Fienix Linux distribution
interview

Interview with Casey Cullen, the creator of Fienix, a PowerPC-friendly Linux distribution

This is an interview to Casey Cullen, the guy that created Fienix, the Linux distribution specifically meant for the PowerPC platform and freely available at https://fienixppc.blogspot.com/

Hi Casey! Thank you for accepting this interview, the first one we do for the Power Progress Community blog.

1) Please, briefly introduce yourself and how and when you started to be involved with the PowerPC platform.

Thank you for the opportunity to introduce myself to the community. One of my first computers was a Power Mac, and I remember thinking the little “PowerPC” badge was pretty cool, even before I really knew what it meant. For quite a while I was an Apple fan, my next computer was an iMac G3 SE, and then a Power Mac G5 970MP machine, which I was quite proud of. I still have that machine, and it currently runs the Fienix repository. After Apple stopped providing updates for the G5, which was still a fast and capable machine, I started experimenting with Linux. I learned so much getting Linux running on my G5, and really enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came with getting a stable environment set up, all the customizations I could do, and the limitations that I could break; for example, using a non-Apple Radeon video card.

My interest in PowerPC architecture has continued to today for different reasons. I don’t believe it is a good thing for the entire consumer market to be dependent upon one CPU architecture. Intel’s Management Engine and AMD’s Secure Technology have raised serious privacy and security concerns, and several vulnerabilities have been found in both systems. The PowerPC architecture is an ideal alternative as a high-performance, proven, and mature platform. Additionally, I think the idea of “open hardware” is exciting, and major PowerPC vendors like NXP/Freescale and IBM seem to be on-board with the idea.

Besides PowerPC, open-source, and Linux, I enjoy video games and I think video game level design is really interesting. Maybe this will be my next project.

2) Do you own any PowerPC based computers? What do you use it for?

I have an A-EON X5000 (based on the NXP P5020 2 Ghz CPU, e5500 core, book3e) running Fienix, which has taken over as my everyday machine. I also still have my Power Mac G5, which is currently what runs the Fienix repository. I also think I might have an iBook G4 around here someplace…

3) When did you first hear about the Power Progress Community?

I came across and started following the PowerPC Notebook Project in February, 2016. I don’t remember how I heard of the project though; I read about it somewhere online.

4) What do you think about the PowerPC laptop project and the donation campaign? Regarding our notebook project, as you probably know, we will release it as open source. What do you think about open source hardware?

I think it’s amazing! Manufacturers today act as if they are only renting out their hardware; they retain far too much control. They try to run secret hidden processes that the hardware owner cannot disable, they mandate updates the hardware owner cannot opt out of, require online connectivity, and prevent the hardware owner from repairing their own hardware by using “security” chips, and even dictate what OS can be installed and what software can be run. These are all significant problems, and open-source hardware is an exciting solution.

5) When and why did you first have the idea of building your own Linux distribution? Fienix is an interesting name. Where did it come from?

I got the idea to create a new Linux distribution after Ubuntu announced that PowerPC support would be discontinued after 16.04 LTS. I started working on the distro in late 2017, before it had a name. I wanted to think of a name that would be memorable, original, and carry some imagery of renewed strength or recovery.

Fienix was almost going to be named “Rally OS”. I even still have the assets like the Rally OS logo and branded backgrounds. I think the definition of rally is perfectly fitting; “to recover or cause to recover in health, spirits, or poise”. I just wasn’t quite happy with how it sounded, so I started thinking of alternatives.

I liked the word Phoenix and the imagery associated with it, of a mythological firebird symbolizing renewal. However, it isn’t a very original term, so I started looking for what other cultures call the Phoenix. Most of these are just variations on the spelling, like “feniks” in Dutch, Polish, and Romanian, “feeniks” in Finnish, and “fönix” in Icelandic. So I decided that I would make up an original spelling that I thought looked the most aesthetically pleasing, which ended up being “Fienix”.

6) Why did you create Fienix, when there is Debian for PowerPC already?

Debian is absolutely great, and their contributions to open-source software are innumerable and significant. However, Debian’s focus is very broad; everything from a desktop computer to an enterprise server, to a system running complex scientific calculations are in-scope for Debian. Fienix is specifically focused on desktop/workstation/notebook use cases and emphases user-experience.

