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A week or two with Kongoni GNU/Linux

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Linux
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Written by Bernhard Hoffmann (Barnabyh)

Kongoni is billed as a Slackware-based, desktop-oriented GNU/Linux distribution and live CD, with a BSD-style ports tree and a graphical management system. Given that Slackware is the most BSD-like Linux this seems to make sense.

Having heard good things about FreeBSD, Arch, and Gentoo which come to mind, this sounded intriguing and I decided to give this young project a spin. Kongoni has only had one release out so far, version 1.12.2 released 12/07/2009, a year old by the time you read this. This release was still based on Slackware 12 according to the developer, but has moved up since then via the repository. At the moment it is in sync with Slackware current, I suppose until the new release is out which, going by the kernel 2.6.34 and application versions will be based on Slackware 13.1.

Kongoni is available for the i386 and x86_64 architectures and, as many may have guessed due to GNU emphasized in the name, is committed to the principles of free and libre software in accordance with the ideals of the FSF, although this may change in the future.

However, purely to aid legibility, I will continue to call it Kongoni for the rest of this article (and not Kongoni GNU/Linux).

Of course it is up to you what you decide to add on later. Firmware for many wireless cards is in the repository. For the latest RC firmware for Radeon cards and the non-free flash-plugin have also been added if you feel you cannot live without. You can read more about Kongoni at http://www.kongoni.co.za/index.php/about/ for a little more detail. According to this each version is compatible with the Slackware release it is based on and can natively install packages.

I decided to test the latest development release at the time, Kongoni GNU/Linux 1.12.3 Alpha 2, released 8th June 2010. The download weighed in a mere 651.1 MB, and if you're going for 32 bit for compatibility or other reasons is optimized for the low common denominator i486. However, the developer suggested that the Release Candidate would be just around the corner, so I held out for it and tested this one as well as it brought several changes in package versions and artwork, it came in at 668.0 MB.

Testing will include a) running from Live CD, b) running in Virtualbox 3.1.6 (full install), c) installed to hard drive. The later RC1 was tested with a full to hard drive install only. Unfortunately my old second hand Thinkpad T42 has packed it in now (non-starter), and after jostling it into running now and again for the last 14 months I've finally had to throw it. This means only my desktops will be available for testing, but that's ok, as the only hurdle I can foresee with my otherwise quite dated hardware is the GetNet GN-331U USB-adapter with Ralink 2870 inside. The Thinkpad had an Atheros chip which worked well without additional steps ever since Linux 2.6.22.

INSTALLATION, PERFORMANCE, CHOICE OF SOFTWARE

Kongoni GNU/Linux does not actually install, like many live CD’s it copies the files from CD or ISO image to your hard drive. The default install turned out to take 2.6 GB on my xfs-formatted virtual disk. The installation routine is a basic affair that gets the job done. Nothing pretty here, but it attempts to autoconfigure the graphics card which worked fine for me, and walks through the necessary steps. At the end of the installation you will have opportunity to create a user.

One thing that threw me of course a bit was that I was unable
to skip installing a bootloader later on when doing a 'proper' hard drive install, something quite important if you already have at least one other OS and want to use that loader instead. As I did not want to screw up my boot record I backed out with Ctrl-C. This left me without a user. Once I had changed my lilo entries to point to the new install Kongoni booted fine. I was then able to set up my user after changing from graphical to console login.

Kongoni comes with Wicd 1.7.0 handling your connections by default. True to its values Kongoni includes gnash for flash support instead of the proprietary plugin, which may be a good choice security-wise as well, and more people becoming aware of alternatives may hopefully lend momentum to gnash development and, who knows, even additional resources.

You also get a pretty standard and it seems fully fledged KDE4 desktop, incl. a complete Koffice 2 office suite, the KDE PIM client etc. I don't actually know KDE4 that well as I stopped following the development since v.4.2.4 that was in Slackware 13.0, but it's big and KDE apps rule the menu, so it's got to be the full install, right?

