Corporate backing and a large supportive community – almost all Linux distributions can boast of at least one half of that.

Fedora, since its inception in late 2003 as Red Hat's community distribution, has nurtured around itself a devoted community. It has achieved this after providing, release after release, an innovative and complete distribution that demands attention and respect.

Being a rather large distribution (the number of DVD distributions now pales in comparison to single CD variants), Fedora 13 has something for just about every variety of Linux user.

With Fedora 13 fresh out of the oven let's see what it has to offer.

Revelations

According to Paul W Frields, Fedora Project Leader, Fedora's feature process and diverse community of developers and contributors enables it to include a wide range of features in each release.

"Fedora 13 sports an array of desktop features that will help any computer user make better use of their hardware – from 3D support for their graphics card, to colour management for their input and output devices, to automatic installation of printer drivers.

"But this release also brings advanced functionality for developers, such as better monitoring tools that allow a Python developer to measure activity on his system to find bottlenecks in Python code he's developing. And system administrators will be excited about the redesigned authentication tool in Fedora 13 using the System Security Services Daemon (SSSD) to allow managed domain logins, even for laptop users who are away from the network".

Virtualisation leader

Fedora has provided a stable home for virtualisation technologies for some time now, and Fedora 13 continues the trend. In fact, on offer are leading-edge virtualisation improvements, according to Frields.

"As always, Fedora continues to lead the pack in virtualisation features, since our community developers are actually heavily involved in upstream areas like the kernel and the KVM hypervisor".

Virtualisation

VIRTUAL MACHINES: Carefully select the OS type and the Version when creating a new virtual machine

Although Fedora persisted with Xen for a few years, the amount of time and energy needed to get it to work with the Linux kernel was a drawback. Support for KVM stable PCI addressing and Virt Shared Network Interface are two major KVM offerings in Fedora 13. The shared network interface technology enables virtual machines to use the same physical network interface cards (NICs) as the host OS.

All virtual machines under your Fedora 13 installation are managed by the Virtual Machine Manager tool under Applications > System Tools. You can create or restore existing virtual machines in a matter of minutes, as the interface is very easy to use.

Many recent distribution releases require at least 1 GB RAM, so if you don't allocate that much when creating your virtual machine, you will probably not be able to run a graphical installation in the newly created virtual machine.

Polished installation

Fedora has never been an overtly difficult distribution to install. Still, Fedora 13 comes with a smarter version of the Anaconda installer that makes installation even simpler, thanks to improvements in how it handles storage media and partitioning.

Also available now is the option to install Fedora over the internet. The boot images are available for a variety of media including USB and CD from boot.fedoraproject.org. These boot images allow the system to connect to a remote server to launch the installer, doing away the need for 700MB disks or 4GB DVDs as the installation media of choice.

Live usb

LIVE USB: The LiveUSB Creator makes it even simpler to create installations on flash drives

Hardware support

A long standing argument against Linux adoption has been that Linux doesn't have the same level of hardware support as proprietary operating systems. To that end, Fedora 13 offers the Nouveau drivers with experimental 3D support for Nvidia cards, so users don't have to rely on untrustworthy proprietary drivers that can't be debugged or improved upon.

The real prize, however, is the Automatic Printer Driver Installation feature. All printers, whether they connect via USB, parallel ports or over the network, identify themselves using a Device ID string containing information such as manufacturer, model name, supported command sets and suchlike.

Historically, configuring a printer has been bothersome for most users – more often than not because they don't know the correct driver for their printer. Imagine, however, if printer drivers contained tags associating them with certain manufacturers and model numbers, such that when Fedora detects your attached printer, it immediately looks up the drivers that carry matching manufacturer and model tags and automatically installs the driver. This is now possible in Fedora 13, hence the very suggestive feature name.

Programmer's playmate

By providing parallel-installable Python 3, which means that Python 3.1.2 can now be installed in parallel with Python 2.6.4, Fedora 13 is marketing itself as the ideal platform of choice for developers. Python 3 solves many of the long-standing issues in Python 2, but in doing so it has mutated into an almost entirely new language.

The 2to3 tool provided by Python can be used to automatically convert much of Python 2 code to Python 3, but there's a catch. When we say Python, there are three intertwined components at play: the core runtime, the standard library, and a host of other third-party modules on top. The trouble is that not all modules (which number in the hundreds) have been completely ported to Python 3.

Fedora 13 thus provides both Python 2 and Python 3 stacks to provide developers the means to continue their work and also prepare to make the transition to Python 3.

The second Python-related feature enables developers to measure activity on their system to find bottlenecks in Python code they're developing. SystemTap is a tracing/probing/monitoring tool which enables users and developers to observe their system beyond the kernel. In effect, you can see what's happening inside your application and language runtimes like Python, etc.

