Lean, mean Linux

LinuxToday linked to a story today about Building a lo-fat Linux desktop. Basically it’s a list of applications you can run on a 233 MHz machine without feeling like you’re standing in line at the bank.

Most of the apps are things I’ve mentioned here before, but never in one place, at least not as a list of apps that run superfast. The closest I ever came was that last link. So I’m glad someone else did.

One nice thing: That last link was from 2002. Two and a half years-plus later, not much has changed. I think that’s good. It means things are stable.

Here’s a general principle to follow: KDE gives a nice, integrated environment and lots of apps that play well together, but the price is overhead. If you want something that reminds you of Windows and a Mac, run KDE. But don’t complain if Linux is slow on anything less than a cutting-edge machine, because it will be.

If you’ve heard that Linux runs fast even on ancient hardware and you want to live up to that expectation, Gnome apps are faster.

Sylpheed is a nice e-mail client if what you need is an e-mail client and not an all-out PIM. When I’m running Linux it’s what I like to use.

Dillo is a minimalist web browser. That has its advantages. Popups? Flash? Blinky ads? What are those? It’s a great choice for slower machines, and even for fast machines if what you’re wanting to do is get the information on the web without distractions and then get out.

Icewm is my default desktop no matter what machine I’m running. If I had a quad-CPU 3.4 GHz P4, I’d still run Icewm.

I haven’t used a newsreader since Google bought Dejanews, but back when I frequented newsgroups and ran my own client, Pan was tops. Pan did things that the for-pay newsreaders like Microplanet Gravity wouldn’t do. And that was something like five years ago. I’m sure it’s better now. Not only was it full-featured, it was fast.

I hadn’t heard of the picture viewers the article mentions. I’m not sure that I have a picture viewer installed on my current Linux desktop. I guess I just haven’t needed one. Hmm. But as I recall, GTKSee was reasonably quick, and its user interface was familiar, since ACDSee is a very popular program.

As far as links to the apps, I don’t provide them because you’ll need packages specific to your distribution, assuming your distribution didn’t already come with them (which it may very well have). Do a Google search on the app name and your distribution–“Sylpheed Mandrake” “Sylpheed Fedora” or what have you.

It’s a good article that I recommend reading, as is the follow-up, linked at the bottom.

More tips for playing with toy trains

As you can probably guess from the length of time between postings, the Lionel has proven to be quite the distraction. A welcome one, but definitely a distraction.
I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way.

Clean old plastic buildings quickly. My buildings had accumulated a decade or so of dust and grime sitting in a box, and they probably weren’t clean when they were boxed either. The solution? Put a dab of hand soap and a small amount of laundry detergent in a bucket, then fill it with warm water. Just put in enough soap and detergent to make some suds. Disassemble the buildings and drop them in. Let them soak for a few minutes, then scrub with a toothbrush. They’ll look almost new. Note: Don’t do this if they have decals, or if you deliberately weathered the buildings. If you don’t know what weathering means, then go get your bucket.

Cleaning severely rusted track. To clean severely rusted track, give it a thrice-over with a drill’s metal brush attachment. It’ll mark the track up badly, but it’ll clean it up fairly nicely and may allow a dysfunctional train to run again. Don’t worry about ruining a prized collectible; used Lionel track sells for 25-50 cents a section at a hobby shop. This also means you shouldn’t put a lot of time and effort into salvaging rusty track–especially considering the new stuff sells for a dollar.

Lubricate your cars’ wheels for smoother operation. Unlike the engine, WD-40 is fine for this. Put a small quantity of oil into a bottlecap, then use a toothpick to apply it anywhere that the axles come in contact with other parts of the car. After doing this, your train will run more quietly and smoother, and your locomotives will be able to pull approximately 30% more weight, so you can feel free to add another car or two.

Buildings on the cheap for the nether regions of your layout. If you have some kind of structured drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, KDE Kontour, Macromedia Freehand, or even something like Visio) you can draw the basic shapes of buildings, print them out on heavy card stock, and cut them up and glue them together. Get started by taking measurements from an existing building and use that as a guide to help you learn the height of a door, window, and floor. Export the file to some kind of raster format (JPG or PNG) prior to printing and use GIMP or Photoshop to add textures if your drawing program doesn’t support it. For added realism, cut out the windows and glue in pieces of transparent plastic (kitchen plastic wrap is fine but cutouts from clear plastic bags are nicer). It doesn’t take any longer than assembling and painting a plastic model, the results are surprisingly convincing–the only advantage plastic offers is more realistic texture–and you’ll never beat the price. And if something happens to the building, you can always print out and reassemble another one.

