Conectiva Linux 9 is the most recent release from Conectiva S.A., barring some technology previews and the first two betas of their upcoming version 10. It originally came on four CDs, but in the middle of last year Conectiva pulled a huge set of updates together and released Update 1 on another CD, taking the total to five. When patched from the Update 1 CD, the distribution includes a respectable set of core components, including kernel 2.4.21, Xfree86 4.3.0, KDE 3.1.2, Gnome 2.2.0, and OpenOffice 1.0.3; and, of course, apt and Synaptic. The hardware detection is provided by Red Hat’s kudzu, which is generally excellent. Three languages are available to choose from: Spanish, Portuguese and English.
The Conectiva installation utility, mi (for Modular Installer) is a little different to the other Linux installation programs I’ve seen over the years; although it bears some similarity in construction to Debian’s. Something that greatly impressed me about mi was the ability to slipstream the updates right into the main installation, instead of having to install the base distribution, followed by the updates. You just boot straight off the Update 1 CD instead of the original installation CD1 – the process is exactly the same, but the resulting system is pre-patched.
(As a side-note, you can also use the Update 1 CD to patch an existing installation of version 9.0; this is as easy as starting Synaptic, selecting Actions, Add CD-ROM and following the prompts, and then clicking the big Dist Upgrade button followed by Proceed – Synaptic does the rest. I was very impressed when I tried this.)
Once you get past the initial booting process, the entire process is graphical by default; a text-based installer is provided as a backup. You select a language, read the release notes, and then configure your mouse, keyboard and network. The mouse is usually automatically detected, and you just have to click the Next button, while the keyboard and network dialogs are also fairly self-explanatory. The partition table is then initialised, and you can select an installation profile. By default, you don’t get to select individual packages, which is a good thing for most users.
You are then prompted to create the necessary partitions to install Conectiva Linux 9. The first message you’ll get if you don’t have any unpartitioned free space is that automatic partitioning has failed, which is very unintuitive for new users. If you do have any free space, the partitioner will attempt to create a swap partition (if needed) and a single ext3 partition for files. Normally I would expect the swap partition to be created at the end of the drive or free space, not at the beginning, but there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the reverse approach. Other than this, the partitioner is fairly standard, if a bit dated; like Red Hat’s Anaconda, you aren’t able to resize existing partitions.
Following partitioning the installation of the base system begins, which takes about ten minutes. When the base system has been installed, the installer exits without warning, something that gave me a considerable jolt when I first saw it. The installer displays an ascii logo of Tux while it remounts the partitions in some way and then starts the graphical front-end again. Once restarted, the packages you chose earlier are installed.
Synaptic is actually used for this process, although the installation is still entirely automated. The installer prompts you for the various installation CDs as appropriate and then exits automatically when all the selected packages have been installed. However, if you selected the option to choose individual packages, the installation is not quite as seamless – Synaptic loads with the installation profile you chose pre-selected, but the rest is up to you. If you accidentally quit at the wrong time, you may need to start from scratch. If you’ve never used Synaptic before, the custom installation could be very confusing, and I suggest you avoid it unless you know what you are doing. You can always customize the package set later on.
Following the package installation, you are prompted to perform the usual tasks; configuring Xfree86, users and the boot loader, then creating a boot disk for emergencies. All up, installation takes about an hour on a modern computer system.
Overall, the installation process is similar in functionality and complexity to Anaconda. It could do with some addition work for the partitioning step: firstly, the ability to resize existing partitions; and secondly, a “just do it for me” option before entering the partitioning stage as with Mandrake’s DrakX. Synaptic could also do with some work to make manual package selection more intuitive.