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My linux distribution odyssey (so far)

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Last year I wrote a post about trying out Ubuntu, but then moving back to OpenSuse.   I was very happy with OpenSuse, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anybody.  However, when Ubuntu 8.10 was released I moved to it.  Some people just can’t make up their minds, I guess.  Then I moved to Ubuntu 9.04, and a couple of weeks ago I upgraded that to 9.10.  All of these worked great.

I used to tell people that the linux distribution they chose is a matter of taste, and there were several perfectly good choices, but I’m not sure I really meant it.  In my linux life, I’ve used Redhat, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, CentOS, Conectiva, and several small specialized distributions.   I ran KDE for years, and was clearly superior to all those Gnome users.  Now (since the release of KDE4) I run Gnome.  I somewhat expect that at some point in the future I’ll find myself back on KDE.  My longest chunk of time was on Redhat, before they came up with the whole Fedora thing, and for me that was clearly the winning choice.  During that time (and a while after) I wouldn’t touch anything with Debian in its lineage.  Then I got a job in which I inherited some Debian servers, and I was pretty miserable for a bit, but I got over it.  I have a long history of being a distro snob of one kind or another.  I have at some point or other fervently disliked some of the best software out there.

For now, I’m pretty happy with Ubuntu.  It works really well, and long gone are my days of hacking at some perl script or trying to figure out why code distributed with the distro would not compile on my box.  For some time now, stuff just works.  I still occasionally find a use for dusting off my perl skills, but not because I couldn’t find good tools from somewhere else or because basic components of the software I need don’t work.  In fact, its pretty rare to not be able to just run a search in Synaptic, install something, and be on my way when I need some new application.  My hacking time is spent solving the problem I’m actually trying to solve, instead of on getting to the point that I can start working on it.

Things have really come together in the last couple of years for Linux.  Its amazingly good.  Things work amazingly well, on every piece of hardware I ever use.   My kids and my wife still use Windows.  Its fine for games.  Ubuntu is easier to install.  Its easier to maintain.  Its easier to install and manage software on.  Its easier to patch.  Its even easier to use.  If I want to get stuff done, I never choose Windows.

And the message, I think, of my odyssey through all the different linux distributions is that it doesn’t matter.  I’ve used several linux distributions.  I’ve used KDE, Gnome, and Enlightenment (and probably something before KDE, but I don’t remember what).  The key to my computing world is choice.  Use what works for you for what you are doing now.

That’s not what life is about, but it is what computers are about.  They are tools.  Use what works.  Use what you like.

If you haven’t tried Ubuntu yet, you should.

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Categories: linux, ubuntu

Ubuntu’s nice, but I’m headed back to OpenSuse

July 7, 2008 2 comments

I ran Ubuntu for about a month.  It is a very nice distribution.  Everything worked very smoothly.  I had no real problems with it.  I’m not going to use it any more.  There is nothing at all wrong with it.  On the other hand, there aren’t any real advantages over OpenSuse, so I’m going back to what’s more familiar.  If any Windows users ask me what Linux flavor they should try, now that I have actually used it I am comfortable recommending Ubuntu as a good choice.

OpenSuse 11 is excellent.  They have continued to develop a very good distribution, and here again everything pretty much just works.   The installation is very smooth.  The Network Manager for KDE is improved, as is the update manager.

One difference that threw me for a few minutes was configuring Xinerama across two screens on my Dell D620.  In Ubuntu, the key is to install the nVidia drivers, and use the nVidia tool to configure X.  On OpenSuse, you need the nVidea drivers, but you have to use SaX2 (accessible through YaST) to configure X.  Once you do this, its very smooth and easy to get working.  Just to be clear, the display works fine without the proprietary drivers, but to get the best use out of multiple screens you need the drivers from nVidia.

Once or twice a week I go into the office for meetings.  Its not unusual for me to unplug the monitor to carry my laptop to a conference room, and plug it into a projector without changing the configuration at all.  OpenSuse handles this without problems.  Ubuntu just wouldn’t do it satisfactorily at all.  I didn’t take the time to figure out how to get it to work, although I’d guess there’s a way to get the results I wanted.  It didn’t happen “out-of-the-box” like it does with OpenSuse.

I initially ran KDE4 under OpenSuse 11.  It looks very nice, but it is not ready for real use yet, at least not for me.  It is still lacking most of the options that make me really like KDE.  Panel configuration is simplistic and just not ready yet.  Fortunately, OpenSuse has packaged things so you can easily install KDE3 beside KDE4 and choose which to run.  Installing KDE3 was as easy as loading the package manager and picking KDE3 from the package patterns list.  Now I can check back on KDE4’s progress as it gets better.  KDE3 is just so good, they are going to have to do a lot more work on KDE4 to bring it up to being close to as good.  Until then, I’ll choose flexibility and customizability over the extra coolness of KDE4. KDE4 has a lot of promise.  It is going to be beautiful when its ready.