Polystyrene sheets for scratchbuilding plastic models on the cheap. Once you’ve built some paper models and want to move up to building plastic buildings from scratch, you can pay $7 for a small sheet of polystyrene at a hobby shop, or you can buy 88-cent Beware of Dog signs from the nearest hardware or discount store. It’s the same stuff, only bigger and printed on one side. Put the printed side on the inside of the model and cover it with paper if you want to keep your secret safe. If you live near a big city, I’ve heard that plastic distributors sell big 4’x8′ sheets of polystyrene for about $7. A square foot of material makes for a good-sized building, so a 4×8 sheet will probably yield more than 30 buildings.

Knoppix: A low-commitment way to try Linux

I’m posting this from a computer running Knoppix. Charlie brought a copy in to work the other day and handed it to me. I actually downloaded Knoppix several months ago but never burned myself a copy because I didn’t have any 80-minute CD-Rs–I’ve still got about 20 74-minute jobs I haven’t used yet.
Yep, it’s an excuse. I know a lot of people have several objections to Linux:

1. There’s no software, or at least nothing I’d want.
2. It’s hard to install.
3. If I do manage to install it, I can’t get a good graphical interface working.
4. It takes too long.
5. I really don’t want to go to the trouble of repartitioning my hard drive, and I don’t want to run it on my old computer because it’ll be slow.

Knoppix is a full Linux distribution on a CD. You pop it in a PC (it’s best if it has at least 128 megs of RAM) and boot off it. It detects your hardware and boots you into a full-blown KDE environment.

Software? It has three word processors, three spreadsheets, two web browsers, two graphical mail clients, a desktop publisher, an MP3 player, a bunch of games (including a Civilization clone) and a bunch more stuff. In short, far more software than the typical Windows user has installed.

And if you don’t like it, just go to the “K” menu and hit Logoff. It shuts down. Pop out the CD, and boot back into Windows or whatever else it was that was on that computer.

I really wish the people who talk about Linux on the desktop would take the few minutes it takes to download and boot Knoppix. Their reaction would be telling.

Houston is Microsoft’s problem: Alternatives to Microsoft Office

Houston had a problem. Now it’s Microsoft’s problem.
You see, Microsoft threatened Houston with the same threat they’ve been rattling around a lot of other places. Sign a multi-million-dollar, automatic-upgrade deal for Office and other Microsoft software, or face an audit. When you’re the only game in town and you suspect people have played fast and loose with your licensing agreement, you can afford to do that.

Except the Texans stared the bully down. When Microsoft said Houston needed to cough up some bucks for office software, Houston said fine, they’d buy it from someone else.

And now that Houston is using SimDesk instead of Microsoft Office, it’s making headlines.

The city of Largo, Florida, which runs itself on a thin-client environment based on Linux and KDE, is a PR coup for Linux. But Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States. And this is turning into a PR nightmare for Microsoft–now Chicago, the third-most populous city, is also looking at SimDesk.

For less than half the money, the cities get ease of use, cross-platform compatibility, centralized offsite file storage, and longer hardware life. SimDesk stands to save Houston far more than the $7 million on paper.

But SimDesk isn’t the only other game in town. WordPerfect is still hanging on, one of the few survivors of the era when there were a dozen or more word processors, spreadsheets, and databases available for the PC. It’s still solid and capable today, and it’s a good choice if you’re looking to go a fairly traditional route. StarOffice is cheaper but still capable. The 602Suite (a.k.a. 602office) is either free or inexpensive, depending on the feature set you want.

Unfortunately, the highly regarded Gobe Productive is off the market, and efforts to raise the money to purchase the source code for the purpose of releasing it as GPL appear to have quietly failed. The good news is that the declination seem to indicate Gobe expects to have some kind of future.

