The Caldera Network Desktop fulfills its promises and hints at a plug-and-play system for the masses.
It's slick, It's attractive! It installs on your i486 computer with a minimum of fuss. It does everything it says it will do, and—it's only in pre-release! (Version 1.0, Preview 1 is the version available at the time of this writing. [Preview 2 is now shipping from Caldera, and will be reviewed in a later issue—ED])
OK—back to reality. Though it looks familiar, there is nothing quite like Caldera Network Desktop (CND). It's something new to the Linux community. It includes a number of more-or-less independent packages, but here's the kick: some of them are commercial. That is, they are proprietary—you cannot redistribute them as you can with the usual Linux software. One to a customer, unless you get multiple-user licensing.
The manual puts it this way:
Caldera has included a Desktop metaphor, a NetWare client, a font server, and other commercial software that runs on top of the Linux operating system. Because Caldera has licensed these commercial components from other companies, they cannot be freely distributed, but are licensed on a per-copy basis.... You must have a license for each computer which runs these programs.
Well, that's pretty clear. But just to make sure you are informed, the manual goes to some lengths to include the GNU General Public License, the UC Berkeley copyright, and license terms for pthreads (technology used by the NetWare Client). This may be Linux but it isn't (entirely) free. It's a combination of freeware and proprietary software.
Version 1.0 of the Caldera Network Desktop Preview arrived at my doorstep via UPS from Banta ISG, in Provo Utah. The Caldera box told me I held “The Complete Client/Server Internet Solution;” what you find inside is an excellent 124-page Getting Started guide and one CD, which includes:
Linux 1.2.8 from Red Hat
an attractive X-window GUI
15 fonts in TrueType, Type 1 and SPEEDO formats
a WEB browser and server
a NetWare client (for NetWare 3.x and 4.x servers)
servers for mail and FTP
I noted along the way that CND is English-only (except for the usual Linux internationality).
The Getting Started book was well-organized, and contained everything I needed to know to select a kernel and complete a Caldera Network Desktop installation.
So which is it? Is CND to be one of those software packages you install, but don't tinker with? It's advertised that way. Or is it a package in the Linux tradition—install, but grab your screwdrivers and immediately start modifying? Let's see.
CND is built on top of the Red Hat Commercial Linux distribution. Preview 1 shipped with the 1.2.8 Linux kernel. It was compiled with IPX support and CONFIG_MODVERSIONS enabled, and allows you to disable verbose boot messages.
The standard C and X11 tools and libraries are included. Preview 1 shipped with version libc version 4.5.26 and gcc version 2.5.8. libc version 4.6.27 is also included on the CD.
The documentation discusses some of the differences between the Red Hat Linux file system structure and the Linux File System Standard (FSSTND). And, as with other Linux distributions, your starting kernel has a bunch of stuff you don't need for your particular machine; compiling a new kernel after Caldera installation is, as always, a Good Thing. [Linux Journal covered this in issue 7, November 1994, and it hasn't changed very much since. Just be sure to say “yes” when you are asked about CONFIG_MODVERSIONS—Ed]
On occasion during my trials of CND, I found myself eating Flaming Death at the hands of Caldera support folks, and I was not alone. Slackware users, it seems, should have known better than to use that shady distribution. No matter, I say; if I came from a non-Red Hat environment, CND's purported ease of use should have smoothed the transition. [Preview 2 gives some of this capability—Ed] Curiously, Caldera's Web page (http://www.caldera.com/) hints that it is possible to unbundle the Network Desktop from the Red Hat distribution, and a few information files on the Caldera site actually give you tips on how to do it—on top of Slackware.
CND recognizes the following:
Novell's NetWare 3.x, 4.x (NDS) file server access (no printers yet).
Samba 1.9.00 (an SMB server)
I did not test the Samba server, but can praise the absolutely transparent Novell and TCP/IP services. Applications and X windows are one thing, but it's this sort of functionality that will make Linux a contender at my own workplace.
The desktop environment, called Looking Glass, is based on Visix's Looking Glass Professional. It runs as an application on top of X11 and is used in conjunction with an unmodified version of the fvwm window manager. From the CND FAQ:
There is a general purpose file typing facility for the desktop metaphor: actions can be defined for a given file type. And drop actions can be defined: dropping an HTML file on the browser will launch the browser on that file.
A graphics card supporting at least 256 colors is required. Graphics cards which are supported by XFree86 are also supported on CND. A smooth program called Xconfigurator is also provided, which creates an XFree86 configuration file for many popular video cards.
The Web browser provided is Arena. It is serviceable, but while it was being ported to Linux it acquired some color allocation problems. While it claims HTML 3 compliance, it doesn't support forms or e-mail.
The Web server installs and works invisibly. I found no problems with it, but did not explore scripting capabilities, or its performance under stress.
For the time being, Caldera support “is limited (mainly via e-mail and our WWW and FTP servers on the Internet). No individual support is provided.” The Caldera page at www.caldera.com included pointers to a wealth of information, including Linux in general, Red Hat in particular, and, of course, CND FAQs and other technical information.
To make all this work you need to install it on an i386 or i486 computer with one 3-1/2" floppy, at least 80MB of hard drive (although the excellent “Express” install uses 140MB, and a complete install seems to be at least twice that), 8MB of RAM (a more realistic 16 MB if you plan to use X-windows), a CD drive which the supplied Linux boot kernels will recognize, and an appropriate net connection. With that and three blank floppies ready for the necessary boot, root and recover disks, you're ready to install—or are you?
