June 27, 2009

The highs and lows of Leonidas — This. Is. Fedora!

Filed under: Blog — krkhan @ 12:43 am

There is a reason why I never evangelize Fedora much: it’s far from perfect. There is also a reason why I use Fedora for my everyday Linux-ing: it’s good when it starts working. The two seemingly conflicting viewpoints are not mutually exclusive, since Fedora’s instability as well as its appeal can be termed in one word: bleeding-edge.

The biannual cycle of backup-reinstall-reconfigure for each new Fedora release works fine for me. It takes a day or two to get everything back to the way want them to be, but the trade-off is almost always worth it. Consider this, upgrading from a Fedora version to the next will almost never work seamlessly. Nevertheless, the re-installation mantra allowed me to use PulseAudio’s “perfect” setup much before most of the other distros’ users. The fact that I got a clean start for the new sound architecture also explains why I never had any incompatibility issues with it and consequently, my status as one of its huge fans.

Another reason why I’m still hanging on to Fedora is because of the familiarity factor, as I no longer have the ample time for trying out newer distributions just for the sake of it. Linux From Scratch was a mighty fun experience, but keeping it up-to-date was nothing short of a Herculean task. Gentoo sounds very appealing, but I don’t want to download a DVD, go through the hassle of installing and getting familiar with the new distro and then emerge a whole universe of updates on an internet connection as reliable as Fedora on Hurd. The perfect solution would be to install a new release of Gentoo but unfortunately, it’s been over an year now since I started waiting for one.

Which brings us to Fedora 11 — lovingly nicknamed after everyone’s favorite Spartan king.

The predominant aspects of the new release which affect me as a user are the Ext4 filesystem and the Kernel Modesetting feature. So far, I am not even using the former. Yes, yes, I know I bragged about bleeding-edge before, but let me explain why I did not go for it in this particular case:

  • Filesystem is the most critical aspect of a system for me. I can toy around and experiment with everything but this holy grail. If my audio fails, I can try fixing it. If X stops working, ditto. If my data is corrupted, I’m FUBAR.
  • Anaconda crashed when I tried to update the boot-loader configuration for a system with Ext4 partitions.
  • I couldn’t find a way to use Ext4 without using the Logical Volume Manager. I like my partitions as /dev/sdaX and entries such as /dev/mapper/yourmom/blahblahblah/finallythedrive in the fstab file turn me off.

Nevertheless, KMS made up for the Ext4 — or lack thereof.

  • Booting is now prettier.
  • Working in runlevel 3 is so much more efficient because of all the extra space provided by higher resolution.
  • Switching virtual terminals and X sessions is a breeze.
  • Suspend/Resume is a bit more stable.

Other significant changes include Xfce 4.6, Firefox 3.5 and the reworked volume management in Pulse. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with my decision to upgrade, and here’s to the hoping that the next 6 months will go as smooth as the previous ones.

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March 1, 2009

Top Five Improved Open-Source Projects

Filed under: Blog — krkhan @ 3:55 pm

“Evolution is God’s way of issuing upgrades.”

It’s a wonderful age to live in as an open-source enthusiast. The warm feeling is especially accentuated in one’s mind after recalling countless hours of hair-pulling trying to make that goddamned VGA monitor work with Red Hat Linux 6. Software for GNU/Linux has improved at an exponential rate. There are still plenty which lack the user-friendliness and all, but technologically the overall rate of improvement has been nothing short of astounding.

Ask any newcomer to the GNU/Linux world about their favorite open-source projects, and there’s a strong likelihood that the answer will be one of the “prominent big-guns”; the likes of Compiz Fusion, Firefox, KDE or Gnome. Ask any veteran the same question and you’re much more likely to get a diverse stock of answers ranging from Vim to Anjuta or probably even some obscure Window Manager like Fluxbox. The opinion about the most “improved” projects would thus be highly polarizing. Still and all, there are few projects which have eased my life substantially with their progress. To compliment the ones that have almost made me kiss virtual bits of code at one point or other, I’ve decided to choose the top five:

  1. recordMyDesktop
    The Dark Ages: Recording a video of an X session was nothing less than a nightmare. With sound, all the more so. The popular method was to run a VNC server and then use a tool such as vnc2swf to capture the footage.
    The Messiah: Once you install recordMyDesktop and one of its GUI frontends, recording becomes as easy as launching it and selecting “Record”. Really, you don’t have to use multiple software now for doing something as simple as that.

  2. NetworkManager
    The Dark Ages: You went to your workplace, geared up your Linux distribution and tried get some connectivity and to your utter horror, the Wireless network used WPA encryption for passphrase. wpa_supplicant was the command-line utility you could’ve used for connecting to such networks after hours of tinkering around, but it sadly wouldn’t have prevented you from getting fired because the execs weren’t that much amicable with open-source evangelism in the first place.
    The Messiah: Red Hat, for all the criticisms it receives for RHEL, is still the caring patron figure for desperate Linux users crying out for help. Hence, it’s no co-incidence that this project as well as next two on the list were initiated by the same company. NetworkManager makes mobile connectivity as peachy as it could’ve been. You spend a few days with NM on your notebook and it starts choosing the best network for you wherever you go, that too with least possible intrusion in your workflow.

  3. SELinux Troubleshooter
    The Dark Ages: In this particular case, the dark ages don’t belong to that much a distant past since the cause of all the mess was also a recent innovation. Security Enhanced Linux, while obstinately preached by Red Hat and enabled by default on its shipped operating systems, was unanimously loathed by all system administrators who had at one point or other given up their hopes and had disabled it completely on their networks. The error messages it churned out on regular bases were not only cryptic, but also critically hampered regular everyday usage of their host operating systems.
    The Messiah: With improved default policies, the situation was somewhat resolved for general user. Nevertheless, irregularities still kept popping up occasionally and hence came SELinux Troubleshooter to the rescue. For every cryptic denial that SELinux now pops up, the Troubleshooter will analyze it and even suggest workarounds for them so that you don’t have to manually mess with policy modules every time something perfectly legitimate starts getting labeled as “unauthorized” access.

  4. PulseAudio
    The Dark Ages: The music player was playing a song and you tried having a voice-call or playing another video = epic fail. The audio device was usable by only one application at a time. In fact, sound was the Achilles’ heel for default setups of pretty much every Linux distribution that existed.
    The Messiah: Playing a soundtrack in one application with volume tuned to max and having a video run in another with volume at half is no longer a fantasy. And no, ESD doesn’t even come close to PulseAudio in “seamless” multiplexing of such sounds. If you want more, Pulse can combine multiple soundcards into one and also — hold your breath — redirect audio streams to different hardware on the fly.

  5. TrueCrypt
    The Dark Ages: Disk encryption had been an ultra-geek thing for quite a while, especially on Linux. Software that provided such features needed to have modules compiled manually and loaded into the running kernel which opened up a whole plethora of compatibility issues which almost always made newcomers decide against the whole idea per se.
    The Messiah: God bless the developer who had the idea of using FUSE in TrueCrypt for mounting encrypted containers. As a consequence, once a user has installed TrueCrypt, the whole thing doesn’t need to be recompiled again from time to time with updated kernels. Also, thanks to wxWidgets, the GUI has drastically improved too; making it easier for even Linux newbies to utilize disk encryption.

Fortunately, unlike commercial operating systems, GNU/Linux users don’t have to wait for decades before seeing actual new “innovations” in action. Who knows, maybe next year we’ll have LOLPython topping my list. Anything’s probable.

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