Our last consideration of Mandrake Linux was early this year when my colleague Eduardo Sanchez thoroughly reviewed Mandrake 9.0. In that review, Sanchez noted the numerous advances made in 9.0, but also reported some serious flaws that somewhat limited his enthusiasm. With that considered, we were anxious to find out if 9.1 could again return Mandrake to the amazing quality achieved in release 8.2.
Because of the various issues we experienced with 9.0, OfB Labs comparisons ranked the last release behind SuSE Linux 8.1 and Xandros Desktop 1.0. That raised the question: would 9.1 be up to the challenge of the competition? To be sure, the competition is tough. SuSE Linux 8.2 continues to press forward with the overall excellence that has become SuSE's hallmark over the past few years. Xandros Desktop 1.0, while graying somewhat since our consideration of it a better part of a year ago, also continues to present a reasonable challenge. The only major flaw in those two distributions is their non-Free nature (that is, they do not comply with the Free Software definition or the Open Source definition).
Getting Started With 9.1
For our evaluation of Mandrake Linux 9.1, we received a copy of Mandrake Linux ProSuite 9.1. ProSuite is Mandrake's high-end package that offers a number of useful features for enterprise deployment on both desktops and servers. Of particular interest is the DVD-ROM that is included, something that makes deploying Mandrake much more of a joy. Like SuSE's Professional Edition DVD (actually the latest SuSE includes two DVD's, but we only needed the one), Mandrake ProSuite's DVD allows you to use just one disc to install pretty much everything you could ever want on a GNU/Linux system.
Not surprisingly, specification wise Mandrake Linux 9.1 is pretty much on par with the rest of the industry. For those of you wanting a few details, the following are included: Linux version 2.4.21, glibc 2.3.1, XFree86 4.3, KDE 3.1.0, and Gnome 2.2.0. In other words, pretty much everything is similar to the other distributions that came out this spring.
Mandrake 9.1 sports a number of major improvements, not the least of which is a highly refined installation tool. The new installer has been cleaned up greatly, and now appears more intuitive and attractive than previous releases. While the installer's functionality remains mostly the same, its layout makes working with it a bit more pleasant. One especially nice change was a reduction in the number of configuration screens one must go through (small gripe: the time zone setting should not be part of this grouping — its only automatically correct if you happen to live in the American Eastern time zone).
One change noticeable immediately in the installer, and once installed, throughout the user interface, is the new Mandrake Galaxy look-and-feel (more properly known as a widget style). Following in the steps of Red Hat, Mandrake has created matching Gnome and KDE themes to give the system an integrated feel. Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the KDE theme's somewhat unrefined feel and the fact that the themes did not support color matching between the two desktops out of the box, something SuSE's default Gnome and KDE themes (Keramik/Geramik) do. A lot of the problem with refinement arose, in my opinion, from the said theme being developed hurriedly and not being completed until very late in the beta process. An important component to the user interface should never be introduced so late in a release cycle, and its somewhat unrefined look-and-feel seems to testify to this. In the end, however, it does work, and hopefully a better version will be included in 9.2.
We should mention that in addition to the standard installation CD's and DVD, Mandrake ProSuite also includes a two-CD Server Installation set. The Server Installation reduces the number and type of default packages. For instance, choosing the package groups for web and SSH servers, as well as Mandrake Server Wizards and Webmin, yielded a lightweight installation that was only 350 megabytes in size when we booted it up and consisted of approximately 250 packages. This no nonsense configuration left out almost all GUI components other than X11, IceWM and GTK+ (for the Mandrake Server Wizards). The Server Installer CDs also default to a higher than standard security mode in the DrakSec/msec security settings manager, which increases the number of security checks performed automatically each day and locks down access to parts of the system to avoid snooping. Needless to say, this might not be ideal for workstations, but is excellent for a public server.
And speaking of server wizards (“drakwizard”), that's another feature we really appreciate with Mandrake. Mandrake's server wizards help to ease the setup of server processes on the system. These easy-to-use step-by-step tools make the initial setup of a web, DNS, DHCP, Windows file sharing (Samba) and other useful servers a painless task. We were able to configure the included Apache web server in just a few moments.
The ProSuite also includes a very useful service for those new to GNU/Linux in general, or server administration in particular. In two words, phone support. Unlike Mandrake's lower priced offerings, ProSuite includes 60 days of phone-based technical support in addition to an extra long 90-day period of e-mail support. The support package covers both installation and server support (web, FTP, Samba, SSH and mail servers, to be exact).
While I would tend to think $199 ProSuite is overkill for a SOHO user interested in a desktop GNU/Linux system, the extra cost is definitely worth it for serious deployment of Mandrake. In fact, the DVD alone could save enough time to make the higher price tag worthwhile. The additional phone support and commercial applications round out this package nicely and make it well worth your consideration.
Although Mandrake Linux 9.2 is now on the horizon, 9.1 ProSuite is still an excellent choice if you are in the need of a solution within the next few months. Even assuming that Mandrake's release schedule follows its normal course, it will likely be about the middle of the fourth quarter before the next ProSuite hits the streets. Moreover, thanks to Mandrake's well-designed URPMI package management, moving to a new release when it becomes available can be achieved remotely and without even rebooting the target systems.
In the second part of our Mandrake Linux series, for those of you who might have been fearing he would not be doing an encore, Eduardo Sanchez will return to provide another thorough review of the base Mandrake Linux system. His review will consider, in depth, installation, administration, usage, and performance of Mandrake Linux 9.1. Sanchez's review will also include our grade sheet of Mandrake Linux, so stay tuned to find out how if Mandrake can surpass SuSE Linux to take our Spring/Summer distribution crown.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.