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Red Hat eye from the Ubuntu guy: Fedora – how you doin'?

More than a mere RHEL release testbed

Comment Red Hat is the biggest – and one of the oldest – companies in the Linux world, but despite the difficulty of accurately measuring Linux usage figures, Ubuntu and its relatives seem to be the most popular Linux distributions. Red Hat isn’t sitting idle, though. Despite its focus on enterprise software, including virtualisation, storage and Java tools, it’s still aggressively developing its family of distros: RHEL, CentOS and Fedora.

Fedora is the freebie community-supported version, with a short six-month release cycle, but it’s still important. Although RHEL is the flagship, it’s built from components developed and tested in Fedora. According to Fedora Project Lead Matthew Miller told this year’s Flock to Fedora conference this summer its future looks bright.

After the major "" re-focus in early 2014, Fedora's numbers are up. Both new downloads and updates to installed systems are rising. External involvement – that is, from non-Red Hat staffers – is sharply up: two-thirds of Fedora's contributors are from outside the company these days. And yes, that's counting 'Hatters using non-company email addresses.

It's getting better as a distro, too, benefitting from the improving fit-and-finish of Linux and its manifold supporting components: desktops, applications and their less-obvious underpinnings. Fedora 24 is significantly more usable than it was five or six releases ago. Rather than just being the testbed for future RHEL releases, the project now has wider aspirations – Miller identified the project's primary target as developers.

I must confess, I lean more towards Ubuntu, only periodically dipping a toe into the waters of the RPM world. So when looking at Fedora, it’s sometimes irresistible to draw comparisons with the more orangey-purple side of the fence.

And these days it's a family rather than a single distro. The old structure of Fedora Core plus additional rings of functionality has been discarded in favour of multiple "flavours", "spins" and "labs".

"Flavours" are akin to Ubuntu's editions: as well as the standard GNOME 3 desktop, there's Fedora Server plus the ultra-minimal Fedora Cloud. Fedora's "spins" resemble Ubuntu's remixes, offering KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Maté-Compiz and Cinnamon. An interesting addition is SOAS, a live USB drive with the One Laptop Per Child's Sugar environment.

Fedora's Labs are a more versatile equivalent to Ubuntu's handful of special-purpose editions. Labs are pre-assembled bundles of functionally related software, which can be installed as standalone distros or added into existing installations. Finally, COPRs are directly analogous to Ubuntu's PPAs: ad-hoc supplementary repositories to facilitate adding new software that isn't part of the main distro.

The overall structure of the software is changing, too. Platform Architect Langdon White’s talk at the conference introduced the Modularity initiative, an attempt to restructure the entire project down into functional modules which can be installed and updated independently, in different ways – for instance as classic RPM packages or container images.

Atomic Workstation represents another possible future direction – a smartphone-like OS, with a read-only root partition, installed and updated via OSTree, with all applications in Docker containers.

As of the version 25, standard Fedora will support the Raspberry Pi 2 and 3. Fedora is an all-FOSS distro, with no proprietary drivers, firmware or plugins, so it doesn't support the Pi 3's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as these require binary blobs. (We're told there are efforts underway to help people install closed-source components, such as Chrome, by the way.)

There are still downsides to Fedora relative to Ubuntu. There are no long-term support releases, as that's the role of the technologically much more conservative CentOS. Ubuntu's more pragmatic attitude to including proprietary binaries means more hardware works out of the box, and installing the "restricted extras" package enables Flash, MP3 and so on in one easy operation. But the Red Hat family has come a long way. ®

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