Over the past year or two I’ve been drifting away from Fedora, Ubuntu, and Mandriva towards distros derived from Slackware for desktop use. The reason is simple: these distributions tend to have the best performance I’ve found, particularly on older or limited hardware. Slackware itself lacks some graphical tools and user friendly features that more popular distros have but is outstanding in terms of stability and reliability. A number of Slackware derived distros retain those benefits while offering the ease of use many of us have come to expect. AliXe is such a distro, albeit one designed to be small and compact, making it particularly suitable for older hardware. True to it’s Canadian heritage, AliXe also offers full support for both French and English despite it’s small size.
AliXe is designed to be run as a live CD. Those burdened with slow connections will be pleased to see that the iso image is less than 340MB in size. An optional installer (not included in the iso) is available for a conventional hard drive installation. The AliXe website warns that this is for “experts only”, in part due to an utter lack of documentation. AliXe also offers the option to run entirely cached in RAM provided you have enough memory. AliXe is built with the Linux Live scripts so a frugal install, similar to Damn Small Linux, where the iso image is installed directly to the hard drive and is booted read-only, is also possible. You are then effectively running the Live CD with the speed of a conventional hard drive.
The AliXe code base is a heavily modified version of Slax 6rc6, which in turn is based on Slackware 12. Unlike Slax, which uses KDE for the desktop environment, AliXe uses the smaller, lighter, but still powerful Xfce. In order to remain small AliXe offers just one of each type of application it provides, including the desktop. I tested AliXe on my five year old Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, which has a 1GHz Intel Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM.
Running As a Live CD
When booting into AliXe you are presented with a menu of three language/locale choices: Français Canada, Français France, and English. The default is Canadian French. Since I’m writing this review in English I’ll assume that is the choice most readers will make.
A second menu offers seven choices: booting the default Xfce desktop, Xfce with Persistent Changes (saved to your hard drive), Xfce with Copy2ram (run entirely from memory), Xfce in Vesa Mode (useful for skipping X hardware detection), Text Mode, Memtest utility, and going back to the previous menu. You are also informed that you can press [Tab] to manually edit any of these options. This allows you to specify any special kernel parameters or cheatcodes your hardware may require. Anyone who is familiar with Knoppix and it’s derivatives or pretty much anything built with the Linux-Live scripts knows about cheatcodes, parameters which can be passed to control what is or is not loaded when the system boots. Some cheatcodes allow hardware detection to be turned off in part, which is important if your system locks up on a given step. Other cheatcodes let you set screen resolution or choose non-standard modules to load. For example, on my system I like to change vga=normal to vga=791 to get a 1024×768 framebuffer console. The good news for newcomers to Linux is that most of this can be safely ignored on most systems and you can just hit enter and take the default.
AliXe is somewhat unusual in that it does not use a display manager at all. By default it runs vconf, a video configuration utility from ZenWalk, starts Xfce, and automatically logs in as root. I’ve had problems with Slackware and some of its derivatives not correctly detecting the video settings for my laptop but I’m pleased to say that vconf gets it absolutely right with no intervention on my part.
My personal experience with live CDs is that I just can’t use most of them on my old Toshiba. Once upon a time I blamed the hardware. I figured the DVD-ROM drive in the old beast was just plain slow. With a lot of live CDs, such as Xubuntu Feisty Fawn or Gutsy Gibbon, a supposedly lightweight version of Ubuntu, my system was slower than molasses running uphill in the wintertime. It was painful. Wolvix 1.0.5 taught me the problem wasn’t my hardware and AliXe is another live distro that runs smoothly and responsively on my laptop. With 512MB of RAM I don’t do that much reading from the CD, just mainly when opening a new application.
AliXe correctly detected all of my hardware. Everything worked. Wireless was correctly configured and the madwifi driver for my Atheros chipset PCMCIA wireless card was correctly loaded at boot. However, getting Wifi-radar going did require me to click on the Preferences button to set my interface to ath0 rather than eth0. Still, wifi was up and running in no time. Sound worked fine. Removable media, whether a USB stick or a compact flash card in a PCMCIA-CF adapter, were detected correctly and an icon popped up on the desktop when they were inserted. If I unmounted and removed the media the icons disappeared as they should.
In order to keep the iso small printer drivers are not included in the distro. CUPS is there and the daemon is started by default at boot but without drivers it’s pretty useless. Clicking on the CUPS.pdf icon on the default desktop brings up a simple HOW-TO that gives step-by-step instructions for downloading pinter drivers and configuring CUPS.
