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MaxOS, a New Linux Distribution from the Ground Up

March 21st, 2000
Liz Coolbaugh

MaxOS is a new, from-the-ground-up distribution. Unlike many recent newcomers, it is not based on Red Hat, Debian, or anyone else's code base. The developers for MaxOS come from the frozen north, "Slave Lake", Alberta, Canada, a small town where it is dark five months out of the year. "That leaves you only a few things to do with your time, one of the healthiest of which is playing with your PC," commented Dan Graham, one of the four MaxOS developers and currently the one in charge of "proprietary tool development."

We were first introduced to the MaxOS Linux distribution via the announcement of a Canadian Linux Alliance between Mosaic Technologies Corporation and Alta Terra Ventures, Inc. In that press release, Mosaic Technologies Corporation indicated that they would be bundling the MaxOS Linux distribution with their Linux training programs. Since MaxOS is a new distribution to us, we went to dig up a bit more information on the product.


From the website, we learned that the MaxOS distribution is not yet available. The beta version is scheduled for release this May, with the full version following in June. To get more information, we contacted Dan Graham via telephone. He kindly answered a set of survey questions for us, which gave us a clear picture of their background and plans.

Well, what about that interesting lead-in, the comment about "proprietary tool development". The MaxOS developers have made a commitment to producing a proprietary, closed source installer for the distribution. MaxOS will be made available for free download from their site, but they will not license the installer or the trademark for the use of the many low-cost Linux redistributors, e.g., Cheapbytes or the LinuxStore. "We have shareholders to answer to," explained Dan. This is an interesting gambit. MaxOS is not the only Linux distribution dabbling in a mix of proprietary and free software; Caldera and TurboLinux are other examples. Some might judge a proprietary installer relatively harmless. For instance, it is interesting to note that the availability of free software installers has not caused many distributions to share the actual installer code, at least not yet.

We mentioned that MaxOS has been "rolled" from scratch. So the next obvious question was what package manager, if any, did they intend to use? The answer is that they are creating their own, the Max package installer, which has its own package format but also will also support packages in rpm, .deb or slackware tarball format. In this case, the licensing news is better. It has not yet been released, but they promise it will go out under an open source license. We'll be ready to check the license against the OSI's definition for open source once it is available.

MaxOS will be initially released for the Intel architecture only and optimized for Pentium-class machines. Future plans include support of the Intel 64-bit chips, and eventually both the MIPs and Alpha chips. The PowerPC platform is being considered, but no commitment has been made. It is primarily an English distribution, other than including the normal generic Linux support for multiple languages, and will remain so until some future date.

MaxOS was initially started by DT Studio Systems, Inc, a small company begun by Dan Graham and Travis Bouchet. Since then, they've added two additional developers, Tim Pigeon, Everitt Dana. "Tim and Everitt are young hacker guys, Dan and Travis are old, burned out kind of guys," joked Dan. Dan first went Slave Lake to work for the local college and ended up provided computer support for most people in town. The business followed after that.

Being developers, not managers, they were happy to form a partnership with Alta Terra Ventures, Inc., who bought DT Studio Systems and all its rights and then hired them back to finish their work, not an atypical story in the Linux community today.

Dan sees Linux-Mandrake and Corel as the Linux distributions that are closest in design goals and market to MaxOS but prefers to view Microsoft as the real competitor. In addition to the revenue from the sale of box sets, which is obviously important from their decision to restrict their trade mark use and to use a proprietary installer, they will also be providing telephone and email support and remote administration and control.

So why did they choose to create a new Linux distribution? "We believe we can do it better," said Dan, even as he chuckled and admitted that "they all say that". He and Travis Bouchet, another of the lead MaxOS developers, have dealt with too many end users having too many problems with installation and support on vanilla PC systems. Although they agree that some of the other distributions are headed in the direction of fixing these problems, they still want the opportunity to prove they can do a better job.

One example of their plans is the integration and support of the Reiser file system right out of the box. "We like it. It has been exceptional. ext2 is stable but slow. It is lacking. Once you've tasted the Reiser file system, there is no going back, Dan commented. For more information on the Reiser file system, check out the discussion in the November 11th, 1999 LWN Kernel Summary. Note that SuSE is also supporting ReiserFS as of SuSE 6.4, which is scheduled to ship in April.

Another example comes from their announced partnership with Mosaic Technologies, mentioned above. As a result of that partnership, they will be bundling a full tutorial on using Linux for people being introduced to Linux for the first time.

Welcome to the field, MaxOS. Years ago, when my brother proposed to enter a career field that was already crowded, my father first tried to talk him out of it. When that failed, his final comment was, "Then you'd better be one of the best. There is always room for the best."

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