If you want free, go with OpenOffice, which is StarOffice’s free, open-source twin brother. And if you’re willing to dith Office and Windows, you can run KDE and KOffice, or a variety of Gnome productivity apps, such as Evolution, AbiWord, and Gnumeric.

Most of the alternatives don’t offer all the functionality that Office includes, but few people use more than about 20% of Office’s functionality anyway. The alternatives have all of the essentials down.

The main thing tying most companies and organizations to Microsoft Office file format compatibility. An obscure piece of software called ConversionsPlus takes care of that problem. I’ve used ConversionsPlus to convert literally hundreds of files at a time to and from Microsoft Office format, and the process only takes a few minutes.

Red Hat and Debian fans debate desktop Linux

Mail from longtime reader Steve Mahaffey on the state of desktop Linux. My responses interspersed within:
SM: It’s been a while since I’ve emailed you, though I still read your site almost daily and comment from time to time.

DF: I appreciate that.

SM: Other than our common faith the most important subject that I could comment on might be desktop Linux.

DF: And it’s been a while since I’ve written about either of those. Too long.

SM: In the past I’ve used Mandrake and Suse briefly, and Red Hat 7.2/3 more extensively. As a server, Red Hat 7.3, booted to runlevel 3, runs until the power goes off at my West Houston home long enough to outlast my UPS. On the other hand, as a desktop OS, Red Hat 7.3 with KDE or Ximian Gnome would crash 1-3 x per week, and Ximian Gnome would get corrupted, requiring me to delete various ./.gnome* config files or files in /tmp to fix it, which most users would not be able to fathom or guess at.

DF: The more advanced desktop environments seem to be pretty sensitive to something or other. I haven’t figured out what exactly. That’s part of the reason why I run IceWM on Debian on my desktop; it’s stable. Running Gnome apps under IceWM on Debian “Unstable” (the experimental, bleeding-edge Debian distro), I’ve been chasing a slow memory leak that eventually consumes all available physical memory and eventually leads to a crash, but it takes a month or two. More on what I think is going on in a minute.

SM: Red Hat 8.0 on my primary workstation, on the other hand, is currently at 43 days uptime. NO CRASHES, once or twice I have restarted the x-server, and once I had a problem with the gnome conifg files. I know that you use Debian mostly, but Red Hat, Lindows, Mandrake, Lycoris, or the like will be the ones to have a mass impact on the desktop. Seems like Lycoris or Lindows was Debian based, though.

DF: I know Lindows is based on Debian. I don’t know Lycoris’ origin. You are correct that Debian will have minimal impact on the desktop, at least in the home. Debian doesn’t give a rip about commercial success and it shows.

I saw Red Hat 8 and Mandrake 9 recently and I was impressed at how far they’ve come. I haven’t touched Red Hat since 6.2 or Mandrake since, well, 7.2 probably. They looked stable and fast. And I saw a minimal (no options picked) Mandrake 9 install the other night. It was 144 megs. I remember not long ago trying to do minimal Red Hat and Mandrake installs and they were 300 megs, at least. That’s definitely a step in the right direction.

SM: Anyway, besides much greater stability, I have enough functionality for most of my needs in programs like Open Office, gnucash, Mozilla or Galeon, Evolution or KMail, etc. Some may have other needs, only met via Windows only programs, of course. I have noticed that RH 8.0 seems on occasion to be slow, but not most of the time. The menus are a little funny … easy to add to the KDE menus, but they don’t always seem to work. With Gnome, it’s easier to add a custom panel to add a non-default application, but it does work then.

DF: Linux currently meets most of the needs I observe on the typical user’s desktop. Not necessarily power users, but for the basic users who are interested in typing simple documents like letters and memos, simple spreadsheets (and let’s face it, an awful lot of spreadsheets use very basic math, if any at all), e-mail, Web browsing, chat, and listening to music, Linux provides solutions that are as good as, if not superior to, those that run on Windows.

I also observe how many users don’t know how to add an application to Windows’ Start menu, or desktop, or that quick-launch thing on the taskbar. It may be easier on Windows, but it’s still not easy enough for most people.

Of course, this is coming from someone who keeps at least one shell window open at all times in Linux and launches apps from there because it’s faster and easier for me to type the first few letters of an app and hit tab and then enter than it is to navigate a menu. For people like me, Linux is much, much superior to Windows and always will be.

