Distribution Roundup

Linux is all about choice, especially when it comes to

Loopback distributions? Okay, let’s get some focus. We could devote an entire magazine to examining the possible permutations of Linux distributions and still not get anywhere toward helping you make your choice. linuxdlsazine labs has looked at eight of the most popular Linux distributions, all of which are available in either a free download version or in a shrink-wrapped box. We’ve poked and prodded at the shrink-wrapped versions of Caldera OpenLinux 2.3, Corel Linux, Debian GNU/Linux 2.1, Linux-Mandrake 6.1, Red Hat Linux 6.1, Slackware 7.0, SuSE Linux 6.3, and TurboLinux 4.0. — all with the aim of giving you some sense of what might be the distribution for you.

The current crop of Linux distributions is an impressive lot, and they show just how much and how quickly Linux has improved. Graphics-based installation is becoming a standard feature, and simple installations are the norm, not the exception. The X Window System and desktop managers like GNOME and KDE can be installed with a simple click of a menu box. No need to wrestle with packages and hand-editing configuration files — that type of fine-grained customization is still available, but the expertise bar has definitely been lowered enough to open Linux to the masses, not just the gurus.

Rating each of the different distributions proved to be a thorny task. Different people use Linux for different reasons. Some people don’t care for a GUI-based installation. Others demand it. We addressed this discrepancy by dividing our findings into three categories: Novice, Desktop, and Server. The ratings are restricted to the standard distributions we evaluated and do not take into account other specialized variations of the products.

Rating the Distros Caldera OpenLinux 2.3 Corel Linux Debian GNU/Linux Linux Mandrake 6.1 Red Hat Linux 6.1 Slackware 7.0 SuSE Linux 6.3 TurboLinux Workstation 4.0
Novice 3.9 3.7 3.2 3.4 3.8 3.0 3.8 3.8
Desktop 3.9 3.6 3.3 3.3 3.8 3.0 3.8 3.7
Server 3.9 3.4 3.3 3.2 3.7 3.0 3.6 3.7
Penguin Rating 3.9 3.7 3.2 3.4 3.8 3.0 3.8 3.8

The Envelope(s) Please

We have five first-rate contenders. Four incorporate graphical installation programs: Caldera OpenLinux, Corel Linux, Red Hat Linux, and SuSE Linux. Caldera OpenLinux edged out the other three for a couple of reasons. First, OpenLinux supports Novell Directory Services (NDS), which can be key to better management in a network environment. Second, it incorporates a few fine applications instead of a vast collection of programs of widely varying quality. But once again, your mileage may vary, and if these two reasons have little meaning in your environment then all four of the graphical-installation distributions should be considered.

The graphical installations were not just an aesthetic improvement; they also greatly simplified the installation process. TurboLinux has a similar streamlined design, just without the graphics. Once past the installation, TurboLinux is hard to differentiate from the rest, so don’t be overly influenced by a pretty face when making your choice.

We tested the distributions on three different systems: a 200 MHz AMD K6-2, a 400 MHz Pentium II, and a 700 MHz AMD Athlon. Each had an IDE hard disk larger than 2 GB and 64 MB of RAM, and we tested with a variety of sound, video, and networking cards. Now for the details…


Caldera Open Linux 2.3


$49 3.9 Penguins


PROS:Slick installer, Great tech support

CON: GNOME not easy to add

Dist Cool Product Logo

If you’re new to Linux and you want the K Desktop Environment (KDE), then your choice pretty much narrows down to Caldera’s OpenLinux 2.3 or Corel Linux. OpenLinux has a definite edge when it comes to support for NetWare networks, particularly if WordPerfect is not your first choice for a word processor.

We think that the Lizard (Linux Wizard), the graphical installation utility for OpenLinux, is the best animal of its kind around. It’s easy to use, well-designed, and does just about everything to make life pleasant for even the greenest of Linux beginners. The installation was both interactive and multitasking; it checked and interactively verified major peripherals like the keyboard, mouse, video, and audio.

Dist Caldera Screen
Linux Through New Eyes: Caldera’s installation is, well, fun…

This multitasking support means that Lizard quietly goes about installing packages in the background while the installation program gathers configuration information. And if the installer should happen to collect all the configuration info before all of your packages are set up, you can pass the time with a game of Tetris. It will probably be a quick game, though, since the multitasking effectively cuts your installation time in half.

