Living with Red Hat 8 as a productivity client

Winertia finally vanquished...

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I finally bit the bullet and switched the Thinkpad over to Linux the day after Judge CKK delivered her verdict. It'd be nice to able to say I did this as some kind of personal protest, but it wouldn't be true - I'd spent several months prevaricating, then several days feverishly preparing, and if she hadn't announced the ETA of the decision on the Friday morning, I'd have had the machine in bits on Friday evening, rather than on Saturday morning.

So it was just a scheduling thing really. I've done OS switches on my primary working machine before, but these days it's particularly tricky, given the weird work patterns that seem to go with Register territory. You need sufficient downtime to do the backup (one of data, and the emergency fallback system backup, should your cunning plans collapse in ruins), you need a pretty clear plan of where you think you want to go, and you need to be pretty confident that the new stuff you're going to install is going to work.

Actually, that last one takes a lot of the fun out of it, but I'm getting old.

The cunning plan in my case was Linux as the main OS, dual-booting with Windows 2000, which I proposed to use primarily for playing games, and a little light testing of software when vendors nagged me sufficiently. The hardware is a Thinkpad T21, factory-fitted with Win2k. When I bought it over a year ago I asked about having Linux as the OS, and was told I could have that in three weeks, or Windows 2000 the next day. I'll just have to ask harder next upgrade.

The Linux distributions I had kicking around were SuSE 8.0 and Red Hat 8.0. SuSE I was the more familiar with, having used it on a desktop for a while, but as Red Hat 8.0 is slightly more recent, and I was still intrigued by Red Hat's desktop pitch, I opted for that, promising myself I'd look at SuSE's rival pitch when they ship it.

Most of the time and worry is spent on the backup and getting the dual boot right, rather than the install itself, but I think I've devised an install-intensive method of getting dual boot to work, while allowing me to go and have a coffee instead of trying to figure out Grub. I shrank the Win2k partition with Partition Magic, then installed a fresh FAT32 Win2k partition to dual boot with it.

Then I installed Red Hat over the first partition, at which point the remaining Win2k partition declined to boot, and I discovered Red Hat 8.0 defaults to Grub rather than Lilo, and fiddling with Grub is rather different from fiddling with Lilo, which I'd done before. No matter, nothing vital on the machine any more anyway, so reinstall over the Win2k partition and have that coffee. There, that seems to work, and it beat thinking on your day off.

Next, having taken the precaution of making the backup of the original system visible to both Win2k and Linux on the ThinkPad, I started shifting the data back. My vital local data consisted of email in Eudora 5.1, Opera bookmarks, a few boilerplate letters to bank managers and accountants, and a clutch of documents and videos incriminating various companies. Nothing really secret though, so don't bother breaking in. One thing worth noting is that, whereas with a Windows install you'll have to do a significant amount of faffing around installing hardware drivers afterwards, Linux in most cases comes with enough to at least get you going - so the install is actually quicker and easier.

Afterwards, Opera 6.1 for Linux installed easily enough, and apart from that I decided to use the Red Hat 8.0 defaults of OpenOffice for productivity and Ximian Evolution for email. Opera imported bookmarks from the backup drive, and Ximian can indeed import Eudora folders. If it can import them as a batch rather than one folder at a time, it is now too late for the information to be of any use to me. Barring the boot blooper, the entire exercise took a bit more than a day, with plenty of time in there for cups of coffee.

Ah, but how is it?
Explaining to you that Linux is really quite simple to install these days is not however the point - this is established already. What I wanted to do was to determine how successfully and easily I could switch horses from Windows to Linux over a weekend, what - if anything - I'd miss, and what kinds of learning curves it would be necessary to climb.

The last one is particularly important, because the target desktop market in general will not want to learn about fiddling with operating systems before they can be productive. The Thinkpad is a production machine, so although I don't mind fiddling, it's a case of not on the firm's time.

