by August 2, 2011 0 comments

Anil Seth, Consultant and Visiting Faculty, IIT-Ropar.

My first exposure to Linux was around the same time as Windows 95 was released. We were fascinated by Linux not because of the desktop but because it offered the capabilities available only on expensive Unix servers at the time. We were able to meet our needs for limited word processing by using ‘vi’ editor and ‘me’ macros! We could fax these documents using a fax server and a dialup modem. It is hard to recall how bad the telephone lines used to be. The fax server would periodically dial out in the background and send the document, usually taking ten to twenty tries before succeeding. We could continue working and not have to stand in front of the fax machine while it tried and failed and we had to try again.

The first machines had graphics though primitive by today’s comparison. The Intel 486 machines could support VGA/SVGA graphics and I exposed my sons to the first person shooter games like Doom and Abuse using Linux. Graphical desktop, however, was limited. While X-server was open source, a desktop environment like CDE was not. FVWM was a light weight, good enough window manager which offered a windows like behaviour.

Graphical diskless desktops

X server was designed to display graphical output on a workstation with the application running on networked Unix servers. This was a capability which came to our rescue a few years later.

We wanted to increase the office automation. Our office had a number of diskless machines which had been bought to be used as Netware clients but were not being used. We wanted to offer email to as many people in our organisation as feasible. Many were already connected to a Unix server with terminals. We also wanted to give the secretarial staff graphical workstations so that they could browse as well.

We decided that the best approach for us was not to upgrade the diskless PCs so that they could run Windows 95 but instead, get a multiprocessor Linux server. The diskless machines could boot into Linux from the Linux server using the network. The X servers on diskless machines could connect to the Linux server and all applications would be running on the server. We found that the managers and the secretarial staff found it quite easy to use Pine for email in a terminal window. Using Mozilla for browsing was not a problem either. The Linux server easily handled the load of 20 diskless systems and 50 terminals. And the Internet access was over ISDN lines of 128K! It seems hard to believe that the setup was usable; but our expectations at the time were obviously much lower.

Linux helped us to economically make use of obsolete hardware. This capability of Linux continues to be a great attraction for me even today.

The system administration staff were also very happy. They had very few problems from users on Linux, except in the initial learning period of about a week. On the Linux clients, the support staff did not need to clean viruses and reinstall OS.

Office automation

At the time we started with the diskless Linux machines, there were just a few choices for office suites. Two products were available–Applixware and Star Office, neither was open source. There was an open source option, EZ Word available as a part of Andrew User Interface System. Had Google been around, we may have used it.

We opted for Applixware though, later, StarOffice was purchased by Sun and released as an open source office suite — The major issue (irritant) we faced was the compatibility between the Lotus Office suite we used on Windows and Applixware and, later, OpenOffice.

As more powerful hardware became available, desktop environments like Gnome and KDE were available and kept getting better. We standardised on RedHat/Fedora distributions. Once the administrator set up the GNOME environment and the network access, with tools like Thunderbird or Evolution for email, in my experience the users had no problems. The one irritant was some external Internet sites which insisted that one should use IE5 or 6. Fortunately, the number of sites which have problems with Firefox or Chrome is now rare, usually a few financial sites, which claim to be doing so for ensuring security!


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We needed to develop and deploy some applications. We wanted to use industry standard relational databases rather than use applications like dBase or Access for desktops. The most common option available at the time was MySQL. However, it lacked transactions then and its licensing terms were not as liberal as they are now. We found that PostgreSQL seemed to meet our needs and its direction seemed in line with our own needs. We started with a point of sale application which used PostgreSQL as the database. We decided on Linux operating system as it could support diskless workstations. However, the biggest appeal was that half the time the existing systems in shops were affected by viruses. Data and reports from the shops were neither timely, nor reliable.

Capabilities of PostgreSQL increased rapidly. We could customise and migrate an ERP application to use PostgreSQL instead of Informix with very few changes. The changes were often to improve the reports which had originally been written for ISAM files and then, minimally changed to work with a relational database.

Too many distros, too much choice?

It has always seemed odd to me that we want choice in a soap or toothpaste we use but not in the OS or the GUI. In the early days, there were substantial differences in the distributions, especially in the availability of drivers for various peripherals. Over the years, differences in drivers have decreased. Now, it is much more a difference of the default GUI environment provided.

For me personally, RedHat and Fedora continued to meet needs. We explored Mandrake/Mandriva, openSUSE, Ubuntu. We implemented Ubuntu on the desktops as the needs were met well within the Ubuntu repositories, either supported by Ubuntu or by the community which could be easily enabled from within Ubuntu desktop.

In the case of Fedora, we soon had the rpmfusion repositories, which consolidated the several 3rd party repositories into a single convenient repository.

Keeping a system updated in constrained bandwidth environments was a difficult activity. While openSUSE initiated the use of delta rpms, Fedora has implemented them as well and, probably, in a more comprehensive manner. This has resulted in reducing the size of downloads for updating the system typically by 80 to 90%. Hence, I now do not mind a daily update of the system to ensure that security updates are installed with minimal time lag.

Typically, distributions, e.g. Ubuntu and Fedora, release two updates a year. I wonder why was it necessary. Some people not just thought about it but also found a solution. This was the idea of rolling distributions. The major ones in this area are Gentoo and ArchLinux. Both these distributions are aimed at technical users. However, in my experience, ArchLinux is easily user maintainable though it requires a technically savvy person to set it up. I use ArchLinux on a couple of my systems at home. The only disappointment has been that a volunteer was maintaining a delta repository for ArchLinux. He has stopped doing so and, unfortunately, delta packages for ArchLinux have not become a part of the main repositories.

Rolling distributions have attracted the interest of developers of OpenSuse and they have introduced Tumbleweed rolling distribution based initially on openSUSE 11.4. If it succeeds, hopefully, delta packages will be available as openSUSE was the first to use them. Once that happens, I may switch my loyalties from Fedora and ArchLinux to openSUSE’s Tumbleweed.

Is switching a distribution hard? Not at all. The administrative tools change. However, since the usage needs are the same, it does not take long to find one’s way. From the user’s perspective, the window manager theme may differ but using a new theme is hard only if one has a mental block.

As I am growing older, usability aids become important. These tools are integrated into the Linux desktop environments and are getting better. I hope I won’t ever need them, but I am confident that Linux will keep evolving and be there to meet my needs.

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