Despite giving you the full Monty in normal desktop usage it appeared fast and responsive right from the start, both as a Live CD and in Virtualbox, and apps loaded quickly. This is nice, particularly when compared to a more major distro whose recent Milestone 7 release seemed to take forever on this 2.2 Ghz dual core when tasked with loading some apps, and under the same circumstances, with 1 GB of memory allocated. Enough for me to stop bothering with it after half an hour. Yes, it was only a development release, but so is this.

I installed the Guest additions for Virtualbox to get a higher
resolution to work with. After initially complaining about being unable to install it seems to have worked nevertheless and I got a for the eyes more managaeble 1024x768.

I was impressed early on. A few GTK+ apps like Pidgin are thrown in, although Kopete is also there, and GTK styles and fonts in the KDE Control Module allow you to adjust the look to match your KDE desktop more closely. The ubiquitous Install Scrollbar Fix for Firefox panel is also there. Actually, that's a KDE4 feature, but all together should mean your desktop experience will be that much smoother and more good looking.

There is a whole slew of software in the default install, more than I can mention, but it makes for an interesting choice. The Development section of the menu is populated with software for Computer-aided translations, Cervisio, Kdevelop4 and Umbrello UML modeller and then some. In Games you get the usual KDE Toys, and in Graphics everything KDE but no Gimp. Basically you get everything a full install of KDE 4.4 and Koffice 2.1 will give you, including Blogilo, with a few surprises along the line. Firefox is the browser, next to Konqueror, but as the only remaining developer told me it is going to be replaced with Icecat for the next release (RC1). Gparted rounds off this capable selection.

It doesn't take long until you come across the two applications that set this distro apart.

KISS, the Kongoni Integrated Setup System, appears as a pair of lips similar to the old Kmouth icon on your taskbar next to the KDE menu, and it launches a few scripts to set or change your computers name, timezone, network connection, configure the printer and detect your sound card, which is nothing but a script that launches alsaconf. I did not have any problems with hardware detection and managed to set everything up in the dialogues while installing.

The other is PIG, the Ports Installation Gui, for your graphical ports management needs. PIG is accessed via the stylised Gnu skull, similar to the distribution's icon which is also the menu icon. (This has been replaced by a pig icon in the RC).

The names are terrible, particularly when taken together, but also show that the guy behind it has a good dose of humour. Slow as a pig? Hope not. Actually, wild pigs can run quite fast. I ran the tool to synchronize the ports tree and it didn't take that long for the info of available packages to download.

A step called Rebuilding Pseudo Ports launched, which took another three minutes or so. All in all not bad assuming you only have to download the entire tree once, and that future updates will be processed faster. Also, the above times were for running and processing in Virtualbox. It certainly wasn't slower than some more well known distributions when rebuilding their database.This created a ports directory in my $Home folder. In a nice addition to the standard base I noticed that LXde is available.

The alpha still pointed to older sources, but trying RC1 PIG notified me there was an update to libdvdread available. Proceeding, it launched a script that downloaded the source, compiled it, and moved it from the temp directory to ports under my user, all transparent in a shell. I was then prompted for the sudo password to upgrade the package. From speed and the steps involved it strongly reminded of compiling a SlackBuild under Slackware.

I proceeded to install Kongoni to a test partition on my low end AMD Spitfire at 1000Mhz, with 512 MB Ram and an old 32 MB Ati Rage Pro as Virtualbox had shown it was happy with these resources.

It also handled my widescreen monitor well (which means it did not go black), giving me the clear and crisp picture and fonts typical for KDE4 at 1920x1080. KDE prompted to remove several sound devices it had carried over from Live CD mode that don't exist on my system.

One thing I found with a full install on a machine shared with another OS is that Kongoni by default mounts all drives, even the ones I told it during the setup process not to by not assigning mount points. This is probably due to its live nature but I would still rate this as a substantial risk to your files, be it for serious security concerns or 'only' accidental file deletion.

How about the 2870USB wireless? Well, it did not work out of the box. Hardly surprising given that it needs non-free firmware and drivers and the nature of the distro, so you'll have to add these. However, on closer inspection I found some firmware for older rt2551 and rt2561 (these seem to have been removed in RC1), aswell as for 3com, adaptec and many others in /lib/firmware. I'm not an expert on the freedom of all these so I'm not going to comment on where that leaves the status of the distro in this regard.

