http://usalug.org

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

antiX-base M12.0 has been set up for Mother to use!

I installed the antiX-base M12.0 pre-final version on a 2004-vintage Dell Dimension 3000 desktop that I acquired from my sister, and I put it in my Mother's den, and configured it to automatically login to a JWM desktop with Rox icons, containing a Web browser and a terminal.

With the automatic login feature enabled, my Mother can press the power button, wait about half a minute, and have a ready to use system that runs quite a bit faster than the Windows XP that was previously installed on this system. All she has to do is single click on a rather large desktop icon that I've labeled "Web Browser", and I've set up her browser with two tabs; one for Live.com Email, (which my sister had set up for her three years ago), a tab for the Detroit Free Press News, and a search widget in the top of the browser to research anything else that she is interested in.

Who says that Linux is too difficult to use, even for an eighty four year old woman, who is not very familiar with technology? She can use it on her own! I did have to teach her how to do it, but I made it as simple as possible, showed her how to turn on this "new" (for her) system, what to click, how to use the different mouse, and which buttons to use to turn it on, off, and navigate. She's able to use it, and has used it twice now in the past week, including earlier on Tuesday evening.

I give my Mother a lot of credit for being willing to try things out, and I take a little bit of credit for thinking about what can be easy and fast for her to use, and setting up things in such a way, that with a few clicks, she can do all the things that she needs to do, mostly reading Email from her children and from her friends at church and in her social circles - a humanities study group, and some women's travel groups. She is able to do all the things she needs with it, and its set up so that other things stay out of her way and don't confuse her.

Three cheers to anticapitalista and his team for having the wisdom to make both IceWM and JWM, which are easier for novices to deal with than the fancier dwm, wmii, and Fluxbox that the advanced users seem to prefer, for the decision to include a feature to optionally enable automatic login, perfect for someone like my Mom, and the decision to include a tool to switch the default window manager. I used those features to set up JWM with Rox icons, and enable automatic login. These choices make even a distribution normally thought of as a "hobbyist-based", light, flexible system, into something I can set up for nearly anyone to use.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

antiX M12.0 Test 2 - Preparing for another winner!

The antiX distribution began in a fairly low key, unnoticed manner.  Back in 2006, an English speaking educator from Thessaloniki, which is a politically charged city, appeared on the MEPIS Lovers Community Forum as "anticapitalista", and announced that he had created a lightweight alternative to SimplyMEPIS entitled antiX.

A few years earlier in 2003 when MEPIS was formed, it was initially a fairly small, light Linux distribution, formed from Debian GNU/Linux software, capable of running directly from what is called a "Live CD".  That means that you can insert a CD (or DVD) into your system, and start the system, running not from the disk hard drive, but from removable media instead.

When MEPIS was small, it ran well from CD, at least in 2003.  Even today, you can run MEPIS from CD, but since 2004, MEPIS has been a simple, but full featured desktop system, and it is a very good one.

The small, light nature of that first effort also had merit.  The gentleman named Paul, who prefers to use the "handle" anticapitalista, wanted to recapture that light, flexible look and feel, so he respun the MEPIS effort, removing the full featured, somewhat heavier software in favor of light, flexible, configurable software.  Then he approached Warren Woodford and asked for permission to distribute antiX as a derivative of MEPIS.  Warren liked the idea and has allowed anti to distribute his work through the MEPIS community.

I like antiX because it is nearly as stable as SimplyMEPIS, yet in some ways it provides even more flexibility, at only a moderate cost in terms of complexity.  In fact, it's pretty simple, it's just not quite as much of a "drop in and use" system as SimplyMEPIS is; it tends to require just a little bit more experience, particularly in using system tools, and occasionally command-based utilities.  This can scare off some beginners and novices, so it's clear that MEPIS definitely has its place, but so does antiX.  There are times when you want to be able to easily tailor your system to your own specific needs, and that is an area in which antiX truly excels.  It's great for aging hardware, and it's also great for the hobbyist and enthusiast who simply wants to experiment with a variety of configurations.

I happen to have hardware that is over three years old.  At the time I started with antiX in 2006, all I had available to me was a 2000-2001 vintage Dell Dimension 4100 desktop system with a 996 MHz Pentium III processor, 256 MB of RAM (memory) and a single 40 GB Western Digital IDE hard drive disk.  Other systems would work with this configuration, but light systems, such as Puppy, Feather Linux, and antiX, worked much better.  I also tended to take full featured systems and add light window managers and browsers on them so that I could do certain things faster and more effectively.

