July 31, 2010
Catching up on Linux Outlaws (sorry guys, I’ve been a bit busy!), Fab mentioned a new audiocast called This Week In Fedora. I thought I’d do my bit and help spread the word.
The show is produced by Frostbite Media and you can find it at http://www.frostbitemedia.org/node/8 – the show is available in both Ogg and MP3 formats.
At the moment, each show features an interview with a key member of the Fedora project. However, I can see the show easily expanding from that format given time.
Pretty cool and definitely worth a listen if you use Fedora or like to find out more about the people behind open source projects.
May 16, 2010
I bought a second hand Mac Mini G4 off a colleague last year, which I was using as a Fedora workstation. Because I’ve been playing with Arch Linux on VirtualBox recently, I decided to take the plunge and replace the Fedora installation with Arch Linux PPC. The aim was to convert this “lowly” 1.2 GHz, 512 MB, 40 GB hard disk box into a home server. Apache, Python, Django, PostgreSQL, MoinMoin, Mercurial etc. you get the idea. Being a rolling release distribution, Arch might seem like an odd choice but it’s a home environment not a production one so the only person affected by software incompatibilities will be me. Likewise, PowerPC isn’t a primary platform for Arch, but then again it isn’t for Fedora anymore. Madness? Well maybe, but it seemed like an interesting way to spend a Saturday.
Despite being a distro for more advanced Linux users, Arch is surprisingly easy to install and set up. The project provides excellent documentation: clear, concise and cross-referenced. The installer is as easy to use as any I’ve found on more newbie-friendly distributions. However, you do need to feel reasonably comfortable with the shell, editing config files and partitioning disks. Then again, it’s unlikely you’ll be trying Arch Linux over something like Fedora or Ubuntu if you don’t.
Being a secondary platform for Arch, and noting that the PPC supplementary notes had been revised recently, I was expecting to have a few problems with the installation. In the end, the only real problem I had was getting Arch’s package manager, pacman, to find a repository server. A quick search on Google yielded the problem straight away, and one that was really obvious in hindsight: an empty Server= declaration at the end of the default config file. A quick commenting out and the problem was fixed.
Networking was picked up without a hitch, I actually did the installation downloading the latest packages via FTP so was definitely pleased about not having to fiddle with drivers and other headaches. The Apple keyboard and Logitech mouse worked just fine. X.org was a breeze to set up – much nicer than it was when I had to mess about with huge XFree86 configs files ten years ago! I have wmii set up as my window manager, although have had a bit of trouble getting it to play nicely with a login manager like XDM or GDM. It’s a permissions problem that I need to investigate, but not a major issue as the machine will be a server so firing up X by default is pointless.
Although there’s a good selection of binary packages for PowerPC, you will likely end up needing to install the Arch Build System (ABS) to build missing packages from scratch. ABS is a joy to use and a classic example of Arch’s elegant, minimalist approach to system maintenance. I started off using it to get mod_wsgi installed and expected it to be a rather awkward experience, so was both surprised and pleased when it proved to be simple and painless. A minor tweak to the PKGBUILD config file to add ppc architecture and voila! The built package can then be installed via pacman and you’re ready to go.
I’m only a day into the experiment, but so far it’s working very well. Arch Linux doesn’t install lots of packages by default, nor does it have dozens of services all installed and running on a base installation. I feel more aware of every component in the system, and I have a lot of control over what specific things I want installed. For the sake of a little bit of extra effort initially, I have a system configured exactly the way I want it and have built a lean, understandable server configuration. That can only be a good thing.
If you’re worried about using Arch on a server environment, due to its rolling release nature, there is a project underway to provide a suitable server distribution with more emphasis on long term support and stability on x86 without sacrificing the Arch way.
Anyway, full marks to the Arch Linux team, and especially the guys who have helped restart the PowerPC support for Arch.
April 4, 2010
I’m not exactly sure when I first heard of Linux. It was either 1993 or 1994, just before I began my first year at university, and I don’t mind admitting it pretty much passed me by.
