Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ongoing "CentOS 5.3 On A Netbook" Saga

Last week I wrote a feature for DistroWatch Weekly on the trials and tribulations of installing CentOS 5.3 on my Sylvania g Netbook Meso. I was very pleased when Dag Wieërs, a CentOS developer and long time packager and maintainer of an excellent repository of additional packages for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, posted in the comments section with some useful suggestions and a request that I document how to get the netbook completely functional in the CentOS wiki. That's a project I'll take on when I have everything working to my satisfaction. In the meanwhile I thought it might be useful to report my progress here. That's the kind of thing blogs are for, right?

Anyway, following Dag's suggestion I ripped out the wireless driver I compiled from source and tried to use what CentOS provides. As before that simply didn't work. Then I installed the rt73usb-firmware package from ELRepo. This worked after a fashion. CentOS did recognize my wireless card and, three passwords later (for the keyring and twice for my own WPA2 protected network) I actually was able to connect. I did have one instance since yesterday when NetworkManager locked up, something I used to see in Ubuntu all the time. That, plus the relatively slow performance and all the GNOME dependencies are just a few of the reasons why I tend to truly hate NetworkManager. Unfortunately nobody has a wicd package for CentOS. If I stick with CentOS I will definitely have to package wicd and write a how-to documenting replacing NetworkManager with it.

I also followed Dag's suggestion for installing the kmod-video4linux package from ELRepo in the hope that it may contain drivers for my webcam. No distro supports the webcam out of the box so far as I can tell. Only the factory preinstalled Ubuntu Netbook Remix 8.04 worked without significant effort. Testing with the video conferencing software is a royal pain and possibly not a fair test so I decided to install either wxcam or cheese or both. Guess what? None of the CentOS repos have packages for those either. Grrr!

I did install Xfce 4.4.2 from the CentOS Extras repository and, as expected, it's a bit faster and less resource intensive than GNOME. I'd have liked a somewhat newer version but I'm happy with the results.

I also received an e-mail from Radu-Cristian Fotescu, who writes the Planète Béranger blog, asking me to test his recently rebuilt Odiecolon repository for RHEL/CentOS 5. He has some more up-to-date multimedia packages than other repos so I decided to give it a go. His repo is also known to conflict with the much larger and definitely necessary RPMForge repository. In order to avoid "rpm hell" I am trying to keep things in order with yum priorities. So far it's doing a good job of excluding conflicting packages.

If all this sounds overly complex, well... it is. Back when I wrote my somewhat controversial review of Slackware 12.1 one of the things I complained about was the dependency on third party repositories of variable quality. RHEL/CentOS as a desktop distribution definitely suffers from the same shortcoming. Getting all the repos to play nicely together, even with yum-priorities, appears to be an arcane art. Only time will tell whether or not I've mastered it. I will also need to compile a bunch of apps from source and will probably end up building and contributing significant numbers of packages if I intend to stick with CentOS.

I should also add the performance is still nowhere near as good as my favorite desktop distro, VectorLinux or even as good as Ubuntu Netbook Remix. With further tweaking and streamlining I'm fairly certain I can improve things enough to be reasonably happy.

If it weren't for the fact that Red Hat Enterprise Linux is the absolutely dominant business distribution I honestly wouldn't bother with all of this. The main reason for the effort is to be able to use the netbook for business related demonstrations and to have a fairly uniform operating environment for my systems. Check back for further progress reports.


Béranger said...

1. I'm pretty sure that Cheese would need a newer GNOME in order to build. As a matter of fact, a lot of interesting applications don't build with the obsoleted libraries present in CentOS 5.3.

2. Lucky me I'm a conservative person (not in the political sense) who doesn't need webcams, wireless & stuff.

3. I don't trust nor use CentOS Extras because it's not properly maintained. The same can be said about centosplus kernels.

4. XFCE is not as light as it used to be. This is also one of the reasons I am not thrilling to use Vector or something else that is XFCE-based.

BTW, when will Vector offer XFCE 4.6?

One of the reasons I am not using Vector is that I might need some GNOME dependencies for some applications, and Vector can't offer them. Then Vector is less polished in look than I'd like it to be (Mint XFCE edition looks great, but it's still Ubuntu and this would screw the Intel video),

5. I understand you when you said that normally you wouldn't bother with CentOS. It's not meant to be used with netbooks.

But I will disagree with your opinion in DWW: RHEL/CentOS/etc. (the 2 other clones) does/do install easily (unless Anaconda doesn't like your hardware somehow). What is not easy is to have all your hardware supported. Hey, what can you expect from a S&P 500 company? (NetworkManager is what you can expect, right?)

Besides, I repeat myself, but CentOS is kinda WinXP in the Linux world. You know what you get, but you have to live with what you get. No extra bells and whistles.

I am using CentOS not because it's better than other distros, but because the other distros are bad. Not worse, which is something that uses a comparative ("worse than..."). Just bad, which is an absolute qualifier.

Caitlyn said...

