Monday, July 25, 2005

Desktop Linux, Myth or Reality

Introduction

Before we start I am going to put my technical cards on the table.

I am an IT professional having worked in the industry for over fifteen years. My experience stretches from proprietary operating systems (Pick OS) through Unix System V and on to all the Windows platforms since 3.1. I am therefore fairly qualified to talk about Operating Systems and their relative usefulness on the desktop.

I have no particular loyalty to a technology stack, however I do believe that Microsoft have had a clear edge in terms of developer productivity and so therefore most of my development over the past few years has been focused in this space.

I think Windows XP is a great operating system which does what it says on the tin, yeah it has faults but don’t they all. I always work behind a router / firewall before I access the internet and I don’t assume any operating system is invulnerable, because its not trust me.

I am going to use the “could my dad do this test” in this article, it is fairly safe to assume I can fix everything that happens on a computer, but desktops are for the masses so lets judge how suitable Linux is on the desktop by my dads computing ability which is fairy average for a novice (sorry dad).

Background

Every year I install the latest incarnation of Linux, picking a desktop at random and attempting to replace my Windows XP desktop. So far I have been unable to do this without compromising some functionality and ended up reverting back to Windows XP. This is not always a problem with Linux, but usually down to a lack of support for hardware etc, I refuse to tailor my hardware to the operating system so I expect whatever OS to run on what I choose to purchase.

Why do I do this because I am certainly not a MS basher, in fact I have a great deal of admiration for what they achieved on the desktop. It’s namely interest in computing and a genuine interest in Linux as something unique (being free) If you don’t believe Microsoft themselves aren’t doing this, then shame on you.

Installation

The installation of XP is always painless for me, it will install from start to finish and provide me with a system that works. I have not had any installation issues since the Windows 9X series (yeuch).

My chosen installation of Linux for this experiment is Debian (Stable). Okay so I hear you Linux propeller heads shouting why stable, why not testing, it’s got the latest, greatest modules …. Well would you run your life on Longhorn (or Vista) Beta One..... probably not.

I downloaded the internet minimal install (roughly 130MB) and installed the base system which then should download the rest of the software over the internet. This in theory is a great idea as it saves me downloading a load of stuff I don’t need.

Okay so we need to get Windows XP and Linux to live together (you must always install Windows first in this scenario) or else you will lose access to your Linux installation. After a few nervous moments with Debian install tool, I have managed to partition and reformat some free space, yeah! After a sweaty reboot the GRUB menu appears and Windows is still there plus my new Linux kernel 2.4.

Could my dad do this, yeah sure he could.

Networking

Right off the bat, we have a small problem. My wireless card is not supported out of the box and there are no Linux drivers for it. Hey no problem I plug my machine into my router via a cable and we are off.

Roughly one hour after choosing all my software I have a working gnome desktop, with the minimum of hassle and no nasty moments.

Okay so this is where it gets a little messy, my wireless card still did not work at all and I don’t want to stay plugged into my router.

I am aware after my last adventure in Linux that there is a NDIS wrapper which you can use around your windows drivers and get your card working. Unlike last time I don’t need to go find it and compile it , this time I have a secret weapon (and one of the reasons I chose Debian).

The Synaptic Package Manager is something that I am surprised Microsoft has not picked up on. What a joy to use, all I need to do is to find the package name I need and it will be downloaded from the internet and installed.

Within seconds I had the NDIS wrapper installed, Windows drivers unpacked and my wireless card working, result!!!

Before you smile too much, I did have to open a command prompt and type some arcane commands which had to do with loading kernel modules and setting some of my wireless options which I had to go and find on the net somewhere.

Could my dad do this, I don’t think so

More Next Week, when i will take a closer look at the desktop.