March of the Linux Distros

Every year in the last few weeks leading to Christmas I notice a sudden upswing in the number of new Linux distros available. I think this phenomenon has less to do with general Windows ennui. And more with the wanna-be geeks deciding to scope out Linux. Who schedule their experiments for the Christmas holidays.

Even I’ve fallen victim to this holiday fervor. I’ve installed two Linux distros (on separate hard drives of course) on my second computer. While you can supposedly install two distros on the same disk I found it only works if their sources are the same. These two are like apples and oranges.

Ubuntu 5.10 Breeze Badger based on Debian is the first. Ubuntu is an ancient African word that means humanity to others aka I am what I am because of who we all are. And the Ubuntu Linux distro brings this same spirit to the software world. The second, CentOS 4.2 based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 is the second.

Of the two, Ubuntu (offers a Gnome 2.12 interface) and Kubuntu (Ubuntu with a KDE interface) are closer in usability to Windows than CentOS. The Ubuntu setup begins very Linux-like. You have to configure the network card. Then decide how to partition the hard disk. And finally setup a password and verify it.

The good news is that Ubuntu coexists with Windows. I installed Breeze Badger side-by-side with an existing Windows XP Pro setup. Once the basic Q&A is completed, the install script takes over, detects installed hardware and setups the appropriate drivers. Then the system restarts and you can login to your account.

Oddly the main Ubuntu distro is not available via BitTorrent. Instead you need to download a single 600+ MB ISO file before burning it to CD-R. For some odd reason the Ubuntu DVD combining both install and live (bootable) versions is available via BitTorrent separately for AMD64, i486 and PowerPC architectures. Also available are special localized versions, including one developed for HP Laptop computers.

For the trouble of downloading the single 600 MB distro you get a relatively easy to setup free operating system. Windows users would do well to not apply their understanding of the Windows user interface to Ubuntu. As it quite different. But the developers offer crutches in the form of highly descriptive menus!

And if your new Ubuntu box doesn’t use ADSL to connect to the Internet (via the installed network card) and instead uses a dial-up connection. Be prepared for some grief. I found Ubuntu unable to detect my modem driver. But luckily I found a thread online about getting CDMA modems like those available from Tata Indicom and Reliance to work with Linux. The first is from MA Sivakumar:

Use the following command (in a single line):< /br>< /br>
“pppd /dev/ttyS0 115200 debug usepeerdns defaultroute noauth connect ‘/usr/sbin/chat -v “” at+crm=1 OK “atdt#777″ CONNECT’ user internet [password internet”< /br>< /br>
For convenience write this as a shell script and run it whenever you want.< /br>< /br>
To disconnect use “killall -9 pppd”

The second from Suraj at Symonds.net

Or simply, use pppconfig in debian 😀 and make “ppp0 auto” in your /etc/network/interfaces (or for older Debian releases, use /etc/ppp_on_boot).

And I’m not the only person singing Breeze Badger’s praises. This Linux distro won the Linux Journal Readers Choice award because (its an) … is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to run Linux on a desktop system. It’s easy to install and to administer. Everyone from beginners to experts can use and appreciate it. And it’s free. Ubuntu has also won the UK Linux & Open Source Awards 2005, Tux magazine Reader’s Choice 2005 for Favorite Linux Distribution and Ars Technica’s best distribution award.

My second favorite, CentOS 4.2, is the Linux Journal Readers Choice runner-up beating Fedora 3. CentosOS is a thinly redone version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4. And the distro’s web site is full of references to a Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor which is actually Red Hat.

CentOS is actually an excellent server operating system. And my company uses it to run a staging server used to test web sites before they are published to client sites. We also use it to manage our Internet gateway. On both counts is very powerful. And today while going through the setup options, I found that it also has IBM Thinkpad and Sony Vaio laptop-specific settings! I still need to give the new CentOS 4.2 a proper run-thru. My experiences with an older version were dismal. Often runaway processes couldn’t be killed either from the shell. Forming to reboot the system, somewhat like a balky Windows system, to restore services!

Past Linux, we have the all new Firefox 1.5 just out. For those who didn’t download and install the three past Release Candidates, this new version offers an integrated software update, Opera-type Back / Forward page navigation, a separate option to clear private browsing data, drag-and-drop reordering of browser tabs, redesigned Options/Preferences window and better popup blocking. Standards support is much improved and the browser now supports Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), JavaScript 1.6 and enhanced CSS properties. The memory leak that plagued the Betas seems to have been partially resolved. Firefox 1.5 is still resource hungry and even with just 4 open tabs consumed 40 MB of system resources. But don’t let that stop you, download a copy immediately.

Do also consider installing the IE-Tab Firefox extension. So you can now open IE from within Firefox. And IE-centric web sites like Windows Update (which use ActiveX) will now run from Firefox. A principal advantage of this approach is you browse the web safely while not being restricted in the sites you visit.

And finally a cautionary tale. Two days ago one of my company’s developer systems nearly crashed irrevocably when a new rogue spyware tried installing itself. The crash occurred after Microsoft Anti-Spyware blocked the install attempt. If you use Microsoft Anti-Spyware. Are worried the software will expire in December. But have been quite unsuccessful in updating the product to extend your free subscription.

Download the new Anti-Spyware v1.0.701 with an expiry date of July 31, 2006. You will need to validate your Windows copy. If you don’t have a legal version use Firefox to access the download link. Then download and run the Validation software before finally being able to download the update. Make sure to install the new build over your existing version. Don’t make the mistake of uninstalling your older copy or you will still be stuck with a December 2005 expiry date.

That’s it for this time. Stay Safe until we meet again.

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