“I’ve got 1949 programs installed today, and the potential to install 24958 others to fit most every need.”
I’ve been using Kubuntu Linux on my laptop for about three months now. I figured that a really slick GUI and a good package manager would be nice. We’ve been using KDE, Gnome, and XFCE on several computers at home and in the office for a couple of years now, and I’ve always had an affinity for KDE – probably since 2.0 in the late nineties. Even 10 years ago KDE had the cleanest look of all of the available window managers. Graphics hardware has really made advances since then, particularly in the area of dedicated graphics processing. It’s about time that this technology is finally being widely adopted on pc hardware. Mainly driven by the gamer industry, we common folk benefit by cheaper and better GPU’s which allow us to have such video wonders as subpixel rendering and multi-layer compositing.
As I’ve said, the laptop has become one of the workhorses for a small IT and web consultancy. Graphics, the whole office suite, development tools, security tools, you get the idea. Mature programs like KMail and KOrganizer are nicely incorporated into Kontact to provide for email, calendaring, to-do, feed reader, etc. Word processing, spreadsheet, desktop publishing, and the like, are handled with KOffice, KDE’s very own comprehensive office suite. With loads of native tools for web development like Quanta Plus And with KOffice application KPlato, most of the software needs of our small business are met with core KDE applications.
Business aside, I had to install Compiz for all of the eye-candy, manipulations and 3-D rendering of the virtual desktop environment – besides, it adds many functional and useful enhancements that are a must for a system that gets 10 – 14 hours of use daily. I’ve not really had to jump through any hoops to get excellent results, but the integration between the K Desktop Environment version 3.3.8 and the effects rendering through Compiz has not been as tight as I would like. Continue reading
I have a confession: I use Microsoft products. There. It’s out. Considering the tone and content of this site, I think I would do well to explain myself: Our company provides web development services – plenty of FLOSS applications in this respect, from development tools and web servers to complete API’s. We also provide consulting and network administration services and it is, like it, or not, a Windows dominated world. I need to be able to provide support that requires very little “research” when a customer calls because Outlook won’t send mail anymore. I need to be able to tell them to go to the File menu and make sure that the “Work Offline” option is not ticked. I also need to be able to walk them through various other troubleshooting steps, even when I’m mobile and I do not have a computer in front of me. You get this knowledge only by using the software on a daily basis. We have several customers with Windows Small Business Server 2003 deployed as well. How does one get solid experience in system administration of this type without hands-on use? I steer my customers toward FLOSS solutions as often as possible – mainly servers and web based technologies. We haven’t seen much in the way of desktop migration, but then again, we don’t deploy a lot of desktops. Continue reading
I’ve got a client whose home office is around 1300 miles (2080 KM) away, according to Google Maps, and I had a dilemma; This past week, we deployed a constituent management package at this clients office. I needed a computer for the work to be done in Montana, with the additional obvious abilities to check email and handle some light coding. Most importantly, I would need to be able to receive and access documents, mostly created in Microsoft Word, or other proprietary formats without having to jump through hoops. My wife needed me to leave the laptop for her so she can work. One can’t be in front of a desk and keyboard all day when little ones are afoot, so I agreed that the laptop had to stay. Now, the shop area in our office is somewhat ominous and cramped – a veritable computer cemetery, if you will – with carcases and parts from dozens of pc’s. One of the laptop carcasses would be perfect for the experiment.
We always here stories about an old computer given new life by Linux – it’s cliche’. In fact Linux on a new machine is a beautiful thing to see, easily surpassing the expectations of even the most fickle user. But, alas. This experiment did not use a hot, new setup. Limited by budget and time, I merely dusted off an older laptop from the shop, once again propagating the cliche’. Here’s the specs:
- Toshiba Portege 7200
- Pentium III 600 MHz processor
- 128MB RAM
- 3GB hard disk
- 3COM PCMCIA Wireless card
I needed an operating system that would meet my use needs and still perform well enough to allow me to be productive. I knew that there were several Linux Distributions running XFCE, the feature-rich window manager for Linux that doesn’t use a ton of system resources. First, I tried xubuntu – it had too many hardware issues because of the age of the machine. The Thinkpad style mouse wasn’t auto-detected and the live cd environment was quite sluggish. I’ve had good luck in the past with Slackware linux and old hardware so I looked for a Slackware based distribution – xubuntu is an XFCE-centric ubuntu distro. Ubuntu, as you know is Debian based. I found the perfect meld between Slackware and XFCE – that meld is Zenwalk Linux. An easy to install, stable Slackware-based XCFE-centric operating system that would handle my requirements and the old hardware just fine.