You can set up OpenLinux in a number of preconfigured ways if you don’t feel like making every little decision about what does and does not get installed. The choice is between home, business workstation, development workstation, network server, and Web server options. Network administrators can create a floppy with a custom installation script, so that putting a standard installation on a number of different computers amounts to not much more than popping in the floppy disk along with the OpenLinux CD-ROM.

It’s easiest to let Lizard take over an entire hard disk, but OpenLinux comes with BootMagic and PartitionMagic software, which let you tweak your disk’s partitioning so you can install Linux right into a Windows machine and boot into whichever OS you feel like using.

Caldera’s installation program installs KDE by default and sets up a nice desktop. It is possible to use other desktops like GNOME, but OpenLinux’s printed documentation won’t help you much with that.

Caldera does well with network support. The installation program properly detected the Ethernet adapters on our test systems. The standard install includes the Apache Web server, Samba, and support for smbfs. OpenLinux handled NetWare better than any other distribution. It also has particularly good user- and network-management tools.

Caldera provides 90 days or five incidents of telephone and Internet-based support. That puts it at the head of the class in terms of tech support. Web-based support is available after this time, and various fee-based support plans are available in addition to fee-based training.

Overall, OpenLinux is an excellent platform for either a desktop or a low-to-medium-end server. We rate it very high for novice Linux users because of its excellent installation program. The documentation was insufficient for server customization by a non-Linux professional, a complaint we could make about most of the other distributions.

Corel LInux Standard Version


$50 3.7 Penguins


PROS: Great installer, Windows-like file manager

CONS: Not easy to reconfigure, Telephone support extra

Corel Linux is based on the Debian distribution, but the two are like night and day when it comes to installation. Corel Linux is at the opposite end of the spectrum with a flashy, graphical installation program comparable to Caldera’s Lizard, although Corel limits its standard installation options to Basic, Full, and Custom. Our major concern about Corel Linux is the difficulty in reconfiguring some options after the installation procedure is complete. Corel Linux provides access to graphical tools and control panels, but this is not as complete as Caldera’s COAS.

Things get better when it comes time to pick your window manager. KDE is the default, but GNOME is just a selection away, as is the standard, text-based Linux command-line interface. Other window managers and graphical environments can be installed, but the package system must be used after the setup program is done.

Corel includes a copy of its own WordPerfect 8 for Linux, the first component of its office suite to be ported to Linux. Other office apps are expected soon. In the meantime, the KDE office suite fills in the gaps.

Dist Corel Screen
Debian Done Up: Corel aims for the regular Joe.

Corel has been working with other vendors to add more Linux applications to its distribution, such as GraphOn, which provides thin, server-based technology for running 32-bit Windows apps on a remote PC, and Webb Interactive’s instant-messaging system.

This distribution recognized some but not all of the network-interface adapters on our test systems. Its network-application support was good, but tools like Samba and NFS were not well-covered in the documentation.

Overall Corel’s documentation has the same flavor as Caldera’s. It is targeted at users who may be unfamiliar with Linux and concentrates on a few specific areas such as installation and configuration of a few key applications instead of being a reference manual for every single application that comes bundled with the OS.

You get 90 days of support with Corel Linux, but only via the Web. Telephone support comes with the ($30 more expensive) “Deluxe Version.”

Corel Linux is a very good choice for a desktop as well as low-to-medium servers. We’re a little concerned that reconfiguration of some system parameters after installation requires a more detailed knowledge of Linux than most newbies have. Still, we think that novice Linux users will ultimately like Corel Linux because of its excellent installation program.

Debian GNU/Linux 2.1

$20 3.2 Penguins


PROS: Great documentation, Low price

CONS: Difficult installation, Expensive commercial support

Debian GNU/Linux may be an excellent choice for Linux experts, but its installation program would send a novice into shock. While most of its competitors have streamlined, GUI-based installers like Corel’s, Debian GNU/Linux retains the character-based interface that deals with arcane configuration details like swap partitions.

The saving grace is Bill McCarty’s Learning Debian GNU/Linux book from O’Reilly, which is bundled with the distribution. It not only leads the user through the installation process but does a good job of handling technical topics like disk partitioning. More advanced PC users won’t have any trouble installing Debian with a little reading and patience, and the Quick Start booklet is all a typical Linux user will need.