When did VectorLinux stop offering GNOME? Oh wait... they didn't. GNOME dependencies shouldn't be an issue. Xfce 4.6 is in testing now. It is still much lighter than either GNOME of KDE. VectorLinux also offers LXDE if Xfce is too heavy for you. Oh, and I *like* the look and feel. To each their own.

I don't feel that other distros are bad. No distros are one size fits all. As I said on DistroWatch I am putting a square peg into a round hole.

Béranger said...

I didn't say "stop offering". They simply don't have GNOME, just a directory labeled this way.

Caitlyn said...

Not so. VectorLinux 6.0 offers a complete GNOME desktop. There is a metapackage for easy installation and the individual packages can mostly be found in the gsb section of the repository.

Peter Green said...

Why not Fedora ?

Plenty of Red Hat techies use Fedora very successfully.

Béranger said...

Once again, Vector's repository tree is irrational. One more reason for me to skip it.

Look into Where is GNOME? Not under "extra", but under "gsb-2.22".

This is very much in contrast with 5.9's -- which did not contain a true GNOME, actually.

Besides, putting GSB this way makes it look "unofficial". Why not just using Slackware + GSB if we're looking for a 3rd party-provided GNOME?

Béranger said..., GSB is contaminated with Mono.

On the bright side, I noticed that VL6 really hosts the full sources for the GSB packages. Good to know.

Caitlyn said...

@Peter Green: If I wasn't trying to replicate my business environment I'd stick with Vector Linux. Fedora isn't what I'm trying to do.

In general I don't like cutting edge, or in the case of Fedora, bleeding edge distros. The last few times I tried Fedora it had considerable breakage, lots of bloat, and generally wasn't acceptable. Fedora 11 suffered from the Intel graphics driver regression which makes it a truly horrible choice with my Intel 945 chipset.

@Béranger: You don't have to come up with ridiculous objections (and yours are beyond ridiculous) to not use Vector. Say you don't like it and be done with it. For most users, who use slapt-get or gslapt, the structure of the repository is irrelevant. It also is quite logical if you understand the logic.

Yes, 5.9 didn't have GNOME. Red Hat Linux 6.0 didn't have KDE. Your point? Both are in the past, not the present.

gsb isn't "contaminated with Mono". The VectorLinux GSB rebuild reduces dependencies to absolute requirements. You can install a working GNOME desktop with no Mono easily.

Why not use Slackware + GSB? How about proper dependency checking and resolution for starters? VectorLinux has many advantages over Slackware which you'd know if you ever gave the distro a fair chance.

Anyway, please, by all means stick with CentOS. I think it's pretty well crap on the desktop and it's about to be dumped. You like it so we clearly look at distros in entirely different ways.

DrRamRao said...

Trying to use a distro that has ignored the desktop (e.g. RedHat) is a very painful exercise. As one working in technical sales selling Linux solutions for servers (mostly on RedHat, some on SuSE), having Linux on my laptop is almost essential. With my preference for KDE, I started with Mandrake, and am currently using OpenSuSE with good success. In fact it has been over 8 years since I switched my corporate laptop entirely over to Linux.

I have also experimented with Kubuntu, but find its KDE capabilities trailing Gnome badly. PCLinuxOS is excellent for the out of the box experience, especially with KDE. However, its repositories are not as rich as I would like, being more newbie focused (e.g. no emacs-22 available). Am also taking a look at Linux Mint KDE edition. Only gripe so far is that it trails the matching Ubuntu release by about 5 months giving a supported repository lifetime of only 13 months.

Happy distro hopping!

Caitlyn said...

@DrRamRao: I'm not interested in distro hopping and I don't much care for KDE. Too much bloat and too resource intensive for me. I'm really not interested in the distros you've mentioned. I'll stick with VectorLinux, thankyouverymuch.

I wasn't looking for advice on distros. I was looking to replicate my business environment, something I've decided isn't worth the work.

Anonymous said...

"Why not use Slackware + GSB? How about proper dependency checking and resolution for starters? VectorLinux has many advantages over Slackware which you'd know if you ever gave the distro a fair chance."

Lets assume "proper dependency checking" is achieved with slapt-get, which for me is not, but for the sake of conversation, lets just assume that.
Can you tell me the directory to find the sources of the packages included in Vector?
eg i want to rebuild bash and util-linux-ng or some other Vector package.
Where do i find the Vector 6.0 build scripts for those?
They are nowhere to be found.
ALL decent Linux distributions, include a source tree.
Not to mention its a violation of the GPL. Yet it's convinient to charge for software you don't even respect it's license.
(You as in a former Vector developer/follower and afficionado).
I wouldn't call that "advantages over Slackware".
I would call them conditions preventing me from even giving Vector a chance.

Caitlyn said...

@Greg: What you have posted is FALSE. VectorLinux provides a full source tree with build scripts in the repository.

VectorLinux also doesn't "charge for software". It is all freely downloadable.

Maybe next time you'll check your facts about something before posting a tirade and personalizing it into an attack on me. Maybe that way you won't look like an idiot if it turns out you have no clue what you are talking about.

Caitlyn said...

Oh, and BTW, give me one example where slapt-get fails to correctly handle dependency resolution in VectorLinux 6.0.

