Ubuntu upgrades: do a clean installation or use Update Manager?

Part of some recent “fooling” brought on by the investigation of what turned out to be a duff DVD writer was a fresh installation of Ubuntu 8.10 on my main home PC. It might have brought on a certain amount of upheaval but it was nowhere near as severe as that following the same sort of thing with a Windows system. A few hours was all that was needed but the question as to whether it is better to do an upgrade every time a new Ubuntu release is unleashed on the world or to go for a complete virgin installation instead. With Ubuntu 9.04 in the offing, that question takes on a more immediate significance than it otherwise might do.

Various tricks make the whole reinstallation idea more palatable. For instance, many years of Windows usage have taught me the benefits of separating system and user files. The result is that my home directory lives on a different disk to my operating system files. Add to that the experience of being able to reuse that home drive across different Linux distros and even swapping from one distro to another becomes feasible. From various changes to my secondary machine, I can vouch that this works for Ubuntu, Fedora and Debian; the latter is what currently powers the said PC. You might have to user superuser powers to attend to ownership and access issues but the portability is certainly there and it applies anything kept on other disks too.

Naturally, there’s always the possibility of losing programs that you have had installed but losing the clutter can be liberating too. However, assembling a script made up up of one of more apt-get install commands can allow you to get many things back at a stroke. For example, I have a test web server (Apache/MySQL/PHP/Perl) set up so this would be how I’d get everything back in place before beginning further configuration. It might be no bad idea to back up your collection of software sources either; I have yet to add all of the ones that I have been using back into Synaptic. Then there are closed source packages such as VirtualBox (yes, I know that there is an open source edition) and Adobe Reader. After reinstating the former, all my virtual machines were available for me to use again without further ado. Restoring the latter allowed me to grab version 9.1 (probably more secure anyway) and it inveigles itself into Firefox now too so the number of times that I need to go through the download shuffle before seeing the contents of a PDF are much reduced, though not completely eliminated by the Windows-like ability to see a PDF loaded in a browser tab. Moving from software to hardware for a moment, it looks like any bespoke actions such as my activating an Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner need to be repeated but that was all that I needed to do. Getting things back into order is not so bad but you need to allow a modicum of time for this.

What I have discussed so far are what might be categorised as the common or garden aspects of a clean installation but I have seen some behaviours that make me wonder if the usual Ubuntu upgrade path is sufficiently complete in its refresh of your system. The counterpoint to all of this is that I may not have been looking for some of these things before now. That may apply to my noticing that DSLR support seems to be better with my Canon and Pentax cameras both being picked up and mounted for me as soon as they are connected to a PC, the caveat being that they are themselves powered on for this to happen. Another surprise that may be new is that the BBC iPlayer’s Listen Again works without further work from the user, a very useful development. It very clearly wasn’t that way before I carried out the invasive means. My previous tweaking might have prevented the in situ upgrade from doing its thing but I do see the point of not upsetting people’s systems with an overly aggressive update process, even if it means that some advances do not make themselves known.

So what’s my answer regarding which way to go once Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope appears? For sake of avoiding initial disruption, I’d be inclined to go down the Update Manager route first while reserving the right to do a fresh installation later on. All in all, I am left with the gut feeling is that the jury is still out on this one.

Whither Fedora?

There is a reason why things have got a little quieter on this blog: my main inspiration for many posts that make their way on here, Ubuntu, is just working away without much complaint. I have to say that BBC iPlayer isn’t working so well for me at the moment so I need to take a look at my setup. Otherwise, everything is continuing quietly. In some respects, that’s no bad thing and allows me to spend my time doing other things like engaging in hill walking, photography and other such things. I suppose that the calm is also a reflection of the fact that Ubuntu has matured but there is a sense that some changes may be on the horizon. For one thing, there are the opinions of a certain Mark Shuttleworth but the competition is progressing too.

That latter point brings me to Linux Format’s recently published verdict that Fedora has overtaken Ubuntu. I do have a machine with Fedora on there and it performs what I ask of it without any trouble. However, I have never been on it trying all of the sorts of things that I ask of Ubuntu so my impressions are not in-depth ones. Going deeper into the subject mightn’t be such a bad use of a few hours. What I am not planning to do is convert my main Ubuntu machine to Fedora. I moved from Windows because of constant upheavals and I have no intention to bring those upon me without good reason and that’s just not there at the moment.