SM: RH 8.0 did recognize my nVidia card, but did NOT enable opengl 3d acceleration. I had to install the nVidia drivers from the nVidia web site to get opengl acceleration…apparently Red Hat has decided to not support that at this time. Another oddity is that I have had to turn on the cd sound to play audio CDs by using the kde mixer…can’t seem to do it with the gnome mixer, and don’t know where to hack a config file or file permissions to do this.

DF: Given Red Hat’s history with KDE, it’s ironic that some things work better in KDE than Gnome on Red Hat. Nvidia’s decision to only provide binary drivers (not source) hasn’t proven popular with a lot of Linux distributors, which probably has a lot to do with the OpenGL issues. Red Hat isn’t going to go out of its way to make nVidia look good, and might actually go out of its way to make nVidia not look as good as ATI or Matrox or other companies who are willing to provide straight source, taking the chance that users will blame nVidia rather than Red Hat or Linux. (That’s not a particularly safe bet, but it’s not out of character, given past history.)

SM: Other things… Evolution crashes a lot. I’ve given up and started using KMail (for IMAP since I use my own mail server with IMAP). Galeon is good, but it seems that I had some printing issues and I’ve been using Mozilla more. I’ll have to see how the Phoenix browser comes along…it might be the best choice. Flash and Java required a manual install.

DF: Evolution is stable for me in Debian (more stable than Outlook 2000 under Windows 2000) but I’ve heard that complaint. I have to wonder if Evolution might be picky about the libraries it’s linked to and what it’s compiled with and how? Debian is really conservative; Red Hat is much more apt to use C compilers that haven’t proven themselves just yet. It’s great that GCC 3.2 is so much faster, but if that speed is still coming at the price of stability, let’s back off, eh?

I like Galeon but I don’t print Web pages much. Phoenix is turning into a very nice browser. Lately I’ve been using Mozilla nightly builds for the spam filtering in the mail client and no other reason.

SM: All in all, maybe Red Hat 8.0 is still more a distro that is more suited for corporate environments that have IT personnel around to hand-hold, and which need only modest desktop application abilities. But, it’s coming quite close to the fabled “Aunt Minnie” friendly OS that will really give Microsoft fits.

DF: It’ll take time to get mainstream appeal but I believe it will. Linux PCs in Wal-Mart are a very good thing, because it gives exposure and feedback. The press hasn’t been too kind to the Linux PCs sold there, but if the criticisms are addressed, things will get better, faster, for all distributions. Windows nothing but a really bad Mac wanna-be for 10 years, but it ripened because it infiltrated mass-market PCs. The press applauded Microsoft as it washed its dirty laundry in public. Linux won’t get that same treatment, but I’ll take a criticizing press over a kiss-butt press any day of the week if the goal is product maturity. Windows has been 20 years in the making, but XP still crashes too much.

And as far as Red Hat vs. Debian goes, I may have to give Red Hat another look as a desktop OS soon.

SM: Most of your comments seem to center around Linux and server applications. This is not trivial or unimportant. However, I think that the time for desktop Linux may be getting quite close, and I’d be interested in your comments if you feel so inclined.

DF: My focus has changed in the past year. Two years ago, I did desktop support, and server work in emergencies. About a year ago, I started moving into server support and only did desktop support in emergencies. It’s been a year since I’ve dealt with end users on a regular basis, so I don’t know as much what’s wanted or needed on the desktop anymore and I definitely don’t think about it nearly as much since I’m almost never confronted with it.

I think my thoughts on it are still worth something, since it’s only been a year, but that kind of experience definitely doesn’t age well.

Getting back to the desktop, the apps we need are in place. What they need most now are must-have features that Microsoft won’t supply, or won’t supply quickly. Bayesian spam filtering in Mozilla is a prime example of Open Source beating MS to the punch. A great idea showed up on Slashdot, some early implementations showed up immediately, and within a month or two, it’s in Mozilla’s alpha builds. The public at large will have a usable implementation within a couple of months. And there will be others. I suspect we’ll see lots of examples of it in digital media. I mean, whose design would you rather use, the design of someone concerned only with corporate interests, or the design of a group of users concerned with their fair-use rights and yours and mine?

