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A First Look at Asianux 1.0

June 23, 2004

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

When Asianux was first announced in January 2004, it raised the eyebrows of those Linux users who have to deal with the many complex writing systems found across the culturally rich Asian continent. Will we finally have a distribution that solves all the headaches associated with reading, inputting, mixing, and printing Asian characters in documents? Will Asianux become a standard distribution throughout Asia? We downloaded and installed the newly released Asianux 1.0 in search for answers to these and other questions.

First a little background. Asianux is a joint collaborative project by Japan's Miracle Linux and China's Red Flag Linux. Miracle Linux is a well-established server oriented distribution, essentially a Red Hat Enterprise Linux pre-configured for certain specific tasks (e.g. database, cluster, backup, etc.), and sold as complete sets. Some of these sets are not cheap - as an example, a standard Miracle Linux 2.1 together with Oracle 9i sells for an equivalent of $2,450 per seat. On the other hand, Red Flag Linux has historically been focusing on the desktop with an attempt to create a very Windows-like user interface and configuration utilities, thus easing the migration of computer users to Linux. Although Red Flag is a well-known Linux distribution, reports from China indicate that most Chinese users prefer Fedora or Mandrakelinux rather than any of the domestically developed products.

Asianux is designed as a base server platform, not dissimilar from the now-defunct United Linux. Each vendor takes the common base and customizes it to serve a certain purpose, then ads localization features depending on the vendor's sphere of influence. Thus, while Asianux is a usable and installable distribution in its own right, it will also serve as a base for the upcoming Red Flag Linux 4.1 and Miracle Linux 3.0. The influence of each of the two vendors is apparent - Asianux inherits Miracle's strong bias towards server use (you won't find any office suites, multimedia or graphics software in Asianux 1.0) and Red Flag's KDE modifications (e.g Konqueror includes a very Windows-like Control Panel module and many configuration utilities strongly resembling those present in Microsoft Windows; see screenshot). Yes, despite being designed for server use, Asianux ships with XFree86 and KDE.

The installer is a simplified Anaconda. However, unlike Red Hat's original Anaconda, the number of available languages during installation and for later use is limited to three: simplified Chinese, English and Japanese. This was the first disappointing aspect of the distribution - the term "Asianux" somehow implies that it is intended to be a pan-Asian project supporting, at the very least, the most widely-used Asian languages. Even worse, there is no easy way to change the language after installation. When choosing to install the distribution in simplified Chinese, the system was ready for Chinese input immediately after install; however, when choosing Japanese, it required further command line tweaking by following instructions in the release notes before one could start typing text in Japanese. Interestingly, looking through the RPM package list it would seem that Asianux also supports Korean, although the release notes make no mention of the fact and they don't provide instructions for setting up a Korean desktop. Traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where many people would struggle to read the simplified Chinese character set, is absent from the distribution, and so are all other Asian languages.

There was further disappointment when examining the security features of the distribution. Firstly, the simplified Anaconda installer is missing the "Add Users" screen, so the only user created during installation is root. Of course, it is easy enough to add new users to the system, but one has to question the wisdom of creating an entire user infrastructure for the root user, including a "My Documents" folder and an easy root login without any warnings. This is obviously a "feature" by Red Flag, which has been known for trying to emulate Windows to the extent that it even removes some of the inherent security aspects from its Linux distribution. No wonder that the Red Flag Linux web site is hosted on a server running Red Hat Linux, rather than the company's own distribution!

Another worrying factor is the lack of any package update tool. Red Hat's up2date is not included in the distribution and there seems to be no repository designed to provide security updates for Asianux. Perhaps the distribution itself is not meant to be a standalone product and those interested in deploying it should use one of the products based on Asianux, be it Red Flag Linux or Miracle Linux. If this is the case, the Asianux web site, which, incidentally, is entirely in English, does not make it very clear.

Other than the above peculiarities and the reduced number of available applications, Asianux seems to differ little from Red Hat Linux 9. This poses an interesting question - why would any user choose Asianux over Red Hat Linux or any other well-established distribution? The Asianux development team provides very few innovations of its own, with the only exception being the above-mentioned addition of graphical configuration utilities strongly resembling the Control Panel found in Microsoft Windows. A questionable value, some would say, especially for a distribution designed for server use.

Nevertheless, the idea behind Asianux is sound. What the product needs now is broader support by Linux vendors from across the region; it would certainly benefit the project if the likes of Korea's Hancom Linux and Hong Kong-based ThizLinux joined the development. Hancom Linux has emerged as the dominant Linux player in Korea with extensive effort at "Koreanization" of KDE and other applications. ThizLinux has evolved as one of the most significant Linux development companies in Greater China, with expertise in both simplified and traditional Chinese character sets (including Cantonese), Chinese input methods and printing. Another Asian country with substantial Linux development drive is Thailand, and even less developed countries of the region, such as Vietnam or Mongolia, have their own internationalization projects and Linux development communities.

Once all these vendors and communities get together and establish an efficient working group, perhaps we could see Asianux as a significant Linux player in Asia, able to compete with Red Hat, which enjoys strong brand recognition in the region, and with the newly revived Turbolinux currently making strong gains in Japan and China. A foundation has been laid. All that needs to be done now is to persevere in building upon it.

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