Thursday, 9 August 2007

So... Can Linux be a business friendly desktop?

This can only ever be a preliminary opinion, of course... The answer is it depends on your business.

Unless you have the very latest hardware, the chances are that Linux will install perfectly on your kit. Linux is just as stable as Windows and vice versa, so much so that no one talks about Operating Systems crashing anymore. In terms of basic business applications, OpenOffice provides all the word processing and spreadsheet functionality that most users will ever need - although it doesn't look at good as Microsoft Office. So why wouldn't you install Linux?

If I look around my own business I can't see anyone who just needs basic OS and Office functionality. OK, we are Windows software developers, so our developers need to be running Visual Studio - which only runs on Windows. But then, the people in accounts use an accounts package - which only runs on Windows... and so it goes on. Unless you are starting your business from scratch, you will have already made a big investment in Windows software. If you are going to move your desktops to Linux, you are going to have to move your applications to Linux as well.

What if you start slowly? Just move one group of users at a time? If you do that, you have interoperability problems. Using Exchange? Forget it. Evolution just isn't up to the job as an Exchange client. That means making a strategic decision in advance to move key functionality to cross-platform software. In the case of mail, that would be something like Lotus Notes.

On top of application issues you have people issues. You will need to retrain your IT staff and your end users.

So why bother? Why would you want to take on that much pain? You wouldn't; of course you wouldn't. But perhaps your business is already running Lotus Notes, perhaps your business is using browser based applications, or Java applications; perhaps you only have a handful of Windows only programs. In that case, why not?

I can't help thinking however, that to use Linux as a business tool you have to lock it down. The real power of Linux lies in the fact that - unlike Windows - it isn't locked down. That's not a reason not to use it as your business desktop, of course. It's just that there may be better uses for Linux.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Desktop Linux

The normally excellent The Register website has posted an ill-judged report from LinuxWorld by Ashlee Vance which begins "The Linux desktop reminds us of a dog humping a table leg. It's both fun and disturbing to watch, but ultimately there's very little payoff from the exercise." Whose we? It is obvious from the article that Vance has never actually run Linux on a desktop. The Register would have been better off sending someone who knew what they were talking about, rather than someone reliant on second hand opinions and their own prejudices.

It's a shame because there is a debate to be had about "Desktop Linux" - or rather, Linux on the Personal Computer, as Linux itself comes with multiple "desktops."

Vance writes that Linux "suffers from limited driver, multimedia and power management support." That is simply untrue. In this blog, I've documented my experience in installing Linux on Dell's very latest laptop hardware. Yes, I have had to wait for drivers to get my DVD and sound working, but it only took six weeks for Linux to catch up. With hardware manufactures focused on the 90% of the PC market that is Windows, Linux driver support is remarkably good. Vance goes on "The Linux community ... may well make something Windows comparable by 2020" - which is breathtakingly ignorant.

So what is the "payoff"? The issue I've been trying to resolve for myself is what is Linux on the desktop for? For example, is it aiming to be a replacement for Windows? If it is, which Windows? Windows at home? Windows in business? Or both? However, I think I've been asking the wrong question. Linux is Linux. What Linux is for is to "manage the hardware and software resources of a computer." What people then do with Linux is an entirely separate question. Of course, the people at Redhat and Novell want us to run Linux on our business desktops: they want to sell us support stuff. What we have to ask is, is that a practical propostion: can Linux be a business friendly desktop?

The do question is important. Not least because the open nature of Linux means that you can do more with Linux than you can do with Windows. If that's something you want to do...

Monday, 6 August 2007

Installing Python 2.4

One of the things that spurred me on to look at Linux again was that I want to look at Numenta's HTM (Hierarchical Temporal Memory) neural network framework. (There is no Windows version.) The current version of the software is dependent on Python 2.4: it will not run with Python 2.5 which is installed on Fedora 7. So I needed to get Python 2.4 installed.

Building and installing Python 2.4 from the source files was no problem. However, when I ran python2.4 (or just python as 2.4 was now the default installation) I got “python: error while loading shared libraries: libpython2.4.so.1.0: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory”. libpython2.4.so.1.0 was sitting happily /usr/local/lib/ of course.

The solution was to add the LD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variable:

LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/usr/local/lib/
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH

Adding these lines to my .bashrc file fixed the problem.