The re-birth of a doorstop
Zenwalk Installed without a hitch on the old Toshiba. From first boot to first logon, letting the auto-configure scripts work their magic, we were up and running in 27 minutes, and 53 seconds. By default, Bluefish is installed so my light coding needs were met. All other functionality that I required – even the need to access proprietary file formats like Microsoft Word and Excel, without doing anything special through AbiWord and the Gnumeric Spreadsheet respectively, were available out of the box with Zenwalk. Full of nice default installation features, I was left with valuable download and installation time for programs like etherape and emacs, as well as a few other packages that I’d been wanting to check out.
Out in the Field
I left Sheboygan, Wisconsin for what was to be a three hour trip that would bring me through 3 airports to Great Falls, Montana. This trip quickly turned into 14 hours and 4 airports with nice 4 hour layovers, mainly due to an hour delay that caused me to miss my connecting flight by 10 minutes. These unplanned hours in the nations airports were a bit tedious – fortunately, I had the Toshiba in carry-on and could work on stuff all the while. I was even able to wget the civicrm documentation so I had something to read on the airplane beside pseudo travel magazines and merchandise catalogs. The best part of the trip was the leg from Seattle, WA into Great Falls on a Q400 twin engine turbo-prop. Lots of that “bottom of the roller coaster” feel – a real treat!
Once on the ground in Montana, it was time to put the machine to the test. Could I work in a “Windows World” on a Linux box that was pieced together on short notice? The time in the airport on wi-fi allowed me seamless access to email, calendar, etc. Our domain email is handled by Google, so, no mystery there that the web based gmail client would work just fine. Once on the job site, I would be interacting with other people who would want to send Word and Excel attachments for my viewing enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, AbiWord and the Gnumeric Spreadsheet performed their duties in this capacity flawlessly. I received the attachment in my email, downloaded and opened said attachments and they opened – by default – in the proper program – and displayed properly. I even had an Office 2003 version of a document that wouldn’t open on someone’s Office 2007 because of some security settings. Instead of editing the Windows registry, per the MS website to “fix” this issue, I opened the document in AbiWord, saved it as an rtf and off it went to the Office 2007 user with no further problems. It’s a good thing that I was there with my Linux box to intervene – otherwise, these users of such disparate software versions would never have been able to work together. It must be rough to dominate the market to the point that backwards compatibility becomes a major security risk. “Upgrade, or risk the compromise of your system!”, they say. I couldn’t agree more; upgrade your software to avoid security risks – might I suggest OpenOffice, or even, and entirely new operating system, oh troubled Windows user?
It’s True, It’s True!
After a week of working on the road with an unfamiliar operating system on an older laptop system, I’ve concluded that: yes, one can work in the real world with multiple cross-platform users from a Linux box with no issues what-ever. During this week, I never once had to make an excuse for my Linux laptop – everything worked just fine – which is more than I can say for the Windows Vista laptop I brought to a conference with the same client earlier in the year – but that’s another story.
The mail server in the Gartner Web Development office receives a very low volume of over all incoming emails but our SPAM, or Unsolicited Commercial/Bulk Email is about the same, proportionally, to much higher volume servers. The Open Source software used in this particular configuration is scalable to volumes much greater than these.
Unsolicited Commercial/Bulk Email, or SPAM (representing 2.52% of incoming email as of May 1, 2007) is removed with 95.47% accuracy. (Based on 22,303 incoming emails with 8,652 SPAM and 189 viruses and phishing scams blocked by Spamassassin and ClamAV – Open Source SPAM filtering and Anti Virus software – with only 4 verifiable false positives over a 7 month period.) Undesirable email can then be held on the server or tagged as SPAM to be placed into your â€œJunk e-mailâ€ box within your favorite e-mail client, (Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, Thunderbird, etc.). Viruses and phishing scams are safely quarantined on the server, never to reach a desktop within our organization.
