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a linux tale

sshot-2-small.pngI started using linux back in early 1994, when I got a distribution on eight high-density floppy disks, with one of the first versions of LILO (the kernel was the "classic" 0.91pl14 if I remember correctly). I had been "converted" to UNIX a little bit earlier when I got my first job and I learned how the UNIX kernel worked, its design principles, and its inherent beauty. :-) Suddenly, I could see. I became a UNIXhead (TM), but of course (as mostly everyone else) I had to deal with Windows.

I used Linux heavily at work and at home for the next few years, mostly in dual-boot environments (before Red Hat, my favorite was the Slackware distribution-of-distributions, and the popular-for-a-while Plug and Play Linux from Yggdrasil Computing, remember that one?), until the versions of Java got completely out of sync (particularly on the graphics side of things, with the arrival of Java2D) and I couldn't use it as a decent Java platform anymore. In my last company in the US I installed Linux (RedHat 6 methinks) for use in server-side applications and as a NAT/transparent firewall until the company hired a sysadmin and they decided to simplify (right...) and went with an all-Windows infrastructure.

By the time I came left the US the Linux port of Java was respectable (certainly for server-side work) but a lot (most?) of what I was doing was client-side, so, again, no luck. I stayed with Windows (besides, I needed to make sure that then-spaces ran properly on Windows first). I switched to WinXP at the beginning of 2002 after a friend convinced me that, yes, it was slightly better than Windows 2000, and cleartype made it a good option on LCD displays. Then over the last two years or so I used Linux for testing, basically using an old version since getting a new version was too much hassle, and I (thought I) didn't really have the time, and I guess that inertia got the better of me as well.

But then...

Fast-forward to last week and the attack of the Windows worms that wrecked my mail (Since I activated the filters on my server 24 hours ago, 5000 messages---yes, that's five thousand--- have been rejected), and me getting pissed off enough at Microsoft that I thought that maybe change was in the cards. So I downloaded Red Hat 9 (took about 5-6 hours I guess?) burned the install ISOs, backed up my notebook, and started the install last night after I got the email situation sorted out.

I started selecting the packages to install, and in the end I decided that the "Install Everything" (4.7 GB) option was probably best, since I wanted to check out KDE, Gnome, etc, and I always end up using the development tools in Linux anyway. The full install took maybe 3 hours. After it was done, a tool called "kuzdu" detected the hardware that hadn't already been configured (including a 3COM modem, and the sound card, among other things) and after that X launched with no problems. I had to do some tweaking later to optimize the use of the LCD (which is the only thing that wasn't properly detected, and Thinkpads have pretty good LCD dpi resolution), but aside from that everything was fine. The next step was configuring my 802.11 (aka WiFi) card.

Coincidentally, I had gone through the config process of a WiFi adapter against my WAP only last week (with another machine), but that machine was running Windows XP Pro. It was a nightmare. The configuration options were impossible to decipher, including typing the WEP key. In all, it took more than half an hour, and in the end the connection was flaky: it kept dropping and had to be manually reconnected, which was, as you might imagine, a royal pain.

So I was a bit apprehensive about the Linux config, as it turns out, needlessly so. I just had to go to Main > System Settings > Network and the network device control panel showed up. I selected the wireless card, which had already been detected (a Linksys WPC-11 Type-II PC Card, which Linux identified by its chip, Orinoco), type in the HEX WEP key, choose DHCP to use my NAT gateway, and bingo. Select Save, and restart network interfaces. Done.

It just worked. After that, even though sometimes the connection dropped (rare, but possible) it reconnected on its own (obviously, who came up with the idea of manual reconnect in WinXP??).

I was slightly shocked. Could it really be that easy? It was 2 am, my eyes burned slightly, but I got more ambitious. What else? I thought. Now I had Internet access...

I started with Firebird, to replace the bloated sluggishness of Mozilla. Loaded Evolution just for fun <wink> and closed it again, while I got Firebird set up, which magically replaced my links to mozilla itself (I'm not even sure how that happened... something to do with the Nautilus desktop--but I don't care). After Firebird I downloaded JDK 1.4.2 for Linux. Strangely enough, all the Linux distributions I've seen set as default Java install one of the crappy open-source implementations (don't get me wrong, I find the work done on them amazing, but the truth is that they're not up to par in terms of Swing, Java2D, etc, and they're always one or two major versions behind). I suppose that might have to do with Sun-licensing stuff. Anyway, so I got Sun's distribution (RPM), installed it, all fine. The default java still pointed somewhere else but I didn't want to spend time then to look at how to replace it.

Now that I had proper Java 1.4.2 I got the latest binary of clevercactus (internal release :-)) and ran it. Set up a breeze, and it might have been a subjective hallucination but I thought that it looked excellent, and performed flawlessly. I was impressed. Heh.

Okay, enough with the self-promotion! After I got cc running I configured it to get my email, etc (the cactus-to-cactus sync is still not complete) and then moved on to development environment. I got the latest version of IDEA (3.0.5--plus updated website!) which I still prefer to Eclipse for reasons that are probably irrational while making perfect sense only to me. That took a bit longer (longer download, a couple of more things to set up).

Then some cvs configuration (against the CVS server for sources) and I was basically done. I still have to look for a few other things (among them, an IRC client, which I'm sure is around here somewhere), and it should be enough.

So now I've just finished updating the packages in my system with up2date (take that, Windows update! :-)) and am now enjoying a number of luxuries that I had forgotten, for example:

  • A decent shell, with proper scripting and regular expressions (bash2)
  • A decent built-in text editor (vi--I'm not an emacs kind of person)
  • A decent multi-screen window system (X)
  • A decent thread/task manager (ie., an OS Kernel that doesn't kill the entire machine even when one process is running at 100%)
  • Good screensavers :-)
  • gcc at my fingertips!
Among other things, like the cool desktop gizmos that Gnome/Red Hat has (I'll comment on that in another entry). And all of that, with excellent, zero-config Windows compatibility. Example: I go to Main > Network Servers open the Windows server. Get files. Then copy over a PPT file from the Win machine, double clicked, it opened. I can run the presentation, edit it, whatever. Everything just works. (Okay, and when it doesn't, there's tons of docs on how to do things, much more accessible than their Windows equivalents). It's definitely very, very close to being something that absolutely anyone could set up (the only problem that remains is that, when something goes wrong, you end up having to go to consoles, which I actually enjoy at times, but most people would be completely baffled by it. In Windows you just get a catastrophic error, and that's that. The console is harder to use, but it actually lets you fix the problem. :-))

Probably the only thing that I truly miss is cleartype within Firebird (Mozilla seems to have better font display for some reason). But so what.

I still have WinXP on the other machine, but I am beginning to wonder if that's necessary too. If I get VMWare for Linux, and then run WinXP in there... not now though, this has taken about 12 hours total--not bad, but there's a ton of things to do aside from this... we'll see.

One more thing: It's good to be back :-)

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on August 26 2003 at 1:39 PM

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