A move to Ubuntu?

After a pretty rotten weekend attempting to keep Windows XP running, I finally lost the will to persevere and began yearning for stability. That has taken me into the world of Ubuntu; I am writing this in Firefox running on the said Linux distribution. Thanks to the wonders of VMware, I have been able to observe the swish and slick nature of Ubuntu and I must that it did sway me. Installation has been slick and efficient and is a dream compared to XP, let alone previous Linux incarnations that I have encountered over the years. Start up is also speedy. All in all, there seems to be a certain confidence about the OS that was sadly absent from my Windows experience in recent times.

I am not deserting the world of Windows completely though. As it happens, I installed Ubuntu on a spare hard drive that I had so the Windows installation is still out there. In addition, VMware virtual machines should allow me to stay in there without the ever present risk of a PC getting rendered inoperable. There is also the unfinished business of making myself at home in Ubuntu, hopefully without my wrecking anything. I have yet to give my hardware a full work out to check that all is well. Setting up a web development capability is also on the cards as is getting those virtual machines. Assuming that there are no show stoppers, it could be an interesting ride.

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)

VMware and ZoneAlarm

Contrary to appearances given by this blog, I am not exclusively a Windows user. In fact, I have sampled Linux on a number of occasions in the past and I use VMware to host a number of different distributions – my Ubuntu installation is updating itself as I write this – as I like to keep tabs on what is out there. I also retain a Windows 2000 installation for testing and have had virtual machine hosting a test release of Vista not so long ago. I also have my finger in the UNIX world with an instance of OpenSolaris, though it is currently off my system thanks to my wrecking its graphics set up. However, ZoneAlarm has been known to get ahead of itself and start blocking VMware. If you go taking a look on the web, there is no solution to this beyond a complete system refresh (format the boot drive and reinstall everything again) and I must admit that this sounds like throwing out bath, baby and bathwater together. I did find another approach though: removing ZoneAlarm and reinstalling it. This wipes all its remembered settings, including the nefarious one that conflicted with VMware in the first place. It’s amazing that no one else has considered this but it has worked for me and having to have the security software relearn everything again is much less painless than rebuilding your system.