Dist Debian Screen
Forget About GUIs: Debian/GNU Linux is simply a hacker’s delight.
Dist Debian Guidebook

Debian’s installation is much harder than the slick, though less refined, system-oriented selections of other offerings like Caldera and Red Hat. Debian uses .deb files that are handled by kpackage under KDE. While Debian makes X Windows configuration more of a chore, it does support a variety of user interfaces like KDE, GNOME, AfterStep, and FVWM. Bundled applications include KOffice, StarOffice, and Applixware, which should suit most desktop users just fine.

Debian’s CD-based distribution is supported by SGI, O’Reilly & Associates, and VA Linux with the proceeds being funneled back to the organization that manages the nonprofit Debian development effort — a worthy cause indeed. There is even a Debian bumper sticker in the box, so you can impress your friends.

Debian’s network and server support are comparable to the other distributions, but finding and installing the necessary components past the initial network-interface and FTP support takes a little work.

Experienced Linux users will zip through these details, but new users will definitely need time to learn Linux. Bill McCarty’s book is invaluable and should be read cover-to-cover by new users.

Tech support is limited to what you can get on the Web. The Debian site is well-maintained, and automatic updates are possible with Apt-get. Apt-get downloads updates from the Internet and installs them. It is one of the better features of Debian and one found in only a few other Linux distributions. For more immediate responses to tech-support questions, you can turn to VA Linux, which charges a flat fee of $34.95 per incident for its tech support.

Debian enjoys developer and user support, and given its technical capabilities, it’s no surprise that it is the foundation for other, more polished distributions. New users may wish to look elsewhere, but experienced Linux users, and in particular those with Debian experience, will definitely prefer this new release of Debian GNU/Linux.

Linux-Mandrake Powerpack 6.1


$55 3.4 Penguins


PRO: Similar to Red Hat Deluxe at lower price

CON: No telephone support

Based on the Red Hat distribution, Linux-Mandrake 6.1 has a few nifty features of its own for a rather extensive Linux distribution that will appeal to power users. The installation program uses the older text-based approach, but it gets through the details quickly and gives a choice of KDE, GNOME, Window Maker, AfterStep, XFCE, and IceWM. Most users will prefer the 6-CD PowerPack Edition, which includes lots of extra applications.

Red Hat Reflection: Mandrake is a cost-effective choice for power users with its six-CD Power Pack Edition.

Mandrake had trouble with our SiS 5598 graphics controller until we installed a software update, but it worked perfectly with the other graphics controllers. It also handled the network installation nicely. Oddly, it missed the serial mouse on one system.

We liked Mandrake’s X Windows installations. We used KDE, and Mandrake installed the GIMP plus desktop icons for our floppy drive and CD-ROM. The keyboard’s Windows key was even set to pop up KDE’s main menu. Most other distributions failed to provide this simple but much appreciated touch. Selecting GNOME provided similar support. Mandrake also provides scalable-fonts support using TrueType fonts.

Mandrake includes office applications like StarOffice 5.1, Corel WordPerfect 8, and Applixware 4.4.2. It also has limited versions of scanning software, a Web search engine, and many other tools. There are a host of development tools from the specialized ObjectOREXX to Java tools to the MySQL database manager. There is also support for multiple languages under X Windows.

Documentation includes a Quick Install Guide and a hefty User Guide. Installation tech support is Web-only and lasts 100 days — more than enough time to get the hang of things. Overall, Mandrake Linux has a lot to offer; it is a good alternative to Red Hat’s $79 Deluxe version at a somewhat lower price.

Red Hat Linux 6.1


$29 3.8 Penguins


PROS: Nice installation, Becoming the standard Linux

CON: Telephone support extra

Working to be the big red one, Red Hat has done more than just go public and push the marketing envelope. It has put together a solid Linux distribution with a graphical installation that rivals Caldera’s and Corel’s. It has also added nice touches in other areas, such as automounting of CD-ROMs under GNOME. While its Standard version is one of the least expensive distributions around, most users will probably opt for the $79 Deluxe version, which includes 30 days of telephone support plus StarOffice 5.1a. The Deluxe version also increases the CD count from two to five. The $149 Professional package adds IBM’s DB2 database software, a secure-server CD, and additional server-application CDs.

