Sunday, August 22, 2004

Turning back the clock

I like to use Linux with the mindset of a user. I am very wary when I realise that I am using my 10 odd years of using Linux on and off to solve problems that may be faced by a user. This is a line that I clearly mark.
I am saying this because as Linux goes mainstream, this has to become more important. I believe it is the responsibility of entities that are making money out of Linux to put in the effort to ensure that it can be used by the intended users without having to resort to constant professional help. This is even more so for Linux distribution companies like RedHat and Novell. When more users can use the final distribution, it creates more sales opportunity for them. Let's not put aside the fact that the ease of configuration in Windows is what made it most attractive to businesses. You can shoot yourself in the foot with it (misconfigure till you loose data) but at least you did it with ease and style.
Which brings me to my tale this time. Updating (and all it's ills) are handled with relative ease in Linux. With Mandrake, running Mandrake Update and several clicks later will update the system. Emphasis on backwards compatibility and ensuring inter-dependancy is always maintained usually makes regular updates painless. The most crucial part of regular updates is kernel updates. If you are a business user and you use an enterprise version of Linux chances are you're running with the dinosaurs, kernel-wise. For most of us using the Fedora or Mandrake, kernel updates are not that often but still regular. Most experienced users will point out that there is no race to use the latest kernel. Most of the time they are fixes and security updates, rather than additional functionality. You can skip an update releaste or two but stray not too far.
having a broadband connection is a blessing

Mandrake recently released an updated called kernel 2.6.3-15. I was using kernel 2.6.3-13. I've updated many times before without a hitch. I have an Nvidia card and it is tied to a specific kernel. So after a kernel update, I need to generate a new driver. This means I need the updated kernel sources, too. So after updating the kernel, I downloaded the kernel sources. Having a broadband connection is a blessing.
The Nvidia installer uses the kernel sources to generate a driver. However, the Nvidia installer complained that my sources were not clean. It suggested I do something with mproper. I followed the instructions without success. Since I was using the new kernel, I switched back to the old one to get to my graphical interface. This was easy because Mandrake keeps a link during boot-up (using lilo) to older versions of the kernel. Very thoughtful. After following suggestions from the web, the problem was not solved, I couldn't generate the Nvidia driver and I was still stuck using the older kernel. So I decided to make a permanent switch back to the older kernel. Now, this was not common but it was very easy and over in a few minutes.
Later I wanted to try VMware. This is a cop-out, I'll admit, but sites that use Windows Media Player tend to let me have the multimedia stuff much faster and I wanted to user Yahoo Launch. What these sites do is possible with linux-friendly players like Real Player but the developers tend to layer it with so many pages and Real Player 10 for Linux (based on helix) still balks regularly at sites that play ads before showing the good stuff. Yes, I have heard of Crossover and that is next on my list.
VMWare says during the installation process that it need to recompile something using the kernel sources. However, I had installed the kernel source for kernel 2.6.3-15 but I was using kernel 2.6.3.-13. As part of it's installation, the newer kernel source package removed files from the older kernel source. "So, I'll just remove this version of the kernel source and install the old one," I thought. But after an hour of searching the Internet, I could find only a single source for the kernel source package, a server in South Africa. Apparently, as the new kernel source is updated on mirrors worldwide, the old one is simple lost and never archived. And this site was horrendously slow. Fearing that some other program might need the sources, I hunkered down for a long download and waited. Two rpm commands later, one to remove the kernel source package and another to install the newly downloaded kernel source, I was back in business.
rolling back was not too hard

To be frank, the problen with the newest kernel-source could have been fixed fast enough if I was familiar with building a kernel and the associated processses. But then it probably would have taken more time and crossed the line between the Linux user and the Linux professional.
The good thing about Linux is that eveything is exact. How parts interacts with each other are very regulated by convention or by viture of creating packages or packaging against a specific distribution. Although it took some time, rolling back from a semi-faulty package was not too hard, even for something as complex as a kernel update.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Pleasant Surprise

I am determined that my children learn the benefits of choice. Especially computing choices. Already at school kids are learning to use computers and more often than not, the computers are MSWindows PCs. If you think MSWindow's dominance in the business world is strong, is even more in the education sector. While Apple is still there and a good choice for the classroom, Apple are pricing themselves out of the classrooms. Apple computers are easy to use and don't exhibit the problems with the interface like MSWindows computers do. When it came to Apple Macs, you just used them. Instead of struggling with the MSWindows GUI and praying it doesn't hang. I have taught kids and I have taught people how to use computers. It is hard enough with adults having to deal with hung PCs while teaching. Add to that the cries for help of helpless children that only distracts them from the lesson being taught. Compounding that is the other childern who are distracted by the cries. Headache Central.

