Review: Scientific Linux 6.0 "Carbon"

Main Screen
I really wanted to do this review a while ago, but I couldn't because when I wanted to do it then, MultiSystem didn't recognize the then-newly-released Scientific Linux 6.0 live CD ISO file. Since then, there have been quite a few updates to MultiSystem, and this time I could make a Scientific Linux 6.0 live USB with MultiSystem.

So what is Scientific Linux? It's basically Red Hat Enterprise Linux, minus Red Hat branding (with Scientific Linux branding instead), plus repositories containing extra mathematical, scientific, and engineering software, plus some extra niceties. It was developed for Fermilab and CERN, so it's not really meant to be a home desktop distribution per se, but I did read a few reviews of Scientific Linux 5.X commenting favorably on its abilities in such environments, so I wanted to see if that would be true of version 6.0 as well. Plus, I have never tried more office/server-oriented relatives of Fedora, so this would be a new experience for me too.

As mentioned earlier, my main mode of testing was through a live USB made with MultiSystem. I also tested the installation in VirtualBox within the live USB session. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

After the boot menu, booting took a little more time than I would have liked, but that was made more tolerable by a nice, clean boot splash with a white spot going around in a circle under the Scientific Linux name in big white text on a black background. After that, I was taken to the GDM login screen, where I waited to be automatically logged in. I noticed something cool right off the bat: where other live distributions have the computer name as something with the distribution's name in it, somehow Scientific Linux recognized my computer's name in Linux Mint, because in the live session it made the computer's name "prashanth-laptop", just as I have it in Linux Mint. Wow, that's awesome! After that, I was taken into the desktop.

Mozilla Firefox 3.6 (Support Wong Fu Productions!)
The desktop, while updated from the previous version (as I have read from other reviews), still appears rather spartan. The desktop itself is a classic GNOME 2.X setup with two panels, one on top containing menus, shortcuts, and system tray icons, and one on the bottom containing the window and workspace switchers. The icons are the same as in stock Fedora (version 14 "Laughlin" and before, i.e. before GNOME 3), while the Metacity and GTK+ themes, though unique to RHEL and its derivatives like Scientific Linux, are highly reminiscent of Clearlooks. The wallpaper is black, save for a Bohr model representation of a carbon atom, which reflects its codename as well. Overall, it looks a little aged, but I'm not too concerned considering that this is meant for hard scientific work, not necessarily for home use; in any case, these things can be changed easily enough with a quick trip to the GNOME-Look website.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser at version 3.6. Though that is a bit old now, it's still supported by Mozilla (unlike, ironically, version 4), which makes me feel even more now like Mozilla Firefox 3.6 is going to be the like the LTS release for enterprise users, given that Mozilla developers themselves have stated that newer versions of Firefox with the rapid release cycle may not be appropriate for enterprise users, where stability is much more highly valued than whiz-bang features. It also seemed to have many multimedia codecs included, which is very nice, as I could watch YouTube and Hulu without any hitches. (Speaking of YouTube, the video in the screenshot is of Wong Fu Productions. They make some really amazing, funny, touching, high-quality videos. The very least you could do to support them is to watch the videos and leave positive comments/"like" the videos.) At the same time, I could also confirm that my laptop's sound card and volume keyboard shortcuts worked out-of-the-box. For a distribution that's supposedly not meant for home desktop use...this certainly makes it seem like a good home desktop distribution!

Gedit + Terminal + Desktop Cube
There is no productivity software like LibreOffice included, which seems a little surprising for an enterprise OS, but I guess that's just because this is the live CD, and such software is included in the DVD editions. Other than that, the included applications are prettys standard GNOME fare; Pidgin is the default instant messaging program, and Cheese Webcam Booth is included for hours of making silly faces at the computer. Speaking of which, it recognized my laptop's integrated webcam and mic smoothly.