We tested both the text-based and graphical installations because the latter didn’t handle two of our test systems. In one case, we needed to get the latest X Windows driver to handle the SiS 5598 graphics controller on our video card. The installation program gave us a choice of a GNOME or KDE workstation, and a Server, Custom setup, or Upgrade from an existing version of Linux. The workstation installations used a whopping 500 MB of disk space, but this is less of an issue with today’s multi-gigabyte drives.

The Hat Factor: Red Hat is the most popular Linux in America.

Red Hat’s installation program handles packages in groups like DOS/Windows, Connectivity, Printer Support, KDE, and GNOME. Of the latter, Red Hat’s documentation is noticeably skewed toward GNOME. Other window managers are included, but their installation is a bit more involved. The installation program leaves configuration of most packages to the user after the system is restarted.

Red Hat fared very well when it came to networking. It recognized our network adapters and had no trouble installing network services.

Red Hat did an excellent job with the documentation, which is spread across three books. The short Installation Guide is very handy, while the Getting Started manual introduces command-line syntax and concentrates on GNOME. The Reference Manual addresses linuxconf and the various package managers and includes a list of packages organized by type.

The Standard version only has e-mail tech support. But you do get priority access to the Red Hat Web site to download package updates. This priority access can be useful, given Red Hat’s soaring popularity. Upgrades can be done automatically through Red Hat’s useful Update Agent. Red Hat, like TurboLinux, has all the bases covered. It has a nice spread of workstation products, although we recommend that new users go with the more expensive Deluxe version instead of the Standard version.

Slackware 7.0


$39 3.0 Penguins


PROS: ZipSlack, Custom tagfile support

CONS: No GUI install Limited tech support

We picked up our version of Slackware from Walnut Creek CDROM (http://www.cdrom.com), which even offers a $29 subscription service for regular updates. While it’s possible to download the whole Slackware distribution, most will prefer the smaller ZipSlack (see And Now for Something Completely Different on pg. 88). We recommend buying the CD-ROMs and saving on the download time. Installation was significantly easier when we simply booted the installation CD-ROM.

Dist Slackware KDE Screen
Slack Not: Slackware is the original commercial distribution.

The installation program, setup, must be run from the command line after the hard disk is partitioned. Once started, it provides a pick-and-choose expert version, a full 612 MB installation, or a prompted version for novices. The installation program handled all of our hardware without a hitch. Custom tagfile support will appeal to administrators who want to create one standard configuration for a number of Linux systems.

Slackware supports a variety of window managers, but KDE and GNOME have the edge. The two areas where Slackware falls short of the competition are bundled applications and tech support. While Slackware doesn’t scrimp on applications overall, the office applications are on the lean side. Tech support is via the Internet, and fee-based support is not available. Luckily, the Internet support is pretty good.

Slackware has found its way to the back of many Linux books, but it is definitely worth the money to get the latest version instead of using these older CDs. While not as easy to install as much of the competition, you’ll find things pretty smooth once Slackware’s up and running. New Linux users should look elsewhere, but the more experienced users will find it well worth checking out.

SuSE Linux 6.3


$49 3.8 Penguins


PROS: The most applications,

60-day telephone support

CON: Extensive bundled applications not fully integrated

SuSE has taken its own path with SuSE Linux 6.3. SuSE’s brand-new graphical installation program, YaST2 (Yet another Setup Tool) has made installation a snap, giving Caldera and Corel a run for their money. Hands down, SuSE wins the prize for most mammoth distribution. Its six (yessix) CDs are jam-packed with useful applications.

YaST2 can be used after the initial installation for additional configuration jobs and adding updates. YaST is particularly environment-friendly in that it will run as either a text or X Windows application. It handles minimal installations as well as typical X Windows workstation configurations, and its network support allows changes to configurations for services like Samba and Sendmail.

SuSE’s SaX (SuSE advanced X configuration tool) lets you customize X Windows after installation. SaX can configure GNOME, KDE, FVWM2, and the other window managers that come with SuSE.

Dist SuSE YaST Screen
GUI-Ready: SuSE now has a GUI installer.