SM: Anyway, maybe you’ll find my observations to be of interest.

DF: Always.

An interesting type of cluster computing

Now here’s something that seems interesting and useful. The two times I want to cluster are when I’m rendering video (ick) or compiling something massive like KDE or Mozilla (quadruple ick).
Enter distcc, which lets you spread your C/C++ compiling out over a network.

The most obvious use for this would be source-based Linux distros like Gentoo, since those compiles take forever and most people who are interested in compiling Gentoo already have an army of existing Linux boxes.

If they succeed in getting distcc and Gentoo working together, I’ll give Gentoo a serious look. None of my machines are quick enough to build everything I’d want in a reasonable length of time, especially considering GCC 3.1’s slower speed. And what’s the point of using Gentoo if you’re not the first on the block with the compiler that generates the fastest code? But if I can distribute the load across my Duron-700, my dual Celeron-500, and whatever else I can scrounge up (which ranges from my work-owned P3-700 laptop down to a 66 MHz 486–I’ll probably keep the 486 on the bench), I’m willing to look at it.

Linux Performance Tuning

I found a very superficial Linux Journal article on performance tuning linked from LinuxToday this week. I read the article because I’m a performance junkie and I hoped to maybe find something I hadn’t heard before.
The article recommended a kernel recompile, which many people don’t consider critical anymore. It’s still something I do, especially on laptops, since a kernel tuned to a machine’s particular hardware boots up faster–often much faster. While the memory you save by compiling your own kernel isn’t huge and was much more critical back when a typical computer had 8 MB of RAM, since Linux’s memory management is good, I like to give it as much to work with as possible. Plus, I’m of the belief that a simple system is a more secure system. The probability of a remote root exploit through the parallel port driver is so low as to be laughable, but when my boss’ boss’ boss walks into my cube and asks me if I’ve closed all possible doors that are practical to close, I want to be able to look him in the eye and say yes.

The same goes for virtual consoles. If a system runs X most of the time, it doesn’t need more than about three consoles. A server needs at most three consoles, since the only time the sysadmin will be sitting at the keyboard is likely to be during setup. The memory savings isn’t always substantial, depending on what version of getty the system is running. But since Linux manages available memory well, why not give it everything you can to work with?

The best advice the article gave was to look at alternative window managers besides the ubiquitous KDE and Gnome. I’ve found the best thing I’ve ever done from a performance standpoint was to switch to IceWM. KDE and Gnome binaries will still run as long as the libraries are present. But since KDE and Gnome seem to suffer from the same feature bloat that have turned Windows XP and Mac OS X into slow pigs, using another window manager speeds things along nicely, even on high-powered machines.

I take issue with one piece of advice in the article. Partitioning, when done well, reduces fragmentation, improves reliability, and allows you to tune each filesystem for its specific needs. For example, if you had a separate partition for /usr or /bin, which hold executable files, large block sizes (the equivalent of cluster sizes in Windows) will improve performance. But for /home, you’ll want small block sizes for efficiency.

The problem is that kernel I/O is done sequentially. If a task requires reading from /usr, then /home, then back to /usr, the disk will move around a lot. A SCSI disk will reorder the requests and execute them in optimal order, but an IDE disk will not. So partitioning IDE disks can actually slow things down. So generally with an IDE disk, I’ll make the first partition a small /boot partition so I’m guaranteed not to have BIOS issues with booting. This partition can be as small as 5 megs since it only has to hold a kernel and configuration files. I usually make it 20 so I can hold several kernels. I can pay for 20 megs of disk space these days with the change under my couch cushions. Next, I’ll make a swap partition. Size varies; Linus Torvalds himself uses a gig. For people who don’t spend the bulk of their time in software development, 256-512 megs should be plenty. Then I make one big root partition out of the rest.

With a multi-drive system, /home should be on a separate disk from the rest. That way, if a drive fails, you’ve halved your recovery time because you’ll either only have to install the OS on a replacement drive, or restore your data from backups on a replacement drive. Ideally, swap should be on a separate disk from the binaries (it can be on the same disk as /home unless you deal with huge data files). The reason should be obvious: If the system is going to use swap, it will probably be while it’s loading binaries.