Apart from an upgrade in version numbers, the updated artwork and the change from Firefox to IceCat I couldn't really see much difference in the RC. For what it's worth, I actually liked the slightly brooding dark but colourful theme of the alpha better, rather than the 'another blue theme with bubbles' the RC introduced. But all that is superficial and does not matter much.

CONCLUSION

Kongoni ran stable for me and did not once crash or behave unexpectedly.

One thing I was impressed by is how responsive the desktop was, both from CD and installed to a virtual hard drive. Granted, this is a dual core, but a five year old one, and others I've booted up under the same circumstances have fared far worse. Even when I decreased memory in Virtualbox from 1024 to 512 MB the system remained responsive. In fact I did not notice any change in the time apps were opening or the system was performing, and the ports tree rebuilt in only seconds this time after the initial sync/build. It performs well, even when using KDE4 on only 512 MB Ram 'free' showed post-boot 75368 free and 289288 cached, with no swap utilised. I did not find any differences in terms of performance between the alpha and RC1.

Even on my underpowered machine KDE (4.4.3) performed superbly. I simply cannot get over this and may have to re evaluate my opinion now that I found it does not appear slower than Xfce4 on this desktop when opening apps.

I really like Kongoni and believe it is a good choice for the intermediate to advanced user who likes the concept of ports and being able to have automated compiling from source. In addition you get a wealth of software and the stability and speed that the Slackware universe brings to the desktop, you can stay in sync with their upstream development and use all the repos and tools out there, and it comes with a good default selection if you like KDE.

As such it would probably appeal to people who already use or are interested in Slackware, the BSD's and Arch, but do not want to go as far as Gentoo with building everything from the ground up (although yes, I know there are projects that make Gentoo easier, but that's not really the point here). The question remains why would you bother, if pretty much the same can be achieved with a standard Slackware installation and Sbopkg (www.sbopkg.org), which will let you keep in sync with Slackbuilds.org and download scripts and source to your machine and compile it for you.

Well, for a start it comes in a CD-size ISO and packs a punch in terms of the software it provides to get going straight away, minus codecs and such. Another reason is that Kongoni is one of only a handful of distributions striving to meet FSF guidelines, although there is an argument whether it can still be considered free if proprietary software (Flash) is provided in the repository. I personally would say that Flash is very easy to get hold of anyway and that it doesn't really matter, as long as the base install remains 'clean'. But how about the inclusion of certain firmware then? No doubt there will be more discussion on this topic. It seems the one most confusing aspect facing the community. What exactly is or is not free?

Kongoni definitely has character and I hope it will be able to build a community to sustain it, rather than just the passing curious distro-hopper. Kongoni offers with their base install yet another way of doing things and in particular another way of using Slackware. It also is, not to forget, a Live CD by default, which should strike a chord with people looking for a Slackware based Live CD, particularly as we haven't heard anything from the Bluewhite64 or the Slax projects in this respect for a while. (The Slax community has been providing unofficial remixes now for a while, but they're not touching the base.)

If this sounds good to you, give it a try, and perhaps you'll stay for a while.

=============================

INTERVIEW with Robert Gabriel

Q.
Are you the main or the only developer at the moment or are there more people involved?

A.
Yes, I'm the only developer at the moment. There is nobody, at this time, involved in the project.

Q.
You are living in the Czech Republic but the website is a South African domain. Can you tell us the story behind this?

A.
I'm not Czech, neither African, but I live in the Czech Republic. Kongoni was started by A.J. Venter, but he left the project and I took over. The project was started in Africa, so the domain comes from Africa. The name Kongoni also comes from Africa (Shona language) and it means Wildebeest (Gnu).

Q.
Which other projects are you or have you been involved in?

A.
My other projects would be:

mydo (mysql database optimizer script)
mydbs (mysql database backup script)
blog.robertalks.com (on which I release some custom Debian/Ubuntu kernel)
visualserver.org (which is a free shell and hosting server for the open source community and anyone who wants to learn, work, develop, host, play on linux) buh.bz and TweeU (first is an url shorting service and TweeU is a plugin for wordpress which is updating twitter using also short urls with the help of buh.bz)

Q.
Between all the above, a life and a full-time job, will you be able to continue this distro for longer than the next release? In which areas would you particularly like help, or are you happy to continue by yourself for now?