When antiX was released, it was immediately apparent to me that a system like this could save me time and effort.  Not only that, it had the same proven installation system and configuration tools found in the reliable and familiar SimplyMEPIS, plus it had that feel that I had enjoyed in the earliest builds of the prototype versions of MEPIS.

Since 2006, antiX has grown and evolved in capabilities.  There is now a "full featured" release, still light, using resource conserving window managers in place of heavy, full featured desktop environments, but it has acquired quite a few powerful programs in it.  Not everyone wants the same thing, though, and that is why antiX has developed two additional alternatives, the "Base" version, which still provides a graphical installation and initial login, but strips out applications, and allows you, with the assistance of tools, to create your own customized configuration.  Another version, developed over the past two years or so, called "Core", takes that a step further: all that "Core" includes is a system kernel, essential system utilities, and a core set of tools that allows you to create the system you want.  It does not come with any graphical user environment; you choose the one you want, if you want one, or you can use "Core" to set up a command-based server environment.

I've created several custom distributions of my own using antiX, starting with the original edition, the Base edition, and the Core edition.  All three are nimble, flexible, solid, and very useful, and they have become part of my essential collection of Linux systems that I use on a regular basis.  I wrote this article using antiX M12.0 Base Test 2, which I built back in the third week of March, and have been testing it since that time with excellent results.

I encourage those who have read this article with interest to take a look at the antiX offerings.  The antiX site http://antix.mepis.org/index.php?title=Main_Page#Downloads has download locations for those who are interested in trying it out.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Which Debian-based Linux distributions work best for me and why

Earlier on Saturday, I was using Semplice 2.0.2 for a few hours, but now I am back using  Debian Sid. After using Lubuntu and then antiX core on the Lenovo laptop, I can tell you that all of them are easy and fast to use, but my favorites are the Debian Sid and its derivatives. I have antiX core and siduction on the Lenovo as my Debian Sid derivatives, and I have antiX core, Semplice, and Debian Sid itself on the Gateway.

If you're going to use a Sid based system, then, to my way of thinking, there is no better one than Sid itself. However, if you are starting fresh from scratch, I'd pick antiX core as the one that gives you a few more tools to work with, and siduction, by a hair, over Semplice, in terms of complete, prepared, ready to go systems. For all of them, I like adding the smxi tool. Yes, I can configure them all without smxi, but smxi just makes the task faster and simpler, regardless of what aptosid and siduction developers say about using the free stuff only and sticking with the core system. If we want to do that, then forget them: use just Debian Sid!

So in the Debian Sid world, Debian Sid and antiX core, for me, get the nod, but I have to say, working with Semplice today, I've pretty much (gradually) taken out their stuff and put in the stuff I use, so there is very little difference between Debian Sid, antiX core, and Semplice for me. Same goes for siduction; they're all quite good.

In the Debian Testing arena, again, what can be better than Debian Testing itself? Once the system is completely set up, no need to go elsewhere. If you are starting from scratch, however, it's hard to beat antiX base. The antiX M12.0 base edition, even though there are some packaging defects, documentation, and tools still to be polished and finished, is one of the best there is, and antiX M11.0, already released, was a great release last year. If I were starting fresh (which I did recently, I would not hesitate to use antiX M12.0 Test 2 base, or any of the internal test builds that are taking place right now. But there are a few other good Debian Testing derivatives that also work quite well. One that I like, and I have installed on my Lenovo, is ZevenOS. I have Version 2.0, the "Neptune Edition". No reason for me to get any newer release, because Neptune looks nice and is just as up to date as any newer releases they may have come out with since then. Starting fresh, sure, grab the latest version, but for me, "Neptune" does very well.

For Debian Stable, that's one area where I think you can do better than the Debian release. SimplyMEPIS, to me, adds demonstrable value. It's much faster and easier to install, and you can choose to either stick with it, as is, and "age" it nicely, as Debian itself does, or you can, as you need them, add newer software packages from the MEPIS CR - their Community Repository. Debian Stable is great, of course, and that's where the great software comes from.

Canonical, though often criticized for not making many direct software contributions to Linux or to Debian, actually DOES provide contributions in several ways. First, the marketing that Canonical does for desktop software is something that not only Debian, but the entire Linux ecosystem has needed for years. Red Hat provides what's needed on the server side of things. SUSE has done good things on both the desktop and the server, but Canonical has made more inroads, offering four or five of their own sponsored derivatives, and they always seem to be in the news about something in free software. But something that not many people see is that they DO give back to the Debian project. There are numerous bug fixes that make their way back to either Debian Sid or Debian Testing from Canonical's efforts, and in addition to that, tools like update-manager have, over the years, seen their way to Debian, and the simplicity that Ubuntu and its derivatives have added to the installation and configuration process have slowly, but surely, made their way into many Debian projects, so that Debian itself is no longer that difficult beast to install or use, so Canonical can be thanked for their role in that.

