Looking at a few Operating Systems

The last few weeks have seen me poking around with a few different operating systems to see how they perform. None of these were particularly in-depth in their nature but brushes with alternatives to what I currently use for much of the time. While I am too sure what exactly has kicked off all of this curiosity, all of the OS’s that I have examined have been of the UNIX/Linux variety. With the inclusion of Unity in the forthcoming Ubuntu “Natty Narwhal” 11.04, I am mindful of the need to be keeping an eye on alternative options should there ever be a need to jump ship. However, a recent brush with an alpha version has reassured me a little. Then there are interesting OS releases too and I recently forgot the Ubuntu password (a silly thing to do, I know) for my Toshiba laptop too so I suppose that a few things are coming together.

It was that latter development that got me looking in amazement at the impressive minimalism of CrunchBang Linux before settling on Lubuntu to see how it did; these were Live CD runs so I tried before I committed to installing. It helped that the latter was based on Ubuntu as its name suggests so I wasted little name in finding my way around the LXDE desktop. By default, everything supplied with the distro is lightweight with Chromium coming in place of Firefox. There’s no sign of OpenOffice.org either with offerings like Abiword coming in its stead. For the sake of familiarity, I started to add the weight of things without reducing the speed of things, it seems. Well, the speedy start-up wasn’t afflicted anyway. Being an Ubuntu clone meant that it didn’t long to add on Firefox using the apt-get command. LibreOffice was downloaded for installation using the dpkg command and it seems much more fleet-footed than its OpenOffice.org counterpart. As if these nefarious actions weren’t enough, I started to poke in the settings to up the number of virtual desktops too. All in all, it never stopped me going against what be termed the intent of the thing. In spite of what Linux User & Developer has had to say, I think the presentation of the LXDE desktop isn’t unpleasant either. In fact, I reckon that I quite like it and the next thing to do is to restore the entry for Windows 7 on the GRUB menu. Well, there’s always somthing that needs doing…

While I may have learned about it after the event, the release of Debian “Squeeze” 6.0 was of interest to me too. Well, I have used it a fair bit in the last few years and retain a soft spot for it. The new release comes on two kernels: GNU/Linux and FreeBSD. Regarding the latter, I did try having a look but it locked up my main home PC when I tried booting it up in a VirtualBox virtual machine. Given that it’s a technical preview anyway, I think it better to leave it mature for a while no matter how fascinating the prospect may be. Or is it VirtualBox 4.x that hasn’t around long enough? Debian’s latest Linux incarnations showed no such inclinations though I found that the CD ISO image that I’d downloaded didn’t give such a complete system when I fired it up after doing the installation. Being someone that knows his way around Linux anyway, it was no problem to add the missing pieces using apt-get though that’d stop it being an option for new users unless the DVD installation yields more complete results. Other than that, it worked well and I lost no time getting to grips with the OS and it’s gained a much fresher feel than version 5.x (“Lenny”). In summary, I look forward to continuing my investigations of the new Debian.

To round up my explorations of different UNIX/Linux operating systems, I have updated my test installations of Ubuntu 11.04. Initial looks at the next Ubuntu release weren’t so encouraging but things are coming along by all accounts. For one thing, Unity can be switched off in favour of the more familiar GNOME desktop that we’ve had for the last few years. The messages that popped up telling you that there’s no 3D graphics support on your machine have been replaced by graceful degradation to the GNOME and that’s no bad thing either. In case it hasn’t been so obvious, I am one of those who needs convincing by the likes of Unity and GNOME Shell so I’ll sit on the fence for a while. After all, there always are alternatives like LXDE if I want to decamp to something else entirely. One of the nice things about Linux is the amount of that we all have; it might be tricky to choose sometimes but it always is good to be able to find a niche somewhere else when someone makes a decision that doesn’t suit you.

You always can install things yourself…

With Linux distributions offering you everything on a plate, there is a temptation to stick with what they offer rather than taking things into your own hands. For example, Debian’s infrequent stable releases and the fact that they don’t seem to change software versions throughout the lifetime of such a release means that things such as browser versions are fixed for the purposes of stability; Lenny has stuck with Firefox 3.06 and called it Iceweasel for some unknown reason. However, I soon got to grabbing a tarball for 3.5 and popped its contents into /opt where the self-contained package worked without a hitch. The same modus operandii was used to get in Eclipse PDT and that applied to Ubuntu too until buttons stopped working, forcing a jumping of ship to Netbeans. Of course, you could make a mess when veering away from what is in a distribution but that should be good enough reason not to get carried away with software additions. With the availability of DEB packages for things like Adobe Reader, RealPlayer, VirtualBox, Google Chrome and Opera, keeping things clean isn’t so hard. Your mileage may vary when it comes to how well things work out for you but I have only ever had the occasional problem anyway.

What reminded me of this was a recent irritation with the OpenOffice package included in Ubuntu 9.10 whereby spell checking wasn’t working. While there were thoughts about is situ fixes like additional dictionary installations, I ended up plumping for what could be called the lazy option: grabbing a tarball full of DEB packages from the OpenOffice website and extracting its contents into /tmp and, once the URE package was in place, installing from there using the command:

dpkg -i o*

To get application shortcuts added to the main menu, it was a matter of diving into the appropriate subfolder and installing from the GNOME desktop extension package. Of course, Ubuntu’s OpenOffice variant was removed as part of all this but, if you wanted to live a little more dangerously, the external installation goes into /opt so there shouldn’t be too much of a conflict anyway. In any case, the DIY route got me the spell checking in OpenOffice Writer that I needed so all was well and another Ubuntu rough edge eradicated from my life, for now anyway.