Still, I’m very glad I read this article. Buried in the comments for this article, I found a gem of a link I’ve never seen referenced anywhere else before: Linux Performance Tuning. This site attempts to gather all the important information about tuning Linux to specific tasks. The pros know a lot of this stuff, but this is the first time I’ve seen this much information gathered in one place. If you build Linux servers, bookmark that page. You’ll find yourself referring back to it frequently. Contributors to the site include kernel hackers Rik van Riel and Dave Jones.

Tweaking Debian for all it’s worth

I fell way behind on my Sorcerer Linux box. The thing compiled code for a day trying to keep up, and finally I started questioning the point of it all. Yeah, the kernel and glibc all benefit from having fresh, up-to-date and aggressively-optimized code, but my highly-optimized KDE 2.2 was slow as a dog, and why am I bothering compiling a superfast version of more? So I installed Debian.

But I wanted ReiserFS. So I went and downloaded the special Debian boot floppies that support Reiser. I just let it do an install over the network. The end result was a copy of Debian Testing on my system. Of course I wanted to upgrade to unstable, so I edited /etc/apt/sources.list and changed the occurrences of “testing” to “unstable.”

Next, I wanted the hottest kernel on the block, which happens to be 2.4.17-mjc2. There is no Debian package for that. So I made one. For myself. I’m pretty sure the one I made won’t work on your computer. Here’s what I did, so you can make one that won’t work on my computer.

apt-get install kernel-source-2.4.17

Download the mjc patch to /usr/src

cd /usr/src

ln -s kernel-source-2.4.17 linux

bzcat 2.4.17-2.4.18-pre1-mjc2.patch.bz2 | patch -p0 (substitute the name of the mjc patch you downloaded)

make xconfig

Pick some of the cool new options like the pre-emptible kernel and realtime scheduler

make-kpkg kernel_image

dpkg -i kernel-image-2.4.18pre1-mjc2_i386.deb

echo "kernel-image-2.4.18pre1-mjc2 hold" | dpkg --set-selections

rm /usr/src/linux

I also went into /etc/fstab, found my ReiserFS partitions, and under the (options) heading, I added the notail and noatime options to increase filesystem speed.

How’s it run? I’m about to find out. But even without this stuff, running GNOME apps under IceWM, Debian is awfully fast. I like KDE, but in my experience it’s so much slower than GNOME, at least when GNOME is running in conjunction with IceWM. GNOME apps like Gnumeric and AbiWord load in under 2 seconds, even on a slow hard drive.

What on earth is going on?

AOL-Time Warner in talks to buy Red Hat? I found this this morning. It’s intriguing, but I can’t decide if a buyout would be a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Netscape was in decline when AOL bought it. It nosedived afterward. Obviously, the problem was twofold. When AOL acquired Netscape, they didn’t acquire all of its mindshare. Some of the most talented people got fed up and left. You can take Jim Barksdale or you can leave him. The loss of Marc Andreesen and Jamie Zawinski, though, was substantial.
The second problem was that AOL wasn’t serious about competing. They bought a browser technology and basically sat on it. Netscape 4.x was fundamentally flawed, as even Zawinski acknowledges, although I would argue it was no more fundamentally flawed than IE 4.x. The Gecko engine, on which Netscape 6.x is based, is solid technology, even though it took longer to get to market than anyone had hoped. Although Netscape 6.x won’t bowl anyone over, other browsers based on the technology, such as Galeon, are absolutely fantastic. But AOL chose to release a half-hearted browser with the Netscape name on it and continued to use the IE engine in its flagship product even after the favorable agreement with Microsoft that prompted AOL to do so in the first place expired.

That begs the question of what AOL would do with Red Hat if it owned it. Red Hat is still the big-name player in the Linux field, but Red Hat is concentrating on the server market. You can still buy Red Hat at retail, but on the desktop, Red Hat is arguably #3 in popularity now behind France’s Mandrake and Germany’s SuSE. Red Hat is the only Linux company that’s making money, but that’s largely by selling consulting. That’s not AOL’s core business. At this point, AOL is more of a media company than a technology company. Software just gives AOL more outlets to sell its media content. Consulting doesn’t do that.