As far as Ubuntu derivatives that I like, in the Canonical camp, my favorite by far is Xubuntu. I like it nearly as much as my Debian systems (which always end up getting Xfce installed on them). Xubuntu is Canonical's community version of Ubuntu that comes with Xfce instead of GNOME. The first Ubuntu derivative that I actually started using was Kubuntu. I don't find it quite as stable during testing as Xubuntu, but released versions are always pretty solid. For lighter computing than even Xubuntu, the LXDE-based Lubuntu has been quite useful for fast start up and use mainly when browsing is all that's planned for the login session.

Personally, I am not a huge fan of Mint and its derivatives, but there are a couple of them that are quite popular, beginning with the main Mint (GNOME-based) release. Mint, which is, in the main version, a Ubuntu derivative, has done a lot of work to deal with the erratic nature and major changes that have occurred since GNOME 3 was released. Ubuntu came up with Unity as their answer. Mint came up with a couple of alternatives, including Cinnamon and MATE, which have been popular to smooth the transition to the vastly different desktop style introduced with GNOME 3. I'm not a GNOME fan, so I usually ignore this stuff, but Mint also has a KDE edition, an Xfce edition, an LXDE edition, and others as well. But perhaps their best derivative work started as an experiment: a return to Debian rolling release testing repository package archives instead of Ubuntu derived archives. The result is called Linux Mint Debian Edition (abbreviated LXDE), and it's one of the most popular Debian derivatives, and probably second only to Mint itself within their community derivatives. Debian lovers who are also Mint lovers might want to give it a try. One of my friends who likes Debian, but struggles at times with software updates has had good success with LMDE.

That's my summary of what several of the top Debian-based distribution alternatives are out there right now. There are many other good ones in addition to these, but for general purpose use, and also for my own personal use cases, these are the ones that get the most attention from me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

more siduction


A few days ago in another blog, I wrote a note about siduction, asking "What will it seduce?"  Here are a few additional comments I wrote in a follow up blog note:

I found that the biggest attraction for former sidux users was a return to some of what the team and the community had hoped for in their original goals.

Debian Sid is not usually an environment or a system for casual software users, it is an environment for experimenters.  The siduction distribution, based on Debian Sid, follows in those footsteps.

As I indicated yesterday, those who are looking for a trivial system that they plug in, run, and rarely maintain, there may be better alternatives available to them - perhaps something based on one of the stable Debian distributions.

Debian Sid is primarily for people who either develop software and want a fairly current platform upon which to develop their own work, or a platform where they want to test and use fairly current software, and usually current hardware as well.

It is in this particular area that siduction adds some incremental value to what the Debian Sid project already provides: recently updated software.  The siduction project adds more current Linux-based kernels, which are more likely to support current hardware.

What you don't get as much of with either Debian Sid or siduction are a vast collection of graphically based system packaging and administration tools.  There is a good reason for this: one of the frequently changing components in a developing software ecosystem is, in fact, the graphical drivers and accompanying software.  If you are using all graphical administration tools and the graphical environment itself fails during an update or replacement of the environment, you can potentially be left without any working graphical user interface, and that's what these projects try to avoid, by instead encouraging the use of command-based administration tools.

Today, for example, when I updated the siduction packages, I found that the graphical display server was modified.  Using the command based administration tool, smxi, not directly provided by siduction, but familiar to many community members, I was able to easily install the appropriate X server software, then start up my graphical user environment without any problem.

I may have been able to do that even if I had a graphical administration environment, but I almost certainly would have had to resort to the use of commands anyway to reinstall and restart the graphical environment, and that is why the developers of siduction prefer the use of commands.  The main forum administrators are still not too keen on the use of smxi; they think it promotes laziness and does not teach what's needed to administrate and configure the system properly.

I take a different approach:  I can figure out how to configure what's needed, but only when it's truly needed.  Most of the time, I want convenience, but I do want access to the lower level tools, too, to get the job done.  I prefer to make those choices available, and personally, I go out and get the tools that I want and I use them, regardless of what others prefer or recommend.  For me, the key is to have the choice, and at least, I have those choices in this environment.

siduction 11.1 - what will it seduce?

siduction is a fork from the derivatives of Debian Sid.  Originally starting with the Kanotix project, the sidux project forked in 2006, but within three years, there was dissension, and the aptosid project was formed.  The software was good; the community was not, and that was the reason for forking yet again, creating siduction.

