The Year of the Penguin - Part Three

Linux-PenguinBy Andrew Frame

29 April, 2010. Release day for Ubuntu Linux 10.04.

Up to this point, releases had been candidate versions, the last hop between the beta (still testing) and the distribution (public release). But, 29 April was the real deal. In keeping with the Ubuntu six-month upgrade cycle, the end of April was to have arrived with a 700Mb download of Lucid Lynx. (Apparently alliteration has some geek cred I’m still not fully aware of. Version 10.10 is going to be Maverick Meerkat.)

Regarding the release, I say “was to have” because the target day came and went, and no release.  For that, I offer appreciation to the propeller-heads at Canonical, the Ubuntu maintainers. I’ll wait to have an OS that works out of the box, than one that may still have a few bugs in the code. I need this thing to work, and not waste my time.

Why Ubuntu? Why not Slackware? OpenSuse? Mint? Debian? At the core of Linux, as at the core of every operating system, is the kernel. From that point, out to the GUI that you work with, there is a level of customization that separates about a dozen baseline versions of Linux. I started with Red Hat many years ago. That’s become Fedora, today. I have Puppy, Damn Small, and Knoppix in my black bag for tech-service calls. I make use of the distribution that enables me to accomplish a desired task with the least amount of headache.

I loaded Ubuntu 9.04 last year for the Test Year, to see if we could run SoundWorks without compromise. Some intense individuals criticize because I’m using a “pretty” version, and not a “hackers” version. I went with Ubuntu because it has voluminous independent and “factory” support online. If you run into any kind of problem, it’s very likely someone else has too, and there’s either a fix, a workaround, or an acknowledgement from the Ubuntu people that they’re aware of the problem and have it on their list to solve.

And, Ubuntu is updated regularly, twice a year in April and October, so you will always have the most reliable versions of your software. All distro’s have some level of support and updating, I find Ubuntu the best for me for now. I do not want to spend more time tweaking my software than I do using it to put kibble in the dog bowl.

Linux is in a constant state of development and improvement by professional and semi-professional developers who donate their time and skills to the various projects. It’s claimed to have the ability to expand the life of older systems with reduced need for system resources – meaning that it will run great on older machines. Don’t believe it. You need as much processor power and RAM as you do for Windows or Mac to run Linux smoothly and quickly.  But, most machines built in the last five to seven years have that level of hardware, so it’s not a big issue.

Machines running less that a 1GHz processor and 512Mb of RAM – of which there are still a lot in service – can run Linux capably using one of the less processor intensive GUI’s like XFCE or Fluxbox, or one of the snappy mini-distro’s like Puppy. You will occasionally run into video or audio driver issues, but generally they work fine. It does give Windows XP – long known for being good with lower-powered machines – a capable alternative.

When 10.04 was finally released, I downloaded and made an installation CD. The fastest way to do this is using a torrent, instead of a direct download from the manufacturer’s website. This breaks the 700Mb file up amongst servers and seeders globally, so each contributes a little bit towards the complete file. By using this kind of distributed networking, the download is significantly faster.

The upgrade in our office was part of a much larger planned overhaul of our SOHO network.

First thing, was adding new hard drives to both workstations, giving the Windows box two, and the Linux box three, for a total of about 1.5Tb of online, immediately accessible storage space. This means all of our production music, effects, voicework, and client session files and billing are right there with a couple of clicks. Everything is backed up to a couple of USB hard drives. And, every hard drive has a small pair of cooling fans screwed to the case. Cheap insurance against heat issues for machines that run around the clock.

The audio workstation is a Windows XP system, since we use Cool Edit Pro 2.1 as the primary DAW.  This machine is about seven years old, and isn’t quite up to spec for Windows 7, and will not support the new SATA hard drives. In this economy, new machines aren’t in the budget. And, the well has dried up on getting XP Home SP3 OEM disks. I spent some time online and all the reputable vendors were out of stock and not getting any more.

Since my XP recovery CD’s are Service Pack 1, I figured this would be a good time to image the drive after an install and patching. Using Parted, an Open Source partition manager, I repartitioned the hard drive, let the factory recovery disks reinstall Windows, went online to get all the patches and upgrades to Service Pack 3, and then got down to the hour and a half of deleting all the trial- and bloat-ware that comes with a retail Windows installation.

Finally, I ran PING, another Open Source utility to image the drive, so next year I will merely have to run the recovery and have a fresh install in minutes, ready to go to work. Once the DAW and support software was loaded, that machine was done and ready for another year of slicing and dicing vowels, consonants, and music on the beat. When the budget allows, this machine will be moved to the family room as a media center, and we’ll bring in some new hardware to the office.

Total time for the Windows install, about four hours.

But wait! This is a series about Linux, right?

Yes, and at the outset, I also said it was a series about using the right OS for the job. In my case, Windows is the right OS for running my audio editor because it will not run on Linux under an emulator. Since I, and a great many members of my guild use this editor, I keep a Windows machine in good health.

This is no different than a production room a few years ago hosting an Orban DSE7000 and a Windows-based PC. I use the Windows machine to house my audio editor and a few applications that are Windows-only, and Linux for everything else. Think of it as what it is, a dedicated machine just for those things. Not for internet. Not for writing copy. Not for any sort of condition where I would need an anti-virus or firewall.

Next time: Bringing the Penguin to life, and using Live CD’s.

NOTES: In my June 2010 Radio And Production Magazine essay, I said Skype, the popular IM and free-telephone application was Open Source. It is most definitely, not. Also, in the section about Open Source replacements for proprietary applications, I listed the Mozilla Project’s Sunbird calendar. Since that piece was written, they have discontinued Sunbird, and instead are pointing potential users to add the Lightning calendar plug-in to their e-mail client, Thunderbird.  

SIDEBAR: Myth: “Linux sucks for gaming.”

Demythtified: Admittedly, true when it comes to the intense first-person shooters and RPG’s. But, many games can be run under emulators like WINE or PlayOnLinux. These work by providing a software layer that makes the game think it’s running on the OS it was designed for. The downside is that not all games will run on an emulator, and you often have latency (delay) issues, causing slow performance. Over the last few years, the number of games that will run on emulators – and the emulators themselves - have improved, giving you a much better experience. If you like “brain” games like MahJongg, Solitaire, Bejeweled, Sudoku and the like, you will find native versions that run perfectly on Linux.

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