Curse of the semi power user

I am beginning to feel this curse with the choice of distributions available today. Let me start with a little background information. I have been a regular Linux user on desktops and servers since about 2006. In that time I have mostly worked with Debian, Ubuntu, and CentOS. I have had the pleasure of building a desktop from the ground up using a Debian net install CD. I have setup other users with Ubuntu and Fedora on desktops and netbooks. I have installed new servers and re-purposed retired ones. In short, I can be considered a semi power user, still not among the experts but a bit better than an average user. And this is where the curse strikes most often.

From my experience, a regular user is quite happy using Ubuntu on their computer. I was one such user in 2006. Ubuntu has gotten better with every release, supporting more hardware and scenarios. In fact, there’s no question in my mind that Ubuntu is a really good distributions for new and casual users. Such users do not have the ability or inclination to dive deep into their OS. So any defaults chosen by the Ubuntu team work very well for them.

I, on the other hand, have gotten so used to the CLI, troubleshooting, customization, etc., that I am not able to function without tinkering with my setup. I have to take charge of the install, from the desktop environment to the iptables firewall. I am no longer happy to use my computer to do some work; managing my computer is my work. I like to customize the look and feel, change default applications for various tasks, and basically make the OS into something I really want to use.

This has been my curse for a few years now. I no longer have the ability to simply enjoy the efforts of various teams all over the world in making a usable Linux desktop. I have tried to use Mageia as my desktop a few times but always find it confusing to stick with. Should I use Mageia Control Center (a really good piece of software for desktop users) to do everything or should I learn/use equivalent CLI commands? Should I let Shorewall handle firewall configuration duties or should I muck with iptables directly? I am ruined by my earlier experiences and quest for knowledge.

This is my situation today: I want a desktop that just works without much intervention. I want to complete my work rather than play around with customizations and such. But by force of habit I always want to go beyond simple desktop use. This problem is compounded by the fact that I still work with Linux servers almost every day where I get to make things the way I want them to be.

What is the solution to this problem? Do I give up trying to use Mageia, Pinguy OS, Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS, etc.? Or do I curb my enthusiasm and force myself to just use the OS as it was intended/designed to be used? I have tried to find a middle ground but can’t stick to it. I always end up with Debian or Fedora or even Ubuntu just because they let me get my hands dirty. In the long run, though, I really need to get comfortable with simply using the desktop. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to do it without much effort.

Linux Install Marathon Followup

Recently I have been trying out various distributions in parallel, following up on the plan presented in “Linux Install Marathon”. However, as is obvious, I did not follow the plan perfectly. Reviewing my stance it appeared that there’s another dimension to the question of which distribution someone should use. Here I will make a sweeping generalization and classify users into two main groups: (1) those who want to learn more about their Linux; and (2) those who want to manage their Linux as means to a goal of running one or more applications. There’s evident difference between these two classes of users. I would include hobbyists in group (1), home and work users in both groups (1) and (2), and individuals and enterprises needing server ecosystems in group (2). I consider myself a part of both groups equally but recently, due to time and other constraints, I have been 75% in group (2) and 25% in group (1). This is the reason why I am trying out different distributions in parallel instead of trying them out one at a time for a certain period of time.

If you need to run certain applications on “Linux”, then you should approach distributions asking this question: how do you, compared to another distribution, make it easier for me to run this application? Now there are two general types of applications: (a) need to be updated in a short span; and (b) need to be updated over a longer period of time. If your application is in group (a) then a distribution that provides regular, short-term updates/upgrades might be more suitable. And if your application is in group (b) then a distribution with a longer life-cycle might be more appropriate.

Usually you would not be running a single application. There’s a whole ecosystem that you need to run any given application. For this reason, you need to prepare a list of all needed applications and compare each distribution against this list. No distribution will be 100% compatible with your list so this is where you need to change tactics again. If two or more distributions in the same family can cover all (or most) of your applications, then this is the best scenario. However, sometimes distributions from different families will cover your needs better. This is when you have to make a decision on whether you want to compromise on your chosen applications or you want to dive in to diverse distribution families.

The first step in determining if a distribution will make it easier for you to run an application is to check whether the application is provided as a package. This package could exist in an official, semi-official, or non-official repository. If it doesn’t exist in an easily installable package, first look at another distribution. If you really want to use the current distribution, and do not want to explore another, then check if the distribution makes it easy to compile and install the application.

Let’s take the example of bug tracking applications Roundup Tracker, Bugzilla, and Request Tracker. By using aptitude, urpmi, yum, and zypper, I looked in various distributions (Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, Mageia, PCLinuxOS, and openSUSE) if packages were provided for them. The results were thus: Roundup Tracker (Fedora 16, Debian testing, Debian stable, Ubuntu 11.04), Bugzilla (Fedora 16, Debian stable, Mageia 1, Ubuntu 11.04), and Request Tracker (Fedora 16, Debian testing, Ubuntu 11.04). Within the same class of applications, some of the handful of distributions I tested provided packages.

