Thursday, February 21, 2013

Following The Freedom

By +Robert Pogson

One of the beauties of GNU/Linux is the freedom to change things. A couple of years ago, I converted most of the PCs in my home to GNU/Linux but another family member converted some to Ubuntu GNU/Linux while I used Debian GNU/Linux. At first there wasn't much difference in the user-interface so we got along well enough. Mostly the Ubuntu GNU/Linux systems just ran a browser or a multimedia application so users were interacting with that rather than the OS. Lately, Canonical has been "innovating" a little more than I like and recent versions are a jarring experience for the user of Debian GNU/Linux or that other OS:

  • sluggish, jerky performance,
  • slow updates,
  • windowing widgets in top-left instead of top-right...,
  • various problems with audio and video

It seemed to me that systems I owned were being changed with every update and heading in directions I didn't like. I detest change for the sake of change and I love change for the sake of improving performance. This week was the last straw. I was doing more on these machines and had to open and close a number of windows and every time I struggled to find the widgets just to do that. I was wasting time searching for applications rather than clicking on icons in long-familiar positions.

I tried just switching the window-manager from Ubuntu's to XFWM4 but the performance of the systems was still sluggish. These were both 64bit Atoms with 4 cores but they could not play some videos without chattering. That's just unacceptable. This week, I set up a USB drive with the latest Debian installer and went to work on the first machine. Installation was uneventful and with a couple of tweaks to the configuration, I had the system of my dreams, crisp and smooth. Widgets were where I wanted them. Searching was for data, not applications, and performance was great.

For the other machine, I thought I would use some fancier process. I installed a package, debian-installer-7.0-netboot-amd64, which makes available the files needed to boot the installer over the Local Area Network. There's a 32-bit version as well. All I had to do was copy the files (in.tftpd is chrooted and will not follow symlinks) to the root of my TFTP server, tftpd-hpa  and configure my DHCP server to point the clients at the relevant files and paths. (filename "/debian-installer/amd64/pxelinux.0"; next-server;)

The setup worked right away and I was in the midst of the installation when the installer could not detect the hard drive! Whoa! It turns out that the version of the Debian Installer was 20120828, nowhere near current, and I poked around the "weekly builds" to find an archive that worked beautifully. I was surprised that no bugs had been filed against the package but I guess anyone using the unreleased version of the installer from the testing branch would catch on pretty quickly.

Now, I have a setup I can use to install from scratch any PC a visitor drags in without having to find a USB drive. The new installer has many more options than the previous versions although I love the basic "text" installer best of all. With it, I can install a minimal system and add just what I need, like JFS which I prefer instead of EXT4 for file-systems. For my multimedia PCs, all I did was a minimal install which boots like a rocket and added a few key packages which APT used to bring in ~1K packages:

apt-get install xdm xfwm4 xfce4 xfce4-goodies xserver-xorg-video-nvidia xbmc chromium vlc vim gimp openshot shotwell

Since I have a local cache (apt-cacher-ng serving as apt-proxy at port 3142 on my local server, http://myserver:3142/, to the installer) of all the relevant packages, the download was at LAN-speed and the installation took just a few minutes to finish. The system worked immediately as expected except sound, which had a couple of choices SPDIF or analogue (I had analogue connected but SPDIF was the default choice) and I bumped up the system fonts to be readable from the sofa on our huge monitors. I chose Lat-15 TerminusBold 32X16 from console-setup-linux for the console (configuration in /etc/default/console-setup and implemented by setupcon and something huge for the GUI. VLC still needed to be told to use 96DPI but XBMC was flawless. The wireless keyboard worked out of the box. The nvidia driver automatically gets rebuilt for new kernel installations. It's non-free software but was known to work reasonably with our hardware.

That's the difference between using a monopolist as supplier of software versus GNU/Linux with hundreds of suppliers. One can always find an alternative for whatever problem exists. I now have all systems running Debian GNU/Linux and can move from one to another with no problems and everything is where I want it. Canonical and Microsoft have other ideas about computing. I value the freedom to make choices for myself, a combination of the four software-freedoms:

  • running the software,
  • examining the software,
  • modifying the software, and
  • distributing the software.

I now have a system that will distribute a customized operating system in a few minutes, something impossible with Microsoft without paying for the privilege of using your own hardware or keeping the distribution in-house. I have defaults which are closer to my idea of what a PC should be than Canonical's choice. With hundreds of distros available, the possibilities via installation and configuration are endless. So, don't suffer in silence if your OS will not do what you want the way you want to do it. Install GNU/Linux!

-- Robert Pogson

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  1. I'm really disappointed, Pogson. Why didn't you write M$ instead of Microsoft? You always do on your own little blog.

    I'm also not sure what the point of your article is.

    Is it for beginners? They won't understand half of it.

    Is it for pros? They will know how do these things.

    Is it for the sake of using the last three paragraphs for some cheap shots against Microsoft and Canonical? Hell,yes!

    Same old, same old. You're utterly predictable, Pogson.

  2. Der Balrog I would appreciate you being a bit more polite. We welcome all views, even views counter to our own, but disrespect is not acceptable. Thank you.

  3. So, are you on some sort of deleting spree? Why don't you just close the site down if you live in terrible, terrible fear of comments which dare to criticise?