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Kanotix 2010

June 30, 2010

This article was contributed by Susan Linton

Kanotix is a Debian-based Linux distribution aimed at new users or anyone wishing for an easy-to-use system. In 2005 Kanotix was looking good, it was stable, fast, and had some handy extras. But then it suddenly disappeared. Now it's back.

In the early days, Kanotix development continued along, with fresh ISOs being released periodically. It received positive reviews and took its place alongside PCLinuxOS, SimplyMepis, and other smaller but well respected projects. Then it began to experience internal strife. On November 30, 2006, it was reported that problems arose in the project and that co-founder Stefan Lippers-Hollmann had left, taking the Paypal donation button with him. He cited lack of innovation and releases, slipping schedule, unequal workloads, and deteriorating communication as the main reasons. At that time, the last major release had been on December 31, 2005. Between then and January 2008 several developmental releases were announced, but no final release was ever announced, and nothing has been heard since. Most considered the project dead.

Until now, that is; Kanotix Excalibur 2010 was released on June 8. As it turns out, the project was never really dead. Project founder and lead developer Jorg Schirottke said that test images and specialized builds had been made, but not released publicly, because they weren't installable. In fact, that was the main issue that caused the project to appear dormant to outsiders. The installer needed updates and the developer responsible for it was preoccupied with other obligations. After several test builds and getting the installer fixed a public preview was released in December 2009, but not widely publicized. While the departure of Lippers-Hollmann didn't stop Kanotix, it certainly hobbled it - for a while anyway.

Schirottke states that it was his switch from Debian unstable to stable that caused the friction that resulted in the loss of his earlier team. Despite that, he said he would do it again because "it can be really stressful to support unstable" and with stable "I usually know what impact changes will have. As a result I was then basically the sole remaining developer."

The current Kanotix team is still quite small. Besides head honcho Schirottke, Andreas Loibl works on the installer, Debian Live, and things like Hal and PolicyKit, while Maximilian Gerhard works on announcements, the wiki, web site, and helps in the IRC and user forums. Kanotix also has a core set of loyal users that help with testing.

Trying it out

Kanotix KDE3 desktop

When booting the live DVD, the first thing one will notice is the lack of customization for KDE 4 and the same theme from 2005 for KDE 3. Again, Schirottke chalks this up to not having the manpower to build new themes right now. In fact, Schirottke welcomes help from anyone with a knack for making themes and wallpapers.

Like its contemporaries, Kanotix offers a nice line-up of software. Amarok and MPlayer are included for multimedia. Iceweasel, Skype, and Pidgin are there for Internet and communications. GIMP and 3.2 round out the necessities. Wine is also included. Kanotix uses Debian's APT for package management and is set up to pull from Kanotix repositories, but I'm not so sure there's a lot extra there. However, updates are current and seem to be maintained well.

Kanotix developers announced that they use a 2.6.32-21 kernel with the BFS scheduler, a low-latency desktop scheduler designed by Con Kolivas. Schirottke said that it provides "5% more speed. That may not sound [like] much, but that's usually the same diff from one cpu to the next faster one." Tests to determine any benefits of BFS comprised of application compile times which consistently compiled 5% faster with a BFS kernel. "The latest Kanotix kernels also use the full ck patches [Con Kolivas's full patch set] with 1000 Hz setting - best for gamers and [it] was requested for this usage case." Schirottke states game play was noticeably faster and smoother using the 1000 Hz setting with those patches.

Schirottke says he doesn't develop for any one "specific kind of user", but that it is "mainly users without deep Linux knowledge" who use Kanotix. The team, he continued:

aims for stability and the best hardware support. Kanotix wants to provide solutions. One of the biggest advantages you have with Kanotix is that when you have got a problem you often can ask me directly in the IRC. Several other distributions do nothing without a bugzilla/launchpad or whatever entry to show that they did something to fix an issue. Of course you find several other Kanotix users in the IRC/forum who can help with common issues (the bot knows a a lot too). I also focus on latest developments of interesting drivers - I update my nvidia/fglrx scripts as soon as i know that there is a new release - for fglrx add the time to fix new issues which can take quite a bit time ;) I also maintain scripts to install always the latest version of mplayer (3 variants), xbmc (also 3 variants), vlc, flash player and several others... As I often test vaapi/xvba I most likely know best about the status of ATI's video acceleration and other things. Kanotix users certainly benefit from that the most.

One thing notably missing is the control center. Back in Kanotix's heyday, there was a nice graphical tool for configuring some extras like network connections and 3D acceleration or installing Flash. Schirottke says it was merely a wrapper for his scripts, some of which are still present in /usr/local/bin. Others are stored at the site. Schirottke intends users to use the scripts directly now and he notes, "I think it is a good idea when new Linux users begin to use the Konsole without fear as soon as possible. If somebody uses GUI for everything the learning effect is zero." He also suggests using the included Wicd for network connections. The web site has a FAQ and Wiki to help users install or update the scripts, with hardware and software tips, administration tasks, networking procedures, backup suggestions, and lots more. Some of the information is a bit old, but much is still relevant, and updates to the site are being made as time permits.

Kanotix comes in KDE 3 and KDE 4 flavors for 32-bit and 64-bit architectures. Why offer both a KDE 3 and KDE 4 version? Schirottke explains:

I basically prefer KDE 3 - it's faster, needs less ram and I am used to it. The KDE 4 edition however can access hd partitions more easily in live mode - similar to (K)ubuntu and USB hd devices >1 TB work better with KDE 4. With KDE 3 I could not get this to work and the old way of writing a /etc/fstab even in live mode did not work for newer ntfs-3g versions, therefore a hack is needed (look into release notes). Of course some users liked to use KDE 4 and therefore they can do that easier with KDE 4 iso images. KDE 4 will be used in the future anyway with a new squeeze base.

When Kanotix first appeared, Ubuntu was a newcomer and Kanotix was a viable contender for the easier-to-use-Debian crown. They've lost a bit of ground, but it's possible they could rise to prominence again. Kanotix might be ideal for those looking for a personal touch because very few other projects have a lead developer willing to personally answer questions and help in real time on IRC. Kanotix is also ripe for new developers looking for a place to cut their teeth or those who feel under-appreciated in their current projects. Schirottke would welcome the help. And that's where they are. It's a nice start to a comeback, but it feels as though the distribution needs more hammering out and polishing up right now.

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