Why Linux? (Part 2: Efficiency)

Dec 10, 2010 / 0 comments

(This is part of a series of posts on Why Linux?)

My first PC was an Amstrad PPC640D; an 8088 with twin 720k 3.5” disk drives. It never ran Windows (3.0 was current at that point in time and I don’t think it would manage to run off a single floppy), so ran DOS. I moved on to an 8086 desktop machine, complete with 10M full height 5.25” HDD and CGA graphics. It still runs DOS. From there I moved to an 80386DX-40 desktop, with 4M RAM and SVGA graphics. A massive leap forward, and something actually capable of running more than DOS.

Except I didn’t. I had a Windows for Workgroups 3.11 install, but mostly I still did what I needed to from DOS. The machine was never networked; it had a modem attached but that was used to connect to Fidonet which was well serviced by DOS tools. I put Linux on the box at one point but it was C and TCP/IP and I was Pascal and Fido in those days, so I didn’t really know what to make of it.

Fast forward a few years and I’m still mostly using DOS, but I’m on a 486 and am running a separate machine as a BBS. It’s using RemoteAccess under DOS and it feels like with 486 hardware I should be able to do some of this multitasking lark. I try OS/2 and Windows 95, but both end up dropping modem data when doing other things (I’ve moved on to ISDN at this point). Maybe I just needed to tweak things more, but I deem multitasking with BBS software a failure and go back to DOS and 2 machines.

When I went to university one of my new course mates had brought a machine running Linux, and various of the older students are already running it. There was a wealth of information and interest available to me. So I try again. I’ve learnt C and TCP/IP networking since last time, and suddenly it all makes more sense and I’m able to do more with it (I’m sure a summer using HP/UX on my desktop at Nortel helped).

And, as I finally get to the point, it’s efficient. It makes use of the extra memory in the machine that DOS can only touch with kludges. It allows me to multitask in a usable fashion. I don’t feel the need for a GUI so I don’t have to run one, which no doubt helps, but everything that’s running is easily visible and tunable. I start running it as my desktop at university and convert the BBS over to it at some point soon after. It doesn’t drop modem data. I rejoice, and don’t look back.

In those days I was running hardware that was probably at the low end of what the popular multitasking OSes wanted (I remember seeing Win95 on a 4M machine when it first came out, and it crawled). These days my main machines are (I would hope) more than capable of running Windows well. The efficiency angle is still an appeal of Linux though; for example in the server space I don’t understand why you’d want to run something with the overhead of an always on GUI (people who leave Linux servers running GDM confuse me). I want to be able to do everything I need on a server remotely, be that via SSH or, in a pinch, a serial console. I don’t want to sit at the box and use a GUI. Linux lets me run only what I actually need on the machine.

Why Linux? (Part 1: Familiarity)

Dec 5, 2010 / 0 comments

A few weeks ago it became apparent to me that I may end up having to run Windows on my work PC. We’re getting new machines soon with Vista images preloaded. There’s a Linux image option (of unknown base, but possibly Ubuntu), but I’ve kinda been assuming that I could continue in my current approach - I run Debian, and accept that IT won’t give me any support in doing so other than caring about the hardware. Seems like a reasonable deal to me. Except it requires an infrastructure that’s platform agnostic, and that’s the problem. There’s a danger our new bug tracking system is much, much happier in IE than anything else. That’s kinda a problem if I can’t access it. The event last week was around a web streamed meeting, which is annoying but not as critical.

I was unhappy at this realization. Very unhappy. And yet I had trouble finding the words to explain why. I don’t do Linux advocacy these days (I’m not sure I ever really did). I probably gave up at the point my parents’ bought a replacement machine for my mother while I was living in England and went for a Windows box (she’d been running Debian) because “they had knowledge of that in the house given I wasn’t around”. And then promptly rang me after it arrived to ask how to configure networking.

Anyway. If I can’t come up with some decent reasons about why I run Linux over Windows then I can’t justifiably complain if I end up with a Windows desktop. So I think I need to collect together some thoughts about it. I’ll try to break them up into a bunch of separate posts rather than one huge dump that no one will read.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Familiarity

This was the first question a coworker asked; is it because you’re used to Linux? And it would be untruthful to say that doesn’t play a part. I’ve been running Linux on the desktop for the past 12 years or so (well, I had few years running FreeBSD on my primary desktop too, but close enough). The only time I’ve ended up with a Windows desktop was when I worked for Aviva. I don’t currently have a working Windows install anywhere. I have little experience of working with Windows these days. I mean, I can do it, but I don’t find it comfortable (to the extent that I managed about 3 hours when I ended up with a Windows desktop back in August before installing Debian on it).

That’s the argument often used to stay with Windows (as per my parents, above). And it’s not accurate. Why did I try Linux in the first place, and stick with it long enough to get to this point?

New laptop: Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T

Nov 7, 2010 / 0 comments

I blogged back in August about my frustration in finding a new laptop that had everything I was looking for. I'd figured I would eventually end up with the Toshiba R700, given my positive experiences with the R200. The lack of stock proved a problem, and the differing specs between the US and UK models also annoying. I started trying to source the Sony and finally found the HD model in stock from Vizik, but the helpful people there talked themselves out of a sale by saying the Full HD was too much for 13" (they also failed to have a 3G Full HD model).

I'd only brought the EEE 901 to the US with me, so after a month of that as my only machine at home I was starting to get a bit fed up; the keyboard is too small for constant use and it crawls when subjected to my normal usage patterns rather than just used as a lightweight network terminal. So it became obvious I was going to have to compromise on what I wanted. And if I was doing that I wanted something a lot cheaper, as I thought I may potentially want to upgrade sooner than usual.

