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Finally – Linux on My Desktop

Looking GlassAt the beginning of 2011 I finally made a big switch, one long overdue and one that I should have made 15 years ago. Way back in 1985 I was hired into a newly formed group at American Management Systems of Arlington, Virginia. The group was tasked with making Unix easier to use. I started out by writing a program called Directory Shell, an interface to Unix that ran on the so-called “dumb terminals” that were prevalent at the time. The group was eventually spun out into Visix Software and I built another Unix interface, this one graphical and able to run on early graphical window systems such as The X Window System, SunView, and the best-forgotten Environ V.

After leaving Visix in late 1994, I started up my own consulting practice. My first big project was a port of the Looking Glass code base to Linux for a hot startup, itself a spin-out from Novell by the name of Caldera (this was the early and “good” Caldera, not the subsequent “bad” one created through a merger with SCO). The port went really well and I had Looking Glass up and running as planned. Caldera was really ahead of its time when it came to thinking about Linux on and for the desktop and (looking back) I should have paid a lot more attention to what they were doing. Since that time I have always had a Linux server (or two) underneath my desk or in the cloud but only for “server” stuff — like storing data and hosting web sites.

My son Stephen (who is often ahead of the curve when it comes to such things) was an early advocate of open source, Linux, and Ubuntu. For the last couple of years he has openly (and rightfully) ridiculed the last Windows desktop machine, a machine that we had hand-assembled back in 2005. I had promised to give Ubuntu a try as soon as it came time to build another desktop machine.

Last fall, that ancient desktop machine began to fail. First one drive failed in the RAID set. The other drive in the set continued to work for a while, until one day the controller decided that too much time had elapsed since it had synced both drives, and shut everything down. Fortunately, I had backed up most of my data to a newer SATA drive sitting in a USB cradle on my desk. A week before Christmas I was rearranging my home office and moved that old beast into its new location, less than 8 feet from the old one. It refused to power up and it was clear that the power supply (already replaced once) had given up the ghost.

For once, the timing was perfect. Stephen was home from grad school and eagerly spec’ed out a new machine for me (spending Dad’s money is always fun). The finished system included an ASUS P68X58D motherboard, an Intel Core i7 950 processor with a gigantic Noctua heat sink, 6 GB of ECC RAM, a fast 150 GB drive for the OS and a slightly slower 1 TB drive for data, all in a well-ventilated Coolermaster case. I was supposed to order a new NVidia graphics card but forgot to add it to my cart. Fortunately, I was able to extract and reuse the (relatively recent) card from my previous machine.

We bolted it all together and fired it up. As is almost always the case, it worked just fine on first boot. This aspect of the PC industry always amazes me. Random (albeit high quality) PC parts built in factories located all over the world, are almost always compatible.

Stephen had downloaded the newest version of Ubuntu Desktop earlier that day and burned it on to a DVD. He brought it downstairs and we were on our way. We did a complete install and I was up and running in no time flat.

It has now been a couple of weeks since we brought the machine up and I find myself impressed with Ubuntu Desktop. It is fast, smooth, easy to use, and compatible with all of my new and existing hardware.

I installed a proprietary NVidia driver to improve performance, and then installed the latest Second Life client, which worked fine, including the often-finicky audio. I installed Emacs and then used Dropbox to get access to my cloud-based files.

I plugged in my USB SATA cradle and recovered some Firefox bookmarks from my old C drive. This was painless. The system recognized that the drive was formatted with NTFS and mounted it as such. I copied off the files that I hadn’t backed up, including a 3 GB Windows 7 image file (more on that later). Emboldened by this success, I took the drives from my old RAID set and plugged them in to the cradle. The first one was truly dead. The second one (reported as dead by the controller in the old machine) turned out to be working fine. I was able to recover some files that would have been very difficult to obtain otherwise. Three gold stars for Ubuntu.

I listen to lots of podcasts and started to figure out the best way to download them and sync them to my iPod. After trying out gPodder and RhythmBox, I settled on Banshee. Banshee works reasonably well but still has trouble syncing from time to time.

I am still working on sharing my family’s user tree (containing over 70,000 files) and our “camera” tree (another 80,000 files) using Samba. It is very close, but not quite working. I can’t print, either. I installed the proper printer drivers and (per the information here, created an empty directory, but so far no go.

Next on the list was access to Windows. While it would be nice to be a purist, I do need to use Outlook and to edit Word, Excel, and Publisher files almost every day. My first step was to simply open up an rdesktop session to my work laptop. This worked fine but I thought that I could do even better.

I installed the latest version of VirtualBox and then (because I couldn’t find a blank DVD) installed Windows Vista on it. This went smoothly and I installed a trial version of Office 2010 on it. Subsequently, I did buy some blank DVDs, burned that 3 GB Windows 7 image onto one, and installed it under VirtualBox. It is rock-solid and can even see my network shares and my printer. There is one annoying bug which causes the keyboard to stop working from time to time. This is apparently a common problem but no one seems to have a solution. Other than that, VirtualBox works great. I took a snapshot of my virtual machine after installing and authorizing Windows 7, and another after doing the same for Office 2010. I can restore from any snapshot in a few seconds with just a click or two.

Compatibility with USB devices, including my ancient HP scanner, has been excellent. I plugged it in, installed the Simple Scan application, and had no trouble getting it to work.

Ok, so what doesn’t work?

I have not been able to get my Samba shares to work, but this is just a configuration issue. The only Windows application that I really and truly miss and cannot live without is Snagit. I need to take high-quality screen shots for the AWS blog and I have yet to find a way to scale, crop, and create nice torn-paper edges on Ubuntu. I can do the scaling and cropping with GIMP, but the scaling isn’t 1/10th as good as Snagit’s. I can use Imagemagick to create fuzzy edges on my screen shots, but I really like (and cannot seem to duplicate) Snagit’s torn paper effect.

I have not yet tried Skype, and I have not yet tried to attend or to host a webinar.

Net-net, I am very happy with the setup!