Not your father's Linux

Not your father's Linux

Summary: OK, so your Dad probably didn't have Linux. But Linux sure has come a long ways. Not far enough, but a very long ways.


Considering that Marc Wagner's recent article, Who is killing desktop Linux? generated more talkbacks and controversy than any other Ed Tech blog post before it, I figured that Linux was worth revisiting.  I've blogged about my own less than successful attempts to roll out Linux here at my high school in an effort to save money, avoid licensing hassles, and otherwise circumvent what stinks about the bad boys of Redmond.  I have also been the first to admit that my own lack of expertise in various 'nix distros was certainly part of the problem.  Yet since I consider myself an above average user and a decent systems administrator, I concluded that from a TCO, time=money, training, and stress perspective, Linux was effectively dead in my kind of environment (at least on the desktop, no matter how cool my Computer Club and I thought it was).

So along comes Marc's article and there were remarkably few responders on the Windows side of the fence (i.e., my side of the fence).  Instead, most adamantly (and I felt blindly) defended the merits, joys, and overall usability of Linux.  I still figured I was right and Marc was just another victim of Linux zealotry from a lot of Linux fans who had never tried to run an Ed Tech enterprise.  However, not wanting to be a M$ sheep (I got that one from one of the talkbacks to Marc's article), I decided I better give Linux another go round.  I actually have Kubuntu running on a machine at home, but a PC I play with in my basement is a lot different than a Linux box on a several-hundred-node network.

Obviously a lot can change in the open source community in a matter of months, so I downloaded the latest and greatest "Dapper Drake" version of Ubuntu.  Since the controversy largely centered on usability and mass appeal on the desktop, and since Ubuntu is widely considered to be among the more user friendly distros, I thought this would give Linux every benefit of the doubt.

Consistent with my previous experiences, the first machine on which I tried to load Dapper Drake never made it farther than the Ubuntu splash screen.  This PC was no screamer (533 MHz Celeron, 128MB RAM, 8GB hard drive), but isn't too far from an average computer on my campus.  It's also fairly close to many of the machines that my students have in their bedrooms; a lot of kids inherit an older computer when the family upgrades and this PC was still perfectly functional for basic academic tasks.  I attempted to change out the video card (a common problem I ran into the last time I tried to deploy Linux), removed the sound card (another common sticking point), and added more RAM, all to no avail.  I then attempted to install XP Pro (this computer was donated to us running XP Home - YUCK); within a couple hours, the new OS was installed, patched and upgraded, and sitting in a classroom, minus the hardware changes I tried out to get Ubuntu up and running.

Not to be daunted so easily, I grabbed one of the better computers in my test lab (a dual processor 533MHz PIII Xeon with dual 8GB SCSI hard drives and 512MB RAM, courtesy of a dam designer at the Army Corps of Engineers) and tossed in the CD I had burned earlier.  This computer actually fired up immediately into a Live CD version of Ubuntu (a pretty cool feature that lets bootable install CDs also act as so-called live distros so that you can try out Ubuntu without affecting your existing system).  An install icon was sitting on the desktop, so I double-clicked and went through a fairly painless installation.  The install itself took about 40 minutes and, voila, I had an Ubuntu workstation under my desk.

Let me pause by saying that this installation paradigm is really slick.  Since you boot to a live version of the OS first, you can do quite a bit of testing with an existing piece of hardware to ensure that Ubuntu will work correctly.  The new graphical install from within this live version just spanks the Windows install.  Updating with all the latest patches and adding several bits of software from the Ubuntu library were painless and straightforward.  If only Windows made it this easy to access and install software and patches - we're way beyond Windows Update here.

Ubuntu has vastly improved it's printing support as well.  Last time around, I never did manage to get any of our lasers to print in anything more than a very light grayscale using the built-in CUPS drivers (CUPS is the Common Unix Printing System) and, even with a lot of effort, searching, and poking, I was never satisfied with print quality or speed.  This time, Ubuntu did a nice job of recognizing the networked printers on my LAN and allowing me to connect, although the popups asking for authentication to each printer would have confused (and probably frightened) 98% of my end users (this process happened automatically, by the way, when I entered the printer setup dialog).  The first printout was also solid black, no grayscale.

