has the smallest kernel of the open source UNIX and Linux kernels out there today. FreeBSD and OpenBSD will run in smaller environments that Linux won’t: on my 512M laptop, a Compaq Armada E500, Fedora 5 would crash during the install (not enough memory) – whereas the much more current FreeBSD 6.2 installed just fine.

Now, when I installed Kubuntu onto a Compaq nc4010 with 1G of memory, it went will – and it recognized everything – wireless, hibernate, bluetooth, USB devices, PCMCIA, video display, power capabilities, etc. – all without special configuration. (I might note that, here too, on this machine Fedora crashed – this time the Live USB Fedora 9 crashed during exit – sigh…) Preconfigured and tested support for Flash, Java, and MP3s was a click away.

When it comes to the desktop, FreeBSD has a long way to go (perhaps PCBSD is a lot better?). However, on the server end, I would propose that FreeBSD is a better way to go than Linux in many cases (except for OpenBSD might, in my opinion, be even better). It is unfortunate that none of the BSD variants are often considered for enterprise server use – especially considering FreeBSD is commonly found in NetCraft‘s list of top uptime.

Spacewalk (or Red Hat Satellite)

The code base for Red Hat Satellite was released as open source some time ago as Spacewalk, and the future looks quite bright. I am excited to see this, and am interested in the possibilities that it presents for Linux management.

There are two nasty drawbacks that aren’t mentioned up front (though are mentioned in the technical FAQ): first, it relies on an Oracle database rather than PostgreSQL or mySQL or other open source database; secondly, it will support Fedora clients or CentOS clients or Red Hat clients – only one of the three at a time. This also suggests that it will not support other RPM-based distributions such as Yellow Dog or OpenSuSE.

Presumably, it also will not work with APT – and not because APT doesn”t support RPM because it does (in the form of APT-RPM).

Fedora 9 Announced

Yesterday Fedora 9 was announced. Using Fedora can give you a look at what may be in Red Hat Enterprise Linux down the road – and give you an exciting Linux distribution to boot.

There are a number of new exciting features to be found in Fedora 9. First, everything is updated to the latest versions, including GNOME 2.22, KDE 4.0.3, and Xfce 4.4.2.

Fedora 9 introduces the new filesystem ext4 as an option. While ext4 remains an experimental filesystem, it may be good to try it out. Like ext3, it remains compatible in both directions (an ext4 filesystem can be mounted as ext3, and vice versa).

Fedora 9 also replaces the System V initd process with an event-based replacement, upstart. Upstart was created and developed for Ubuntu Linux, and has spread to Fedora and Debian. Each process is started through a response to an event, and each process may generate another event.

Fedora 9 has several different spins or variations based on different sets of packages. For example, there could be a KDE spin, a GNOME spin, and a Xfce spin for example. The Fedora project has a page tracking spins for those who might be interested in custom spins.

This version of Fedora introduces support for Jigdo, which is a CD distribution mechanism that the Debian project has used for years. I’ve not used Jigdo, but the description given in the release notes suggests a large speedup if you have most of the data already.

It sounds like a very exciting distribution; I’ll be looking around my electronic wasteland to see where to install it.

Generating a coredump (gcore)

If you wish to examine a runaway program outside of its element, you may choose to use the utility gcore. This utility is found in Solaris, Linux, and HP-UX, and perhaps others. The program syntax is:

gcore [ -o corename ] pid

The pid is the process id of the process to dump core, and the corename is the base of the filename to use for the core dump – the full name is the base name plus period (“.”) and the process id number. The default is to use “core“.

HP-UX systems will accept multiple process ids instead of just one. Solaris has several additional flags (as well as multiple pids). The additional Solaris flags won’t be covered here.

Once core has been dumped, the program continues operation; it does not stop. Thus, gcore is especially useful for taking a snapshot of a running process.

For example, consider a program with the process id 6674:

gcore 6674

This command generates a core file in the current directory with the name “core.6674“. This file then can be read by the GNU debugger gdb. Solaris also provides the dbx(1), mdb(1), and pstack(1) utilities. HP-UX provides gdb as well as the HP adb(1) utility. Both Solaris and HP-UX provide a core management utility coreadm(1m) – which is a topic for another day.

This article has an excellent description of working with core files in Solaris.

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