The only other minor quibble, one common to many Slackware based distros, is that the proper ACPI module and the Toshiba laptop support module weren’t loaded into the kernel. I had to:
modprobe toshiba modprobe toshiba_acpi
from a terminal window.
Using AliXe 0.11b
Out of the virtual box AliXe 0.11b gives you an Xfce 4.4.1 desktop. Office applications include AbiWord 2.4.6, Gnumeric 1.7.10, and Evince 0.9.1. Graphics applications include GIMP 2.2.17, Dia 0.96.1, Inkscape 0.45.1, and GTKam 0.1.14.
Since AliXe comes from Canada the DMCA is not an issue to the developers. Clicking on an mp3 in the Thunar file manager, for example, brings up the Beep Media Player 0.9.7 with the necessary support. Some Win32 codecs are included and multimedia files I tried played with the right app right out of the box. CD burning is handled by GnomeBaker. MPlayer is installed to play your video files. There is no quick and easy tool for removing offending codecs to make AliXe DMCA-compliant, nor is there an easy way to add any missing codecs.
Firefox 220.127.116.11 and Thunderbird 18.104.22.168, are included. For instant messaging Pidgin is included, as is XChat for an IRC client. Other network applications include Ctorrent, Transmission, Gwget, and gFTP. For those who might consider AliXe for security work NmapFE is also installed.
Most smaller live CD distros don’t include a compiler or tools for developers. AliXe includes a full blown gcc, version 4.1.2. Also included are Geany 0.11 and GHex 2.8.2. Web developers will be pleased to see that Bluefish 1.0.7 is also included. I found the choice of command line text editor a bit odd: there is no vi, no Emacs, no nano, etc… mcedit is the only choice available.
If you’re looking for gee whiz 3D desktop effects then AliXe is probably not the distribution for you. Compiz-fusion is not included. Under the hood AliXe sports a 22.214.171.124 kernel.
I’ve used AliXe 0.11b extensively since it was released in October and I honestly have no significant bugs to report. AliXe is as user friendly as any Xfce based distro with only one caveat: in order to keep the distro small most of the man pages and help files have been removed from pretty much all the applications. Someone with questions will have to rely on online help, often from upstream sources.
Hard Drive Installation and Configuration
AliXe 0.11b is the first release of this distro to offer hard drive installation at all. Previously AliXe was meant to be a Live CD, period. With the “experts only” caveat and no documentation I was expecting a somewhat problematic installation. In reality things went pretty smoothly. AliXe actually uses an installer written for Slax, simply called slax2hd. The web page describes this as a graphical installer but in reality it looks like a typical text-based Slackware installation. Downloading version 1.3 provides a single 8kb file: an lzma compressed Slax module. To install and run the installer you really do need to be at least somewhat comfortable at the command line and hard disk partitioning. Afterwards you will need to configure your system from the command line as well. There is absolutely nothing newcomer friendly about this process.
I copied the installer module into my / directory and unpacked it. The command to unpack the module is:
lzm2dir ./slax2hd-1.3-fx.lzm .
This places the installer in executable form in /root. /root resides in RAM so there really isn’t anything that gets permanently installed to the hard drive at this point. To run the installer simply:
cd /root ./slax2hd
A blue screen with a message describing slax2hd comes up with a disclaimer warning that running the installer is something you do at your own risk. Once you click OK or press the enter key the installer lets you know that it will run cfdisk to allow you to partition your hard drive. Any hard drive partitions you have mounted will be automatically unmounted at this point. A 3GB partition is recommended for installation but this assumes that you are going to use a single partition for both the OS and data. I installed into a 2GB partition with over 500MB to spare. I always keep /home in a separate partition. The installer is fairly primitive at this point and really doesn’t support multiple partitions and it’s something you have to deal with after installation is complete.
After partitioning the installer correctly recognized that I had an existing Linux swap partition and asked if I wanted to use it. When I responded “Yes” it reformatted the partition including checking for bad blocks. Once done it informed me that the swap partition would be added to /etc/fstab. “OK” is the only possible response at this point. The installer then correctly detected my five formatted Linux partitions. You then manually enter /dev/hda(x) where (x) is the partition you will use for installation. You are then given a choice of ext2, ext3, or reiserfs for the filesystem. xfs and jfs are not supported by slax2hd. Once you choose your filesystem type a new filesystem is created. There is no “Are you sure?”, no warnings that you are about to erase the prior contents of the installation partition, and no chance to go back if you make a mistake.
Next the installer then tells you that it is going to copy the running system to your hard drive. As you might expect this takes a while and there is no progress bar. Once completed the installer asks if you have just Linux installed or if you have Windows and Linux both. I chose Linux only. The installer then tells you to reboot your computer. AliXe is still running from memory or the CD-ROM drive at this point and in theory you can continue to work.