Bug reporting tool

AUTOMATIC BUG REPORTING TOOL: Even non-power users are now able to file bug reports. You can access it from the Applications > System Tools menu

Since Python code is easy to mix with code written in other languages (for example, C), the third Python-related feature, an extended GDB (GNU debugger), reports mixed C and Python-level information on what such processes are doing. You don't need to be an expert GDB user to debug code wrapped in Python, as the improved GDB makes it convenient for even Python newbies to take advantage of this feature.

Btrfs filesystem snapshot

Have you ever feared doing something adventurous on your system only to end up with an unusable machine? Btrfs can create lightweight bootable filesystem snapshots. System rollback using btrfs enables administrators and users to revert to a previous snapshot should the system become unusable.

Since btrfs creates entire filesystem snapshots that can be created automatically or manually at the user's demand, the entire filesystem will revert to its previous state when you revert to a snapshot.

For example, if you make a snapshot each time you delete or install new packages, reverting to an older snapshot wouldn't just affect the state of those packages – it would also affect your home directory if it too is on the btrfs partition. ext4 is the default filesystem on Fedora 13 but you can easily choose btrfs during the installation process.

A history of innovation

An important aspect of the Fedora release cycle is the continuing development of key features across releases. We've seen this with the faster startup times: Fedora 10 had a 30-second startup and it was down to 20 seconds in Fedora 11. This is one of those features that will continued to be worked upon into and beyond Fedora 14.

Similarly, Archer, a GDB development branch with better C++ support and Python scripting capabilities, made its debut with Fedora 11 and now in Fedora 13 we have a smarter GDB that every Python programmer should celebrate.

"Over many releases we build on a solid base of engineering expertise and work to extend the functionality of a completely free and open source software platform", Paul Frields explains.

"Take free video drivers for instance. In Fedora 10 we introduced kernel modesetting to speed up the boot process on a few ATI video cards. In Fedora 11 we extended this function to lots of video cards, and began a process of extending support for 3D acceleration in totally free video drivers with Intel graphics cards. In Fedora 12 we built on that platform with experimental 3D support for ATI cards using the 'radeon' driver, and Fedora 13 included not only stabilising the ATI support, but extending 3D to Nvidia cards using the 'nouveau' driver".

Network Manager

An example of a far longer-term project is the Network Manager, which was introduced way back in 2007 as part of Fedora 7. By the time Fedora 12 came, it had become the de facto network configuration solution for just about all distributions.

Network manager

NETWORK MANAGEMENT: nmclie, the CLI tool for controlling Network Manager, is still not quite comparable with its graphical sibling

With Fedora 12, Network Manager introduced mobile broadband support and finally in Fedora 13 we get support for dial-up modems for older Bluetooth-equipped phones. It also provides a command line interface, enabling users who run a text-only system to still take advantage of this brilliant tool.

Another new feature courtesy of Fedora 13 is the colour management. This enables users to create unique colour profiles for different hardware devices such as printers, scanners and monitors, enabling artists, photographers, designers, produce better work using free software.

According to Frields, the advances in free video were created in large part by engineers employed by Red Hat to extend the possibility of free software on the desktop. "The free video driver story is just one example of how the Fedora Project and Red Hat have worked together not just to integrate but to improve the state of free and open source software."

Virtualisation tools

KVM now also finds its way into the upcoming RHEL 6 and, as Frields explains, this is how the two distributions often team up.

"Fedora is a free distribution, community project and upstream for Red Hat Enterprise Linux… [it] serves as the community R&D lab. Fedora is a general-purpose system that gives Red Hat and the rest of its contributor community the chance to innovate rapidly with new technologies".

People will clearly see a reflection of the very recent and past Fedora releases in RHEL 6. In a sense, looking at Fedora releases, you can make a fairly accurate prediction of some of the technologies and features that the next Red Hat Enterprise Linux release will offer.

Tim Burke, vice president of Linux engineering at Red Hat, further clarifies that individuals and businesses are often willing to participate in Fedora to see some features make their way into RHEL. "We are increasingly seeing customers who have specific use case needs who are willing to contribute with us in Fedora in the interest of having the feature productised in Red Hat Enterprise Linux".

And since everybody from home makers to hardware manufacturers are interested in energy efficient systems, Burke continues with this example: "Many people, ranging from end users, to hardware vendors, to government customers have an interest in energy efficiency. Users from these diverse points of view worked with us in Fedora 12 and Fedora 13 to audit and improve many of the default system services to be much more power efficient. This type of work will be directly applicable on a supported basis in Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6".

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First published in Linux Format Issue 134

Liked this? Then check out 10 best Linux distros for 2010

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