  1. Debian provides a basic, somewhat lackluster user experience upon booting into a fresh install. Testing and installing additional utilities, making customizations, and editing scripts is required for an attractive, user-focused, responsive system. Fienix is focused on providing a stable, elegant operating system with a responsive, thoughtful desktop right out of the gate.
  2. Debian maintains a vast repository with software for everything from operating amateur radio stations, to recombining genome sequences, to running interactive web servers. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to come across a PowerPC binary that will not execute. Fienix is focused on providing a more curated assortment of software that is still diverse and exciting, but which is also reliable on PowerPC systems and useful for desktop/workstation/notebook users.
  3. Fienix includes many programs that Debian does not. For example, Fienix includes the Arctic Fox web browser, which is hands-down the best browser for everyday use on PowerPC systems (check out Arctic Fox GitHub at https://github.com/wicknix/Arctic-Fox). Other “added” programs include both libre (open-source) and gratis (no-charge, under copyright) software.
  4. Fienix includes optimizations and performance improvements that Debian does not.
  5. Due to the constantly rolling nature of Sid, packages often have broken dependencies for some days. The Fienix repository is based on a stable snapshot of Sid, so you still get the newest software, but also get a stable environment.
  6. I also have some ideas about ways that Fienix can help people learn about certain interests they may have, like graphic design or creating a video game, and give them tools that can help them explore that interest, so that may be something to look forward to.

7) What is the most complicated issue you have had to solve so far while setting up Fienix?

The most complicated issue was learning how to setup the repository.

8) What is your workflow for setting up your software repository? Are you compiling all packages from sources? What are the differences from the Debian PowerPC repository?

I use Reprepro for repository management; it’s a great tool and has been very helpful. Reprepro calculates all the checksums, generates the lists, and helps with version control.
I do not build every package from source, only those that have a problem or cause some sort of regression, as well as those that do not exist in Debian.

A list of some of the additional software and optimized software is available on the Fienix website under “Featured Software”: https://fienixppc.blogspot.com/p/software.html.

9) Is anybody helping you in maintaining the Fienix software repository?

I’ve been doing the actual repository organization myself, but I’ve had a great deal of assistance with Fienix in general. Christian Zigotzky provides kernels and has assisted with debugging and building several programs. The work done by Matt (wicknix) as well as Riccardo Mottola on the Arctic Fox team has also made things a lot easier since I don’t have to worry about a browser any longer 🙂

10) What are the top 5 most useful applications that would make an operating system suitable for the average user in 2019?

I’ve broken these down into categories, because I feel like completing a task is generally more important than using a specific app.

  1. Web: The most important app is a current web browser. I’m impressed with Arctic Fox and I am excited to see where this project goes. Additionally, pairing Arctic Fox with VLC browser plugin, Greasemonkey, and ViewTube/ViewTube+ provides flawless HD video streaming from YouTube and many other sites (installed by default in Fienix).
  2. Email: Even though web mail is becoming the norm, I still think a good email client is important. Fienix has several great clients to choose from including Thunderbird and Evolution.
  3. Media: The Kodi app has been getting some buzz lately due to their recent releases. Kodi is currently in testing for a Fienix release. Of course, VLC and SMPlayer are ultra-versatile players as well.
  4. Office/Productivity: Most everyone has at least an occasional need for a good office program, and LibreOffice definitely has all the bases covered. Their upcoming release is getting some buzz as well.
  5. Communication & Connectivity: Cross-platform communication tools that allow seamless messaging between phone, desktop, and/or web based clients will continue to be important to users. Facebook and WhatsApp are the most popular services, but apps such as Telegram are growing quickly. Fienix has support for a number of these protocols via Pidgin, but unfortunately Telegram isn’t yet one of them. KDE Connect is also a cool concept that isn’t yet available in Fienix, but may be at some point.

11) Are any of these applications is missing or seriously malfunctioning on PowerPC?

I think the most important bases for the “average user” are covered. When I think of some of the most popular “use-cases” there could be some upcoming issues that will need to be addressed. For example, for graphic design the newest version of GIMP needs some work. For video editing the most recent versions of OpenShot and Kdenlive need some attention. Fortunately we have recent versions of these apps that are stable to use until the issues with the newest versions can be looked into.

There are some apps that do not function on PowerPC that I have not dedicated much time to looking into because there are viable alternatives. For example, the Telegram client does not function correctly on PowerPC; however, there are several alternatives such as Simple and XMPP that are integrated into Pidgin. Similarly, Darktable does not execute but RawTherapee functions perfectly.

It’s possible we could also see connectivity features in Fienix similar to those provided by KDE Connect in the future.

12) Are any further applications missing from the PowerPC scene that you would like to include in Fienix?

I’d like to have the ability to access or sync cloud folders (such as DropBox, OneDrive, etc.) with Caja. There is a potential solution for this that I’m looking into.

We need to get GIMP 2.10, Blender 2.8, OpenShot 2.4, and Kdenlive 18.12 running stably (previous versions of these are all functional).

A secondary browser like Midori would be good, especially since they’ve begun focusing on WebApps. Right now the source compiles and the binary executes but it won’t connect to a network.

