Ubuntu Linux: the agony and the ecstasy

Just after writing a positive review of Ubuntu Karmic Koala I noticed this piece on The Register: Early adopters bloodied by Ubuntu’s Karmic Koala:

Blank and flickering screens, failure to recognize hard drives, defaulting to the old 2.6.28 Linux kernel, and failure to get encryption running are taking their toll, as early adopters turn to the web for answers and log fresh bug reports in Ubuntu forums.

Did I get it wrong? Should I be warning users away from an operating system and upgrade that will only bring them grief?

I doubt it, though I see both sides of this story. I’ve been there: hours spent trying to get Bluetooth working on the Toshiba laptop on which I’m typing; or persuading an Asus Eee PC to connect to my wi-fi; or running dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg to try to get Compiz working or to escape basic VGA; or running Super Grub to fix an Ubuntu PC that will not boot; or trying to fix a failed migration from Lilo to Grub 2 on my Ubuntu server.

That said, I noticed that the same laptop which gave me Ubuntu Bluetooth grief a couple of years ago now works fine with a clean install, Bluetooth included. It’s even possible that my own contribution helped – that’s how Linux works – though I doubt it in this case.

I also noticed how Ubuntu 9.10 has moved ahead of Windows in several areas. Here are three:

  1. Cloud storage and synchronization

    Microsoft has Live Mesh. Typical Microsoft: some great ideas, I suspect over-engineered, requires complex runtime to be downloaded and installed, not clear where it fits into Microsoft’s overall strategy, still in beta long after it was first trumpeted as a big new thing. So is this thing built into Windows 7? No way.

    By contrast Ubuntu turns up with what looks like a dead simple cloud storage and synchronization piece, web access, file system access, optional sharing, syncs files over multiple computers. Ubuntu One. I’ve not checked how it handles conflicts; but then Mesh was pretty poor at that too, last time I looked. All built-in to Karmic Koala, click, register, done.

  2. Multiple workspaces

    Apple and Linux have had this for years; I have no idea why it isn’t in Windows 7, or Vista for that matter. Incredibly useful – if the screen is busy but you don’t fancy closing all those windows, just switch to a new desktop.

  3. Application install

    This is so much better on Linux than on Windows or Mac; the only platform I know of that is equally user-friendly is the iPhone. OK, iPhone is better, because it has user ratings and so on; but Ubuntu is pretty good: Software Centre – browse – install.

I could go on. Shift-Alt-UpArrow, Ubuntu’s version of Exposé, very nice, not on Windows. And the fact that I can connect a file explorer over SSL using Places – Connect to server, where on Windows I have to download and install WinScp or the like.

Plus, let’s not forget that Ubuntu is free.

Of course you can make a case for Windows too. It’s more polished, it’s ubiquitous, app availability is beyond compare. It is a safe choice. I’m typing this on Ubuntu in BlogGTK but missing Windows Live Writer.

Still, Ubuntu is a fantastic deal, especially with Ubuntu One included. I don’t understand the economics by which Canonical can give everyone in the world 2GB of free cloud storage; if it is hoping that enough people will upgrade to the 50GB paid-for version that it will pay for the freeloaders, I fear it will be disappointed.

My point: overall, there is far more right than wrong with Ubuntu in general and Karmic Koala in particular; and I am still happy to recommend it.

Hyper-V Server 2008 R2: a great deal for Windows virtualization

Microsoft’s free Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 is a version of Windows Server Core dedicated to one function only: hosting virtual machines. Can you really get something worthwhile for nothing from Microsoft? The answer seems to be yes, especially when it is trying to win market share from well-established competitors. I’ve had test servers running on the earlier release of Hyper-V since Server 2008 first appeared, and it’s worked well.

Hyper-V R2 has a number of interesting new features including live migration. Another, less exciting but of great interest to folk such as myself who are constantly running trial software, is that dynamically expanding virtual hard drives now perform nearly as well as fixed-size virtual drives. Dynamic drives are far more convenient.

I downloaded Hyper-V 2008 and installed it on a spare machine. The main requirements are a processor that supports hardware virtualization (Intel VT or AMD-V) and hardware Data Execution Prevention (Intel’s Execute Disable Bit or AMD’s NX bit); note that these also have to be enabled in the BIOS.

Once it is up and running you are greeted with a couple of text windows, which feels sparse compared to the usual Windows GUI; but does provide a convenient menu for the things you are likely to want to do next. Actions include naming the computer, joining a domain, downloading updates, adding a local administrator and configuring remote desktop.

Working with Server Core does have some hassles. For example, many third-party drivers and tools come as setup executables that will not run without a GUI. The major vendors should have come to terms with this by now, but it can be a problem particularly with older hardware.

The next step (if you are on Windows 7) is to download and install the Remote server administration tools for Windows 7. Note that after installing, you have to go into Control Panel – Programs – Windows Features and enable the Remote Server Administration Tools, at least including the Hyper-V manager. Then you can run this from the Start menu and connect to your new server.

This step can be problematic. My first attempts failed with RPC permission errors, which I solved by joining the hyper-v server to the Windows domain. If that is not available or desired, there are other fixes.

Other remote admin tools can be useful too. For example, you can connect the Event Viewer to check out the logs.

Once Hyper-V manager is connected, you can create a new virtual machine with a few clicks. I downloaded the latest Ubuntu server iso, copied it to the Hyper-V server, and set it as the DVD drive for the new machine. Started it up, connected, and I was ready to go.

Hyper-V Server is not the only free virtualization platform. Let’s note that completely free platforms also exist – like, indeed, Ubuntu with KVM. I’d also note that VMware is a more mature and advanced platform, despite Hyper-V’s rapid progress.

Still, what you get with Hyper-V server is a polished and easy to use solution that integrates easily with Windows and Active Directory. This is a great deal.

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