The aim of siduction is to build and regain a distribution that has the "feel" and similar software to what the sidux project once had, but with much more community involvement and guidance in what is produced.

It's not really a beginner-oriented system.  For those types, something like Ubuntu, or one of its derivatives, such as Linux Mint, may be more appropriate.

What siduction provides is an easy way to install and maintain software that comes from the Debian Sid repositories.  The siduction distribution, however, includes more rapidly changing Linux kernels, highly compressed ISO distribution images (that's what you can "burn" onto a CD, DVD, or other media), and packaging conveniences that many community members appreciate.

For someone who may already be using Debian Sid, I can't see that it offers much, other than the custom kernels, that provide much incremental value to existing Sid users, but for those who want to install a new system, it is a little more convenient than installing Sid, but otherwise is more similar to Sid in the software you actually use than something completely unique and different.

If you do like to try out a lot of Linux distributions, though, this is one of the more interesting ones to try out, if you already have a fair amount of experience, especially if a lot of it is Debian-based experience.

Don't expect anything earth shattering, but do expect a system that is easy to install and configure, a development and user community that is more helpful than its ancestors, and an overall experience that is likely to work well.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

antiX provides three great ways to build a Linux system to meet your needs

I have been an enthusiastic user and supporter of the antiX distribution since it became available in 2006. The antiX distribution is a lightweight, flexible alternative to its parent distribution, SimplyMEPIS, which is based on the rock solid Debian Stable technology. As configured when installed, antiX uses the Debian Testing repositories instead of the Debian Stable repositories, and it also has entries in the packaging configuration directory /etc/apt for Stable, Testing, or Sid (Unstable).

On my antiX M11.0 system partition, I use the original Testing repositories. In my alternative antiX core distribution, I use Sid instead.

That brings up another discussion point on antiX. Though it is a moderate sized distribution and it is a derivative of SimplyMEPIS and Debian, at each release it now comes with three distinct variations - the "full" distribution, which is the original antiX, equipped with IceWM and Fluxbox as light window managers, along with a full collection of software that features modest memory and system requirements. After the main or "full" distribution was created, a derivative called "Base" was created. In this derivative, the system comes complete with a graphical user environment containing Fluxbox as its window manager, and it contains a complete set of packaging and management tools, but no application software. With this version, you can install and set up the system the way you want it, adding or removing window management software and applications to suit your needs and interests.

If that's not enough, more recently anticapitalista, the originator of antiX, came up with the idea of a core distribution. This idea is quite similar to the idea that the Arch Linux developers came up with, but I like the antiX core idea, because it uses the Debian tools that are somewhat more familiar to me than the Arch tools, and there is a broader selection of software available at your fingertips. In the antiX core implementation, all you get is the core system and tools, no X server and no graphical display environment. Those things, with Debian, are just a single command away with the apt-get Debian packaging tool.

I created my initial antiX core setup with just a single apt-get command, including the core X server, two desktop environments, Xfce and LXDE, and a small handful of software. I got the initial setup working in ten to fifteen minutes. Over time, I changed it from a Debian Testing to a Debian Sid setup, added some window managers, applications, and I eventually added some heavier applications just to see how well they would work out. What resulted was a system that was very close in content and capability to the Debian Sid system that I had created from the Debian Live project, and it was almost completely the result of my own customization. I give a lot of credit, not only to anticapitalista, but also to Harold Hope (h2) for his smxi system management tool, which I added and heavily leaned on early in my antiX core customization process.

How do antiX M11.0 and antiX core compare? Well, because I eventually modified them using different Debian repositories, the M11.0 implementation is the more stable of the two, but both carry similar flexibility and features. I could undoubtedly go backward with M11.0 and strip software out of it and get close to where antiX Base and Core start at, and I could similarly modify antiX core to behave nearly identically to that of its parent. The fact that there is so much flexibility built into all three of the antiX derivatives speaks well for the design and for the upstream software upon which all of these efforts are based. I recommend one of the antiX distributions for anyone looking for a somewhat lighter system to start with. For those not familiar with many of the underlying Debian commands, I'd opt for antiX M11.0 "full". It has enough software to use it as is, and it has graphical system management tools for keeping it up to date. The Base and Core alternatives are fantastic for someone with a bit more experience and interest in making their system precisely what they want it to be, but all of them are first rate in what they offer. I wouldn't quite call any of them beginner distributions, but the primary M11.0 release is not too difficult for anyone to install or use who has previously installed any other system.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

More software freedom of choice!

