Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Slackware 12.1 First Impressions

Late last week I downloaded and installed Slackware 12.1 on my aging (OK, old) Toshiba laptop side by side with Vector Linux Light. I'll post a full review to my O'Reilly Linux Dev Center blog once I've had more opportunity to use the latest version of Slack.

My first impression: Slackware is still Slackware. The installer assumes you know what you are doing (think Expert install if you're an Ubuntu user) and that you want the ability to control every aspect of the installation. A newcomer to Linux would be utterly, totally lost. I've actually done two installations: a fully functional one with an Xfce desktop and all the dev tools that currently occupies about 2.7GB of disk space, and a truly minimal but usable installation with a minimalist window manager (PekWM) and a handful of apps and tools. That takes up only 600MB of disk space. Slackware always was flexible and that hasn't changed.

You can tell you're dealing with a distro for serious Linux geeks when booting into the GUI isn't even offered as an option by the installer. Heck, the installer doesn't even deal with X configuration. You start at the command line. GUI system administration tools? You can get them from third parties but Slackware itself is devoid of such things. Edit your config files or use command line tools.

Is this a bad thing? If you know what you're doing and don't mind taking some time to get your configuration right and your favorite apps from various third party sources it really isn't. OK, it's time consuming but the end result is a fast, rock solid system. That's what Slackware is known for. It remains seriously user unfriendly, hence all the derivative distributions like Zenwalk, Vector Linux, Wolvix, etc... that try and fix that. They all succeed to a large degree, giving users a friendly environment with all of the speed and stability.

Most of the usual third party packages sources like LinuxPackages.net and Slacky.eu don't have a full selection of apps built for 12.1 yet but that is rapidly changing. The project I'm working on is going to force me to do a lot of compiling from source in any case.

Could I live with Slackware as my main distro? Yes, easily. Would I recommend it? Only to those who know what they are getting into.

In a way I've come full circle. In late 1995 I was introduced to Linux by a coworker. When I asked which distribution to choose she suggested two: Red Hat Linux and Slackware. I chose Red Hat because she said it was easier to learn. It's also what she ran on her workstation in the office. Slackware was the second distro I looked at all those years ago.

What's changed since then? First off, I was very skeptical about Linux at the time and probably for about three or four years after that. I didn't think it would ever be a serious OS or that it was anywhere near ready for prime time. That sounds silly now but 13 years ago the state of Linux was still pretty primitive. Second, I don't think any of us would have dreamed of downloading a 3.8GB DVD iso image in an hour and a half and burning it ourselves. Thankfully time and technology really do march on.

What hasn't changed? In a fundamental way Slackware is the same as it ever was. It isn't any easier to get going now than it was all those years ago. You really do have to either know how Linux works under the hood or else you have to be willing to learn.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Back From A Few Days In Computer Hell + Advances In Green Computing With Linux

Last weekend I lost my desktop system to hardware failure -- the kind of failure not worth repairing. This closely followed a laptop dying as well. I found myself scrambling to make life and work go on with less for now. The end result will probably be that I'll buy two systems in the coming weeks, a small and inexpensive travel system, probably an Asus Eee PC I wanted anyway, and something powerful enough to be a desktop replacement and to allow me to do demos for consulting customers or potential customers.

For right now I'm down to two systems, both laptops, both very long in the tooth. I'm writing this on my five and a half year old vintage veteran Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204, with a 1GHz Celeron processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 20GB hard drive. The second system is 10 years old: my one surviving itty bitty Toshiba Libretto SS1010, a system about the size of a paperback book with a 233MHz Pentium MMX processor, just 64MB of RAM, and a minuscule 2.1GB hard drive. I decided to rebuild both with an idea of optimizing for speed. The idea is to use a Linux distribution designed to get the most out of limited hardware. Don't misunderstand me: Vector Linux 5.9 Standard, Xubuntu Hardy Heron 8.04, and Wolvix Hunter 1.1.0 all ran brilliantly on the Satellite. Still, if I'm going to do serious work I want to use as few resources as possible for the desktop and overheard and leave as much as possible for applications, particularly things like OpenOffice and multimedia apps that eat memory.

I decided to play with fire and try out some beta code, particularly Vector Linux Light 5.9 Beta 5. This is the first beta with the new LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment). The previously offered window managers, JWM (still the default) and Fluxbox, are also still included in the iso. There are some bugs which I've dutifully reported as you'd expect in a beta but nothing serious. All in all it works very well and is remarkably close to ready for prime time. Best of all... it's fast on the Satellite. Really fast!

LXDE looks good. Vector Linux has a unique replacement for the HAL daemon called VL-Hot. It doesn't continually poll the hardware bit rather is triggered by udev events. You can choose between VL-Hot and HAL in Vector Linux standard as either will work perfectly well with KDE and Xfce. VL-Hot also works correctly with pcmanfm which is used to control desktop icons in LXDE and in the Vector Linux Light implementation of JWM. Not only is this far less resource intensive than HAL but the fact that it mostly works well on lightweight desktops is truly impressive. This is a huge step forward for those with limited, low end hardware and for green computing in general.

I'll definitely be writing more about LXDE, VL-Hot, and Vector Linux Light in more formal articles and reviews for my blog over on the O'Reilly Linux Dev Center. I just thought a quick, informal posting of my first impressions might be of interest to the more adventurous Linux users out there who like to play around with bleeding edge software. The nice thing is that this is working well enough that it doesn't feel like bleeding edge. I've actually had more problems with the released version of Xubuntu Hardy Heron, but that's another story.

I also have the ancient Libretto running Damn Small Linux for the moment. An installation of Vector Linux Light seemed to go flawlessly but when I rebooted I got a kernel panic. I've seen this before with VL 5.9 and I've reported it as well. I'll be experimenting with a few very small lightweight distros on the box in a dual boot configuration with DSL. What I want is a fairly current 2.6.x kernel and current if lightweight apps, something DSL just doesn't offer. I'll definitely write about what works for me.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Primary Day

Yesterday was primary election day in North Carolina. I went out and voted in the early evening. In the best known races I voted for Hillary Clinton for President. She was trounced by Barack Obama, of course. My choice for Governor, Richard Moore, was also trounced. I did vote for Kay Hagan, who won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. I expect she'll get trounced by Elizabeth Dole in the fall. Oh well...

Far more disappointing to me than the results was what a nice old lady who was working at the polls told me. They had a very slow day with very poor turnout. For once North Carolina actually had a say in determining who would be the Democratic nominee for President. We had major statewide races in both parties. In this county we also had a school bond issue on the ballot. You'd think people would come out and vote but at least here they really didn't. I find this sort of voter apathy very troubling, particularly with all the challenges our area and our country as a whole now face. Don't people realize how much the outcome of the 2008 elections will effect our future? I guess not and that is truly sad.

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