An early peek at Ubuntu 9.10

Even if the twice a year release means that changes to Ubuntu are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, that isn’t to say that curiosity doesn’t get the better of me from time to time. The result is that an early alpha version (3 at the time of writing) of the Linux distro has found a home in a VirtualBox VM on my main system. The most noticeable change so far is the inclusion of GNOME 2.27.5 with its Fedora-esque log-in screen and the movement of the shutdown and log-off paraphernalia to the System menu, which is where you find it in Debian or Fedora. On the account settings menu, there lives a link to an equivalent of the Windows Control Panel called Control Centre; the menu item is named System Preferences. For the record, I have seen it in Fedora 11 too and it does look as if Ubuntu’s GNOME implementation is looking more like a brown equivalent of Fedora. Whether this stays is anyone’s guess but a new messaging arrangement is coming into being too.

GNOME Control Centre in Ubuntu 9.10

Otherwise, there appears to be no real drama on the surface with Firefox staying at 3.0.x for now and OpenOffice moving to 3.1. Personally speaking, I’d be very surprised to seeing Firefox 3.5.x being left out though I did run into a spot of bother with the Preferences dialogue crashing it on Windows XP. Under the bonnet, the kernel is at release 2.6.31 and things seem reasonably stable at this stage. Saying that, there is a crash report icon appear every session but that has no effect apart from the visual side of things. VirtualBox Guest Additions work as they should, better than they in Windows guests if my experience provides any sort of benchmark (the display does odd things unless you keep jogging the graphics memory up and down). All in all, things appear usable if undramatic at this stage and there are a few months to go before the final release anyway.

Getting Fedora working in VirtualBox

After a hiatus induced by disk errors seen on start up, I have gone having a go with Fedora again. In the world of real PC’s, its place has been taken by Debian so virtualisation was brought into play for my most recent explorations. I could have gone with 10, the current stable version, but curiosity got the better of me and I downloaded a pre-release version of 11 instead.

On my way to getting that instated, I encountered two issues. The first of these was boot failure with the message like this:

FATAL: INT18: BOOT FAILURE

As it turned out, that was easily sorted. I was performing the installation from a DVD image mounted as if it were a real DVD and laziness or some other similar reason had me rebooting with still mounted. There is an option to load the hard disk variant but it wasn’t happening, resulting in the message that’s above. A complete shut down and replacement of the virtual DVD with a real one set matters to rights.

The next trick was to get Guest Additions added but Fedora’s 2.6.29 was not what VirtualBox was expecting and it demanded the same ransom as Debian: gcc, make and kernel header files. Unfamiliarity had me firing up Fedora’s software installation software only to find that Synaptic seems to  beat it hands down in the search department. Turning to Google dredged up the following command to be executed and that got me further:

yum install binutils gcc make patch libgomp glibc-headers glibc-devel kernel-headers kernel-devel

However, the installed kernel headers didn’t match the kernel but a reboot fixed that once the kernel was updated. Then, the Guest Additions installed themselves as intended with necessary compilations to match the installed kernel.

The procedures that I have described here would, it seems, work for Fedora 10 and they certainly have bequeathed me  a working system. I have had a little poke and a beta of Firefox 3.5 is included and I saw sign of OpenOffice 3.1 too. So, it looks very cutting edge, easily so in comparison with Ubuntu and Debian. Apart from one or niggles, it seems to run smoothly too. Firstly, don’t use the command shutdown -h now to close the thing down or you’ll cause VirtualBox to choke. Using the usual means ensures that all goes well, though. The other irritation is that it doesn’t connect to the network without a poke from me. Whether SELinux is to blame for this or not, I cannot tell but it might be something for consideration by the powers than be. That these are the sorts of things that I have noticed should itself be telling you that I have no major cause for complaint. I have mulled over a move to Fedora in the past and that option remains as strong as ever but Ubuntu is not forcing me to look at an alternative and the fact that I know how to achieve what I need is resulting in inertia anyway.

An early glimpse of Ubuntu 9.04

Ubuntu development is so gradual these days that there’s almost no point getting too excited about new versions. Its being a mature Linux distribution means that updates aren’t that much of an upheaval and I must admit to liking it than way. Taking a look at the first alpha release of Ubuntu 9.04, otherwise known as “Jaunty Jackalope”, it seems that there isn’t a change to that gradual, some may call it glacial, approach. The biggest change that I noted was the addition of an encrypted private area to your home user area. In the times in which we live, I can certainly see that coming in useful though it may not set pulses racing in some quarters. OpenOffice is still at 2.4 and things don’t appear very different on the surface at all. Of course, things like kernel changes and such like could be going on under the bonnet without many of us noticing it.Saying that, it played well with VirtualBox and I seem to remember virtual machine trouble with early builds of 8.10 so that can be taken as a plus point. I suppose that it is a case of wait and see before there is anything more obviously defining about 9.04. Anyway, they’ve got until April next year…