All original content copyright © Tom Wilkinson 2003-5. All rights reserved.

Red Hat Linux 7.0

It's fair to say that if you know anything at all about Linux, you will have heard of Red Hat. They are among the eldest of Linux-releasing companies, and at one point led the field in producing the best linux distribution available. Indeed, various versions of their distribution have been used as a base for some of the more popular other distros on the market, Mandrake Linux a prime example.

Red Hat linux, though is aimed at a slightly different market- according to their website, it is "ideal for the experienced user". For beginners, they recommend Red Hat Linux Workstation Deluxe, which comes with a load of extra office applications such as Star Office and ApplixWare. Naturally, however, you're going to be paying for a (relatively) expensive boxed set to get that. So most people will stick with the downloadable (and freely redistributable) versions.

What's New?

The very first thing that strikes you about Red Hat 7 is that the standard download edition comes on 2 CDs- Installation CD 1 and Installation CD 2. This is quite apart from any other disks you may also want, such as the documentation CD. Previously the installation files and source code were supplied on seperate disks; now that the size of the distribution has swollen to more than a CD's worth, the extra files have been squeezed in with the source code. The first CD is, naturally, bootable and on starting it gives you a menu. Worth noting is the fact that you can once again use your Red Hat installation CD as a rescue disk. This feature was abandoned during the 6.x release series, and makes a welcome return here.

Also new to Red Hat 7.0 is the latest version of Xfree86, 4.0.1. This is a significantly more advanced version of the windowing system which allows, among other things, a single desktop to run across multiple video cards. It also supports acceleration for a wider range of video cards. Also new is OpenSSL. SSL is a protocol which allows secure transmission of data across a network or the internet, and OpenSSL is a free implementation of this protocol originally developed for OpenBSD. It has since been ported to a variety of platforms, including linux. The default window manager has also been changed. While the desktop remains GNOME, Sawfish has now taken the place of Enlightenment as the default manager. This is good as there was a lot of redundancy between the functionality in GNOME and enlightenment. Sawfish has a lot less duplication between itself and GNOME.

One of the most important changes in this release is the inclusion of USB support in the kernel. This is a backport from the forthcoming 2.4 series of kernels to the 2.2 kernel. This is a feaure that both Mandrake and SuSE have included in their releases for quite some time now, and it makes sense that Red Hat should include it also. While in the main it is intended to support USB mice and keyboards, the relevant modules are included for a number of other devices. A graphical tool, USBview, is also supplied to give the user a view of the connections to the USB ports. This allows the ever-increasing number of people with USB devices to use them out of the box.

The kernel supplied is 2.2.16, with the aforementioned USB backport. This is a little disappointing, as Red Hat were tweaking the distribution tight up until the moment of final release, and the 2.2.17 kernel predates that by a matter of weeks. It is by no means a truly essential update though, so it's no huge problem.


The first CD is, like all other distributions, bootable. This gives rise to a screen giving a number of options for installing - default (graphical), text mode and expert. There's also the option to load kernel modules from a third party driver disk if you're using some esoteric or really new I/O controller to install from, such as your brand spanking new SCSI controller, you won't have a problem so long as you have the drivers. As more and more manufacturers are supporting linux, with both open and closed-source drivers, it's likely you'll be able to install without much hassle.

Once you've selected the installation mode, the familiar blue screen that backs up the Red Hat primary installer fires up. This will then try to load any more modules which are needed to install. In the case of our test machine, it loaded the driver for the SCSI controller despite the fact the CD-ROM drive the installer was running from, and the hard drive it was installing to was on the IDE bus. After the installation media had been determined, the second stage installer was fired up. The screen flickered as the installer attempted to probe the monitor for the best resolution failed, it reverted to 640x480, and the familiar Red Hat logo appeared. Following this, various options appeared in order that the keyboard, language, time zone and mouse could be selected.

From this, a menu appears for selection for the type of installation is presented. There are three main options - Workstation, Server and Custom, along with and option to upgrade an existing installation, should one exist. This differs slightly from earlier versions in that there is no differentiation between a GNOME workstation and a KDE based one. In our test we selected the "Custom" install, which allowed us to select the individual package headings and even packages.

First, however, the partitioning needs to be done of the disk. Either Red Hat's own partitioning tool Disk Druid, or the more traditional fdisk can be used to select the areas of the disk to install. After this LILO can then be configured. The installer correctly identified and allowed for the windows partition on the disk, adding it to the boot menu. However, it failed to detect the BeOS partition which LILO is perfectly capable of dealing with. Then comes package selection; the headings first, and then the option to select individual packages. This takes a few minutes and then the installer goes off to do its stuff. This took about 20 minutes on our test machine.

Finally there was the post-install configuration. This mainly involved setting up the X server, which is slightly more involved than in previous editions of Red Hat linux, presumably because of the transition from XFree86 3.3.6 to 4.0.1. It involves knowing the exact timings for your monitor and video card. This took much searching, because I'd never needed to know this information before. In the end I pulled these out of a previous configuration file, however it is likely that a large number of users will not have this data to hand, and hence will have to stick at a resolution of 640x480. Finally with all this setting up completed , the installation CD is ejected and the machine rebooted, which brings us to:

Red Hat In Use

On powering up the machine, the first thing that you notice is the Red Hat logo that has taken over your screen. Next to it is a menu which allows you to select which operating system you wish to boot. Selecting "linux" then starts Red Hat. On booting for the first time, the machine takes a little longer than might be expected to boot; this is because in addition to the usual boot practices, it generates an SSL encryption key for use in secure internet transmissions. Finally the familiar login screen is revealed, giving options to use KDE, GNOME or a failsafe. As the default is GNOME, we stick with that. The familar GNOME screen then starts up and we can finally get using the machine... or can we? The installer certainly doesn't make it obvious, but there's still some setting up to be done. The network card still isn't working, and neither is the sound card. To get the network card working is relatively easy - all we needed to do was fire up liunxconf, Red Hat's configuration tool and tell it the IP address and network card type. The sound card is another matter, however, and a seperate program, sndconfig is required. This program shouldn't be run from within X, so it s necessary to log on to one of the text-based terminals to run it. However, once running it is a simple matter to set up the card, so long as it is plug and play compatible. It is also possible to reconfigure your monitor at this point, if you were stuck for scan rates earlier, by using Xconfigurator.

Finally, the machine is up and running. The day to day running of the distro is pretty much like that of any other- all the usual tools are there that you can think of- abiword for word processing, gnumeric the spreadsheet and so on, including rp3, Red Hat's own modem setup tool. Package management is handled by RPM 4.0, a new and improved version, though h to be honest we couldn't see much difference between this and the olde r versions. Red Hat 7.0 has, however, a major flaw. The default C compiler, GCC, doesn't work. This is a major problem, and means that any new software must be supplied in binary form, or be reconfigured to use kgcc, the secondary compiler. How this bug managed to make it into a final release is anybody's guess, and, unfortunately is such a severe bug that it is a major detriment to the distribution. At the time of writing, no bugfix was available for this, short of getting hold of the source code for gcc and recompiling using kgcc, a proces I wouldn't recommend for new users. In the end though, Red Hat 7.0 would be a solid distrib ution if it were slightly less bug-free and easier to configure.


Ease of use : 7/10
Features : 8/10
Documentation: 7/10

Sadly, this version of the popular distribution has little new to offer to experienced users, and is not easy for novices to use.

Overall Rating : 7/10
Pic of me. If you're lucky