Finally, it’s not really an application, but important nonetheless, it would be great to have hardware acceleration on Radeon cards released after SI (HD7000 and later). Driver support for these cards has been limited to fbdev. Fortunately, SI and prior cards are pretty well supported and perform well.

13) Is there an application or tool that posed particular issues while porting to PowerPC?

Mozilla has decided to forgo the portability that use to be a strong point of theirs.

There was an issue with the game Hero of Allacrost (which by the way is a great game if you enjoy RPGs) that made it unplayable, and a different issue with the game engine ioquake3, but both of those were resolved with some help from their developers. Several games, like SuperTux and Yamagi (Quake 2 engine) also had issues with background music playing as static. Chrisitian Zigotzky provided the fix for SuperTux and I fixed Yamagi through a config change. There were also some issues that have since been resolved with VLC.

In general, I’ve been surprised how many developers have been responsive and helpful with resolving issues on PowerPC systems.

14) As you may know, here at the Power Progress Community we are strong supporters of PowerPC 64bit big endian and Altivec based Linux distributions. Do you have any plan in releasing a 64bit version of Fienix?

The first release of Fienix has a 32-bit userland primarily because Debian 32-bit PowerPC packages were more stable than the 64-bit versions. Fienix still has some of the benefits of a 64-bit OS due to using a 64-bit kernel, such as with memory management. That said, yes, I plan on working on a pure 64-bit version.

As far as Altivec goes, most programs determine if a system has Altivec at runtime, and then runs the appropriate code, either vector or scalar. GIMP and the libjpeg-turbo library both work in this way, as do many others. However, it is possible to compile a program in a way that does not conditionalize vector instructions. A program compiled in this way will not execute on systems without Altivec.

Fienix contains many programs that include Altivec optimizations, and will continue to do so as long as the vector instructions are conditionalized. Fienix will not contain programs that do not conditionalize vector instructions.

15) As an association targeting the PowerPC platform we would like to support your initiative. How can we best support your effort in trying to make Fienix one of the best Linux distributions for the average user?

  1. Use Fienix and test the apps in the Fienix repository. If you come across bugs and know a solution or workaround, share it. Fienix has a rudimentary bug reporting forum on the website.
  2. Try to build new programs from source if they aren’t included in the Debian repository. If you’re successful, share it. Fienix includes a rudimentary new software request forum on the website. If you’re not successful, put a bug report in with the developer (make sure you understand how to submit a bug report and what information to include first). You may be surprised how accommodating the developer may be. Regardless, bug reports help put the word out there that people are using PowerPC systems, and PowerPC systems are still in production.
  3. Help test and debug Debian PPC64 packages, they will serve as the base for Fienix 64-bit.
  4. Test Fienix on whatever PowerPC systems you have.
  5. Spread the word!

16) Have you ever had the chance to try a computer equipped with an IBM Power8 or Power9? Do you know that a micro-ATX motherboard called Blackbird is being released by a company called Raptor? What do you think about it?

I’ve been following Raptor since they announced the first Talos system. When the Talos II system was released I confirmed with Raptor that it can be run in big endian mode (it can). I sadly have not had the chance to use one of these machines yet, but the Blackbird is surprisingly affordable considering what you’re getting, so perhaps sometime in the near future…

17) Many people says that PowerPC is dead. What do you think about the current state of the Power(PC) architecture? Do you think it is a suitable architecture for home computing?

PowerPC has never been dead in terms of the embedded and server markets, but after Apple transitioned to Intel it certainly seemed to be going that way for the consumer market. However, if you look at where PowerPC is today, there is a small resurgence going on. A-EON and ACube both make systems powered by PowerPC, Raptor Computing Systems makes an assortment of high-end PowerPC POWER9 systems, and a promising PowerPC notebook is in the works. Long gone are the days when PowerPC had a chance of overtaking x86 in the consumer market, but I don’t think that’s the point. PowerPC is in a better place today than it has been in years. If privacy, security, and open-hardware are important to you then there is no better architecture than PowerPC. These new PowerPC systems finally give consumers a real choice in the marketplace, and I think that is something to be very enthusiastic about.

18) Are there any other Operating System other than Linux you want to see running on PowerPC?

I’m personally most interested and involved with Linux, but having a choice is always good. We have Linux, FreeBSD, MorphOS, and AmigaOS for certain systems. I think I’d be most enthusiastic about having another Linux distribution pick up PowerPC as a supported architecture. That may seem a bit odd because of course I’d like people to use Fienix but like I said, choice is good!

19) Is there anything else you would like to say to people interested in the PowerPC platform?

If you’re someone who likes learning and experimenting with hardware and software, or you have an appreciation for the principles behind open-source, or you want to contribute to a community where you can make a difference, then the PowerPC platform is a great option for you!

 

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