At university I used SunOS/Solaris and Ultrix, and I had friends already using NetBSD/RiscBSD at home. I became converted to the power and elegance of UNIX, something I’d previously only found on Amiga computers, so it was with much sadness that I graduated and found myself without access to a flavour of UNIX. Commercial workstations were out of my league, I refused to own an x86 PC, and my Amiga A4000/030 lacked an MMU to run NetBSD. There was MINIX though, which ran on an A500, which I’d had great fun hacking during an operating systems development module at uni, but it wasn’t the same.
I rediscovered Linux in 1999. On joining a new company, I was offered the choice of operating system for my desktop machine: Debian GNU/Linux, Red Hat Linux or Windows 98. It was a no-brainer: no way was I running Windows. But which distro of Linux? “If you pick Red Hat, you’ll lose the respect of your colleagues” was the only advice I had. So I picked Debian.
In a way, picking Debian was the right choice: I had to do everything myself, including a rather painful process of getting X up-and-running. I learnt a heck of a lot that day and ended up biting the bullet and building a K6-2 PC (a box I still own) for home use. I was going to install Debian on the home PC, when I ran across something called Mandrake Linux.
Mandrake was based on Red Hat, and a few sources touted it as “bug fixed Red Hat” (whatever that meant). I decided to give it a go so I could compare and contrast between Debian and Red Hat / Mandrake. It was certainly a lot easier to set up, and used something called KDE which was a bit too Windows-like for my taste, but very usable and geared towards a useful desktop system. As I wasn’t in the mood for a high-maintenance system for home use, it fit my needs and I stuck with it.
In 2000 my work PC running Debian decided to self-combust and I was forced to rebuild the machine. Most of the guys in the team had switched to Red Hat Linux, so I decided to standardise with them and switched from Debian. I still retained Mandrake at home, but it was the defining point in my preference towards Red Hat / Fedora style distros.
In 2003, I drifted a little away from Linux and back to my BSD roots: installing NetBSD and FreeBSD, and buying a Powerbook G4 running Mac OS X. OS X became my main UNIX flavour at home. I didn’t abandon Linux entirely, still using my now out-dated Mandrake installation for a few things and having a rather frustrating experience with SuSE on a new second K6-2 box. SuSE was my first, and so far only, bad Linux experience and having had to deal with an equally flakey OpenSuSE 11 system at work last year, things obviously haven’t improved.
Helping to introduce Red Hat Enterprise Linux to work in 2007 reignited my interest in Linux. Fedora took over as my typical Linux distro, and it feels just right: a great community, good support, strong backing from Red Hat, and the right focus and direction. In the last few years, I’ve begun to take more of interest in the community and goals behind a distro, not just what a project offers in terms of software. Fedora meets the goals of a high-quality distribution, backed up by a responsible and open attitude.
There is another distro I have come to enjoy and use, one which takes me back to the first time I installed Debian… albeit much easier: Arch Linux. Arch was introduced to me by the SourceCast (later DistroCast) podcast in 2008. It’s not a newbie distribution, offering something very powerful and in-keeping with the UNIX traditions I was introduced to at university. It’s a minimal, elegant distribution that gives the user massive scope for building a system that fits the user’s needs exactly. It’s backed with an above-average technical user community with a high proportion of contributors. Above all: it’s great fun to use, just like Fedora has been.
So there we have it: from Debian to Mandrake and Red Hat to Fedora and Arch, with a few experiments on the way (like SuSE, Ubuntu, Gentoo, and gNewSense) that didn’t quite grab me.
August 31, 2009
Back in 2003, I made the switch to Macintosh and I’ve been very happy with the choice so far.
Before I switched, my main machine was (get this) an Amiga A4000/030 running AmigaOS 3.0 and packing a 25 MHz 68EC030 and 18 MB of RAM. Supporting it were two 450 MHz K6-II boxes with 128 MB and 64 MB of RAM running Mandrake Linux and NetBSD respectively. I was never really one for bleeding edge computing!