A.
I don't mind to continue on my own, but sometimes in some critical cases or in some situation which I don't understand or don't know how to fix it, it would be really helpful if there would be other people involved in giving an helping hand. Most problematic at the moment is the installer, PIG and the looks. These three areas I would like to improve a lot and would love if more people would get involved in it. The main idea would be to rewrite the installer and PIG in python. When it comes to the looks, I would like to create some really nice theme for the overall system, for KDE, kdm, kplash, bootsplash and so on. Some parts I can do myself, but for most I can't because of lack of talent and know how Smile.

Q.
You state in your blog that you are not against Microsoft per se and I noticed that you are also using other Linux distributions that do not meet the definition of software freedom that Kongoni adheres to. Will that change the distribution in the future, i.e. would you be happy to accept non-free software and firmware into the distribution if that made it more mainstream?

A.
I don't dislike Microsoft, I dislike the products that they make. I'm also using Ubuntu at my work place and even home... sometimes it's better when everything is ready, can save some time.

I don't know if I will include non-free software or firmware, but to be honest, to make Kongoni work properly it's almost impossible to leave them out. Simple example: Adobe Flash and firmware for Intel Wireless (and this are just two small examples Smile).

Software freedom is a very abstract word... you can always say you are free even if you are using Ubuntu with some proprietary drivers or non-free software. As long as it doesn't affect the work that you do, I don't think it should be a big deal to use them. I don't like the idea that flash is not free or some ATI/Nvidia software is commercial, but to be honest, if you don't have them, your computer would look and work like a Pentium I. If you can't use your graphics card, or can't see videos on youtube.com, there is not much things you can do with your computer as a basic user. Most people want flash videos, some games and even good looks, by default without the firmware for your graphics cards or flash you wont be able to do all of this.

If you are a Linux guru who uses the console, of course you don't need all of that, but for most people out there that's why Windows/Mac is the only option. They don't know how to use and sometimes to setup things in Linux. In other words they need or want everything out of them box... and of course they don't care how free or commercial it is as long as it works for them.

Q.
Kongoni or Kongoni GNU/Linux?

A.
Well the full name of Kongoni is Kongoni GNU/Linux, but I guess it can be called Kongoni or Kongoni Linux and so on. I don't really mind as long as people enjoy it and they find it good and useful.

Q.
The links on Distrowatch to guides, mailing list and user forums are dead. Are you planning to resurrect these parts of your site?

Well not yet... maybe in the future. To have a forum, mailing list and so on, you need something good which works... at the moment Kongoni is still alpha. Also it may happen they wont be resurrected at all, depending on my time or other peoples involvement.

Q.
Your first release was in July 2009, around the time Slackware 13.0 came out. Was it based on Slackware 12.2 or 13.0 or something in between?

A.
Originally it was based on Slackware 12 and moved up. At the moment it is sync with Slackware current, upper then 13.1

Q.
Future plans and any last words? Anything else you'ld like to mention?

Well they are a ton of them and maybe the most important would be a server version of Kongoni. I already started working on it, but very slowly, as I am trying to finish up version 1.12.3. If I would be able to release the server version most probably will be called Kongoni Server One (because it would be the first release Smile)

In rest, I'm trying to make a lot of improvements in the booting area, speed the booting times, add some splash screen, like maybe plymouth, create some default themes for all applications so the system looks really nice, improve the installer and pig, maybe rewrite portpkg (coz it's really slow) and so on. There could be done a million things if there would be time and man power... but things like this take way more time.

Thank you very much for your time Robert, and all the best for the future!

Links:

Front page and announcements: www.kongoni.co.za
Announcement of change in developer: http://www.kongoni.co.za/index.php/2010/02/10/takeover-of-kongoni-linux
Developer’s Blog: http://blog.robertalks.com/index.php/about

Written by Bernhard Hoffmann (Barnabyh)

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