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Interview with Zenwalk's Jean-Philippe Guillemin

Interview with Zenwalk's Jean-Philippe Guillemin

Tuesday 11th July 2006

Categories: GNU/Linux, Opinion, FLOSS

Zenwalk is one of the up and coming distributions in the FLOSS world. Jean-Philippe Guillemin, the founder of Zenwalk, takes the time to answer some questions and GNU/Linux in general.

How was the Zenwalk idea conceived?

I started building Zenwalk (originally named Minislack) as a way to learn the inner workings of GNU-Linux. I believe that building an operating system is a great method to understanding it because you're on your own to solve the problems when things do not work as expected.

Another reason for building Zenwalk was that I always found myself repeating the same modifications on my systems after a new installation. Such repeated modifications included recompiling a more optimised and up to date kernel, removing loads of unused software and libraries, customising the desktop, tuning the X window system, improving startup scripts, adding my preferred text editor, adding movie player and codecs and so on.

So this project brought forward an opportunity to share this customisation with friends, as well as being able to reinstall my system in exactly in the same state at any given time.

At first, Minislack was just a customised version of the Slackware system, nothing more. At the time, I thought that it would be possible for me to script everything and just follow Patrick Volkerding's releases to maintain my optimised version.

Then came the users and contributors, and along with them, came the beginnings of the changes that has helped to mould Zenwalk into what it is today. We started replacing more and more parts of the original distribution, with alternatives (i.e. gtk libs), adding new libs (i.e. Gnome libs), adding lots of administration tools, and a new way to manage packages remotely (i.e. netpkg). Users have helped a lot improving Zenwalk, many features of the current version are answers to features requests posted and discussed on the support forum. The result is Zenwalk as is it now, based on Slackware, yet in many ways very different : it is a two years daily development work, done by several Linux lovers to build their ideal Linux OS.

What are the reasons for Zenwalk's success?

I believe that there are three reasons for the success of Zenwalk.

First, Zenwalk has a great support community, composed of people that are both fond of system optimisation, and enjoy sharing their knowledge with users coming from other mainstream GNU-Linux distributions or even Microsoft Windows. Any user that has a hardware detection related problem can post a question on the forum and will be surprised how willing Zenwalk supporters and contributors are to help. Another important thing is that Zenwalk contributors (both developers, packagers) are involved in the user forum. That gives a "family feel" to Zenwalk that is a bit uncommon in Linux distributions support.

Regarding hardware detection the user requirements are very demanding : As the Linux kernel's hardware support is being improved, it happens less and less often that a device is not detected. As a result, users don't always understand why they have to download a proprietary firmware to make their device work. Something that has recently begun to astonish me is that the level of requirement of Linux users for hardware support seems to be higher than for Microsoft Windows users; they would understand the need to download the proprietary driver to install an unsupported device on Windows XP, but they expect Linux to support it on it's own, that's funny, I'm pleased about this.

Second, Zenwalk is designed to be a rational system by providing only one application for a given task. The applications that provide the easiest and fastest way to perform the task are chosen. This also has a positive side effect as Zenwalk can be installed in as little as 15 minutes on modern systems. Developers can also begin working immediately on a project since Zenwalk comes with editors and the most commonly used libraries. Average users can use it efficiently for word processing (Gnome Office) or playing multimedia (all Mplayer codecs are included) without adding anything. If they want to add, for example, Openoffice or Inkscape (a very good SVG authoring tool), it's easily installed with netpkg in just a few minutes if you have a decent DSL connection.

The third reason is that Zenwalk is interesting to use for Linux perfectionists. It comes fine tuned out of the box. Minimal yet full featured, easily customized and very fast.

Why did you use Slackware as the base for Zenwalk?

In my opinion Slackware is the best Linux distribution in the world. It is fast, reliable, secure, up to date, and built with respect for each application's own philosophy. This makes Slackware a real GNU-Linux "Distribution". Slackware contains a collection of applications and GNU tools, compiled and ready to be used with the Linux kernel. I'm thankful to Patrick Volkerding, the Slackware founder and maintainer for letting me use his concept as a base for Zenwalk, Zenwalk wouldn't be possible without his work.

Slackware has one of the most stable user base in the Linux world. Users that have been using Slackware for a while are not easily persuaded to change. Because it is very simple and conforms to the Unix philosophy, Slackware is an operating system that users can really understand, so I am.

Slackware is also known to be very fast and stable, it is impossible to achieve the same level of optimisation that Zenwalk has on a complex distribution. With regard to package management I know many Linux users that are tired of rpm and deb, because these systems are complex and sometimes unstable. That's why I found Slackware to be the only possible choice for my project of building a rational and simple operating system.

Zenwalk is not really designed to be a "Distribution", but rather a GNU-Linux "Operating System". When you install Zenwalk, you know what you are getting. One application for one task. Optimised and ready to use. This is the reason why there is no longer a package chooser in Zenwalk's setup routine. The pre-chosen packages installed during the installation are carefully chosen by Zenwalk developers to provide the user with only the best and most useful packages.

What are the key differences between Slackware proper and Zenwalk?

The main differences between Zenwalk and Slackware are:

First, the most up-to-date kernel version is used by default, currently 2.6.x.

Second, hardware detection and auto-configuration are improved. For example X window configuration is automatic. Hotpluging and coldpluging are based on the latest Linux technology (udev is extensively used for this).

Third, we have developed several system configuration tools: networkconfig, userconfig, serviceconfig and localeconfig. These tools provide the same frontend layout in both console mode and X window. They detect X running and then start in GTK mode, or use Ncurses mode with the same GUI in both cases.

The fourth difference is that Zenwalk is designed on XFCE and GTK applications. KDE is also provided but only as an additional package set, available via download with netpkg. Slackware leans toward KDE, that's a big difference!

Another difference is that Zenwalk provides a network package management tool called netpkg with a simple dependency handling system.

Finally, Zenwalk desktop layout is configured out of the box with a true low-level USB automount system.