Friday, 20 May 2011

My Very First Linux System

Ubuntu rocks. For more, read on...

About a year ago, I converted my home desktop machine from Windows XP to Windows 7, hoping to improve its dire performance problems. That was not a success. Not only was the Windows 7 performance if anything worse than XP, but a number of other things stopped working as well. Based on my experience I cannot imagine why anyone would ever choose to run W7 instead of XP. W7 is full of poorly conceived "security" misfeatures, making it painful to use and even harder to manage. For example, it's impossible to save an image from a webpage to local storage. And I never did get the Cisco VPN to work.

I've been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to have a Linux server at home. I've switched just about all my non-embedded stuff at work from Windows and Visual Studio to run on Linux systems. VS is actually quite decent but things need to end up on Linux anyway and keeping them dual-platform is too much trouble.

When I first used Unix, Linux hadn't even been thought of. I equipped my network architecture team at DEC with workstations in about 1988. Of course at DEC we didn't have the System Whose Name Must Remain Unspoken, we had Ultrix - which was just BSD Unix. And Linux is both our development and our production environment at work. Running Linux as a user is no issue, but I was worried about the sys admin aspect of the thing. My perception of Linux was of constantly having to build things from source, of irrenconcilable version conflicts and unfindable drivers and bits of operating system. So I kept putting it off.

Then a friend told me about a system they had just bought. Six-core 3.2 GHz AMD CPU, 8 GBytes of memory... all for under $500. That sounded too good to be true, but I went to the Tiger Direct web site and there it was. The temptation was too strong. It's difficult to buy a PC-type system without getting - and paying for - Windows, whether you want it or not. NewEgg for example won't sell you a barebones system like this.

A few days later it all showed up in several large packages. I've always bought assembled systems before, but this one came as a collection of parts - case, power supply, motherboard, CPU, disk, memory, and a few other bits and pieces. I was apprehensive about putting it all together but in fact it was easy. The only trickly part was getting the cheap-and-nasty metal plate around all the motherboard conneectors to fit propely. Functionally speaking, this isn't strictly necessary, but it would look funny without it.

Actually the system came without memory, because it was backordered, and also I'd ordered the wrong part for the CD/DVD drive as well. So it took a couple of trips to Fry's to get everything required. I'd also bought an Ubuntu book which conveniently had a CD in the back, avoiding the problem of downloading the distro and burning a CD - for which I'm not sure I have the software.

And then came the miraculous part. I put the CD in the drive and booted the machine. Ubuntu came up, and with a couple of clicks started to install itself. Nothing could ever have been easier! Once my new system was running, there were numerous things I wanted to install. For every single one of them, a single command and a short wait downloaded it, installed it and got it running. No scratching round trying to find ancient CDs, no complicated licence agreements, no complex configuration screens. And better yet, no Windows registry! Everything just installed and run.

I'd never used Gnome or any other Linux GUI before. Up to now, all my Linux usage has been from the command line - which I rather like, actually. I had low expectations of Gnome but I couldn't have been more wrong. It does everything Windows does, and without all the irritating bogus security misfeatures. I was especially pleasantly surprised by OpenOffice, which can read and edit all my Word, Excel and Powerpoint files. And it's free.

There was only one thing that gave me problems. No surprise, it was the interconnection with my Windows system which, for now anyway, I have kept in place. There is a piece of software, Samba, that allows a Linux system to provide a Windows file server. Unfortunately it has to accomodate all of the superfluous complexity and options of Windows, so configuring it is a nightmare and I just couldn't get it to work. Finally a friend pointed me to SWAT which straightened it all out for me. A key item is that the accounts and passwords for Samba have absolutely nothing to do with any other accounts and passwords on the system. Connection in the other direction, accessing Windows files from my Linux system, is still distinctly shaky. It kind of works, sometimes, but keeps running into all those security misfeatures that made me dislike W7 so much in the first place. I have yet to get it so the Linux machine can write files on Windows, even using the adminsitrator account.

One thing I wanted to do was open up the machine for very limited outside access, so I can retrieve my files from it. This was amazingly easy - install Apache and it just works. Then a little configuration on my Linksys router, five minutes to create an account with, and now I can (with a password of course) access my files from anywhere.

I love my new Linux machine. Next step: move Windows to be a VM under Linux. More on that later...

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