OK, so far so good, right?  Not exactly.  I tried one more Ubuntu install on an older Dell (400MHz PII, running Windows slowly but reliably) and crapped out again.  That's one computer out of three, all of which represent a cross-section of the computers in my school and those sitting in my students' basements and rooms.  I'm using the one functional workstation for demos in class and my 4 year old loves the Potato Guy game that comes with Ubuntu, but the sweet new installer, slick interface, and large free software library just aren't enough.

Whether Windows is a particularly great product or not, I know that 99 times out of 100 that it's going to work without a hitch, whether the hardware is new or old, fast or slow, generic or proprietary.  Yes, I'll need to manage malware and yes, it will crawl on some of these older machines, but it will work.  I'm quite confident that Ubuntu would work very nicely and consistently on newer machines and Ubuntu really has come a long ways in terms of polish and performance in the last 6 months. However, it really has a long ways to go for me to justify the extra training expenses for my users, the extra time I'll need to learn the basics of enterprise Linux management/deployment, and the hardware hassles inherent in a non-Windows deployment. 

Even when I buy new hardware, a Linux solution would be a hard sell, indeed, given my environment and given the really significant improvements built into Vista.  That isn't to say that I might not recommend Linux to my more savvy students when they're looking for a personal computer before college, but, given my very limited time and resources, the turnkey solution represented by Windows is just too easy (and cheap, long term) to pass up.  I just wish Windows had that great Potato Guy game!

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Open Source, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Drivers, drivers, drivers ...

    Well, Chris! You have just demonstrated that it all comes down to my original point. OEM support.

    Windows works on everything you throw it at because Microsoft has relationships with just about every OEM and chip maker out there.

    What you and I can do (and what a professional systems administrator can do) with UNIX/Linux is quite different than what a consumer with no technical expertise can do.

    Asking the consumer to install an operating system -- ANY operating system -- is fruitless. If they have to install it, they won't buy it.

    Apparently, (UNIX and) Linux vendors are too busy fighting each other (and fighting off the "Redmondites") to pursue the potential of the mass market.

    The choice these UNIX & Linux vendors are making is between selling tens (or hundreds) of MILLIONS of copies of Desktop Linux every year at very small profit margins on an unimaginable number of PC configurations or selling a few thousand big server installations and tens of thousands of small server and desktop installations on a narrow set of hardware configurations all with at margins which are lucrative compared to the time invested.

    Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of hobbyists/geeks download and install Linux for free. It costs the hobbtyist/geek his time but it costs the linux vendor nothing.

    Apparently, these Linux vendors have decided that since Linux is 'free' (under $50) to the largest portion of its existing customer base (geeks like us who CAN and WILL install our own OS), it is not worth it to them to pursue the mass market of consumers.

    Until they change their minds, Linux will stay pretty much where it is. Yes, it will make some inroads in business but as long as most businesses employ regular people with no computing expertise, that growth will be very slow indeed.
    M Wagner
  • Linux support

    I'm in the middle of revamping our local schools computer systems. I to would like to give Linux a go. I have 2 home machines running Suse10 and am very impressed by it. After a considerable amount of time researching a Linux roll out, I keep running into the same problem "support". A lot of people offer to "help" with it but I can't get "professional" support for the network or individuel work stations. I'm not an Admin by any stretch of the imagination, I'm just charged with saving $$$ and bang-for-the-buck. I have several different rollout plans to present to the different boards for approval, including Linux, but I can't in good faith give an outstanding endorsement of it. No matter what my personal opinion is. Until the support environment changes Linux won't be a reliable or cost effective choice.
    • Agreed...

      Unless you have significant in-house tech support and expertise, I haven't been able to justify any type of large-scale rollout, either. I, like you, have always been impressed by several distros, including SUSE, but just don't have the time, money for training/support/PD, or wherewithal for it to make sense in my district. Best of luck with a well-supported OEM-based solution.
    • Did you call Novell?

      How professional is professional? Did you call Sun (who will talk Ubuntu support)? IBM? HP?

      And your "professional" support for a Windows roll-out is? Some guys with MCSEs?
    • Aye ... there's the rub!

      Linux: the OS is 'free' but support costs money and experienced support personnel are few and far between.

      Windows: the OS costs money, but support is 'free' and experienced support personnel are easy to find.

