Libranet is a bit different than the other GNU/Linux distributions we are considering this time around. In an era when distributions are often judged by the glitz that their installer and customized desktop provides, Libranet has neither glitz nor much of a customized desktop.At first glance, the Libranet installer could very well cause one to fear the worst about how long and arduous the installation might be. It is an old style text based installer, reminiscent of the days when Red Hat 5.x roamed the earth and GNU/Linux was still mostly unknown to the IT world.
Looks, of course, can be deceiving, and that is the case for the most part with Libranet. While those who have never dealt with a text-based user interface such as the mid-90's GNU/Linux distributions or MS-DOS might need a little hand holding, underneath the unassuming interface is a very advanced installation tool.
While the installer looks very much like the Debian 3.0 “Woody” installer, it has a lot of new functionality, most notably, very good hardware detection for most core system device. This makes Libranet perfect for the seasoned administrator that simply doesn't have time to manually configure everything. It handles the often-tedious configuration of devices like other modern distributions but it leaves one to their own devices, pardon the pun, if you would like.
The first possible issue arises when preparing to partition. Laudably, if this system is going to be exclusively a GNU/Linux system, Libranet can do its own partitioning if you so choose. However, if you want to resize an existing Windows partition to make room for GNU/Linux, things aren't quite as simple. To do a resize operation, one must drop to a Linux terminal and run the GNU Parted utility (which has an interface that reminded us of Linux's fdisk utility). In our case, this wasn't an issue, so we did not have to bother with GNU Parted.
After moving past partitioning, we answered a few questions about booting the system and then rebooted to move into stage two installation. The second stage of installation configures X11 using auto detection, if you so choose, before proceeding to the package selection step. Our video cards were detected without any issue, although as with SuSE, we ran into issues with the Logitech MX 700 mouse on all of our test boxes. Fortunately, in this case, the incorrectly detected mouse wasn't an issue since we weren't in need of a mouse to easily traverse the menus — these menus are all navigated with a keyboard anyway. When asked if the right mouse had been found, we just selected no and then selected PS/2 and then IMPS/2 for the protocol. That was easy!
Once X11 was properly configured, it was started up and the actual copying of the system packages took place inside a text box boarded by an attractive Libranet logo. We appreciated the satisfaction of knowing that X11 was working before our system was even fully installed, something that definitely was not the case in our experience with standard Debian.
After the package installation was taken care of, we hit the only other real bump of an otherwise finely tuned installer. The system, when attempting to detect a HP PSC-2210 multifunction device we hooked up, thought we had a Canon BubbleJet printer instead. Like the mouse issue, this problem also occurred in SuSE, so at the very least, we can say Libranet's auto detection performed as well as SuSE's one did. Libranet did do better in overall inclusion of printer drivers than SuSE — when we went in to switch to the Hewlett-Packard's proper CUPS driver, the official hp Ink Jet Server (hpijs) driver was available in the list. This driver works very well and noticeably faster in our tests than the Gimp-Print alternative. The proprietary TurboPrint system was also included as an alternative driver (many people report excellent results with TurboPrint).
After finishing the installation, we were greeted by a friendly Libranet GDM login graphic. Lightweight desktop lovers will rejoice in the selection of IceWM as the default window manager, however we quickly switched away from that to see how the “big two” desktop environments were configured. As far as we could tell, there were not any variations in KDE and GNOME from the official project defaults beyond customized menus courtesy of the very slick Debian Menu system (which is also used in Mandrake Linux). The only other difference we noticed, a difference between other popular distributions, and not KDE.org's code, was that Libranet compiled KDE in a way that enables usage of “XScreenSaver” modules as KDE screen savers. While not terribly important, you can rest assured that you can keep passersby entertained with a different screensavers for a long time thanks to the large library of XScreenSaver modules.
Overall, we thought Gnome's menus were laid out nicer in Libranet than KDE's were. Unlike the way Mandrake has configured the Debian Menu system, the default arrangement (which Libranet uses) keeps the desktop environment's standard menus and then adds extra “Debian” submenus with other applications. In KDE, these Debian menus are divided up and placed under the respective KDE menus. This works all right but we felt it was a bit messy. Gnome's menus, on the other hand, were left untouched and a separate upper level application menu was dedicated to other Debian applications.
With all of the applications included, the menus were a bit overwhelming, but one could easily fix that by removing some of the overlapping applications. We hope that perhaps the Libranet developers will consider cleaning up and reorganizing the menu structure a bit in the next release, but we can live with the current arrangement.
In summary, we see Libranet as a system that is not necessarily as customized out of the box for the “average user,” which might make it less attractive to SOHO market. Yet it should be noted that since it makes sense, for very large install deployments, to create a customized disk image of an operating system to deploy, rather than individually setting up each computer, the amount of time spent doing customization should be relatively trivial for enterprise users.
One feature we really appreciated was the automatic fetching of applications that cannot be distributed on the CD set due to licensing issues. After launching the Libranet AdminMenu graphical administration tool, we were able to easily tell the system to grab Microsoft Web Fonts, Macromedia Flash, RealPlayer, and Java. Thanks to the underlying apt-get system that is the crown jewel of Debian, it is also very easy to grab more software from the Libranet CD's or the standard Debian package repositories (according to Libranet, their distribution is 100% compatible with Debian).
Let us stop and consider that last statement for a moment. Libranet is 100% compatible with Debian. This is a really big advantage that ought to make anyone looking at the TCO of different distributions stop and consider Libranet GNU/Linux. In the uncertain economy today, it is hard to know if a particular company you choose to receive a GNU/Linux distribution from (or any other software product) will still be around and providing the software you want in the future. By insuring that Libranet GNU/Linux is compatible with Debian, you can rest assured that you have total control of your desktops' future with a clear upgrade path even if Libranet ceases publishing its GNU/Linux distribution someday.
Debian, for those not familiar with it, is a project, not a corporation. The Debian GNU/Linux distribution is built entirely by volunteers. Because of this, and because of the large volunteer base size, Debian has a very strong and clear future. It is also known for meticulous packaging and release standards, meaning it is extremely stable and secure. Moving to standard Debian is as simple as changing a few apt-get settings and running “apt-get dist-upgrade.” Furthermore, unlike most operating systems, even if you continue with Libranet GNU/Linux, you don't have to worry about more than minimal downtime for upgrades — apt-get makes it a snap to move up to an updated version when it comes out without all the hassle most operating systems put you through. It's a real treat to deal with and certainly an administrator's dream.
If you haven't already guessed, we were extremely pleased with Libranet GNU/Linux. It is not the type of distribution you can just pull out of the box and expect everything to be the way you want it, but it has a really strong foundation that makes it worth the extra effort just for the benefits. If you are a more experienced GNU/Linux system administrator, you should not overlook this distribution for your evaluation checklist — with a bit of work you will get a system that will return that small investment of extra time with years of effortless updates and reliable service.
Summary of Libranet GNU/Linux 2.8 |
UPSIDE: While the installation process might not be right for the novice administrator, Libranet provides the easiest way to get a Debian-based system up and running (and provides more current software than official Debian GNU/Linux). If long-term TCO is important to your deployment, Libranet has a lot to offer
Mandrake Linux 9.1 (Review Coming Soon),
SuSE Linux 8.2.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.