So I decided that since I am using Linux at home, the children will do too. The first main obstacle is quality educational software for kids on Linux. With due respect to all the efforts on the Internet, the quality is not even close to that of software written 5 years ago. Like it or not, I had to run MSWindows program on Linux. The problem was that the majority of the software I looked at were developed using Shockwave or Director. I have yet to find a native solution although everything from Wine, CrossOver Office, VmWare to Bochs has crossed my mind.

So I've settled on Web based educational sites that are normally running Flash. I created an account for each of them and put their faces as the KDM icon. Next, I created shortcuts on the desktop for Mozilla that opens each of the sites. The sites I find that attracts my kids attention the most are PBSKids, Sesame Street and Playhouse Disney Channel. Ok, so my kids are not that old yet. The more the reason to get them to know Linux. Now, I had to repeat this for the younger sibling on his Desktop.

(Which brought me thinking that this type of setting up user enviroments in Linux is not explored throughroughly yet. Think of Novell's ZenWorks for Desktop for Linux or ZenWorks for Linux Desktop.)

Next problem was that I had set the screen resolution to be 1024x768. Not this is ok for me but the sites above came up quite small. And when the Flash activities came on, it became even smaller. My mind was racing at the thought of setting up individual X config files for each of them. I haven't tweaked X config files in ages. Being the lazy type, I began mucking around and lo behold, you could setup individual screen resolutions in GNOME 2.4. What a pleasant surprise! I thought I had gone over GNOME setups over and over again. And yet I never found this. So like my kids, I was learning something new every day. Maybe I should rename this blog into 'The Linux Adventure'.

I don't know why that config option affected me so much. One one level, I felt that someone had read my mind and made that feature. On another level, I felt beholden to the person who decided to put in that feature. I felt so grateful to the people who put their own time an effort into making Linux and free software great. I guess I can honor them by making sure the next generation starts using Linux and making choices.

Monday, August 09, 2004

LinuxFormat: Required Reading Material

There is only one Linux Magazine I buy religiously : Linux Format.

Linux Format should be required reading for people who are interested with Linux on the desktop. For once, a magazine addresses the issues of an average user (and not the user with an aveage IQ of 250). If you wanted to see how magazine looked like in the early PC days, this magazine has a few similarities. But more importantly, this magazine embodies the same attitudes the PC magazines had in those days. The days when PC User groups were places to get the latest info and swap war stories (read: trial and error OR My PC blew up and I survived to tell the tale). The magazine even has listed (primarly UK) Linux user groups at the back of the magazine. That brought flashbacks.

This magazine is also easy on the eyes. Not like other similar mags of it's ilk where every possible space is crammed with words, Linux Format uses space and graphics well. And I don't mean diagrams or pictures of product boxes or pictures of other users and people of note caught in most unflattering flashed photos. There are actual graphics that have no relation to the article other than to make it look nice. Imagine that!

(Note to other Linux magazines: it's ok to look nice. Just because your readers spend all day looking at code, doesn't mean they'll appreciate a magazine formatted to look like more code)

I don't care that much about the CDs or DVDs that come with it because I'm on broadband and I can get at the programs or links that are mentioned in the magazine much faster. But if you don't, they are a great resource, especially when it comes with distros.

There is also the companion TuxRadar website and the wonderful Tuxradar podcast. Here, you get to hear the writers from Linux format talk about Linux issues of the day sprinkled with a very UK-centric view. Which is refreshing to hear from the US-centric view I usually get from other sources.

I read other Linux magazines like Linux Journal and Linux Magazine (the US version, not the UK version that seems to be machine translated from German). But I tend to pick them off the discount rack (it is that expensive). And they tend to be there when I pick them up. But with Linux Format, I have to be on my toes when the month rolls over to grab my copy or I'll miss out. I have staked out the quality bookshops that carry it and even have the phone number of the local distributor so that I can bug them as to when the next issue is going to be out.