By 2002, I decided it was time to move on. I realised I needed a laptop so I could take my “home office” with me wherever I went. I also wanted to run some kind of UNIX-like environment, since that was the most comfortable one for me outside the world of AmigaOS. As an unashamed fan of the PowerPC chip, I chucked that requirement into the mix too. Naturally, the choice was pretty limited: Apple was the only real suppliers of PowerPC laptops left. I bought one of the new 12″ Powerbook G4s, sold on the compact size and beefy spec, not to mention Mac OS X.
OS X was a marked improvement over the System 6 I used at school on Mac SEs and LC-IIs. It was a decent flavour of UNIX wrapped up in the slick, consistent UI that Apple is famous for. If it didn’t work out, I could always install one of the many Linux distributions or NetBSD, but I haven’t needed to. Now my Powerbook has been replaced by an Intel-powered black MacBook, I will eventually see about replacing the OS with Fedora and bring it back out of retirement since it’s still a very capable machine. Speaking of reviving old kit, my K6-II boxes were recently replaced as servers by one new Intel and one second-hand G4 MacMini, the latter is also running Fedora very nicely indeed.
Apple get a lot of undeserved criticism about dumbing-down, opting for form over function, and being high-priced kit. Apple aren’t really aiming at the low-end of the market, with only some nods in that direction with the MacMini. Dumbing-down? I haven’t seen much evidence of that. If anything, the Windows experience seems to be drifting more towards the patronising user-is-always-an-idiot view, while OS X realised it had grown up and is UNIX underneath, so has attracted more power users than previously. Going to Python conferences makes you realise that stereotypical Mac users aren’t cappuccino-swigging, polo-neck wearing graphic designers any more, but just as likely to be long-haired beardy programmers like me. For those who still insist Linux or any other UNIX system will never make it big on the desktop “because it’s too complicated”, I point them to OS X. Or even Ubuntu these days, now more and more non-techie friends are giving the popular distro a look and liking it.
I do feel guilty for continuing to use a proprietary OS, albeit with a fair bit of open source tech underneath, but it does provide an environment that makes me more productive. The GUI doesn’t get in the way, it’s clean and consistent, works the way I want a GUI to work, and lacks a lot of the niggles I find with various X11 windows managers and especially the clunky UI of Windows. The lack of customisation isn’t really an issue, because I don’t find myself needing to spend time tweaking different settings to attain a reasonably usable setup. Best of all, it’s UNIX under the hood, so I have a familiar shell environment containing all the tools I’ve come to know and appreciate. The best of both worlds.
On the Mac, I use predominantly open source tools. I say predominantly, because I still work with a handful of Apple’s supplied apps (Mail, iCal, iTunes and iPhoto), but there’s a great selection of open source software available so I haven’t needed to lock myself in. MacPorts gives access to a range of straight ports from the UNIX world, while Mac-native versions of free and open source software are also available. My main text editor is Aquamacs, an Aqua-native port of the excellent GNU EMACS. For my office software needs there’s NeoOffice, based on OpenOffice. My web browser is Camino, based on the Mozilla source (I’m really not a fan of Safari). I’ve got bash, gcc and other familiar GNU development tools, Python, VirtualBox, MoinMoin, Apache, PostgreSQL, source control via Subversion / Mercurial / git, FileZilla, Adium, X-Chat Aqua and more. And for those times when MacPorts or native versions don’t fit, I can always compile software from source.
The switch to OS X has also re-introduced me to a world that I’d only had limited experience with: NeXT. I was fascinated by NeXT and carried that interest onto NetBSD using the WindowMaker window manager, a personal favourite of mine, and the GNUStep free software re-implementation of OpenStep. Cocoa, as OpenStep has become, is a very nice API indeed and I admit to liking Objective-C, because it feels a lot cleaner than equivalent languages like C++ or Java. This interest in Cocoa and Objective-C has fed back into my Linux world, with me taking a look into technology such as Etoile, GNUStep, The Cocotron and WindowMaker.
So yeah, I’ve been a very happy switcher.