A couple of months into the exercise it seems to have been pretty successful. Linux is maybe marginally more solid than Win2k was on the same machine, but only marginally so. It does not have Win2k's intensely irritating habit of looking like it's finished doing something but not having done so really, or that weird one where the dial up networking folder takes an age to display the connections, and everything else goes into slow motion while you wait. Or Win2k pretends to have thrown away all your dial-up connections until you reboot. One of my overriding impressions of Windows after six years (I switched from OS/2 when the war was clearly lost) is of an OS where hardware is progressively thrown at dodgy code, rather than the code being tightened up.

So weird stuff just happens faster. But that's only my impression.

As yet, I haven't managed to get Red Hat to suspend correctly on the machine. It'll do it reliably with the power cable pulled out, but not so with the cable in. It's possible there are issues with suspend depending on the number of devices plugged in (I've seen reports of this with Red Hat). This however isn't a major enough issue for me to have bothered trying to fix it, and it's a big improvement over the Win2k performance of the same machine, where it's entirely random whether or not it achieves suspend or freezes in 'can't switch it off' mode halfway through.

As far as software is concerned, Ximian Evolution seems tolerable enough. It's an Outlook lookalike though, and so I find myself reacting negatively to it because it reminds me of Outlook. Which I accept is just a tad bigoted of me. Evolution however has bits missing - it's clearly work in progress, but it's usable enough, and doesn't have as many annoying quirks as Eudora. I could use rather better support of cut and paste in Evolution, which brings me on to a related matter.

My needs from an OS are simple and few. It should stay up, support large numbers of open browser windows without crashing, have a tolerable text editor (or word processor if you absolutely insist), and it should be easy for me to cut and paste. So I read email, info on the Internet, paste into text editor, write copy, select, copy, paste into a form in our content engine, and that's basically that as regards how The Register is brought to you.

Clever ASCII is a problem, as our content engine supports (for pretty good reasons) a pretty lowest common denominator set. Microsoft Office's smartquotes have on occasion led me to attempt to hunt down and kill every last copy of Office in the, er, office, but it turns out that OpenOffice comes up with bunches of stuff the content engine doesn't understand too, and it wasn't readily obvious to me whether or not it was possible to 'downgrade' its ASCII set. So this is coming to you in Gedit, whereas the previous Win2k-originated copy came to you via Notepad (no, honestly...)

Cut and paste, however, turned out to be a more considerable irritant. Opera does not seem to be able to reliably paste in text cut from outside of Opera. The Oslo techies tell me this is because with 6.1 Opera switched from QT2 to QT3 as the user interface library, which may break support for apps using QT2. Beats me. Anyway, although Mozilla isn't absolutely bulletproof in this department either, running Xclipboard seems to kick the paste into action when I need it.

This is one of several areas where I've found Red Hat online support to be not entirely helpful. Unless it's just me - which I really don't think it is - there really ought to be some kind of clear explanation of cut and paste problems somewhere on the site, or at minimum the useful piece of information that the clipboard viewer begins with X, not C.

But the Red Hat Network I like. This is the equivalent of Windows Update, and seems to be pretty nippy with patch distribution. And yes indeed, there do seem to me to be more security updates for Linux than Windows, but so long as they're found and fixed quickly and painlessly I don't see this as a problem. Red Hat provides RHN support for free, but prioritises paying customers at peak times. I've had some people bitch about having trouble getting on because of this, but I've only been turned away once in the past couple of months, so it's not a problem I've experienced.

Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised by how painless it's all been. The system's stable, easily kept up to date, does what I need for work, and the UI remains pretty easy on the eye. Fonts can be a little odd (some pages are particularly grotty in Opera), and some of the apps have iffy moments. But I switched horses on the Saturday, was live with the new system on the Monday, and have neither had my productivity significantly impaired or felt the need to boot the Windows partition for anything other than games. Oh, and so I can use IE to shop at Tesco. But I'm thinking of switching to Sainsburys. ®

High performance access to file storage

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