Originally Published: Sunday, 3 December 2000 Author: Emmett Plant
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Big Things, Small Packages

Ah, the holidays. Time for family, friends and package management. How does the virtual family of Linux distributions stack up to your relatives? Emmett's opinion, giftwrapped with a bow, in this week's Sunday feature.

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Big Things, Small Packages

Well, it's official. The holiday season is upon us. While our days may be steeped in mortal combat at the mall, there's a glimmer of hope that by the time December 25th rolls around, we'll all be nestled snug in our beds instead of looking for a gift for Aunt Agnes at the 24-hour gas station.

To the modern industrialized capitalist, the meaning of the holiday season is lost in the barrage of overdrawn bank accounts and maxed-out credit cards. It's all a super-huge rush, and you want to make sure everyone's happy. Well, at least you want to make sure that people aren't mad at you by the time the month is out. Whether you're shopping for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Festivus, it's a mad dash. Ordering online is a big help, but you've still got to go through the process of finding things for people and buying them.

If it weren't for the millions of dollars invested in marketing Ron Howard's 'The Grinch' film, or the millions of dollars invested in producing and editing the picture, or the hundreds upon thousands of dollars spent in casting and building sets for the extravaganza, we might just forget the meaning of the holidays.

For the vast majority of people celebrating the holiday season, it seems to me as it's less of a time for sharing time with loved ones and more of a time for well, package management.

Being the Linux-type I am, I decided to see how Linux distributions would handle the holiday season as if they were members of my family.

A lot of Linux distributions don't have a package manager at all. While they might be able to use other people's package management tools, you might be much better off doing things yourself. Download the source, compile the source for your particular specs, and handle everything yourself. These distributions are the relative equivalent of Aunt Agnes, who always knits you something for the holidays. It's all hand-made.

Red Hat has RPM, the Red Hat Package Manager. Now, RPM certainly makes a lot of things easy. For those who don't want to compile sources to be able to run applications, the RPM format enables people who don't want to put together hand-made gifts the ability to makes things work. Most of the time. RPM is the relative who brings you the gift you wanted, but might have forgotten to buy batteries. RPM has some issues when it comes to handling dependencies. If my virtual relative 'Red Hat' bought me a holiday present, I might have to pick up my own batteries. Moreover, since RPM doesn't necessarily put things where they belong when it runs, I might be digging through the gift-wrapped box for a while before I found everything I needed to operate my cool new toy.

Slackware's tgz method gives the developers of the gift a cool process to include libraries within the package archive, the Linux equivalent of taping batteries to the outside of the box with the RC car inside. This is nice, and from what I've been told, seems to work well, albeit not with absolute consistency. Then again, what does?

Ah, Debian. Debian is the relative that shops early and has your presents gift-wrapped before Hallowe'en. Debian package management reminds me of the old Droopy Dog cartoon where Droopy gets a package by mail, and when it's unwrapped and the button is pushed, the box expands to include a new house, a pool in back, a mailbox in front, and a white picket fence to surround the property. Everything just seems to work perfectly well with Debian. Do I want to upgrade my system? Two commands, and I don't even have to reboot. I can't tell you how fantastically happy I am with Debian as an operating system, and a very large percentage of my overall happiness has to do with apt-get and dpkg. It works. It works well. It's consistent. It's everything you could possibly ask for. While I' m not known for 'endorsing' Linux products, I will say that the Linux distribution I recomment to family and friends is consistently Debian.

Package management is one of the major differences between a hackish operating system and the ability to perform basic tasks with style and grace. While Windows will rely on the package management skills of outside applications and formats, like InstallShield and WinZip, many of the Linux distributions have gone out of their way to make package management easy for users. A lot of 'old-school' Linux users appreciate the fine art of compiling source, but to a new set of differently-clued Linux users, package management is key to making them feel secure in their choice of OS.

Happy holidays. Pass the eggnog.

Emmett Plant is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux.com.

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