Why Linux? (Part 3: It's cheap)

Dec 18, 2010 / 0 comments

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

Linux, to me as an end user, is cheap. Even taking into account the fact most PCs come with a Windows licence included it’s still cheaper for me to run Linux. I paid Steve minimal amounts for my first set of Debian install CDs. These days I can burn my own netinst CDs and pull the rest over the internet. I legally have access to a tremendous range of excellent software, for nothing. All the apps I need are available without having to shell out more. How is that not awesome? I get free updates, both for bugs and also for major features. I’m not left with the option of paying lots of money for the latest and greatest, or dealing with an unsupported old release with known bugs.

The counter argument from my Windows using friends is often about how they didn’t pay for their Windows updates nor their copy of Office. I’m unimpressed with anyone who tells me Windows is a better option, but is unprepared to pay for it. If you have to illegally obtain it in order for it to compete with Linux then you’re not really comparing on equal terms, are you? Also don’t tell me that Free software takes away jobs from software engineers and then pirate software, eh?

Cost isn’t just about the money though. I’ve put many hours into being involved in Debian. I’ve provided project resources when I was in a position to do so. I’ve contributed to the Linux kernel. Not quite the same as paying for it, but I think does indicate that I’m trying to give back a little too. I also accept that at an organisational level the basic cost of the software licences is often negligible compared to things like hardware, training and support.

I still think cost is a compelling argument for the home user, and for decisions at an organisational level. As mentioned I realise there are issues with training and support, but I don’t believe these costs are any higher than for alternative OSes. Linux also makes it remarkably easy to remotely administer machines, and perform common actions across an entire installed estate, without needing extra bolt ons from 3rd parties.

Cost doesn’t provide sufficient justification for an individual desktop in an organisation that has site licences for an alternative however (and in fact running Linux requires extra work on my part to do the install and maintenance compared to allowing central IT to manage my machine). So that’s not a good enough reason.

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?".)

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