Speaking of upheavals, one thought that is entering my mind is that of upgrading that main machine. Its last rebuild was over three years ago and computer technology has moved on a bit since then with dual and quad core CPU‘s from Intel and AMD coming into the fray. Of course, the cost of all of this needs to be considered too and that is never more true than of these troubled economic times. If you asked me about the prospect of a system upgrade a few weeks ago, I would have ruled it out of hand. What has got me wondering is my continued used of virtualisation and the resources that it needs. I am getting mad notions like the idea of running more than one VM at once and I do need to admit that it has its uses, even if it puts CPU’s and memory through their paces. Another attractive idea would be getting a new and bigger screen, particularly with what you can get for around £100 these days. However, my 17″ Iiyama is doing very well so this is one for the wish list more than anything else. None of the changes that I have described are imminent but I have noticed how fast I am filling disks up with digital images so an expansion of hard disk capacity has come much higher up the to do list.

If I ever get to doing a full system rebuild with a new CPU, memory and motherboard (I am not so sure about graphics since I am no gamer),  the idea of moving into the world of 64-bit computing comes about. The maximum amount of memory usable by 32-bit software is 4 GB so 64-bit is a must if I decide to go beyond this limit. That all sounds very fine but for the possibility of problems arising with support for legacy hardware. It sounds like another bridge to be assessed before its crossing, even if two upheavals can be made into one.

Aside from system breakages, the sort of hardware and software changes over which I have been musing here are optional and can be done in my own time. That’s probably just as for a very good reason that I have mentioned earlier. Being careful with money becomes more important at times like these and it’s good that free software not only offers freedom of choice and usage but also a way to leave the closed commercial software acquisition treadmill with all of its cost implications, leaving money for much more important things.

A first look at Ubuntu 8.10

I must admit that my curiosity got the better of me when screenshots of Ubuntu’s 8.10, otherwise known as Intrepid Ibex, started to make their appearance. It is only at alpha2 stage so it’s definitely a no-no for production systems. However, it does run surprisingly smoothly even at this stage. Yes, I have seen rough edges and the biggest of them all has made me install it onto my spare PC; there is certainly tendency for systems to hang when you try running 8.10 in virtual machines, my preferred method for these kinds of explorations. Try it in VirtualBox and kernel panic messages ensue while you can log in on VMware Workstation only for the desktop never to load. Those could be major deficiencies for some but they have both been reported with the former being seen by many and the latter being flagged by my own self.

Because I was using a version with the alternate installer, the usual slickness that we expect of Ubuntu installations wasn’t apparent. I am sure that will change in time for the final release but I didn’t find it too taxing to get things going with this means. Nevertheless, I reckon that we will see the usual feel return in later development versions and very much in time for the final release. Because I was installing over the top of a previous Ubuntu installation, I didn’t want to lose everything but I needed to leave it wipe out the previous root system partition for it to continue without freezing. Because my home area is on a separate partition, there was no problem and it picked up settings like desktop backgrounds without a fuss. One thing that might annoy some is that all this takes manual intervention; you don’t get the sort of non-destructive and seamless upgrade capability that openSUSE 11 gives.

What you get when the installation is completed is a Linux desktop that won’t look too different from what we are used to using. Of course, we get the New Human theme with its tasteful chocolate tones in place of the previous default orangey browns. They need to sort out a bug (another of my reports)  where black text is being displayed on dark backgrounds on the default display of drop down menus in Firefox and maybe look into why changing the level of enhancements from Compiz Fusion messes up the display of the workspace switcher in the task bar but it’s fine apart from this.

Otherwise, it’s a case of steady as she goes with OpenOffice 2.4, Firefox 3 and so on. That may change as time goes on OpenOffice 3 looming in the horizon. For some, all this continuity is all well and good but I could foresee comments front some parts that nothing dramatic is happening and that Ubuntu cannot afford to stand still with the advances of Fedora, openSUSE, Mandriva and so on. Saying that, I personally like the continuity because it doesn’t mean that my apple cart is going to get overthrown now and again. Indeed, you could say that the whole Linux distribution market has matured very nicely with evolution being the order of the day and I suppose that Ubuntu needs to be seen to be evolving more than perhaps it has been doing.

