Fedora 21 Review: Linux’s sprawliest distro finds a new focus

Fedora.Next design brings some order to the chaos.

Like most Linux distros, Fedora is a massive, sprawling project. Frankly, it's sprawl-y to the point that it has felt unfocused and a bit lost at times. Just what is Fedora? The distro has served as a kind of showcase for GNOME 3 ever since GNOME 3 hit the beta stage. So Fedora in theory is meant to target everyday users, but at the same time the project pours tremendous energy into building developer tools like DevAssistant. Does that make Fedora a developer distro? A newbie-friendly GNOME showcase? A server distro? An obscure robotics distro?

Today, the answer to all the above questions is "yes." And the way to make sense of it all is what Fedora calls Fedora.Next.

Fedora.Next is Fedora's term for its new organization and release structure. Think of Fedora.Next's structure as a series of concentric rings where each ring is supported by the one inside it. At the center are the core components of the system, APIs that applications hook into and so on. On the outside are the most visible of the new layers, what Fedora calls "Environments." For now the available Environments consist of Workstation (Desktop), Server, and Cloud. Each environment is optimized to suit what it says on the tin, and because these are very modular, it won't be hard for Fedora to add new Environments as needed. (For example, perhaps there will one day be a Mobile Environment.)

The new pre-packaged Environments don't prevent users from personalizing Fedora to your liking, however. These three Environments simply represent the primary areas of focus for developers. By doing so, this offers Fedora a bit of internal focus and direction, allowing for the creation of more targeted "products" for users.

Fedora Project Leader Matthew Miller likens the Fedora.Next structure to LEGO. "One of the related (and perpetual) community discussions centers around what exactly Fedora is," he has said. "Traditionally, the answer is: we take the 'raw plastic' of the software out there in the universe and we mold it into high-precision LEGO bricks, and users can plug them together. The idea [with Environments] is we can take some of our bricks, and we can ship those as sets."

Miller is quick to reassure long-time Fedora fans that the project is "not getting rid of the basic supply of bricks... we want you to build other things." But the renewed sense of focus is apparent in the new Fedora.Next release structure.

From an outsider's perspective, this appears to have re-invigorated the Fedora Project. The new life is evident in its recently released update, Fedora 21, the first built around the project's new structure. After spending some time with this major update, Fedora 21 feels like one of the strongest releases the project has put out to date. It's well worth the upgrade.

Fedora Workstation

The Workstation Environment is what you would have installed previously if you downloaded Fedora Live CD and installed the defaults.

In Fedora 21, that will get you a GNOME desktop. The old "spins," which consist primarily of different desktops, are still available. Presumably, these build on the same basic set of packages found in the GNOME Workstation release, and as we noted, Fedora has long been a showcase distro for GNOME 3.x. With that in mind, we stuck with the default GNOME 3.14 desktop while testing.

The basic GNOME Shell search screen in Fedora 21.

First, though, you have to install Fedora using what is supposed to be an intuitive installer, something so simple you can't fail. Except that instead of "can't fail," it's so simple you can't tell what has to happen. Perhaps we're just brainwashed by the form-based installers found in Mint, Ubuntu, Debian, openSUSE, ElementaryOS, and, well, just about everywhere else, but Fedora's button-based installer—buttons, which hide forms—drove us crazy. Why make users click an extra button to set up an account for a workstation environment when everyone obviously needs a user account?

Fedora's nearly inscrutable installer, complete with instructions in the form of a tiny-font error message.

The Fedora installer isn't part of the GNOME project, but we wouldn't be surprised to learn the same developer who turned the Nautilus file browser into a useless toy also had a go at the Fedora installer. Most users will get it, it's not Arch (at least Arch's arcane install process is well documented), but it gets things off to a bumpy start.

The best thing we can say about Fedora's installer is that you only have to use it once. Just remember to create a new user and set your root password.

GNOME 3.14

Once Fedora 21 is installed, you'll be greeted by the GNOME 3.14 desktop (assuming you found the button to create a user account).

Fedora leapfrogged past GNOME 3.12—Fedora 20 shipped with GNOME 3.10—so this is a major leap forward for Fedora fans. GNOME 3.14 brings plenty of new features, including a couple new applications, an updated theme, and some more improvements in HiDPI screen support. In fact, GNOME has long boasted some of the best HiDPI support around, and this release continues to build on that. The little details have been polished to the point where we haven't seen anything amiss running Fedora 21 in a virtual machine on a retina Macbook Pro.

Fedora's nearly stock GNOME 3.14 looks great on HiDPI screens and the updated GNOME theme gives the desktop a clean, simple look and feel.

If you're updating all the way from GNOME 3.10, you'll notice a completely rewritten Weather app that taps GNOME's new geolocation API to automatically pull in your local forecast. Fedora 21 does not, however, ship with some of the other new GNOME apps like Photos. Fedora 21 has elected to stick with the slightly more feature-rich Shotwell. GNOME Photos is available in the Fedora repos and has some new online account support, but in our experience it's a bit buggy for actually working with something as important as your photo library.