Why don't I subscribe? Where's the fun in that? :)

Friday, August 06, 2004

Splitting Linux

Before those of you who know better howl at me, let me get this straight: I understand that a Linux distribution is not Linux.

But the reality is that people tend to think of it that way, that Linux is a Linux distribution. For a long time people never understood why I wasn't using RedHat, like everybody else. I wasn't using it because I understood that I could go to any Linux distribution and switch back later as long as I was on the Intel platform. For a time RedHat was Linux. I still think that some business that they get is simply just because the users don't know about the other distributions or haven't bothered to take a look. For now onwards, the term Linux will largely mean Linux distributions.

Today I installed Fedora Core 2 (FC2). Now, I use Mandrake on my desktops and a mix of other distributions on the servers. My RH8 servers were looking long in the tooth and I figured out I needed to refresh them. So I got the set of FC2 disks that came with this month's Linux Format and burned disk 3 and 4 from the Internet. As I was configuring them, I became acutely aware of how different it was to configure Linux under FC2 than under Mandrake. As with all of my machines, I install Webmin to help me administer them. That me got me fiddling with the package managers and demonstrating how different the approaches of Mandrake and FC2 was when it came to package management resources. Basically, I was finding it hard to find any of the programs that helped me to configure some of the stuff, mot of the time the programs I was used to on Mandrake but not entirely. Some programs that I assumed were part of KDE were also missing or quite hard to find..

It then dawned to me not only that I was just using a different distribution but a distribution meant for someone else. I was so used to Mandrake, a distribution clearly gunning for the desktop, that I was upset with Fedora for not doing enough to have it as easily configurable as Mandrake. It was ok with me finally because I realized that RedHat/Fedora were really about servers. Both distributions were catering to their consituency and their unique requirements and environment. For example, with a server, configuration is a once off thing and the people using them were expected to know what they were doing. On a desktop, the configuration can change quite often as USB devices are plugged and pulled. Plus, most of the time people don't know or care what they are doing to the computer as long as they can use it.

It is important that Linux distributions become adjusted for the environment that it will live in. This leverages on it's nature to be flexible through the choices of the programs it includes as part of the distribution which includes configuration tools. By adapting to the environment, Linux addresses the unique environment that it will function in be it a server or desktop of today or the embedded device of tomorrow. It is very much a version of tolerance within the space of Linux technology.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Planning as part of life

I'm switching over the ISP connection to a higher bandwidth which also means that I'll be switching IP addresses. This also means the slightly tricky business of moving the DNS server. I'm hosting my own DNS for some strange reason and I have to inform the NIC involved that my domain's DNS server has changed IP addresses. The tricky part comes in because I have only one DNS server but I have to move it and keep the older DNS setting alive for a while. Thanks goodness Linux is so 'not demanding'.
Took out an old Celeron PC with 32MB of RAM(!). Installed Linux on it and installed the bind package. Within a hour or so I have another server ready to do some light work. I configured it so that the Celeron DNS would host slave zones to the main DNS server for a while. Essentially it gets the settings and information about the zone from the main DNS server. After a while, I converted the slave zones to a normal or master zone. I configured the Celeron PC so that it took over the IP address off the main DNS server. The main DNS server was then transferred to use the newer IPs. Finally, I informed the NIC and they'll update their records accordingly.
What surprised me was not that I was able to set up another DNS server in record time but I spent more time planning than actually doing the job.

That is something I credit using Linux for, the tendency to plan stuff out ahead. Linux is extremely powerful and offers 1001 variations of everything. So choosing what to do is very important. It's not enough to decide to do something and just do it it. Ensuring that minimal disruption occurs and detected by the users is as important as achieving what I set out to achieve . Making sure that things can be undone if the goals achieved are not actually what they seem to be is also very important.
The overall concern shifts from whether "Can it be done and what tools do I need to buy to do them?" to "How can I do it using what I have or have to download from somewhere? How can I do it quietly without people feeling a thing." That may not be a paradigm shift but it sure is a shift for the better.

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