2014-10-22

Review: Scientific Linux 7.0 GNOME

It has been a while since I have done a review (almost 3 months, in fact). It has been significantly longer since I have looked at Scientific Linux (over 3 years, in fact). Given that, I figured it might be worthwhile to make this review about Scientific Linux 7.0. I'm just glad that I did it before the time elapsed for something else to come up (around 3 minutes, in fact — OK, I just made that one up to match the other statements).

Main Screen
For those who aren't familiar or don't remember, Scientific Linux is a derivative of Red Hat Enterprise Linux which is meant to make installation of scientific computing software easier (though such software may not necessarily be included right away). That said, a lot has changed in the last 3 years. Most notably, CentOS, the "community version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux" (I realize there may be some technical distinctions but I won't go into them), has now come under the purview of Red Hat. This means Scientific Linux's role could have the potential to shift a bit in the near future (or it might not, who knows). Even with that aside, there are 3 years of software changes to look at in Scientific Linux, so I'm doing that now. I tried it by writing the live DVD ISO file to my USB drive using UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After the boot menu, I was greeted by a boot splash consisting of one of the Scientific Linux wallpapers with a spinner rotating in a circle. The rotation animation was initially slow, but sped up considerably near the end, which was a little odd. After that came the desktop.

The desktop uses the GNOME 3/Classic interface. This is made entirely out of officially-recognized GNOME 3/Shell extensions, put together in a manner reminiscent of GNOME 2. There are two panels; the top panel has "Applications" and "Places" menus, along with a system tray, a clock, and a menu for managing the user's session. The bottom panel has a window switcher, a workspace switcher, and a button to open the notification area (which is now separate from the system tray). That said, hovering over the top-left corner of the screen brings up the GNOME 3/Shell Activities overview; thankfully, such interaction is not required. Otherwise, the rest of the interface is fairly stock GNOME 3. I have to say that the GNOME 3/Classic interface seemed a little odd at first, but it was very easy to get used to, and considerably easier than GNOME 3/Shell.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser. Plugins like Adobe Flash need to be installed separately. It took me a little time to realize that when Mozilla Firefox pointed me to the Adobe site to download the plugin, I was actually downloading the repository file for the plugin [and not the plugin itself, which I had to download separately]. That worked reasonably well though. Moreover, my laptop's volume keyboard shortcuts worked fine.
Mozilla Firefox
As compared to last time, LibreOffice is included. This may be because this is a live DVD file rather than a live CD file, so more stuff can be included. That said, the other programs seemed pretty standard for a distribution shipping GNOME, and there didn't seem to be many programs that I might consider specific to Scientific Linux (especially given its name).

Skype was installable through a separate repository; for details, I will link to Dedoimedo's excellent guide on customizing CentOS 7, as it is applicable to Scientific Linux 7 as well. In any case, Skype worked well too. I was able to install the Google Talk plugin by going into Gmail, clicking on my profile icon, and opting to install the plugin that way, but while it installed fine, it didn't seem to work completely. In particular, audio worked fine, but I couldn't see any video despite having installed Adobe Flash; it complained about missing some plugin, and I couldn't figure out what that was (even after searching, unless I missed something obvious).
Neither Mupen64Plus nor Redshift were available for installation from the default repositories. I can understand that because Scientific Linux is more meant for office work, Mupen64Plus might not be the best package to include. I guess Redshift just isn't popular enough, because I do think it's very good for reducing eyestrain especially at work.

One of Scientific Linux's strengths is supposed to be in easy installation of scientific software. I was indeed able to install Gnuplot just fine from the default repositories. However, following the instructions on the Octave wiki (along with the associated instructions for setting up the EPEL repository, correcting for the version number) for installing Octave didn't work because I kept getting complaints that the package didn't exist, while following the instructions on Nalimilan's site for installing Julia didn't work because the installation ended in some cryptic fatal error. That's really unfortunate, because that means that two pretty key pieces of software that I could see myself using on Scientific Linux don't work. It's possible that there's a lot more work involved in getting those pieces of software to install properly, but then I wonder why I would do that. The same seems to go for installing things like PDFLaTeX.