But just one class is not enough for me to make a decision. Let’s take a look at another class: web servers. I tried nginx and Apache 2 and results were thus: nginx (Fedora 16, Debian testing, Mageia 1, openSUSE 11.4, PCLinuxOS 2011.07 KDE mini, Ubuntu 11.04) and Apache 2 (Fedora 16, Debian testing, Mageia 1, openSUSE 11.4, PCLinuxOS 2011.07 KDE mini, Ubuntu 11.04). In this class of applications, all distributions I tested provided packages.

This is where you get a better idea of which distribution to keep in your prospective list and which one to dump. Continue doing this for all classes of applications and all applications in these classes that matter to you. You will come to a conclusion on which distribution is best suited for the kind of work you want to do.

Linux Install Marathon

I was reading Virtualbox Additions and the post left me with an idea: why not force myself to try different distributions?

Now, I have tried various distributions previously, some for a short period and others much longer. The list includes, in no particular order, Debian, Ubuntu, CentOS, Fedora, and Linux Mint. I have used these as both desktops and servers, and am fairly comfortable using them. If you look at this list from the perspective of polishing up your resume, CentOS, Ubuntu, and Debian are very good choices. A prospective employer usually requires some experience with these (and some other) major distributions if they are looking for Linux experience. So if your first goal is to use your Linux experience for employment enhancement, then you should definitely try these out.

However, the world of Linux does not encompass or end with these distributions alone. There are many, many others. Most of them, I believe, belong to a “family” of distributions. From the post I mentioned at the beginning, one gets a sense of these major families of distributions (again, in no particular order): Debian, Red Hat, Gentoo, Arch, Slackware, Mandriva, and SUSE. These families consist of numerous distributions, each sharing the same heritage if not parents and grandparents.

Looking at the list of distributions I mentioned earlier, I have been mostly limited to Debian and Red Hat families. With so many other families available, it’s time for me to branch out. Looking at the characteristics of various distributions, I am not ready for something intensive right now. All I want is for something to work well out of the box. As I gain experience with more distributions, I would feel more comfortable with something as involved as, say Arch.

So what’s the plan of action? First off, pick a family for a whole year and stick with it. This is why this post has the word “marathon” and not “sprint” in it. It takes a full year of hard work, frustration, realization, and exuberance before one can truly say if the time spent with the distribution family was really worth it or not. So your (and my) first step should be to pick a family that has some good out-of-the-box distributions and try those out first. These are usually more downstream from the head-of-the-family distribution. For example, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu while Ubuntu is based on Debian. Linux Mint is friendlier than Ubuntu and Debian. So pick Linux Mint and use it. As you gain experience and confidence, go to Ubuntu, and then to Debian. Once you are familiar with the style of the family, you proceed up the chain toward more trying challenges.

Sometimes a year may not be enough, sometimes it may be a long time. So adjust your schedule accordingly. But try to stick it out. I would recommend installing in a virtual machine first and using it for a while. You may want to install numerous times with different configurations. When you feel that you can handle the distribution, go ahead and install it on your physical machine.

Almost all distributions allow you to run them as servers and desktops. A distribution may be focused more on the server or on the desktop but it usually would not prevent you from using it both ways. Keeping this in mind, you might want to run the same distribution in these two ways. This will help you evaluate better the pros and cons of each distribution.

Now, there are a lot of distributions in these numerous families. I recommend picking the most popular distributions in each family and sticking with them. The reason is that there is likely to be more support available if the distribution is popular.

Given these categories to consider, how do I plan on moving ahead? For this year, I pick the Mandriva family. I will start with Mageia. Later I have my eyes on PCLinuxOS and Mandriva itself. Next year I will very likely try the SUSE family. In short, the time has come for me to explore the depth and breadth of Linux distribution offerings. I will share my experiences as I make progress.

Do not install Linux alongside Windows

Yes, don’t do it IF you are doing it for the first time (or are still inexperienced) AND you really, really can’t risk losing your Windows partition. Yes, there are multiple ways to recover if your Windows is messed up during the process but if you can avoid it, why not? The best thing in this situation is to install Linux on a separate drive (hard drive, flash drive, etc.) and keep your Windows partition untouched.

If you really want to try dual-boot or even multi-boot, then backup your data. After backing up, verify your backup. Make sure you have access to installation media for Windows (including license key) and applications you already have installed. Be prepared for the worst.

This advice is for the inexperienced amongst us. If you are willing to risk and learn from unintended consequences, then by all means go ahead. But if you are not willing, then better safe than sorry. Having said that, I have not had a problem installing Ubuntu along side Windows and Mac OS X in the last two years on many different types of hardware. This shows that multiple-boot can be done without problems most of the time. If I can do it, anyone else can surely do it. But when I do it, I always prepare myself to handle bad situations. You should, too.

Convert pst to mbox

I was helping a friend migrate from Windows to Linux. I tried to install Outlook 2003 in Wine. It installed without problems, was able to read his original pst file, but when trying to create an email account so he could begin sending and receiving his emails, the screen was blank. The next issue was bringing in all his emails from Outlook 2003 to Thunderbird 3 so that he could use it. This is where readpst comes in handy. You can use it to convert pst to mbox which you can then copy/paste into your Thunderbird profile.

