by March 10, 2007 0 comments

Every year for the past three to four years, we’ve had this debate. Should we
or should we not bring out a Linux distro? And believe me, every year it’s
getting tougher and tougher to decide. The reasons for this are simple. One,
there are already lots of Linux distros out there, and increasing. Two, Internet
connectivity is not a big problem anymore, and is also constantly improving.
Just leave a download on overnight over a DSL link, and wake up in the morning
to find it all there on your machine. Those sitting on big fat Internet
connections in offices are luckier. They can download any distro during a coffee
break. Under such circumstances, it’s only natural that when we have to bring
out a new Linux distribution, we had to do something really different to live up
to user expectations. So, besides trying to answer standard questions like which
distro to base it on, how many CDs/DVDs should it consume, etc, we also had to
figure out how to make it special. What should we do to make this distro stand
apart from the crowd? Hopefully, you’ll like what we’ve finally built after
months of sweating it out.

Our first hurdle while building PCQ Linux 2007 was choice of distro. The
Fedora lovers in our team have been winning this debate for the past three
years, but this time they only managed to win half of it. The other half managed
to convince the rest for using CentOS as the base. So our desktop distribution
is based on Fedora, and the server version is based on CentOS. Interestingly,
this in turn is based on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux base. The reasoning for
this is simple. We wanted to give a desktop distro with all the bells and
whistles, the latest and greatest software releases, for which Fedora is the
best bet. For the server side, we wanted to provide a more stable release
instead of giving the latest and greatest software. Hence we used CentOS.

Choice of media came next. We’ve been giving PCQ Linux on multiple CDs in the
past, so this time we decided to use a dual-layer DVD instead for the job. We
felt that there were many advantages of doing this. For one, there’s no fear of
losing one CD and then desperately asking friends and foes to loan you their
copies. The second advantage is that you just have to preserve one media. With
multiple CDs, chances of one of them going bad are higher. Third and biggest
advantage is of course size. Four CDs is equivalent of around 2.4 GB, whereas a
dual layer DVD offers 8.2 GB. We would never have been able to bring you the
kind of software that we’ve given this time had we resorted to CDs. So if you
don’t have a DVD combo drive or writer, then better go get it now. They’re not
too expensive nowadays. Then came the difficult part of building it. The first
challenge that we had to address was to figure out how many skews of the desktop
and server versions should we give.

PCQ Linux 2007 Desktop
In the past, we’ve given a complete distro that can be converted into everything
right from an entry-level desktop to a super computer. While that was quite
good, we faced quite a few issues while building it. In order to create so many
installation types, we had to add or remove packages, toil with Anaconda, etc.
This resulted in tons of dependency errors. For instance, the strangest problem
we found in one of our older distros was that a printer driver wouldn’t install
if we removed a Japanese language support pack. Thankfully, one of our readers
pointed this out on the forum. This time, we’ve not created multiple types of
installations in the desktop version. Instead, the entire Linux distro will get
installed. From this, we have of course, removed the components which we know
won’t cause any problems. Once it’s installed, you’ll find a Menu switcher
program on your desktop. This will basically change the Application menu
configuration and show only those applications that are really required. So, if
you want to use PCQ Linux 2007 as a MediaCenter PC, then it will only show the
programs relevant to that. If you need to use it as a developer workstation, it
will only show the programs relevant to that and so on. Like this, we’ve created
four different configurations. Besides these two, the remaining two are Home and
Scientific Desktop.

Enterprise Server
On the server side, we’ve done a very interesting thing. We’ve carried a
virtualization software called VirtualBox with the distro. We’ve removed most of
the applications from the distro and given ready to run virtual disk images of
three key applications with it. These are preinstalled, preconfigured
applications. You just have to load them on top of VirtualBox and they’ll be up
and running.

The immediate benefit of doing this is that you don’t have to worry about
toiling with the installation anymore. Simply concentrate on what you really
need to-configuring the applications according to your organization’s needs. The
long term benefit is that in the future we can bundle more such images with the
magazine and you just have to load them on top of your existing distro. The
images we’ve given this time are for Al Fresco Document Management software,
Zimbra messaging and collaboration suite, and Web Huddle online meetings
software. Next time, we can give more.

The biggest challenge that we faced in this was adding the virtualization
software into it. At first we tried using Xen, but it wasn’t available for
CentOS. We then shifted to VirtualBox. This one also didn’t have a readymade
version for CentOS, but thankfully, its source code was available. So the
challenge that the team spent sleepless nights (particularly Shekhar) on was in
compiling this source code for the distro.

The Installer
The other two stalwarts of the Linux team, Vinod and Anindya said their biggest
challenge was in making the DVD a dual-boot. Many sleepless nights later, they
managed to get it to work. This time’s installer is really simple. It’s
completely text based, but extremely easy to use as you’ll see in the article on
installing PCQ Linux.

So here it is, all ready and waiting for you to try it out. We’d like to
thank all the people who’ve provided their precious inputs for making this
distro. We’ll await your comments on this one at the PCQuest online forum.

Anil Chopra, Anindya Roy, Krishna Kumar, Rakesh Sharma, Sanjay Majumder,
Shekhar Govindarajan, Vinod Unny and Vijay Chauhan

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