The years have taught me that a single software installation on a single hardware combination can give a ludicrous impression of the product. Consequently, I have taken the trouble to install Caldera on hardware including:
Mitsumi and Matsushita CD (with Soundblaster)
100MB, 130MB, 220MB and 820MB hard disk
Western Digital and Tseng VLB
If this seems a waste of time, trust me; each element plays a part in setting up a user's reaction—“This is a hunk of junk”, “this is great”, or “this is really strange.”
I have performed these Caldera installations in two different environments. The first is my place of work, where I have an Ethernet connection to our WAN and from there, through a firewall, to the Internet. The second is at home, where my connection to the outside world is via the phone company and a local Internet provider.
Something you must not ignore: Believe the documentation when it tells you how much disk space is required. The “express” install calls for not less than 140MB; anything less leaves you with an incomplete, totally unbootable installation. Start over, with plenty of disk space—I'd say nothing less than 220MB (cheap these days). Because part of the point of Caldera is that nifty “Looking Glass” desktop, that means lots of space is needed. You'll want space for a swap partition, X itself, all the Caldera-specific paraphernalia, net stuff, and so on. And you'll want to build kernels every now and then, so you'll need gcc, the libraries, and so on. For all this, remember to keep your video specs handy, and to have fun. The manual has a handy table which allows you to calculate the disk space required, or make decisions at to what programs you can afford to skip. It's invaluable.
After your initial installation, software may be installed or removed by means of either the Red Hat Program Package (RPP) command-line tools, or the Linux Installation Manager (LIM) graphic interface to RPP.
Some of the quirks are a result of Linux itself. During installation, for instance, after ten minutes of disk activity, the screen goes blank! Of course—it's only the screen blanker, what could be more logical? But if this is your first shot at a Linux installation, you might be tempted to do something nasty, like reboot. (Hint: press the shift key; anything else will be interpreted as an “OK” when it gets around to checking for keyboard input, and you might not want that next “OK”.)
Although the CND installation creates standard users, it seems to forget their passwords; it creates standard groups using the User Private Group scheme.
The bootroot program (located in the CD's <\\>dos directory), which is supposed to lead you through the creation of the startup floppies, proved to be a memory hog, refusing to write anything to the disks on some of my test machines. I found that once I selected the appropriate “boot” and “root” files, rawrite was the best means of creating the necessary disks on those computers.
My workplace computer has a Matsushita CD player connected to the computer through a Media Magic sound card (I used “other SCSI” during kernel selection). Both work well, but this CD player has a motor-driven CD tray; during installation, the kernel causes the tray to go in and out like a cuckoo—some six times during an install. Don't blame either Caldera or Red Hat, as I was tempted to do; this seems to be a Linux Fact of Life.
Caldera asserts that despite recent improvements in commercial distributions, Linux still lacks acceptance as an operating environment in the commercial world (although some recent Linux Journal articles have shown matters to be gradually changing). Some of the reasons given: Linux is often perceived as having been developed by unskilled students, and installation and configuration are challenging for the uninitiated. Further, they point out, Linux offers no accountability: it is all but unsupported by mainstream applications, and it can't provide a complete solution to users' needs—networking, gui, and so on.
I leave it up to you to decide if any of these are straw men. In any case, the entrepreneurs at Caldera label these “barriers to growth.” And in order to remove those barriers, they have brought us the Caldera Network Desktop. They will “add value to Linux by creating and providing a platform for commercial products that can appeal to major users and spread the use of Linux to new areas that traditionally would not have considered using it.”
What lies ahead for this package? Again, from the CD's preview document:
a more mature WWW/HTML browser
sophisticated, commercial-grade tape backup system
a new graphical interface to many utilities and programs
commercial personal productivity applications
better Internet access applications
Although it isn't yet possible to upgrade from one release to another, Caldera says that “such tools are planned for the final 1.0 release.” [Those tools are in Preview 2, which has just been released—Ed] Something Caldera calls the InfoTrack database support system will become part of the overall technical support. OpenDoc support is in the offing. And ELF work is under way. [Again, Preview 2 is based on ELF—Ed]
How about Linux in general? A number of commercial packages are said to run on Linux, including Word Perfect and Oracle 7. Indeed, Caldera includes the SCO Word Perfect demo, and one of Caldera's future offerings includes Word Perfect itself. Perhaps Linux is being moved in this direction, with or without Caldera.
Caldera says it wants to “shield end-users from the ordered chaos that creates and grows Linux, so they can use it as their operating system of choice.” Well, I've grown jaded over the years—cynical, I suppose (must be that stint as a Windows 95 beta tester). When so much of a software package actually works, I am surprised; and this first release of Caldera's Network Desktop has been, to my mind, a remarkable success.
My suspicion is that the people who buy Caldera will be expecting a software package they can simply install and run. And, if you take a few precautions (have enough disk space; know your video numbers; and—yes—RTFM), that's exactly what happens.
Some take the commercialization of the Net to signal the End of Things as We Know Them. Will products like Caldera mean the end of Linux as we know it? I think not—the philosophies are not mutually exclusive. True, Caldera “uses” Linux, which is GNU freeware, to make money. Still, I think Caldera will prove to be good for Linux. The solidity of Linux makes a product like Caldera possible; and the success of Caldera will make Linux accessible to people who don't want to tinker—who just want to learn, or maybe even do some work.
Meanwhile, in true Linux tradition, “programmers the world over” are doing a fine job of bashing this package—breaking it, fixing it, feeding the fixes back to the folks at Caldera. The “First Customer Ship” will be a better, more solid product because of this test cycle.
I like the product. It can't pretend to be plug-and-play, but it installs easily, runs well, looks great, and—unless you try to stretch it too far—keeps on running. Caldera wouldn't exist without Linux; Linux could continue to exist without Caldera, but this certainly ups the ante.