When you work every day during the week as I am doing now, it is not as easy to find moments to collect thoughts that are worthy to share on a technical blog, and so that is why it has been a week or two between my writings and musings. But I have a break today, so I will take some time to collect a few thoughts about systems that I have been investigating and testing.

I have three of them to write about today; one that I tested last night, and two more that I tested today, one of which I am using right now; it's called Webconverger, or webc-8.0. I will mention more about it in a little while.

The first system I worked with to begin the weekend was Sabayon 6.0. I had Sabayon 5.5 previously installed, liked it a lot, had added quite a bit of software to it, and during a recent upgrade it ran out of space. I unsuccessfully tried to clear the cache of enough space to make it worthwhile to keep, but the disk stayed 100% full, so it was an excellent candidate for a replacement. Too bad: it had worked well, and it also only recently started offering rolling release upgrades as an alternative to fresh installations. But I needed a fresh installation, plus installing a new system always shows off the new features - and sometimes the limitations as well. That, at least initially, proved to be the case here. Sabayon is in the middle of making some infrastructure and packaging improvements. Chances are that in the long run these will work very well. In the meantime, though, I ran into problems. When I went to update the system, it told me that there were eight new packages available, but none of them would install for me, and I started getting error messages about something wrong with the package management system. I sent one of them along to Sabayon; hopefully it reaches them, they are aware of whatever issue it was that cropped up, get it fixed soon, and maybe even drop me a note to let me know about the change; I hope that happens!

Until then, Sabayon 6.0 is not quite ready for me to spend much, if any, time with it. So I went looking for others. I had downloaded a version of Fedora 15 Xfce Live, and still had the ISO image on one of my systems, so I checked to see if I had tested it yet. I had downloaded a Beta test version of the same thing back in May, but this was a June 17 download of the released version, so I tried it out. I was very happy with the result, possibly enough so to give the release a try installed; I only ran it live. One thing with Xfce I was able to do was mount my hard disk file systems. I found my main Debian Sid partition, mounted it, then ran Firefox Nightly out of my personal copy in my home directory and it ran well. That gave this Fedora release extra points; I could run software on it from other systems, and at least what I tried out actually worked. That's good.

The system had its usual fine appearance, and Xfce is a well kept secret from most people. I feel it is the most mature (1996 origins, same time frame as KDE) and well developed desktop available. KDE had real growing pains earlier in Version 4 and has finally pretty much recovered; GNOME 3 is currently going through similar pains; Xfce has had only short periods of instability in comparison to KDE and GNOME, has a bit of a more classic appearance and function, tends to be as flexible as KDE, though not quite as full featured, and definitely easier to master than the richness of KDE. It is also lighter and more flexible than GNOME, and though it shares the Gtk+ toolkit with GNOME, it is easily - at least in my opinion, the more wisely designed system. Both KDE and GNOME take leaps in new directions, but it's unclear whether or not they get the ideas for their directions from their user base, whereas it is pretty clear that Xfce develops out of dialog with its user and development base. So Fedora 15 Xfce definitely benefits from that. Fedora 15, also taking steps to provide more spins and to provide more stability, has appeared to have succeeded in both of these areas if my short spin with Xfce is any indication of the possibilities and capabilities of Fedora 15.

I mentioned Webconverger 8.0 to whet your appetite, and though this is not your every day kind of a system, it is great for using as a Kiosk type of system. You run this one without loading anything to disk. I ran it off CD, but I think it would be ultra cool to run it off a quiet USB or SSD technology. It would really be not only quiet then, but fast as well.

I added the cheat codes toram and copy2ram to the boot line, pressing tab as soon as the boot screen appeared, hoping that I could not only run this live, but quietly load it completely into RAM. I did this on not one, not two, but three laptop systems of different vintages: a large, 17" portable Gateway 2000 Series Model PA6A, a similar vintage 15" Lenovo 2000 Series Y410 laptop, and an older, traditional 14" Dell Latitude D620 laptop. All three work well, and once loaded, perform with similar skills and ability because the system speed becomes a minor player; the memory and network access rate become the driving components of performance. Fortunately, all three systems are similar enough in those areas to provide similar performance. The Gateway may still have had a slight edge, being the largest and fastest, but only by a very slight margin. The Dell was probably slowest; again, any difference, if there even was any, was minimal; all three platforms worked virtually the same.

If you are going to be doing all web browsing or you want to create either a home or a business kiosk, then this is a good distribution to evaluate; I like it.