A Review of Caldera Desktop Preview II

From Paul Dunne <paul@tiny1.demon.co.uk>

Editors Note:

According to the press release elsewhere in this issue Caldera Network Desktop is now shipping - we hope to have a full review of the production offering in the next Linux@UK.

Introduction

Before Christmas, I installed the Caldera Network Desktop Preview II package on a spare disk in my secondary machine, a Windows (hack! spit!) box. Caldera Network Desktop is an X-based Linux system produced by Caldera Inc., an American company with backing from ex-Novell CEO Ray Noorda. It uses the RedHat distribution with ELF binaries, and added value from Caldera Inc. in the form of extensions to support integration into a Netware network, and an X Desktop based on Looking Glass. The kernel version is 1.2.13.

Installation

I should say first that I did approach the installation program with a "dumb user" attitude. My attitude was that such a program is often used by those with little knowledge of Linux; perhaps this is their first Linux installation. I tried to rid myself of all Linux knowledge. I have to say that it took me several goes with this approach, and I got Caldera installed only by using "forbidden knowledge". The ability to install over a network using NFS is a good feature. I don't have a CD-ROM on my Windows box, but I was able to mount the Caldera CD on my Linux machine and install on the Windows box without further ado. The booklet provided, "Getting Started", is the best such installation guide that I have seen, giving a thorough overview of the installation process, plus useful information on basic 'Net application configuration, including a useful piece on sendmail, Linux File System Standard.

Installation Diskettes

Preparing the installation diskettes was simple, a matter of "dd-ing" the diskette images from the CD-ROM onto floppies. For those without an existing Linux (or other Unix) installation, the DOS program rawrite.exe is provided. The installation runs entirely under Linux, so the machine must be booted with Linux using the prepared diskettes. When booting is complete, the installation program runs.

The Installation Process

You first have the option of running fdisk. Then, you are prompted for the IP addresses of this machine, of the nameserver, of the gateway, and for the netmask of the network. This works without a hitch. For the installation via NFS, the IP addresses of the box and the NFS server are entered at an earlier stage. You check the partitions you want to format in a dialog box, they are formatted; you select your video card from a list; and then there is a long wait (20-45 minutes, depending on the packages selected) while the bulk of the system is installed. After the packages, a few steps remain to be done: mouse type, X configuration, and setting up LILO.

Faults

Had to Manually Install X

I ended up hacking XF86Config to get X to work - hardly a job for a newbie! Despite my Trident TVGA 9000 being supported by X - and, I thought, a well-known chipset, the installation program could not configure X for it. It also asked me for the dot clocks for my Generic SVGA monitor. Yes, I know it is dangerous to run X with the wrong values, but such a bald question, unsupported by any reference in the accompanying manual, or any on-line help, would surely be intimidating to one who hadn't already gone through the process of installing X, and who therefore would know nothing of "dot clocks".

Didn't always find the DOS partition

I have two disks in the machine, one to boot from, with a DOS partition on, the other with two empty partitions, on one of which I installed Caldera. The installation program sometimes failed to find the DOS partition.

The System in Operation

X Desktop

What can one say about this? It's fine if you like that sort of thing, I suppose. I am a confirmed command-line addict, and avoid GUIs when I can - the only use I can find for X is to run Netscape (well, everybody else does, so I've got to see what my web pages look like to the unwashed masses) and Xboard, a good graphical interface to GNU Chess. One nice feature is the virtual desktop, but that's not specific to Caldera. I noticed that colour allocation had some puzzling "features". When running a few programs, new programs started up with far less colours, or even in monochrome! The web browser supplied, Arena, I found unusable, taking ages to start up, and running slowly when it finally did so. It looks awful, too! Hardly a Netscape beater; not even in the same league; I understand Caldera a working on providing a replacement in the next release.

I have since installed a simple Slackware, and found that I prefered the "vanilla flavour" of X that is installed with this. The desktop looks better (no silly icons or button bars or things of that sort, just a nice plain blue background). The colour allocation problem persists, and I discovered that it was Netscape's fault.

Networking

Networking works faultlessly, providing you know what you are doing at install stage. Telnet and ftp are supported as both client and server, with reasonable defaults. Sendmail is installed with a good default sendmail.cf. I would have prefered to have MH as a mail agent, rather then elm and pine, but that is just me quibbling! I don't have a Netware network, so I was unable to test the proprietary interfaces to Netware that Caldera the company have supplied.

CrispLite

A basic GUI editor. It is the cut-down edition of Crisp, unfortunately, so you don't get any of the best features. Unfortunately, without these features it is pretty poor - certainly not enough to compete with vi or emacs.

Backup.unet

Not included in the express installation, so I didn't get round to testing it.

Packages

One feature of Caldera worth mentioning in greater depth is the concept of packages. These are well-done, and allow installation or de-installation of a bit of software with a single command - a great boon for handling unwieldy great lumps such as emacs, which puts stuff all over the place.

Stability

The system is stable and reliable in operation, allowing for the low quality of the hardware it is running on. I do get memory errors on occasion (see below), but I will excuse these by saying that the SIMMs in the machine are not of the highest quality.

Bugs

Before we start on the bugs, a caveat: the hardware in the machine I installed Caldera on is not of the highest quality. As we know that Linux, like any Unix, hits the hardware far heavier than tolerant old DOS, some of the following errors may be due to hardware faults. This is very difficult to prove or disprove conclusively.

X Desktop Won't Exit

I cannot exit from the Desktop using the File...Exit command. It just leaves me stuck in the Desktop forever, unable even to call up an X-term. This happens when using the Fvwm menu too.

"Can't resolve symbol '' "

I have got this error message twice. When whatever it is talking about (I have no idea!) happens, then it is big red switch time, for no program will run - all give this error when any binary is started. (Shell commands can still be entered, so I would guess that the problem is located in the kernel process startup code).

"INIT: Id "1" respawning too fast: disabled for 5 minutes"

This extremely irritating bug seems to happen when the machine has been up for a while and no one has logged on save to run "startx". When I tried to log on just now to VC1 to run the "uptime" command, I got this! I then ran "ls" in an existing X-term window, and got "Segmentation fault (core dumped)". Running "help" (a shell built-in) then zapped the X-term! The machine then sits silently, save for a brief flurry of disk activity every five minutes, whereupon this message is again displayed on the console. Big red switch time again!

"Unable to handle kernel paging request"

I have got two of these over the course of my testing. These are more than likely due to the quality of the SIMMs in the machine, as I used to get them when I used the damn thing as my main Linux box.

Conclusion

Overall, I am in two minds about Caldera Desktop. On the one hand, it is good to see a company taking Linux seriously as a commercial, desktop OS - especially a company backed by Ray Noorda. On the other hand, unless you're running a Novell network, I can't see any good reason to chose Caldera over another distribution - say, Slackware, for example. It is true that several X applications are promised, but these again are not specific to Caldera Desktop.

The installation, for all its faults, is very easy for someone who knows what they are doing. The system is reasonably stable in operation, and I presume that the more serious bugs will have been removed in the final release (available early 1996).

A final judgement? A product that promises much, and is worth watching; but not one that offers a significant advantage over any good distribution - especially when one considers the retail price of $99.