Bundled office applications include StarOffice and Applixware. You also get VMware and RealPlayer 5.0, as well as about a thousand open source applications. SuSE’s printed documentation for most of the applications on this six-CD set is pretty sparse, but there’s quite a lot of electronic documentation on the CDs. Our biggest problem with this distribution is the sheer number of bundled applications. Just trying to find out what is available can be difficult because there may be three or four very good options to choose from.

The Users Manual is very good, covering topics from installation through kernel settings. It has everything the typical user needs, although its size sometimes makes the right information a bit hard to find.

SuSE’s tech-support policy is one of the best and is matched only by TurboLinux. Additional services are available, making SuSE Linux 6.3 is an excellent choice as a desktop environment for both new and experienced Linux users.

TurboLInux 4.0


$49 3.8 Penguins


PROS: 60-day phone support, Desktop uses few resources

CONS: Non-standard desktop, No GUI install

TurboLinux builds on Red Hat’s distribution but incorporates its own installation and support. Its text-based setup is above-average, and it did well with the graphics and network hardware on our text systems, including the one with the SiS 5598 graphic controller that gave Red Hat’s installation program trouble. The installation program, Turbocfg, is not GUI-based, but it is well-designed and will meet the needs of anyone who has worked with Windows.

Dist Turbolinux Screen
Help Is Here: TurboLinux has one of the best support plans ever.

TurboLinux gives you a wide choice of window managers, including TurboStep, KDE, and GNOME. TurboStep is a form of NextStep that many users will find easier to use than KDE or GNOME. TurboLinux also delivers several useful enhancements to Linux. Its polished TurboPkg handles package files, and IBM’s DB2 database server and WordPerfect 8 are both part of the TurboLinux package.

TurboLinux handled networking well in our tests, and it properly handled network-adapter recognition during installation. Its support is comparable to other Linux distributions, including its user and group management.

TurboLinux has put a good face on its workstation version. Administrators may want to investigate its server offerings instead of using the workstation version on a server, though. The $199 Server edition includes a commercial version of BRU, the noted Linux backup program. TurboLinux has some of the best tech support around. Its bundled 60-day telephone tech support is matched only by SuSE. TurboLinux is a perfect example of a product whose quality is more than skin-deep, which is one reason why we rate it so highly.

Overall Rating Caldera OpenLinux 2.3 Corel Linux Debian GNU/Linux Linux Mandrake 6.1 Red Hat Linux 6.1 Slackware 7.0 SuSE Linux 6.3 TurboLinux Workstation 4.0
Price $49 $50 $20 $55 $29 $39 $49 $49
CDs 2 1 1 1 3 4 6 3
Server Version yes yes yes yes yes no no yes
Kernel 2.2.10 2.2.10 2.2.12 2.2.10 2.2.12 2.2.12 2.2.13 2.2.12
System Setup Style Graphical Graphical Text Text Graphical Text Text Text
System Setup Lizard Corel Linux Installer Debian Installer linuxconf linuxconf setup YAST2 Turbocfg
Package Manager & Configuration Tools COAS, kpackage Get-it, Corel Package Installer Apt-get GnoRPM, RPM GnoRPM, RPM pkgtool GnoRPM, RPM, SaX TurboPkg
Remote Update Tool none none Apt-get Mandrake Update Update Agent none RPM TurboPkg
Network Support Samba, Netware, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS Samba, NFS
Desktops (preferred) KDE KDE KDE, GNOME, AfterStep, FVWM KDE, GNOME, AfterStep, FVWM, XFCE, IceWM, Window Maker KDE, GNOME KDE, GNOME KDE, GNOME TurboDesk, KDE, GNOME
Office Suites KOffice, StarOffice 5.1, WordPerfect 8, Applixware 4.4.2 WordPerfect 8 KOffice, StarOffice, Applixware KOffice, StarOffice 5.1, WordPerfect 8, Applixware 4.4.2 StarOffice 5.1a, KOffice KOffice KOffice, StarOffice 5.1a, WordPerfect 8, Applixware 4.4.2 WordPerfect 8, Wingz

