A lot of work ahead

Curiosity recently got the better of me and I decided to have a look at the first alpha release of Ubuntu 11.04, both in a VirtualBox virtual machine and on a spare PC that I have. They always warn you about alpha releases of software and the first sight of Ubuntu was in keeping with this. The move to using Unity as a desktop environment is in train and it didn’t work perfectly on either of the systems on which I tried it, not a huge surprise really. There wasn’t any sign of a top panel or one at the side and no application had its top bar, either. It looks as if others may have got on better but it may have been to my doing an in situ upgrade rather than a fresh installation. Doing the latter might be an idea but I may wait for the next alpha release first. Still, it looks as if we’ll be getting Firefox 4 so the change of desktop isn’t going to be the only alteration. All in all, it looks as if Natty Narwhal will be an interesting Ubuntu release with more change than is usually the case. In the meantime, I’ll keep tabs on how development goes so as to be informed before the time to think about upgrading comes around. So far, it’s early days and there a few months to go yet.

Solving an upgrade hitch en route to Ubuntu 10.04

After waiting until after a weekend in the Isle of Man, I got to upgrading my main home PC to Ubuntu 10.04. Before the weekend away, I had been updating a 10.04 installation on an old spare PC and that worked fine so the prospects were good for a similar changeover on the main box. That may have been so but breaking a computer hardly is the perfect complement to a getaway.

So as to keep the level of disruption to a minimum, I opted for an in-situ upgrade. The download was left to complete in its own good time and I returned to attend to installation messages asking me if I wished to retain old logs files for the likes of Apache. When the system asked for reboot at the end of the sequence of package downloading, installation and removal, I was ready to leave it do the needful.

However, I met with a hitch when the machine restarted: it couldn’t find the root drive. Live CD’s were pressed into service to shed light on what had happened. First up was an old disc for 9.10 before one for 10.04 Beta 1 was used. That identified a difference between the two that was to prove to be the cause of what I was seeing. 10.04 uses /dev/hd*# (/dev/hda1 is an example) nomenclature for everything including software RAID arrays (“fakeraid”). 9.10 used the /dev/mapper/sil_**************# convention for two of my drives and I get the impression that the names differ according to the chipset that is used.

During the upgrade process, the one thing that was missed was the changeover from /dev/mapper/sil_**************# to /dev/hd*# in the appropriate places in /boot/grub/menu.lst; look for the lines starting with the word kernel. When I did what the operating system forgot, I was greeted by a screen telling of the progress of checks on one of the system’s disks. That process took a while but a login screen followed and I had my desktop much as before. The only other thing that I had to do was run gconf-editor from the terminal to send the title bar buttons to the right where I am accustomed to having them. Since then, I have been working away as before.

Some may decry the lack of change (ImageMagick and UFRaw could do with working together much faster, though) but I’m not complaining; the rough of 9.10 drilled that into me. Nevertheless, I am left wondering how many are getting tripped up by what I encountered, even if it means that Palimpsest (what Ubuntu calls Disk Utility) looks much tidier than it did. Could the same thing be affecting /etc/fstab too? The reason that I don’t know the answer to that question is that I changed all hard disk drive references to UUID a while ago but it’s another place to look if the GRUB change isn’t fixing things for you. If my memory isn’t failing me, I seem to remember seeing /dev/mapper/sil_**************# drive names in there too.

Choices, choices…

Choice is a very good thing but too much of it can be confusing and the world of Linux is a one very full of decisions. The first of these centres around the distro to use when taking the plunge and there can be quite a lot to it. In fact, it is a little like buying your first SLR/DSLR or your first car: you only really know what you are doing after your first one. Putting it another way, you only how to get a house built after you have done.

With that in mind, it is probably best to play a little on the fringes of the Linux world before committing yourself. It used to be that you had two main choices for your dabbling:

  • using a spare PC
  • dual booting with Windows by either partitioning a hard drive or dedicating one for your Linux needs.

In these times, innovations such as Live CD distributions and virtualisation technology keep you away from such measures. In fact, I would suggest starting with the former and progressing to the latter for more detailed perusal; it’s always easy to wipe and restore virtual machines anyway and you can evaluate several distros at the same time if you have the hard drive space. It also a great way to decide which desktop environment you like. Otherwise, terms like KDE, GNOME, XFCE, etc. might not mean much.

The mention of desktop environments brings me to software choices because they do drive what software is available to you. For instance, the Outlook lookalike that is Evolution is more likely to appear where GNOME is installed than where you have KDE. The opposite applies to the music player Amarok. Nevertheless, you do find certain stalwarts making a regular appearance; Firefox, OpenOffice and the GIMP all fall into this category.

The nice thing about Linux is that distros more often than not contain all of the software that you are likely to need. However, that doesn’t mean that its all on the disk and that you have to select what you need during the installation. There might have been a time when it might have felt like that but my recent experience has been that a minimum installation is set in place that does all of the basics and you easily can add the extras later on an as needed basis. I have also found that online updates are a strong feature too.

Picking up what you need when you need it has major advantages, the big one being that Linux grows with you. You can add items like Apache, PHP and MySQL when you know what they are and why you need them. It’s a long way from picking applications of which you know very little at installation time and with the suspicion that any future installation might land you in dependency hell while performing compilation of application source code; the temptation to install everything that you saw was a strong one. The learn before you use approach favoured by the ways that things are done nowadays is an excellent one.

Even if life is easier in the Linux camp these days, there is no harm in sketching out your software needs. Any distribution should be able to fulfill most if not all of them. As it happened, the only third party application that I have needed to install on Ubuntu without recourse to Synaptic was VMware Workstation and that procedure thankfully turned out to be pretty painless.