Dell PowerEdge 4300
- Pentium III Xeon 497.44 MHz processor
- 511 MB RAM
- 17 GB RAID 5 (hardware) Ultra2 Wide SCSI – hotswap
- Triple redundant hotswap power supply(s)
- Postfix – MTA – Postfix can be configured to bounce/discard email based on header checks and myriad other variables.
- Dovecot – POP3/IMAP
- ClamAV – Antivirus
- Spamassassin – it really does assassinate spam – It plays nice with:
- amavisd-new – the middle man by which ClamAV, Spamassassin, and Postfix where integrated. Amavisd-new has many, many knobs, some of which allow further enhancement to email filtering.
- Mailgraph to generate the nifty graphs. David Schweikert has some other interesting contributions to IT as well.
Where did the nifty graphs go?
Because the high volume of traffic to our sites was saturating our puny internet pipes, all GWD Network sites have been transferred from our in-house servers to an external host. The hardware, as listed above, easily handled 100 plus hits per minute on the web server. Email for our domains are now being handled by Google Apps- incidentally, the amount of SPAM that reaches our desktop has not changed as Google does a decent job of filtering SPAM. Web hosting is now with 1 & 1. The rates are good, we get a ton of features, and we have CLI access for scheduling cron jobs and whatnot – Fedora Core 4 as of August 2007. No up-selling or “suggestive” sell when I buy or add new products or features and I’m not embarrassed to tell our more conservative customers where their site is hosted – one of several issues we had with our former client hosting at goDaddy.
You can see mailgraph in action at http://www.stat.ee.ethz.ch/mailgraph.cgi. It is an excellent lightweight tool for mail flow visualization.
C. Marc Wagner’s article Don’t be fooled, Linux is not free, makes several good points, but fails to remind the reader what the GNU says about “free” in the context of Open Source and GNU Linux:
Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free” speech, not as in “free” beer…
Much of the money saved on software cost, assuming you are not using one of the many commercial (i.e. license fees) Linux distributions, is best spent on training. Proper implementation of IT must affect the bottom line of an organization in real and positive ways. Knowledge based on experience and thoughtful training at all levels of user and administration, serve only to realize these benefits.
Let’s be realistic. It’s a mixed platform world. It’s really nonsense to be all or nothing when it comes to operating systems, or proprietary v. open source as an IT professional. Serving the best interest of our organization and that of our user base should be paramount – not personal passions and prejudice. It is good to expose people to other technologies. Ignorance breeds fear – this fear is a barrier to implementing open source software. While I appreciate the innovation of many Open Source programs, I also appreciate some of the things that can be done with Microsoft products. Besides, Microsoft has been our bread and butter for years. Average users, and especially power users, are hesitant to try something new. It’s been my experience that once that initial barrier is crossed, the “novelty effect” has to be overcome as well. *NIX are just as “serious” as Microsoft products.
These barriers do not typically occur in children though. To them, a computer is a computer. If adults could only understand this! IT professionals are not exempt from ignorance either. To wit: At a meeting of the regional technical college IT curriculum advisory board, I was expounding the joys of spammassasin, clamAV, and new-amavisd when an enterprise IT manager pointed out that, “…business don’t want something new and gimmicky – they only want to use what is tried and true.” When I explained that *NIX has evolved from a code base that has been around for decades longer than even the oldest lines of Microsoft products, he quietly took his seat and said no more about it. I really enjoy checking out the various distributions of *NIX. It’s the same sense of discovery that I had with DOS 4.0 back in the day – you could take a text editor to command.com and make it say stuff like “formatted 1433.6 KB of crap”, so long as you padded the left-overs with asci spaces. I often see, what in my opinion, are superior programs and methods on these OS’s. Regardless of my enthusiasm, it’s a big deal for an organization to change platforms. Making sure that their accounting software, or SAP is going to work are just some of many considerations. In an education environment though, this is not a big issue, nor is it an issue at any level when given realistic cost analysis and proper implementation. When we talk of “free” software in this context, let us be reminded of Richard Stallman’s words:
“When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like “give away” or “for free”, because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom.”