Web Server

Apache Apache Apache Apache Apache Apache Apache Apache
Database Server IBM DB2 None Postgress SQL MySQL MySQL none MySQL, Sybase, Informix IBM DB2
Mail Server sendmail none sendmail sendmail smail, sendmail, qmail sendmail smail, sendmail, qmail sendmail
Documentation Users Guide, Installation Manual, Office Suite Manual User’s Manual Quick Start, Learning Debian, GNU/Linux Quick Install Guide, User’s Manual Getting Started, Installation Guide, Reference Manual User’s Manual User’s Manual User’s Guide
Tech Support 90-day email, Web-based 90-day Web-based Web-based 100-day Web-based 90 day Web-based Web-based 60 day phone, e-mail, Web-based 60 day phone, e-mail, Web-based


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linuxdlsazine /
February 2000 / FEATURES
Distribution Roundup

Package Formats and Installers

Linux does Windows one better when it comes to application distribution, thanks to its different package formats. A Linux package contains the files and documentation you’ll need, and describes its contents, where it will be installed, as well as any dependencies. This makes the whole business of managing what files and libraries to install to make your application run a lot easier — even if it is a little more complex than your typical Windows installer.

There are two popular package file formats: RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) and DEB (Debian Package). Package files can also be compressed using .gz or .tgz formats, with the latter being used by Slackware.

Applications are typically provided in one or more package formats, and many have source code either in the main or a separate package. Package file names normally incorporate version numbers as part of the name, but the first part of the filename is the program name.

Slackware’s text-based package manager is pkgtool, while Debian and Debian-based Linux distributions utilize dselect and dpkg, which are also text-based. The dselect program is a front end that utilizes dpkg to perform the actual package manipulation. The KDE-based kpackage also handles Debian distributions.

The RPM packages have wide support and work with a variety of package managers. The command-line RPM package manager is aptly named rpm. It is a boon to Linux administrators since it allows package manipulation to be easily incorporated into scripts. Increasingly the average Linux user does not have to contend with RPM files directly. GNOME users have access to GnomeRPM, KDE users can utilize kpackage, TurboLinux provides support via turbopkg, and SuSE supports RPM files through YaST.

And Now For Something Completely Different

The Linux development community is nothing if not prolific. At least one new distribution pops up every week, it seems, each one attempting to fill a different niche (whether perceived or real) in the Linux ecosystem. So, it’s worth taking a whirlwind tour of some of the lesser-known Intel x86 distributions, and, in particular, the ones that use loopback and UMSDOS technology and aim to make Linux installation as easy as unpacking an archive file.

The Minor Leagues

Stampede Linux attempts to optimize the performance of Linux on Pentium systems. It is created with a version of the standard gcc compiler called PGCC that includes more extensive optimizations for the Pentium chip. http://www.stampede.org/

Deluxe Linux Operating System 6.5 and Complete Linux Operating System 6.5 are products of the book publisher Macmillan, and they’re meta-meta-distributions — they’re based on Mandrake-Linux, which is in turn built atop Red Hat. http://www.macmillansoftware.com

easyLinux is yet another distribution focused on making Linux easier to install. Like the latest offerings from Caldera, Corel, and Red Hat, easyLinux uses an all-graphical installation process. http://www.eit.de/c/index.html

With their Storm Administration System (SAS), the Debian-based Storm Linux distribution aims to make life a little easier for system administrators, who can use it to administer a network remotely. Like Corel, Storm Linux boasts an easier install than Debian. http://www.stormlinux.com

A League of Their Own

Loopback and UMSDOS distributions use different techniques to accomplish the same goal: make Linux peacefully coexist on the same computer with DOS and/or Windows without forcing the user to repartition a hard disk. Loopback distributions let you place an entire Linux distribution into less than a dozen DOS/ Windows files in a directory and boot Linux whenever the system is in DOS mode. UMSDOS provides a way for Linux to directly use DOS/Windows file space.

Unlike loopback devices, UMSDOS is a separate filesystem that lets you run your Linux system from within a directory on a DOS/ Windows system and store your Linux files as individual entities in the hosting DOS/Windows filesystem.

Distros to check out in this space include:

* PhatLinux http://www.phatlinux.com/

* ZipSlack http://www.slackware.com/zipslack/

* WinLinux 2000 http://www.winlinux2000.com/

* Armed Linux 1.2 http://www.armed.net

* LinuxOne Lite http://www.linuxone.net

William Wong, a former director of PC Labs, can be reached at [email protected].

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