The best possible scenario for a Red Hat buyout would be for AOL to, as Microsoft puts it, “eat its own dog food,” that is, rip out the infrastructure it bought from other companies and replace it with the technology it just developed or acquired. Since AOL is largely powered by Sun servers, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to migrate the infrastructure to Red Hat running on Intel. Then AOL could give a big boost to its newly-acquired services division by saying, “We did it and we can help you do it too.” They can also cite Amazon’s recent successes in moving its infrastructure to Red Hat Linux. There is precedence for that; after AOL bought Time Warner, the entire company started using AOL for e-mail, a move widely questioned by anyone who’s used anything other than AOL for mail.

Of course, it would be expected that AOL would port its online service to Linux, which would create the truly odd couple of the computing field. AOL, meet sed and awk. Red Hat would certainly lose its purity and much of its credibility among the Linux die-hards. AOL would bank on making up the loss by gaining users closer to the mainstream. AOL could potentially put some Linux on its corporate desktops, but being a media company, an all-out migration to Linux everywhere within is very far-fetched.

To really make this work, AOL would either have to enter the hardware business and sell PCs at retail using its newly acquired Red Hat distribution and newly ported AOL for Linux and possibly an AOL-branded office suite based on OpenOffice, or it would have to partner with a hardware company. Partnering with a big name seems unlikely–a Compaq or an HP or an IBM wouldn’t do it for fear of retaliation from Microsoft. Sun has never expressed any interest in entering the retail computer business, and even though Sun loves to take opportunities to harm Microsoft, Sun probably wouldn’t cooperate with AOL if AOL replaced its Sun infrastructure with Red Hat Linux. Struggling eMachines might be the best bet, since it’s strictly a consumer brand, has a large presence, but hasn’t consistently turned a profit. But AOL could just as easily follow eMachines’ example, buying and re-branding low-end Far East clones and selling them at retail as loss-leaders, taking advantage of its lack of need for Windows (which accounts for roughly $75 of the cost of a retail PC) and making its profit off new subscribers to its dialup and broadband customers. A $349 PC sold at retail with a flashy GUI, decent productivity software and AOL is all the computer many consumers need.

The advantage to this scenario for everyone else is that AOL would probably dump more development into either the KDE or GNOME projects in order to give itself more and higher-quality software to offer. The official trees can either take these changes or leave them. Undoubtedly, some of the changes would be awful, and the official trees would opt to leave them. But with its 18 years’ worth of experience developing GUIs, some of the changes would likely be a good thing as well.

The more likely scenario: AOL will buy out Red Hat, not have a clue what to do with it, and Red Hat Linux will languish just like Netscape.

The even more likely scenario: AOL will come to its senses, realize that Red Hat Linux has nothing to do with its core business, and the two companies will go their separate ways.

Desktop Linux and the truth about forking

Desktop Linux! I wanna talk a little more about how Linux runs on a Micron Transport LT. I chose Debian 2.2r3, the “Potato” release, because Debian installs almost no extras. I like that. What you need to know to run Linux on a Micron LT: the 3Com miniPCI NIC uses the 3C59x kernel module. The video chipset uses the ATI Mach64 X server (in XFree86 3.36; if you upgrade to 4.1 you’ll use plain old ATI). Older Debian releases gave this laptop trouble, but 2.2r3 runs fine.
I immediately updated parts of it to Debian Unstable, because I wanted to run Galeon and Nautilus and Evolution. I haven’t played with any GNOME apps in a long time. A couple of years ago when I did it, I wasn’t impressed. KDE was much more polished. I didn’t see any point in GNOME; I wished they’d just pour their efforts into making KDE better. I still wish that, and today KDE is still more polished as a whole, but GNOME has lots of cool apps. Nautilus has the most polish of any non-Mac app I’ve ever seen, and if other Linux apps rip off some of its code, Microsoft’s going to have problems. It’s not gaudy and overboard like Mac OS X is; it’s just plain elegant.

Galeon is the best Web browser I’ve ever seen. Use its tabs feature (go to File, New Tab) and see for yourself. It’s small and fast like Opera, compatible like Netscape, and has features I haven’t seen anywhere else. It also puts features like freezing GIF animation and disabling Java/JavaScript out where they belong: In a menu, easily accessible. And you can turn them off permanently, not just at that moment.