Once rebooted it becomes obvious that the installer has installed lilo to the MBR of the system. You have a lilo menu with only one choice: Slax. The installer did not recognize my other installed Linux distros. When you do boot up you get a message with the root password, some common commands, and a command line login prompt. Since no display manager is included with AliXe, as in not even xdm, graphical login simply isn’t an option at this point. Logging in and executing:
vconf && startx
brings up the Xfce desktop. Interestingly vconf doesn’t generate a usable /etc/X11/xorg.conf file for my system. I copied one from another distro on my laptop to avoid having to run vconf every time I wanted to start X.
Now the fun begins… OK, I’m being somewhat sarcastic. At this point you get to manually configure your system without the aid of the sort of GUI tools provided with most distros. For example, the only partitions your system will know about are the install (root) partition and the swap partition. I had to manually edit my /etc/fstab file and add the missing partitions and then create the relevant mount points. User accounts also have to be created manually. I chrooted into another distro root partition to put grub back on to my MBR and manually edited the relevant menu.lst file to add AliXe. Alternately I could have edited the lilo.conf file that slax2hd installed and the reinstalled lilo. Anyway, you get the idea. If you are an old hand at Linux and know what you are doing, particularly in a Slackware style distro, you’ll have no problems. A newcomer to Linux would be completely lost.
It should also be noted that the choice of language offered when you boot to the Live CD is absent in a hard drive install. Whatever language you were running when AliXe was installed will be your system default. Switching between English and French can be accomplished by manually editing the relevant configuration files, either on a user-by-user or system-wide basis. However, no convenient GUI tool for changing languages is offered.
It’s clear that hard drive installation in AliXe was an afterthought. While any Slackware 12 packages should work fine there are no package management tools installed at all. You will need to install the core Slackware package tools and then add any management system you may want, such as slapt-get and gslapt, all from upstream sources. In addition AliXe does not offer security updates or notifications nor does it have it’s own package repository. If you are comfortable doing maintenance yourself rather than depending on your distributor then keeping the system secure should be no problem since everything is Slackware compatible. For the average desktop user who wants a secure and up to date system AliXe probably isn’t the best choice to install to the hard drive.
A frugal install, either to hard drive or to a USB stick, is also possible using a script written for Slax. This isn’t directly supported by AliXe or even mentioned on their website but it is a very useful option. The frugal installer is the standard Slax/Linux-Live make_disk.sh script. Running AliXe as a Live CD but using a writable device in place of an actual CD allows an experienced user to easily add customized or Slax 6 modules to AliXe and also offers very decent performance. After reboot I could make my usual configuration changes and they were properly retained from boot to boot. The frugal install didn’t seem any slower than the conventionally installed instance of AliXe to me.
Running Entirely From RAM
One of the options when booting the live CD is copy2ram. This does precisely what it implies: it caches the entirety of AliXe in available memory. I tried to do this on the Toshiba laptop but 512MB of RAM just wasn’t enough to make it work. I’ve used copy2ram with older versions of AliXe and with Wolvix Cub and the result was very fast and absolutely silent.
Internationalization and Localization
Full localization in English or en français is complete and expertly done. If you work in English, French, or both you’ll be very happy with AliXe. For other languages minimal internationalization (i.e.: keyboard support) is there, and adding font sets, dictionaries, and language packs will effectively support the use of a third or fourth language. Localization for other languages is completely absent. Translations to actually have the menus, help, etc… in another language are all missing.
For an English or French speaking desktop or laptop user with even a small amount of previous Linux experience AliXe is an outstanding live CD. Users who need both languages in a small distro will be absolutely thrilled with AliXe. Performance is excellent, particularly on older, slower hardware. This distro almost completely bug free. It’s well thought out and generally user friendly. The selection of applications should give most casual users much of what they need and the inclusion of development tools is a plus. The downside of using AliXe is typical of smaller, lightweight distros: a lack of help files/man pages and a somewhat limited set of applications.
Hard drive installation works well but assumes a significant knowledge of Linux. Installing AliXe to a hard drive or USB stick, either in a full or frugal installation, isn’t for newcomers. Once installed and configured AliXe performs brilliantly but lacks the tools for systems administration and routine maintenance that most distributions have. Hard drive installation is really an afterthought but an experienced user who really likes AliXe can certainly consider it if he or she understands the limitations involved. Slackware compatibility makes extending and expanding AliXe quite reasonable for experienced Linux users.
Generally, if you use AliXe for what it was designed to be: a bilingual live CD which will run on most any hardware, the results are generally excellent.