Review The Fedora Project has announced the latest version of its popular open source Linux distribution. Nicknamed Constantine, Fedora 12 has quite a few impressive new features and demonstrates that the project has gained a renewed sense of direction.
In the build-up to the release of Fedora 12, the Fedora community has focused its energies not just on new features, but on where Fedora is headed in the future.
As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee. The Fedora Project's goal is to ensure that this distro remains a horse. To that end, the Fedora community has spent a fair amount of time defining its target audience. Unlike some distros that focus on trying to please as many users as possible, Fedora wants to make sure it pleases its intended audience.
To find out more about the thought process behind Fedora's new vision and who exactly Fedora's target audience consists of, I spoke with Paul Frields, Fedora Project Leader at Red Hat.
Frields says that Fedora is intended "first and foremost for users interested in and capable of contributing to open source." Fedora would like to attract the sort of users who will help sustain and grow the project through their own contributions, whether that be code, documentation, wiki maintenance, or other involvement.
The target Fedora user also has some degree of computer savvy, but isn't necessarily writing machine code for fun. For example, Frields points out relatively simple basics such as knowing how to install an operating system and how to file and follow up on bug reports.
Which isn't to imply that Fedora isn't for everyone. Frields was careful to point out that defining a "target audience" is merely something Fedora uses to help it decide where the project is headed.
When faced with decisions such as, "Should this code be included?", "Should this package be part of the distro?", and so on, the guiding principle remains "Does it help Fedora's target users?"
If you don't fit the bill of the target Fedora user, fear not. Fedora isn't trying to exclude anyone, it's merely establishing guidelines that will help the project remain true to its core users - and Frields believes that this focus will benefit everyone who uses Fedora since it will, as it were, save the horse from turning into a camel.
So what does the Fedora 12 release have to offer? The answer is quite a bit, particularly with respect to virtualization tools - an area in which Fedora has long been ahead of the crowd - along with speed improvements; better power management; and support for the latest, much higher-quality Ogg Theora video codecs.
The speed and power management tools will be welcome improvements for all users, but particularly for those using the Moblin netbook spin. As of Fedora 12, all 32-bit software packages have been compiled with special optimizations for the Intel Atom processors used in many netbooks, which makes the Fedora Moblin Spin quite a bit faster.
The power management system in Fedora has also been rewritten, borrowing some tools from Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 5 to make Fedora less battery-draining - welcome news for anyone with a laptop, but particularly for those with netbooks.
More VMs, less RAM
Virtualization in Fedora has also been vastly improved with what's known as kernel shared memory. If you run a number of virtual machines at a time, there's a considerable amount of overlap in the memory pages. Kernel shared memory consolidates common memory pages into a single page, thus cutting down on the amount of RAM each machine needs from the host.
For example, if you're running 10 virtual machines and allocating 1GB RAM to each, you'd need 10GB of RAM. But the kernel shared memory tools in Fedora 12 combine the memory used by each virtual machine, drastically reducing your overall RAM usage. That means more virtual machines can run on your existing hardware without you needing to add more RAM.
Fedora 12's virtualization tools also offer hot swapping for virtual network interfaces and a new network-booting infrastructure.
And keep in mind that Fedora is something of a testing ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, so look for at least some of the improved virtualization tools to end up in RHEL 6.
Fedora 12 also includes the new Theora 1.1, a much-improved version of the open video codec that features video quality on par with proprietary solutions such as H.264. Theora 1.1 is a combined effort of the Xiph.Org Foundation and Mozilla and Fedora developers.
With Firefox 3.5 already supporting Theora 1.1, Fedora 12 users now have unified video support both on and off the web.
Thus far, Theora isn't widely used on the web, but with HTML5 gaining support and browsers such as Firefox offering baked-in Theora support, an open video solution is starting to look like a viable possibility.
Fedora 12 includes the latest version of Xorg, which now defaults to spanning the desktop between displays in a dual-monitor setup rather than cloning them. Quite frankly, that's the way it should have been from the beginning, but better late than never.
Another nice under-the-hood change in Fedora 12 is the new LZMA compression format for RPM. All of the software packages in Fedora have been switched from Gzip to the more efficient XZ (LZMA) compression method. The payoff for users is smaller, faster downloads.
PackageKit, Fedora's software discovery tool that lets you quickly and easily install the application you need to open a file, now includes a browser plugin. That means that if you download a PDF file, but don't have a PDF viewer installed, PackageKit will notice the download in your browser and offer to install the software you need.
Also worth noting is the inclusion of some new open Broadcom firmware, which means that users with Broadcom WiFi chips will be able to connect without the hassle of finding and turning on hacked Windows drivers. Not every Broadcom WiFi chip is supported though; see the Fedora wiki for details.
On the desktop, Fedora 12 offers the latest versions of GNOME and KDE, complete with all the usual updates to the standard GNOME and KDE applications. On the GNOME side that means the new Empathy IM client and the slightly revamped, somewhat more polished theme we mentioned in our review of the Fedora 12 beta release.
You can download Fedora 12 here. The installer is available as a complete DVD image or as Live CD images for specific desktop environments. There are also various spins available, including the previously mentioned Moblin spin for netbooks.
Thanks to speed boosts and better power management, Fedora 12 is a welcome upgrade - and the Fedora Moblin Spin is especially recommended if you're looking for a solid netbook system. We're also looking forward to seeing where the Fedora community decides to go with Fedora 13, which will, in all likelihood, form the foundations of RHEL 6. ®