Updated: July 16, 2010
Do you know what will happen in 2017? RedHat Enterprise Linux 6 will still be officially supported, seven years after being introduced in late 2010. This is a good thing. But do you know what's even better? CentOS 6, the free version of RHEL 6 lacking the commercial vendor support, will also be available to Linux users, offering super long support, stability and enterprise-grade quality. Sounds great.
The only thing you need to ask yourselves is: how good is (or will be) RHEL 6? I hope to answer that question today. At least partially, since we're talking Beta release, after all. And since testing beta versions is tricky, I promise a full, detailed reviewed once the operating system is officially released. I will probably focus on CentOS and show you all kinds of desktop things, in addition to core technology improvements. But that's future. Now, we have a chance to get to know RHEL 6.
The last major release, RHEL 5 was released in 2007. Likewise, CentOS 5 was released shortly thereafter. Today, the distribution stands at version 5.5. Most of the system is modern and relevant, three years since its introduction, but it does show a bit of age, especially when it comes to things most desktop users crave, like Wireless, NTFS support, suspend, hibernate, support for all kinds of fancy peripherals, and suchlike.
The major reason for this is the fact Linux did not really break through on the modern desktop until mid-2008 or so. While the claim is fluid and quite subjective, having followed tens of distributions in the last four years or so, I believe the Linux desktop transparency started to mature only in the last two. This means that systems predating the renaissance are considered archaic in modern terms.
Therefore, RHEL 6 bears far more strategic importance than just being the future release of the most powerful server distribution. Based on Fedora 12, it has the ingredients of a modern, relevant Linux that can cater to needs of today's users, if so required.
For me, testing this Beta is not just a measure of how good RHEL is; I know how good it is. This test will tell whether, by the end of 2010, you will have a modern operating system that you can carry with you for the next seven years, fully confident that your Wireless devices, your Windows stuff, your SD cards, Bluetooth, Web camera, graphic cards, and everything else will work as expected.
RedHat does not have a goal of conquering the desktop, but with RHEL 6/CentOS 6, it just accidentally might. Seven years of support, the free price tag, ultra stability, and most importantly, the full spectrum of features demanded by the desktop users could make it a powerful rival to Microsoft, Apple and possibly even other Linux distributions.
Now, it is likely that in three years, RHEL 6 might becomes as outdated as RHEL 5 is today, but I don't think this will happen. Because we have crossed the barrier of basic desktop usability. While Wireless and Web camera were kind of a nice-to-have in 2007, today, they are a must. So we're back to question one: how good is RHEL 6?
RHEL 6, the free sampling
I installed RHEL6 on my T60p machine, dual-core, with 2GB RAM, 32-bit. Nothing too fancy. The installation went smooth. The procedure is very similar to what is currently available in Fedora 13, with some changes. No screenshots, I'm afraid.
Compared to previous versions, the installer looks fresher and it's simplified. The installation was much faster, at only about 15-20 minutes for the full DVD. The boot sequence is also faster and snappier, with high-resolution splash. RHEL6 uses GRUB legacy, so anyone worried about GRUB versus GRUB 2 can relax. GRUB will be with us seven years from now, at the very least.
The machine did have a Ubuntu Lucid installation present, with its own GRUB 2. Following my own instructions, I set the RHEL bootloader as default and added Lucid to the menu.list file with core.img pointer. Worked without any problems.
RHEL 6 desktop is a fairly simple, clean Gnome. Older versions used to have very old icons and somewhat depressing grayish color was used for the desktop panels. The new release is more akin to recent Fedora releases, with a smarter use of elements and colors.
Changing the default is incredibly simple. I've shown you some fairly simple customization tips in my CentOS 5.4 review, which, by the way, is a must-read for any RedHat fan. It shows you just about anything and everything you want to know about CentOS as a desktop distribution, valid for 5.x releases. And then, there's my Gnome themes tutorial, which can also help you pimp up the visual appeal of the system. Since RHEL 6 is based on Fedora 12, you can also probably try Gnome Shell if you want.
Networking (Wireless, Bluetooth)
Now, let's see what works. Wireless, for one thing. No issues. Or Bluetooth.
Samba sharing, NTFS devices
I managed to connect to Windows FAT32 shares without any problems. However, I did not succeed in mounting external USB devices formatted with NTFS. More about that later.
No problems here either. Less than three seconds to sleep and back again to life.
Despite an impressive array of both server and desktop features, RHEL 6 has a very small memory footprint. The basic desktop took about 180MB of RAM, which is less than most Linux distributions.
Combined with very decent boot times and very snappy overall response, this is a great improvement over previous versions and a daring challenge to fellow distributions.
Desktop looks, effects
Nautilus is configured to use the one-window one-view setting by default, but you can change this easily. Still, using the more user-friendly browser-like behavior with tabs is preferable.
Compiz is also available out of the box - and it works. And you also get the Glossy theme that was there in Fedora 11 and vanished in subsequent releases. So you have everything you could ask for.
RHEL 6 is definitely not about desktop use, even though it is my angle in this review. Still, it is quite important to mention a few of the technologies present in the distribution. For instance, you have the Kdump kernel dump configuration wizard in the system menu, allowing you to setup your system for crash collection. Likewise, the Virtual Machine Manager for Xen and KVM is installed and available from the start.
RHEL 6 does not lack in goodies you may want or need for normal, daily use. There's OpenOffice, at version 3.1. Pidgin is there, as well as Firefox 3.5.3. You also get Ekiga, Cheese, Brasero, Evolution, and a handful of other useful tools and programs.
RHEL 6 is also equipped with the standard Gnome Control Center that allows quick access to all important system functions. The Control Center is available if you expand your username applet in the top panel. You can also setup services using GUI from the system menu.
What does not work
There was only one thing that spoiled the perfection - the NTFS support. It's not available by default, probably due to licensing issues. I don't know how this will be sorted out in the final release, but it should not be an obstacle.
RHEL 6 is an excellent product. It works great. You have everything. Well, almost everything. Except NTFS support, everything works superbly, without any hitches. RHEL 6 combines modern technology with stability and quality to create a perfect formula. Whether you want this to become your server or your desktop, you have the right tools for the right job. Memory footprint is low, suspend & hibernate works, Wireless works, the choice of programs is well balanced, what could you ask more? And remember, this is only a beta release!
I did not test multimedia, but this can wait. We learned in the CentOS 5.4 review how to achieve this by enabling extra repositories. I will also have a proper test for the Nvidia card, as well as setting up RHEL/CentOS on an external disk in a ten-boot configuration very soon. And to answer our question: RHEL 6 is very, very good. I am looking forward to the official release - and CentOS 6. It's going to be a blast.