LibreOffice Writer + GNOME Files +
GNOME Sushi + GNOME 3 Activities
Scientific Linux 7.0 GNOME used 620 MB of RAM at idle, which is quite hefty. After the first few seconds following the login, it ran quite smoothly for a while. After that, though, it started becoming sluggish again, especially because there appeared to be two rather cryptic kernel issues that couldn't be reported (supposedly because they were more related to hardware issues than software issues). Things finally came to a head when Mozilla Firefox unexpectedly closed and the whole system froze, so I had to force my computer into a cold restart (as even shortcuts like 'CTRL'+'ALT'+'F3' didn't work).

Overall, my impression of Scientific Linux has dropped a lot since last time. It has become quite unstable, certain important (for me) pieces of software don't seem to install or work correctly, and other pieces of software seem to take too much work for installation compared to other distributions, which seems contrary to the goal of Scientific Linux to make it easy for people to install and use these programs. Maybe it will take a lot of work no matter what, but in that case I'd rather use something like Linux Mint which has more software that can be installed easier and comes with more stability too; the only downside is that Scientific Linux offers 10 years of support, which is far longer than most other Linux distributions, but I doubt that I'd want 10 years of this experience that I had today. I would say that the only people who should be installing Scientific Linux are those who really know what they are doing and have a very specific need fulfilled by Scientific Linux that is not fulfilled by another distribution. For most other people, I'd recommend staying away for now, which is quite disappointing (given how much I liked Scientific Linux 6.0 "Carbon").
You can get it here, but then, I wonder why you would unless you want to verify/challenge these results. Feel free to do just that in the comments.

6 comments:

  1. Admiral VinogradovOctober 22, 2014 at 5:40 PM

    It is no longer a CERN project; it is now a Fermilab thing. Unpleasant news and that's where my interest in the distro ended.

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    1. From Cern's pages (link at end):

      What is Scientific Linux (SL) ?

      SL is a Linux release put together by Fermilab, CERN, and various other labs and universities around the world.


      And Scientific Linux CERN (SLC) ?

      SLC is an SL variant that is built on top of the genuine SL and it is tailored to integrate within the CERN computing environment.


      - http://linux.web.cern.ch/linux/scientific.shtml

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  2. Dear Sir,

    My experience with SL7 is entirely positive. I agree however that many packages are not availabe. But I compiled octave , pari-gp, maxima, ecl without any problem. Packages like smplayer and audacity I also had to compile from source.

    Dominique

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    Replies
    1. smplayer is available in the atrpms repo in SL6 - perhaps it may also be for SL7?

      Delete
  3. Given that SL is largely (minor tweaks and branding changes aside) a recompile of RHEL, the problems you encountered may very well stem from upstream and not SL per se. (It would be interesting for you to test CentOS 7 - if you haven't done so already - and see if you have the same problems.)

    Also, while historically SL used to be a scientific-customised version of RHEL (e.g. including scientific packages), the trend in recent releases (SL6, SL7) has been to keep closer to RHEL and have any additional packages be installed from optional repos. CentOS, meanwhile, now that they are under the umbrella of RH, will actually be deviating MORE from RHEL - including updated packages, etc.

    And, since SL follows RH's new extended lifecycle, if SL7 isn't for you then you can keep using SL6 until 2020-11-30 (a full six years from now).

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  4. @Admiral Vinogradov: Why is that necessarily a bad thing?

    @Anonymous 1: As the commenter above you pointed out, although Scientific Linux had its origins in CERN, it is no longer maintained even in part by CERN (because CERN maintains its own fork of Scientific Linux but not the main branch), with major maintenance originating now from Fermilab.

    @Anonymous 2: It is good that you had a positive experience with Scientific Linux. However, the fact that you had to compile all those programs underscores my point about how Scientific Linux isn't really as easy to use for installing scientific programs as it says it is.

    @Anonymous 3: It looks like the ATRPMs repository does have SMPlayer for CentOS 7, so hopefully that would work with Scientific Linux 7 too.

    @Anonymous 4: I was considering trying CentOS 7 too. You make some excellent points, and I think I might just try it once I get the chance.

    Thanks for the comments!

    ReplyDelete