Install in Debian: sudo aptitude install readpst
Install in Fedora: sudo yum install libpst

Then you run the following command to convert your pst into mbox:

readpst -r Outlook.pst

Installing Linux on Dell Inspiron Mini 1012

I got a Dell Inspiron Mini 1012 recently just to use as a machine to distro-hop. I tried Live CDs of many distributions and following are my observations. Since there’s no CD or DVD drive in the Mini 1012, I used Windows, UNetbootin, and a Patriot Razzo USB thumb drive to create my installation media.

PCLinuxOS 2010

I downloaded the GNOME and KDE versions. All buttons worked in the KDE version, including brightness and audio keys. Wireless was detected automatically and I was able to connect to my home wireless network without problems. The only problem was that audio was too low, even after maximizing the audio level. Thinking it might be an issue with KDE, I ran the GNOME version.

In GNOME all keys worked except the audio keys. Audio itself was very good, unlike in KDE. But no matter what I tried I could not get the audio keys to work. Again, wireless worked out of the box and I was even able to watch videos in You Tube without having to install Flash. But because of the problems with either too low audio or the audio keys not working, I decided to skip PCLinuxOS.

gNewSense

I was aware that gNewSense provides free software only and would not work with hardware devices requiring proprietary drivers. I still gave it a shot. As I had expected, wireless did not work and I found no option to actually get it to work. Kudos to the project for sticking to their principles but I do need to use wireless. All keys, such as brightness and audio worked out of the box. I had to skip it because of the wireless issue.

Linux Mint

I downloaded Linux Mint 9, based on Ubuntu. All keys worked but wireless would not work. Since I have read in many places that Mint is supposed to be a friendlier version of Ubuntu I was a little disappointed. So I just left it at that.

Peppermint Linux

This is, I believe, based on Linux Mint. It had the same issue with wireless card not working. I skipped it for the same reason.

openSUSE

I downloaded the 11.2 version but when booting I got an error message saying Could not find kernel image: gfxboot. A little searching showed (Could not find kernel image: gfxboot) that the issue is with using UNetbootin to create the installer on a USB drive. I didn’t feel inclined to follow the official method and so skipped it.

Mandriva

I tried to get Mandriva to boot but it would get stuck on a splash screen of some sort. I searched around a bit but did not find a solid way to solve the problem. The result: skip it.

Ubuntu

Since Dell has been working with Ubuntu I expected it to work flawlessly. So instead of playing around with the Live CD I just went in there and started installing Ubuntu 10.04. The first thing that impressed me was during disk partitioning it recognized the original Windows installation and prepared a plan to keep it while installing Ubuntu. Once I booted for the first time I was shown a message saying there was a proprietary driver available for my wireless card. I installed it and everything worked from. All keys were working as expected. I kept it around for a few days and then decided to move on.

Fedora

Soon after I installed Ubuntu Fedora 13 was released. I booted its Live CD and found the same repeated problem: wireless card would not work. I searched around and found a solution: install RPM Fusion repo and then follow the instructions of How To: Wireless LAN with Broadcom BCM4312 in Fedora 11. This basically involved running the following command and then re-booting the machine: sudo yum install broadcom-wl wl-kmod.

During installation Fedora also found the Windows and Ubuntu partitions and allowed me to install over Ubuntu while keeping Windows intact.

I installed Flash using the instructions at Fedora 11 Flash. And from there You Tube videos started working. All keys worked out of the box; there were no issues with audio either.

Conclusion

As of this writing I am happily running Fedora 13 on my Dell Mini 1012. Although I tried a lot of distributions, I didn’t spend as much time trying to get them to work on this machine as I did with Ubuntu and Fedora. For this reason I would give all of them a try sometime in the future. Ubuntu has a netbook remix which I tried as well, I prefer the simple GNOME with just one bar at the top to better utilize my netbook’s screen space. If you have the same or similar netbook please share your experience with distro-hopping on it (if any) and which distro you are happily running these days.

lspci Output

I ran lspci and following is the output.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation N10 Family DMI Bridge
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation N10 Family Integrated Graphics Controller
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation N10 Family Integrated Graphics Controller
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family High Definition Audio Controller (rev 02)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family PCI Express Port 1 (rev 02)
00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family PCI Express Port 2 (rev 02)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH7 Family USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 02)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 02)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 02)
00:1d.3 USB Controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family USB UHCI Controller #4 (rev 02)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 02)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev e2)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation NM10 Family LPC Controller (rev 02)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation N10/ICH7 Family SATA AHCI Controller (rev 02)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation N10/ICH 7 Family SMBus Controller (rev 02)
05:00.0 Ethernet controller: Realtek Semiconductor Co., Ltd. RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast Ethernet controller (rev 02)
07:00.0 Network controller: Broadcom Corporation BCM4312 802.11b/g LP-PHY (rev 01)

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