In summary, it’s early days for Intrepid Ibex but it works well even at this stage. In fact, it is running sufficiently so that I am writing this very post in a Firefox session running on the thing.  It’ll be interesting to see how it goes from here and if any more pleasant surprises are visited upon us. After the “safety first” approach of Hardy Heron, I suppose that Canonical can feel a little more adventurous so we’ll see what comes. In the meantime, Here are a few screenshots below for your perusal:

VirtualBox OSE and 64 bit Guest Operating Systems

I have gone and downloaded the next to four gigabytes of the 64 bit variant of Fedora 9 using Bittorrent and so thought that it might be a good idea to set the thing up in a VirtualBox virtual machine. However, that stratagem got scuppered by VirtualBox’s not supporting 64 bit operating systems. I do have VMware Workstation and, since that supports what I was doing, I resolved to set up Fedora there. After my plan’s getting shelved, my trying out VirtualBox is a matter that remains outstanding…

A perspective on Linux

I have revisited an old website that I used to have online in and around 2000 that has since been retired for while. One thing that it had in common with this blog was its focus in computer technology. I don’t remember blogging being bandied about as a term back then but a weblog would have fulfilled the site’s much better. One of the sections of this old world website was dedicated to Linux and UNIX; this was where I collected and shared experienced my experiences of these. These days, unless it is held in some cache somewhere (rather unlikely, I think), the only place that it is found is what I bundled together in a tar.gz file for transfer to Linux. Irony strikes…

Back then, my choice of Linux was SuSE 6.2, followed by 6.4 from PC Plus DVD. It was the first, and only, Linux distro that I bought after exploring a variety of distros from cover-mounted CD’s in books and magazines. While I did like it, it wasn’t enough to tempt me away from Windows. I had issues with hardware and they got in the way of a move. Apart from what some might judge to be clunkiness, there were less impediments on the software side.

I am a DIY system builder and there were issues with Linux support of my hardware, particularly my modem. Rather than being in possession of all the electronic wherewithal that a full modem would need, it got the operating system to do some of the work. The trouble was that this locked you into using Windows, hence its Winmodem moniker. Besides this, my Zip drive was vital to me and SuSE didn’t support it out of the box: a kernel recompilation was in order and could involve losing any extensions that SuSE had actually added. Another foible was non-support of a now obsolete UDMA 66 expansion card.

But improvements in hardware support were coming on the scene. Support for printing with CUPS, scanning with SANE and audio with ALSA was coming along nicely and has matured nicely. Apart from cases where vendors refuse to help the Open Source community and bleeding edge hardware that needs drivers to recoded according to the demands of GPL, things have come a long, long way.

Software-wise, the only thing holding me from migrating to Linux was my use of Microcal (now OriginLab) Origin, a scientific data visualisation and analysis package that was invaluable for my work. Even then, that could be run using WINE, the Windows API library for Linux. OpenOffice could easily have replaced MS Office for my purposes unless formula editing was a feature outstanding from the specification. GIMP, once I had ascended the learning curve, would have coped with my graphics processing needs. After committing myself to non-visual web development, Bluefish and Quanta+ would have fulfilled my web development needs. Web technologies such as Perl, PHP, Apache and SQL have always been very much at home in Linux so no issue there. At that stage, experimenting with these was very much in my future. Surprisingly, web browsing wasn’t that strong in Linux then. Mozilla was still in alpha/beta development phase and needed a lot of rough ends sorting and the dreadful Netscape 4 was in full swing with offerings like nautilus coming on stream. Typography support was another area of development at the time and this fed through into how browsers rendered web pages. Downloading and compiling xfstt did resolve the situation.

SuSE 6.4 desktop (317 kB)

These days, I have virtual machines set up for Ubuntu, Fedora Core and Mandriva while openSUSE is another option. I spent Saturday night poking around in Fedora (I know, I should have better things to be doing…) and it feels very slick, a world away from where Red Hat was a decade ago. The same applies to Ubuntu which is leagues ahead of Debian, on which it is based. With both of these, you get applications for updating the packages in the distribution; not something that you might have seen a few years ago. Support for audio and printing comes straight out of the box. I assume scanner and digital camera support are the same; they need to be.Fedora includes the virtual machine engine that is Xen. I am intrigued by this but running a VM within a VM does seem peculiar. Nevertheless, if that comes off, it might be that Fedora goes onto my spare PC with Windows loaded onto one or more virtual machines. It’s an intriguing idea and having Fedora installed on a real PC might even allow me to see workspaces changed onscreen as if they were the sides of a cube, very nice. Mandriva also offers the same visual treat but is not a distro that I have been in a lot. The desktop environment may be KDE rather than Gnome as it is in the others but all the same features are on board. The irony though is that, after starting out my Linux voyage on KDE, I am now more familiar with Gnome these days and, aesthetically speaking, it does look that little better to my eye.

So would I move to Linux these days? Well, it is supported by a more persuasive case than ever it has been and I would have to say that it is only logistics and the avoidance of upheaval that is stopping me now. If I was to move to Linux, then it would be by reversing the current situation: going from Linux running in a VM on Windows to Windows running in a VM on Linux. Having Windows around would be good for my personal education and ease the upheaval caused by the migration. Then, it would be a matter of watching what hardware gets installed.

Fedora Core desktop (972 kB)