A few direct comparisons between OpenSuse running KDE and Ubuntu running Gnome (not attempting to differentiate which are distro and which are desktop environment features).  Ubuntu’s printer and network configuration is easier.  I like Ubuntu’s package management tools better than YaST, but both work quite well and are fairly easy to use.   The odd difference between the Ubuntu package manager on the normal menu vs the one on the system configuration menu is strange, but both worked for me fine.  I like the ease of YaST’s patterns, which I mentioned made it easy to install KDE3.  Its been quite a while since either of these distros has failed to resolve a dependency for me without having to go hunting.  Overall, I like YaST over the configuration tools in Ubuntu.  It is nicely organized and consistent, and they keep adding more stuff to it.  The real reason for my preference might be familiarity.  YaST has been improving steadily, but has been consistent in its look and feel for several versions.  The one thing I really don’t like to use YaST for is to configure Apache.

The short answer to a comparison between Ubuntu and OpenSuse is that there is no clear winner.  They are both excellent.  They both install and run without a lot of headaches.  They both perform well on my hardware, and they both found and configured all of my hardware without difficulty (including various USB devices I plug and unplug at whim).  The few differences are minor, and for the most part (other than the issue with unplugging the monitor and plugging it into a different display, which Ubuntu didn’t like), it comes down to a matter of taste more than it does functionality.

Both of them beat Windows soundly, on features, customization, and ease of installation and use.  Linux just keeps getting better, and the gap is widening.  Now if we could just get commercial software to distribute end user software that is cross platform…  but that’s a post for a different day.

Categories: linux, opensuse, ubuntu

Trying Ubuntu 8.04

May 24, 2008 3 comments

I’ve been using Suse (and OpenSuse) for years, ever since moving off of RedHat when they started Fedora.  Other than a couple of Gentoo detours, RPM based distributions of Linux have been where I have lived since RedHat 6 point something.

I have been having some problems with my laptop (running OpenSuse 10.2) and it got to the point that I thought it might be easier to get a clean install than figure out what was causing my various problems.  That sometimes happens when you get a year and a half of messing with stuff accumulated.  You can’t easily roll back what you can’t remember you did.

So I’ve been waiting with anticipation for OpenSuse 11.  But I got tired of waiting, and this weekend I decided to try Ubuntu, which I’ve played with but haven’t actually used.  This is quite a change for me.  I’ve worked with Debian servers from time to time, but not by choice.  I have also been using KDE for a very long time (starting with KDE 2).  For the first time in recent memory, I’m moving to Gnome.  I might end up changing back to OpenSuse and KDE when it is released, but this will give me a month or two of spending the ten hours a day I spend on my laptop finding out what the other side is really like.

Ubuntu installed very nicely.  The installation process doesn’t seem as flexible as OpenSuse.  I missed OpenSuse’s easy package group selection.  But overall, I was fairly impressed.  Within just a few minutes I had a shiny new Ubuntu desktop.  Of course, it didn’t use my external monitor, and the display resolution it started with stunk.  But a quick install of the binary drivers (not installed by default because they aren’t “free” in the sense that they don’t come with a open source license), and a little configuration tweaking, and I had my dual monitor Xinerama setup working nicely.

I am not a fan of sudo, at least on boxes on which I am the only user, but I think I can get used to using it.  I’d rather open a terminal and su to root.  But its not a big deal, I’ll adapt.  On boxes where there are multiple people who might touch system wide settings, sudo is very nice.  That just doesn’t apply to my laptop.

Wireless, sound, and all of the rest of my hardware just worked.  Adding packages was very easy, and everything worked very nicely.  While there are some things I like about smart over synaptic, I’ve used synaptic before and it has come quite a distance since I last worked with it.

One thing that really impressed me was adding a printer.  The system-config-printer tool found my printer on the network (I print directly to the IP address using CUPS) and got it set up and configured almost without intervention, and it was about the easiest printer setup I’ve ever seen.   Way easier than it would have been in Yast (at least on OpenSuse 10.2), and of course way easier than Windows does anything.

I prefer administration tools that put everything in one place for you, rather than having to hunt for the right tool to tweak settings.  So I like the approach of the KDE preferences tool and Yast better than the “What was that thing called again” search for the right tool.  Some of that might be familiarity, but Ubuntu/Gnome could do a better job of streamlining the preferences process.

Overall, I am impressed.  The system install, adding software, getting things configured, and getting started using the new setup was very quick and easy.  I think just about anybody could do it.  Having recently struggled through trying to get Windows 2003 servers working properly, Linux definitely beats Windows, and I would not have any trouble at all recommending Ubuntu to anybody.

Some of my easy conversion might be because I’m not exactly new to Linux, and I knew going into it what some of the differences were going to be.   There are also a couple of non-distro related factors that make migration easier than it used to be.  I have a handy external USB hard drive.  So backing up my home directory so I could repartition my laptop was simply plugging the drive in and dragging the home directory over.  The hard part was waiting until it finished before I started messing with it.  When I got Ubuntu installed, I just dragged my stuff back to my new home folder.  Also, so much of my work is on Google, or in an svn repository, or other places out there somewhere in the cloud that saving the actual stuff on my hard drive is much less critical than it has ever been before.  My laptop is much more of an interface for stuff out there somewhere than it is actually used for storage.

If I change back, or if I find out things that make a difference, I’ll post them here.  I’m not sure how much I’ll like the differences in editors, terminal, and so on.  Only time will tell.  At the moment, it looks like my experiment might turn out to be a little boring, so I’ll stop talking about it for now.

Categories: linux, ubuntu