GNOME's revamped weather app with geolocation API.

This release also brings the first real support for Wayland: Mutter (GNOME's default display manager) can now work as a Wayland compositor. Just log out of the default session and click the gear icon to choose the "GNOME on Wayland" option. Fedora should seamlessly fall back to X where Wayland isn't supported.

GNOME 3.14 makes for a different but perfectly usable desktop. At this point the 3.x line is well polished and feels mature. Its rather different take on the desktop interface is not for everyone, and in fact it's not our choice for everyday use. But if you come around to its way of thinking, GNOME 3 is perfectly capable of getting out of your way and letting you do what you want. The only real downside to GNOME that we've experienced is the default file manager, Nautilus, which is pretty limited. But after swapping it out with the Nautilus fork, Nemo, GNOME 3 became a lot more likable.

If you haven't taken GNOME for a spin in a while, it's worth another look, as Fedora 21 makes the best GNOME platform we've tested, hands down.

Yum, now with more Yum-iness

As much as we love some of the developer tools and little side projects Fedora churns out (like the GNOME color management tools it pioneered), we've never been a fan of Fedora's package manager. Fedora 21 changes that. Yum is no longer the slow, awkward beast it used to be, and by extension neither is the Software center tools (which is the pretty-much-only-works-in-Fedora GNOME Software app).

There was a time when Ubuntu's Software Center was perhaps one of the best graphical software installation tools out there, and yum-based distros like Fedora looked slow and ugly in comparison. These days, more or less the opposite is true. Not only is Fedora's graphical software app one of the fastest we've used (speed will obviously depend somewhat on your Internet connection and available mirrors), but it's also clean and well-organized. It offers a great search tool.

GNOME's Software app in Fedora 21.

Fedora continues to target the developer audience with very up-to-date versions of Perl, Python, Ruby, and most other languages you can think of. Anything that isn't there out of the box is most likely available in single DevAssistant command. If you're a developer, and you haven't checked out DevAssistant, you need to. It's the simplest way we've seen to get a complete development stack up and running.

Kernel updates

Fedora 21 ships with Linux kernel 3.17.1, which brings the usual slew of latest hardware support. However, this kernel is also notable for giving Fedora 21 tentative support for ARM 64 chips. ARM 64 is not yet considered a "primary architecture" for Fedora, but most things should work, according to Fedora Magazine.

Fedora's kernel team has also adopted a more modular approach with this release, stripping things back a bit at the request of the Cloud environment developers. The result is a considerably smaller footprint for the Cloud environment, though both Workstation and Server will be roughly the same as the previous releases, size-wise.

Fedora Server

While the Workstation environment is a good base on which to build your desktop experience, the new Fedora Server Environment is more specifically tailored to the needs of sysadmins.

The first release of the Server Environment features a few new tools, like Cockpit, a server monitoring tool with a Web-based interface you can connect to with your browser. If you're new to sysadmin tasks—things like starting and stopping services, storage admin, and so on—or, if you just dislike doing everything through an SSH session, Cockpit is worth checking out. It's more or less everything you're already doing on the command line available via a Web-based GUI. And since it's all the same processes in the end, you can start Apache in the Web panel and stop it from the command line. It's probably not going to replace your handcrafted shell scripts and preferred command line tools, but it's a nice option for newcomers.

Cockpit running locally on Fedora 21 Workstation.

This release also bundles in a couple new-to-Fedora tools like OpenLMI, perhaps best thought of as a remote API for system management, and FreeIPA, which aims to simplify the process of managing users and groups securely.

Then there's RoleKit, which is a brand new Fedora creation that looks like it will be very handy in the future despite being limited right now. In a sense, RoleKit is the sysadmin equivalent of Fedora's DevAssistant. It will help you install and configure packages aimed at a specific role. For example, RoleKit allows you to call up everything you need to run a mail server or everything you need to run a LAMP stack. It's promising even if it's incomplete.

Fedora for you

We've used Fedora off and on since Fedora 6 (which at that time was known as Fedora Core 6). Without reservation, this is the best release to date.

That said, the GNOME desktop is not for everyone. Fortunately, there are plenty of other "spins" available, including a version with the MATE-desktop, which can now use Compiz if you'd like to re-experience Fedora with wobbly windows just like the days of yore. There are also spins featuring KDE, Xfce, and LXDE among other desktops.

More importantly, Fedora 21 sees the project plowing into the future with what feels like a renewed sense of direction and purpose.

If you're a desktop user, there's a Fedora for you. If you're a sysadmin, there's a Fedora for you. If you're chasing the dream of cloud server futures, there's a Fedora for you. And of course if you're just looking for a distro on which to build the ultimate robot, there's still a Fedora for you.

Original Article http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/01/fedora-21-review-linuxs-sprawliest-distro-finds-a-new-focus/1/

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