Desktop Linux and the truth about forking

Desktop Linux! I wanna talk a little more about how Linux runs on a Micron Transport LT. I chose Debian 2.2r3, the “Potato” release, because Debian installs almost no extras. I like that. What you need to know to run Linux on a Micron LT: the 3Com miniPCI NIC uses the 3C59x kernel module. The video chipset uses the ATI Mach64 X server (in XFree86 3.36; if you upgrade to 4.1 you’ll use plain old ATI). Older Debian releases gave this laptop trouble, but 2.2r3 runs fine.
I immediately updated parts of it to Debian Unstable, because I wanted to run Galeon and Nautilus and Evolution. I haven’t played with any GNOME apps in a long time. A couple of years ago when I did it, I wasn’t impressed. KDE was much more polished. I didn’t see any point in GNOME; I wished they’d just pour their efforts into making KDE better. I still wish that, and today KDE is still more polished as a whole, but GNOME has lots of cool apps. Nautilus has the most polish of any non-Mac app I’ve ever seen, and if other Linux apps rip off some of its code, Microsoft’s going to have problems. It’s not gaudy and overboard like Mac OS X is; it’s just plain elegant.

Galeon is the best Web browser I’ve ever seen. Use its tabs feature (go to File, New Tab) and see for yourself. It’s small and fast like Opera, compatible like Netscape, and has features I haven’t seen anywhere else. It also puts features like freezing GIF animation and disabling Java/JavaScript out where they belong: In a menu, easily accessible. And you can turn them off permanently, not just at that moment.

Evolution is a lot like Outlook. Its icons look a little nicer–not as nice as Nautilus, but nice–and its equivalent of Outlook Today displays news headlines and weather. Nice touch. And you can tell it what cities interest you and what publications’ headlines you want. As a mail reader, it’s very much like Outlook. I can’t tell you much about its PIM features, because I don’t use those heavily in Outlook either.

The first time I showed it to an Outlook user at work, her reaction was, “And when are we switching to that?”

If you need a newsreader, Pan does virtually everything Forte Agent or Microplanet Gravity will do, plus a few tricks they won’t. It’s slick, small, and free too.

In short, if I wanted to build–as those hip young whippersnappers say–a pimp-ass Internet computer, this would be it. Those apps, plus the Pan newsreader, give you better functionality than you’ll get for free on Windows or a Mac. For that matter, you could buy $400 worth of software on another platform and not get as much functionality.

Linux development explained. There seems to be some confusion over Linux, and the kernel forking, and all this other stuff. Here’s the real dope.

First off, the kernel has always had forks. Linus Torvalds has his branch, which at certain points in history is the official one. When Torvalds has a branch, Alan Cox almost always has his own branch. Even when Cox’s branch isn’t the official one, many Linux distributions derive their kernels from Cox’s branch. (They generally don’t use the official one either.) Now, Cox and Torvalds had a widely publicized spat over the virtual memory subsystem recently. For a while, the official branch and the -ac branch had different VMs. Words were exchanged, and misinterpreted. Both agreed the original 2.4 VM was broken. Cox tried to fix it. Torvalds replaced it with something else. Cox called Torvalds’ approach the unofficial kernel 2.5. But Torvalds won out in the end–the new VM worked well.

Now you can expect to see some other sub-branches. Noted kernel hackers like Andrea Archangeli occasionally do a release. Now that Marcelo Tosatti is maintaining the official 2.4 tree, you might even see a -ac release again occasionally. More likely, Cox and Torvalds will pour their efforts into 2.5, which should be considered alpha-quality code. Some people believe there will be no Linux 2.6; that 2.5 will eventually become Linux 3.0. It’s hard to know. But 2.5 is where the new and wonderful and experimental bits will go.

There’s more forking than just that going on though. The 2.0 and 2.2 kernels are still being maintained, largely for security reasons. But not long ago, someone even released a bugfix for an ancient 0.-something kernel. That way you can still keep your copy of Red Hat 5.2 secure and not risk breaking any low-level kernel module device drivers you might be loading (to support proprietary, closed hardware, for example). Kernels are generally upward compatible, but you don’t want to risk anything on a production server, and the kernel maintainers recognize and respect that.

As far as the end user is concerned, the kernel doesn’t do much. What 2.4 gave end users was better firewalling code and more filesystems and hopefully slightly better performance. As far as compatibility goes, the difference between an official kernel and an -ac kernel and an -aa kernel is minor. There’s more difference between Windows NT 4.0 SP2 and SP3 than there is between anyone’s Linux 2.4 kernel, and, for that matter, between 2.4 and any (as of Nov. 2001) 2.5 kernel. No one worries about Windows fragmenting, and when something Microsoft does breaks a some application, no one notices.

So recent events are much ado about nothing. The kernel will fragment, refragment, and reunite, just as it has always done, and eventually the best code will win. Maybe at some point a permanent fracture will happen, as happened in the BSD world. That won’t be an armageddon, even though Jesse Berst wants you to think it will be (he doesn’t have anything else to write about, after all, and he can’t be bothered with researching something non-Microsoft). OpenBSD and NetBSD are specialized distributions, and they know it. OpenBSD tries to be the most secure OS on the planet, period. Everything else is secondary. NetBSD tries to be the most portable OS on the planet, and everything else is secondary. If for some reason you need a Unix to run on an old router that’s no longer useful as a router and you’d like to turn it into a more general-purpose computer, NetBSD will probably run on it.

Linux will fragment if and when there is a need for a specialized fragment. And we’ll all be the better for it. Until someone comes up with a compelling reason to do so, history will just continue to repeat itself.

4 thoughts on “Desktop Linux and the truth about forking

  • December 1, 2001 at 6:13 pm

    You should post that somewhere else. It’s a great comment and it’s the clearest explanation of the Linux development process that I have seen in quite a while.

  • December 1, 2001 at 6:26 pm

    Great info, and as always a pleasure to read. I’ve been using Galeon for a while now and fully agree – it’s the greatest. Beats Opera in most respects, now that it has tabs. Don’t miss out on the keyboard shortcuts, like ctrl-T to open a new tab…
    I hope now that you’re burning with linux fever (again, it seems), you’ll find a good replacement for Sylpheed. Your scribblings some time ago turned me on to it, and it’s perfect except in one respect: when it’s checking mail, I can’t do anything in the program. And since I’m on via satellite, and latency is huge, checking mail on half a dozen accounts (every ten minutes or so) takes forever.
    TA – dave

  • December 1, 2001 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks, Rich and Dave.

    As for the Sylpheed problem, why not just run Fetchmail to go grab the mail from your six accounts? Then you’ve taken that part of the job out of Sylpheed’s hands and you still get the speed and features you like. Or are you checking six IMAP accounts and storing your mail there?

    Evolution’s definitely not as fast and svelte as Sylpheed. I admit, I installed it mostly for wow factor. On this 700 MHz P3 it’s fast, but it better be.

    As I unearth more gems, you’ll read about it here. I gotta write about something.

  • December 2, 2001 at 12:37 pm

    I must say that I’m shocked you’re not running Debian 2.2r4.

    I just installed that on my mom’s computer (that I’m giving her for Christmas). It’s just going to be a "pimp-ass Internet computer", so Linux is perfect for her needs. Besides, that’s what she’s used to (I bet you didn’t think I was going to say *that*, eh?)

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