D630 Sound Update

If I enable software sound mixing (ESD) so that I can have System Sounds, things start going wrong. Sound on a video playback, for example, is hopelessly distorted. If, during playback, I mute the system sound and then enable it again everything is fine again - until the next system sound. It's not a major problem to not use ESD, it's just an annoyance.

Java in Firefox

For some reason when I installed the Java runtime, the Java plugin for Firefox did not get installed. To install it manually, you just need to go the Firefox plugins directory and create a link:

su
/usr/lib/mozilla/plugins
ln -s /usr/java/latest/plugin/i386/ns7/libjavaplugin_oji.so

To test if the Java plugin is working you can go here.

Video Enlightenment through MPlayer

I'm sitting in ForensiT's new office waiting for BT to turn up and connect us to the outside world. As the office is still an empty box, I've got some time to update this blog.

Last Christmas my wife and I got ourselves a HDD Sony camcorder; no more tapes; no more messing around transferring video off tape and onto a computer. When I plug the camera into my laptop, Fedora does that cool thing that Fedora does, and asks me if I want to import my photos. When I tried to play a video clip however, Totem just complained that I did not have a decoder installed to handle the mpeg2 file format.

Totem uses either the xine-lib or GStreamer libraries. On Fedora it uses the GStreamer libraries by default, so I set about making and installing the gstreamer-mpeg2 plugin. To cut a long story short, although I could make and install the mpeg2 plugin I got no where trying to play my videos. I've never been impressed by Totem and I'm even less impressed now... Then I found MPlayer.

Basically, MPlayer is awesome! You do have to make and install the software yourself, but it isn't difficult, and it is well worth the effort. There are excellent instructions here. MPlayer played my video clips immediately with no additional configuration.

The only problems I have found with MPlayer are to do with Beryl. With Beryl running, you get a “X11 error: BadAlloc (insufficient resources for operation)” error when you try to play a video. The solution is simply to use the X11(XImage/Shm) video driver: you can set this in the MPlayer “Preferences” on the “video” tab if you are using the GUI; you should also set vo=x11 in the .mplayer/config file in case MPlayer gets called from elsewhere. Using the x11 driver fixes just about everything. The only exception I found is playing wide screen videos: the x11 driver forces the video to play at 4:3. You need to switch to the Metacity Window Manager and change the MPlayer video driver back to “xv” if you want to watch wide screen videos in all their glory. The only other problem with Beryl is that the MPlayer skin stays in a rectangular window rather than showing up on its own.

My feeling is that this is a small price to pay. However, this is Linux and what I'm learning is that one size does not fit all – so another solution might suit you better. There is one other advantage with MPlayer, though. MPlayer can handle RealPlayer files. What's more, you can install a plugin so that MPlayer will play multimedia content embedded in Firefox. There are different versions available; I installed mplayerplug-in. (If you do this, SELinux jumps in when you try to watch a video. However, the SELinux Troubleshooter tells you what to do – you chcon a couple of files - and all is well.) After removing the links to the RealPlayer plugins in the /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins directory, I can now watch RealPlayer content in Firefox without having to launch an external viewer – something RealPlayer itself could never do.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

VMware

What did I say about VMware being my "get out of jail free card"? Out of the box VMware 6.0 can't be configured to run on kernel 2.6.22.1. See this topic on the VMware discussion forum. If you do, check out the great post by Grogan on Jul 20, 2007 ;-) Fortunately, there is a great fix by "cf" called vmware-any-any-update113 available here.

Kernel Update Woes

After upgrading to the 2.6.22.1-33.fc7 kernel, my D630 reverted to the Metacity Gnome Window Manager; trying to run Beryl caused the machine to lockup. So I spent a boring hour or so rebuilding the Intel graphics drivers as I did before. When I finished rebuilding the drivers glxinfo still reported "direct rendering: No" This was a bit strange: /dev/dri/card0 was in place and the Xorg.0.log file reported no errors. More to the point, Beryl worked fine - so I didn't worry about it.

This morning I boot up my machine and the 2.6.22.1-41.fc7 kernel update is available. So, somewhat reluctantly given that I thought I would have to rebuild the drivers all over again, I ran the update. However, this time there was no problem with Beryl at all. Good news! I had no sound, of course...