Evolution is a lot like Outlook. Its icons look a little nicer–not as nice as Nautilus, but nice–and its equivalent of Outlook Today displays news headlines and weather. Nice touch. And you can tell it what cities interest you and what publications’ headlines you want. As a mail reader, it’s very much like Outlook. I can’t tell you much about its PIM features, because I don’t use those heavily in Outlook either.

The first time I showed it to an Outlook user at work, her reaction was, “And when are we switching to that?”

If you need a newsreader, Pan does virtually everything Forte Agent or Microplanet Gravity will do, plus a few tricks they won’t. It’s slick, small, and free too.

In short, if I wanted to build–as those hip young whippersnappers say–a pimp-ass Internet computer, this would be it. Those apps, plus the Pan newsreader, give you better functionality than you’ll get for free on Windows or a Mac. For that matter, you could buy $400 worth of software on another platform and not get as much functionality.

Linux development explained. There seems to be some confusion over Linux, and the kernel forking, and all this other stuff. Here’s the real dope.

First off, the kernel has always had forks. Linus Torvalds has his branch, which at certain points in history is the official one. When Torvalds has a branch, Alan Cox almost always has his own branch. Even when Cox’s branch isn’t the official one, many Linux distributions derive their kernels from Cox’s branch. (They generally don’t use the official one either.) Now, Cox and Torvalds had a widely publicized spat over the virtual memory subsystem recently. For a while, the official branch and the -ac branch had different VMs. Words were exchanged, and misinterpreted. Both agreed the original 2.4 VM was broken. Cox tried to fix it. Torvalds replaced it with something else. Cox called Torvalds’ approach the unofficial kernel 2.5. But Torvalds won out in the end–the new VM worked well.

Now you can expect to see some other sub-branches. Noted kernel hackers like Andrea Archangeli occasionally do a release. Now that Marcelo Tosatti is maintaining the official 2.4 tree, you might even see a -ac release again occasionally. More likely, Cox and Torvalds will pour their efforts into 2.5, which should be considered alpha-quality code. Some people believe there will be no Linux 2.6; that 2.5 will eventually become Linux 3.0. It’s hard to know. But 2.5 is where the new and wonderful and experimental bits will go.

There’s more forking than just that going on though. The 2.0 and 2.2 kernels are still being maintained, largely for security reasons. But not long ago, someone even released a bugfix for an ancient 0.-something kernel. That way you can still keep your copy of Red Hat 5.2 secure and not risk breaking any low-level kernel module device drivers you might be loading (to support proprietary, closed hardware, for example). Kernels are generally upward compatible, but you don’t want to risk anything on a production server, and the kernel maintainers recognize and respect that.

As far as the end user is concerned, the kernel doesn’t do much. What 2.4 gave end users was better firewalling code and more filesystems and hopefully slightly better performance. As far as compatibility goes, the difference between an official kernel and an -ac kernel and an -aa kernel is minor. There’s more difference between Windows NT 4.0 SP2 and SP3 than there is between anyone’s Linux 2.4 kernel, and, for that matter, between 2.4 and any (as of Nov. 2001) 2.5 kernel. No one worries about Windows fragmenting, and when something Microsoft does breaks a some application, no one notices.

So recent events are much ado about nothing. The kernel will fragment, refragment, and reunite, just as it has always done, and eventually the best code will win. Maybe at some point a permanent fracture will happen, as happened in the BSD world. That won’t be an armageddon, even though Jesse Berst wants you to think it will be (he doesn’t have anything else to write about, after all, and he can’t be bothered with researching something non-Microsoft). OpenBSD and NetBSD are specialized distributions, and they know it. OpenBSD tries to be the most secure OS on the planet, period. Everything else is secondary. NetBSD tries to be the most portable OS on the planet, and everything else is secondary. If for some reason you need a Unix to run on an old router that’s no longer useful as a router and you’d like to turn it into a more general-purpose computer, NetBSD will probably run on it.

Linux will fragment if and when there is a need for a specialized fragment. And we’ll all be the better for it. Until someone comes up with a compelling reason to do so, history will just continue to repeat itself.

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