In the end I've gone with an Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T. It cost about a third of what the more fully featured laptops I was looking at were going for, which was a considerable bonus. The 2 things I ended up compromising on were the SSD and 3G support. And the name; I wasn't entire sure about what the build quality would be like.

As it turned out I needn't have worried; it appears to be perfectly well constructed - no noticeable flex while typing, solid enough, yet still fairly light. The keyboard is pleasant to use (admittedly I'm coming from the EEE, but it's a good size and responsive enough for me). I'm a bit uncertain about the touchpad, which has no physical separation from the rest of the case, but it's been ok so far. I miss the multitouch of the EEE, but it looks like there are some patches for Synaptics multitouch flying around that might eventually lead to useful support. I've ended up with a Core i5 470UM at 1.33GHz - what I ordered was the i5-430UM at 1.2GHz (and that's what the box/label on the laptop said), but I'm not complaining at the slight speed bump. It's fine for my needs. The 1366x768 screen is lovely, even in 11.6". Bright, if sometimes a little too shiny..

Installing was of course fun; it reminded me of when I got the R200 - neither the wifi nor wired interfaces were supported by the Debian installer, even from testing. I found a patch to get the (Atheros) LAN working (and have filed #599771 about potentially getting the support into squeeze's kernel) and that got me up and going. The wifi is a Broadcom BCM43225; too new for the old Free driver and the recently released Broadcom Free code causes the machine to instantly crash (I understand it has some SMP issues). So I'm stuck with the binary blob wl driver from broadcom-sta for now. I have hopes the Broadcom driver will improve though; it seems to be getting active love in the staging tree. The graphics are Intel, so well supported. And I'm getting at least 4 hours of battery life out of it, which I think could be improved with some tweaking.

So, er, yeah. Not what I set out looking for, but considerably cheaper and actually seems to meet my needs pretty well - it had its first weekend away trip this weekend and performed admirably; not too heavy in my hand luggage, decent battery life and no worries about it being too flimsy to survive. I'm still surprised it's an Acer...

No, you can't have my password

Sep 22, 2010 / 0 comments

I got pulled up on my password policy yesterday; I don't tell other people my passwords. The context was arranging that a friend could use my laptop while I was away at work - instead of telling her my login details so she could use that I created a new account. This provoked a "Don't you trust me?" response. I couldn't quite manage to successfully articulate the fact that I did trust her, I was aware that unsupervised physical access meant that it was easy enough to gain access anyway but that I just wouldn't hand over my password. It's not like there's anything confidential or that isn't backed up on there. The password is for that machine only. My GPG key doesn't live on it, so the biggest effort if it was attacked would be rolling the SSH key (that has a passphrase, of course) for that machine. And yet I couldn't bring myself to do it. This is nothing unique to this instance; I spent 13 years with Katherine and she never knew my passwords nor had root access to any of my machines. I can imagine situations where I'd share root, but even then I wouldn't share my personal password.

Do I come across as untrusting, or is anyone else like this too?

(In the interest of full disclosure I have actually handed over my password [more accurately, changed it temporarily to something else] to someone in a work context, but it was really, really hard for me to bite my tongue and not respond with a curt "Shouldn't you be able to gain the appropriate access as you are part of IT anyway?".)

New Laptop Frustration

Aug 17, 2010 / 0 comments

I've been talking about replacing my laptop since November. Now I've somewhat forced the issue by giving away my R200, leaving myself with just the EEE 901. I'm not planning to bring a desktop with me to California (well, I might ship bits for a media box, but probably not even a complete machine), so I've been looking more seriously at what my options are.

I like smaller laptops; the R200 is 12", I had a Compaq N200 previous which was 10". There seem to be a number of 13" options that are light, so I'm prepared to look at those.

This is going to be my main machine, so I need something with some grunt. A decent amount of RAM with a reasonable processor. I'm probably prepared to take the price hit in order to get SSD. Also a decent resolution screen along with built in wifi (does anything not have this these days?) + 3G would be nice too.

Of course, it turns out I can't have all of this. In particular the US market seems pretty dire for 3G support (no, something locked or that can't take a GSM SIM doesn't count. I expect to travel.) The UK market is a bit better, but there are still no perfect answers.

Lenovo X201s

(It's really hard for me to think of this as a Lenovo rather than an IBM Thinkpad.)

This comes in a 1440x900 resolution variant, which is nice for 12". I can have a touchpad too. What I can't have is 3G; with the 1440x900 screen there's apparently no space for the 3G antenna. Doh! Also Thinkpads are *ugly*.

Sony Vaio VPCZ12Z9E/X

I want this. Core i7, 1920x1080 screen, SSD, 3G (Gobi), sub 1.5Kg.

But. Sony. Ridiculously expensive. If it was half the price and made by Lenovo or Toshiba I'd have bought one by now. As it is there's no way I can reasonably expect it to last 3 years (and really I'd want 5 given the cost).

Toshiba R700-155

I've been extremely happy with my R200 and spent a long time eying the R500/R600. The -155 is a Core i7, 1366x768 screen, 13", 3G, sub 1.5Kg.

2 problems. One, I'd like a better resolution if I'm going to 13" - both the Lenovo and the Sony manage that. Secondly, and more of an issue, nowhere seems to have them in stock.

HP Elitebook 2540p

This has potential. Seems to be a little heavier than the other options, and it's only a 1280x800 screen (but in 12"). Available with Core i7, SSD & 3G. Oh, except once again stock is a problem.

Have I missed anything else out there? I can probably buy from the UK or US with equal ease.

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