Updated: February 3, 2010
The credits for the catchy title go to legendary Thomas Dolby, but the real thanks go to the team of scientists, engineers and geeks at CERN, who developed this distribution.
If you're into science, you will, sooner or later, run into Linux. Any serious mathematical, computational work is done on Linux. From amazing 3D movies to simulating the Big Bang over to crunching sparse matrices in a cloud and folding proteins at home, it all comes down to using Linux. As a single host, Linux is merely a machine, but it starts to shine in its hundreds and thousands.
Scientific Linux is a distribution based on RedHat, designed to work out of the box and make the job of assistants and PhDs that much easier. As such, it comes with a few extras that you do not normally see in stock RedHat, without losing the heavy anchor of adamant stability that RedHat brings.
In this review, I will show you what a custom-tailored geek distro can do. It's Linux all right, with a special touch of people dabbling in quantum all day long. That said, we will not forsake the usual drill - Wireless, Bluetooth, multimedia, programs, sharing, and other cool things we usually check.
So please, after me.
Get Scientific Linux
The distro comes in several flavors, much like the parent distribution. You can go for the full-fledged DVD or download live CDs, running either KDE or Gnome desktop. The website is SSL-secured and is uses a rather simple wiki-style design. But you'll manage all right. The current edition is at version 5.4, just like RHEL, named Boron.
Speaking of names ...
Considering the fact several previous versions were already knighted the same way, it's a bit of a disappointment. There are so many cool physical terms, using Boron twice is somewhat bleak. Then again, Scientific Linux only had four names over the lifetime of no less than 22 releases. Creativity, anyone?
If you ask me, I would have called the distro Tachyon, cause it's such a cool particle. Anyhow, I explored the Gnome live CD version.
Using Scientific Linux
The boot menu is spartan, old style, with a rather classic interpretation of an atom for the logo, most likely Boron. After you make the choice, a very standard RHEL boot splash follows, taking you into a very standard RHEL desktop.
If asked, you would have a hard time deciding whether you're using RHEL, CentOS or Scientific Linux. But the first impressions can be deceiving and they definitely are, in this case. The CERN distro is all about functionality, which you immediately discover as you start using the system.
Wireless & Bluetooth
Having tested the raw RedHat functionality in my CentOS 5.3 review, I did find some problems with Wireless connectivity. Not so in Scientific Linux. Either because of the changes in 5.4, custom additions in the distro - or both, Wireless worked perfectly out of the box. I selected one of my WPA2-encrypted routers and was on my way.
Bluetooth file sharing also worked, plus you get a lovely unique icon in the system area:
Look & feel
While the desktop feels slightly archaic, it's very easy to make it look great in just a few short minutes. You already have a very decent theme and great fonts, you only need a small change of wallpaper to get things right.
Personally, I found the classic atom impression rather boring. For one thing, the hottest physical thingie in the world now is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so why not make it the focus of the distro?
Or you can use the default RHEL5 desktop, and none's the wiser:
I was not expecting anything, which made the full plethora of codecs a genuine, pleasant surprise. Flash, MP3 and DVD playback were all there, out of the box, smooth as silk. Great job, I must add!
Believe it or not, geeks seem to like eye candy! Scientific Linux comes with the drivers built in, waiting for you to start playing. Even on T42, everything worked out of the box, no glitches or slowdowns. The basic subset of effects is rather small, but it's still good and impressive enough.
Who would expect Physics geeks to love Compiz, eh?
No problems either. Worked as expected. What more, my external USB drivers, formatted both in FAT32 and NTFS connected without any problems. I did have some issues in CentOS, but not here.
I must say I was surprised not to find any one of the free numerical computation programs included, FreeMat, Octave or Scilab. Could be the licensing issues, the packaging or just ole plain support, but there are not available, even in the extra repos.
Not a big deal, when you really think about it, because most engineers use Matlab for their work, but if you're in a mood for some free dabbling in matrices and fancy graphs, you will have to grab the scientific programs yourself. Oh, in my Science sites articles I promised you we would talk about a science-oriented distro, so here we are.
Still, the existing bundle of programs is quite decent. The full DVD gives you more, but you can easily replenish missing bits using the package manager. The default set includes Firefox, Thunderbird and a few interesting nerdy tools like Emacs, nedit, GhostView, and others.
But you also have X-CD-Roast CD/DVD burning software, some OpenOffice programs, Totem, a range of network tools, and other useful applications.
Scientific Linux uses a remixed, upgraded version of the YUM package manager, paired with the Yum Extender GUI, which does a very decent job. There was an issue with the proxy, but more about that later.
You can add extra repositories very easy, just a click of the mouse.
And then look for the cool programs you need. The package manager is simple, clean and easy to use. For example, here's the list of programs available in the Engineering and Scientific category. Most people would not want or need them, but geeks doing their Masters might.
That said, I would appreciate more geek tools. For example, some sort of LaTeX frontend, like LyX, since writing theses in an office suite is an abomination. More math tools, more graphs and plotting apps. Eclipse is available, which is good.
Scientific Linux is rock solid. There were no crashes or any other bugs. Laptop modes worked great. Suspend worked even in the live session, taking mere seconds to sleep and resume. Very nice. Oh, you can install the system from the live CD, unlike stock RedHat, did I mention that?
As you've seen so far, Scientific Linux is a very friendly distro. It offers Wireless and Bluetooth out of the box, comes with multimedia codecs, Samba sharing works, Compiz works, it's really great. Where are the problems, then? Well, there were a few, rather minor ones, I would like to say.
Much like CentOS, Scientific Linux struggled with proxy. However, unlike CentOS, it would still not connect to its repos after fixing the YUM configuration file to include the proxy directive. I'm not sure if Yum Extender, the package manager in use, is the culprit, but I did not like this very much. And I do believe that CERN uses proxies, which makes it a bit of a problem.
Call me anal, but I like my little programs to work. The Gnome-screenshot utility in Scientific Linux was neutered, making only full screen, no delay screenshots available when using the GUI button. You could still take screenshots of active windows, with or without borders and time delays from the command line, though, but this really ought not happen.
I wanted to try Assistive Technologies, but I was told that the required software not installed. Not a big issue, but maybe support for impaired people should not be left out, even if it's only a live CD version.
I was tremendously pleased with Scientific Linux. First, it's a RedHat distro, which means you get the classic Linux usage model, excellent stability and many years of support. Second, it has everything you need - multimedia, desktop effects, Samba sharing, anything. A serious question I have is, who needs Fedora?
Fedora is the new, modern experimental testbed for the RedHat family, and it has the cool and exciting technologies you want. But so does Scientific Linux, minus the stability problems of the ever-beta Fedora.
Scientific Linux does itself a great injustice by using its name. It frightens away normal people, who think this is some geeky distro, when in fact, it's just a super-polished RedHat, with all the extras you may want.
If I had to think of a RedHat-based distro for home use, it would be the academic geek distro called Scientific Linux. It bridges between spartan RedHat and futuristic Fedora by taking the best of both worlds and dropping away the problems. Really neat.
If you like you distros to be super-stable, robust, fast and supported for a long time, derived from the leading giant of the Linux world, and equipped with the trove of great programs and utilities, Scientific Linux is the one you want.
Honestly, if you ever think of recommending Scientific Linux to anyone by pointing to this article, perhaps, make sure you direct them to the Conclusion first. Let them not think for a moment that this is a geek gadget. Scientific Linux is a perfect desktop distro. Drop the nerdy wallpaper and you have a cutting-edge home system with everything you could ask for. Well, I guess, that would be all.