Nautilus is the default file manager, but here it exhibited some rather unusual behavior. If the "File Browser" menu item is clicked, Nautilus opens in browser mode, with navigation buttons and shortcuts and with new folders opening up in the same window with breadcrumbs visible. However, if one of the shortcuts on the desktop or in the Places menu is clicked, Nautilus opens in spatial mode as it did by default prior to GNOME 2.30, with no navigational tools and with new folders opening in separate windows. As GNOME is at version 2.28 here, I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, but other distributions I tried with GNOME 2.28 and below had Nautilus set by default to do either one or the other (usually browser view by default), so this dual personality was a little confusing and annoying. The good thing is that it can be changed relatively easily.

After this, I tried installing Skype. I went to the Skype website and got the RPM file for Fedora 13+; after downloading, the package manager automatically installed that package with minimal prompting from me. After that, I started Skype, and it worked well; it even recognized my laptop's webcam and mic out-of-the-box. After that, I did the same thing for the Google Talk browser voice/video plugin, and it worked similarly well; that said, I could only say that based on the Gmail settings pane, and I had problems with version of that plugin until I could update the Adobe Flash plugin to the latest version. Though I didn't use it much, for the record, the default GUI package manager is PackageKit, as is the case in Fedora.

Desktop effects worked well, though only wobbly windows and the desktop cube are available. In any case, they made the desktop a little more enjoyable to use.
Through my use of the live USB session, I found Scientific Linux to be quite fast and stable. It never, ever felt sluggish (aside from booting), and it never popped up kernel panic messages like I have seen some versions of Fedora do.

At this point, I proceeded onto trying the installation. I downloaded and installed the RHEL 6 RPM of VirtualBox and started it. Unfortunately, it refused to start the VM, so I did the whole thing again in a Pinguy OS 11.04 Mini live USB. That worked, so I started the VM and initiated the installation.
Anaconda Installer Partitioner
The installation is typical Anaconda. At first, it asked things like the root password, the time zone/localization, et cetera. Then it moved onto partitioning. I chose to replace existing Linux systems, but I wanted to review the final layout before proceeding, so I checked off that option too. That's the nice thing about Anaconda: it can be easy to use or very advanced, depending on the user's needs. Anyway, it showed that it would create a 500 MB boot partition and fill the rest of the space with a logical volume group containing a 2 GB swap partition and a root partition filling the remainder of that space. I find it interesting that it would default to using LVM, given that it's a more advanced form of partitioning, in a way; I feel like it would only serve to confuse new Linux users, but I suppose the very notion of partitions itself would be confusing. After that, the installer gave me options for the bootloader installation; the nice thing is that it also shows what the boot menu might look like, which provides an up-front indication of whether it plays nicely or not with other OSs in a multiboot setup. After that came the actual installation procedure. Unfortunately, VirtualBox froze, and after forcibly closing it, I couldn't get VirtualBox to start again. I don't know if this was a problem with the VM or with Scientific Linux itself, but in any case, it wasn't a particularly good sign, and it was where my time with Scientific Linux ended.

Overall, I was pretty pleased with Scientific Linux 6.0 "Carbon". It recognized all my hardware correctly, software worked well on it, and it was fast, recognizable, and easy to use. The only issue I had was with installation, and though I had a problem with it in the VM, your experiences may vary, so don't read too much into that little issue. Plus, it was an issue with VirtualBox itself freezing, as opposed to the VM freezing in VirtualBox. One more thing that would make this distribution more attractive for home desktop users is that like Microsoft Windows but unlike many Linux distributions which are only supported for 18-36 months, Scientific Linux is supported for 10 years. This means that while some software may become outdated and while Scientific Linux 6.0 "Carbon" may at some point become unable to install the latest version of Mozilla Firefox, it will stay secure and stable with security updates and bug fixes until the year 2020. I think that's nicer than having to update every 1.5 years just to have a secure system, as is the case with some distributions. In conclusion, I like Scientific Linux a lot and would recommend it to anyone looking for a rock-solid, stable system with years of official support, newbies and experts alike.
Oh, and if you were looking for me to talk about server-oriented new features like kernel-level hypervisor capabilities, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I intended from the start to do this review from the perspective of a desktop end-user.
The ISO file can be downloaded from here.