Clue: I seriously doubt you can.

Anonymous said...

Well, does have *some* sources. Can you point me to directory of the *bash* sources or the *util-linux-ng* one or even the * linux kernel*?
I am an idiot and i think it makes absolutely no sense as a directory structure. I wasted 5 mins trying to find them with no luck.
Maybe you can help me with that, after all the structure makes sense to you right?

"VectorLinux also doesn't "charge for software". It is all freely downloadable."
No Caitlyn, it does charge for software.
What do you call ? A charity fund?
Also Vector has tried being a pay only distro not too long ago, and even then it was completely disrespectful towards the GPL.
None of the CDs you sell includes the complete sources of the GPL'ed software you distribute, and neither do your mirrors.

Anonymous said...

"Clue: I seriously doubt you can."

Obviously, considering i don't use Vector.

Caitlyn said...

First, I don't sell ANYTHING. I have NO ties to VectorLinux whatsoever. I don't work for them and I don't get paid by them. I used to (past tense) volunteer for them but I haven't done that since early this year either.

Second, many distros offer free downloads and then offer CDs for sale as a convenience for users without a high speed connection and to raise money to support development efforts. Everything on those CDs is in the repositories so I repeat, once again, that EVERYTHING is freely downloadable. VectorLinux does not charge for software. It charges for the service of providing the software on physical media.

Yes, there was a brief period (maybe two months) where they tried to offer SOHO for sale much in the way Red Hat or Xandros or SUSE sell distributions. The source code was and is freely downloadable.

VectorLinux does not "disrespect" the GPL in any way, shape, or form. If it did I wouldn't use it. The policy of the VectorLinux distributors is to make complete sources available. If you find something missing, and it appears that you have, you might consider posting to the VectorLinux forum and letting the developers know so they can correct it, which I can assure you they will promptly do. That would be the correct way to address the issue rather than finding some unrelated blog in which to throw stones.

FWIW the kernel source is in the repo but its in the wrong place (a developer's folder) and needs to be moved to the kernel folder where it belongs.

The GPL does not require that the CDs contain source code. Read it for yourself. What it requires is that sources are freely and readily available. VectorLinux complies with both the letter and the spirit of the GPL. Again, if something is missing I suggest you inform the people at VectorLinux rather than ranting here. That way it would get fixed.

You wrote: I am an idiot

This part I agree with.

vstockwell said...

I am getting back into Linux after a 8 year break after testing some of the Distro's listed here I can successfully report Kubuntu recognized all the drivers in my Acer Laptop correctly off install. Further more it fully functioned as a server. I am in the process of switching the server to CentOS primarily for CPanel or Plesk I haven't decided yet. But I will say in the past CentOS has proven very useful and if you like the Kubuntu/Debian infrastructure you should try apt rpm I found it very useful and it checks dependencies almost as stringently as Yum does.

Caitlyn said...

I already have Ubuntu Netbook Remix 8.04 LTS on this system. (It's currently setup for triple boot.) Ubuntu 8.04 runs very well indeed on this system. I, personally, wouldn't use Kubuntu because I find KDE a bit resource hungry.

Gavin said...

Hi Caitlyn,

Why not Fedora 11? I do CentOS all day long, but I like Fedora on my netbook to get the latest software. Fedora is a great way to see what's coming eventually in Red Hat and CentOS. Cheers.

Gavin said...

Also, have you tried EPEL? It is newer packages from Fedora built for Red Hat / CentOS.

Caitlyn said...

Fedora 11 suffers from the Intel video driver regression. It does not work well the the 954GM chipset in my netbook. In general I find Fedora to be way too broken and buggy too much of the time to use on a daily basis.

Caitlyn said...

Yes, I tried EPEL. It is a *TINY SUBSET* of Fedora packages rebuilt for EL.

Look, stop trying to convince me. I've removed CentOS from my netbook and I'm about to explain why. As far as I am concerned it's good riddance to bad rubbish. CentOS is a wonderful server OS clone. On the desktop I have no use for it.

Gavin said...

Looking at my repository mirrors, DAG has 9595 i386 rpms and EPEL has 5839 i386 rpms. That's not really tiny.

Sorry to hear about the Intel chip in your netbook. I'm rocking Fedora 11 on the Dell 2100 and Fedora 10 on the Eee 1000. Both of which have been solid portable work horses.

Caitlyn said...

There are 70,000+ packages in the Ubuntu repository. What were you saying about "not tiny"?

It also comes down to what you use. VectorLinux doesn't have a huge repository but it has more of what I need and want on a desktop. That's probably because it's an end-user/consumer desktop oriented distro while CentOS/RHEL is enterprise/server oriented.

Anyway, if you read the post I wrote today you know that CentOS on my netbook is no more.

Gavin said...

I don't know how they get the numbers. I just went to the DAG page, and it says 95119 packages. I'm only counting about 9000 i386 packages, and that's with multiple update versions of the same packages. So it is probably more like 2000-3000 in reality. They must be counting revisions and all architecture and source packages.

I use RPMfusion on the Fedora systems. EPEL and DAG on CentOS.