      In the end, if you have the support personnel on staff, the TCO is a wash. But, if you don't ...
      M Wagner
    • Sorry but...

      This is one of those complaints that's just not well founded. Using your own set up you have a really large support network through Novelle/Suse. The problem seems to be that you're not satisfied with free software but want free support as well. I hate to say it but support isn't free. My company uses LINUX extensively in our 80 or so locations world wide. The reason we chose LINUX as our platform for our retail locations and distribution centers is that it's relatively in expensive to own and run. The thing that's great about LINUX is once you get it set up the way you want it you can mass produce it so that every desktop is the same. That makes support easier but your support staff still need to understand the operating system.

      The end user will run into a few things as well. The interface is slightly different than the Windows UI. So your support staff needs to have a good knowledge of both environments at least in the beginning. Once you've got LINUX on the end user's desktop be prepared for the user to forget everything they ever knew about using a computer including how to use the mouse and how to type. That's a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. We changed from a texted based LINUX running on serial terminals to X-Windows based LINUX with no changes to the base application other than it ran in a window rather than consuming the whole screen and we had to completely retrain our staff on how to run the application. That's happened with every upgrade. It's just part of the computing world. As the Windows world moves on to Vista you'll see the same issues there as well.

      But your complaint about not being able to find support is just plain baseless especially with the distro you're using.
  • Desktop Linux??? Get a Mac

    With Mac OS you have all the advantages of linux but none of the
    hassles plus with all the new Macs you can run WIndows too if you
    desire it. We looked at linux and on a whim I puchased a Mac just
    to see if I could stand using an Apple. Not only could I stand it but
    it blows windows and all versions of linux desktop I tried.. Plus I
    can run MS office on my mac and don't have my hands tied like
    with Linux or Windows. I love my Mac and Apple has been great to
    work with.
    • Yeah, if you want to shell out the dough.

      Dude, I've got news for you. Macs generally cost
      twice whathave a PC costs. And you can't just
      buy a boxed version of Mac OSX and stick it on a
      PC. You have to buy the whole computer or
      nothing. You may have none of the problems
      associated with Desktop Linux when running a
      Mac, but you sure have to shell out the dough
      for it. That's something that Linux has Mac beat
      in hands down.
      • Exactly

        Dell and Microsoft may stink on many levels, but combine a low cost of entry with easy-to-find support and you have a solution that guarantees relatively low TCO and a high degree of usability. Few will argue that Mac and Linux are great desktop OS choices, but this whole issue centers around real costs.

    • Linux is great for servers

      Personally I run both Linux (Fedora 4) and Windows on two separate computers and switch between them with a KVM. I share files on my Linux box with a total of four Windows PCs on my network and love the fact that it never crashes, unlike Windows. Honestly, Linux can be a pain to use as a desktop sometimes, only because most software is written for Windows first, but it makes a great network server and does all the basic stuff (Internet, word processing, etc.) just fine... and for free.
      • Hands down ...

        ... UNIX and Linux make the best servers! UNIX for BIG IRON and Linux for everything else. And that's the point. Linux vendors would rather compete with UNIX for the server support business than compete with Windows at home. Until that changes, the TCO of the Linux desktop will remain too high for mass deployment.
        M Wagner
  • I understand your pain, but have had the opposite experience

    in installing Linux. I and my studints installed Ubuntu on 9 different boxes, including Dells, Tangents, Compaqs, Microns, no-names, and reassembled boxes with various parts intermingled, and every one of them worked. The boxes are all between 400 and 650GHz, betweeen 128 and 256 MB RAM, and between 3 and 10 GB HDD.

    Of course, that is the problem with Linux. It may work, it may not. Either way, you are on your own to find the answer, fix the problem, and try again.

    But, IMHO, it is getting better.
  • not a valid test, but......

    I have installed edubuntu on a variety of machines from Dell as well as some older HP Kayak workstations (with scsi drives) and have had no install issues whatever. The HP's really surprised me given their somewhat proprietary nature. Unfortunately, any Linux distro is still a trial and error proposition (with too many errors).

    I must say that edubuntu works great on my Windows network and prints very well to any of my network printers.
  • My experience, since Apple/DOS

    back in 1979, with Heath DOS, TandyDOS, CP/M, and Apple systems, and having started with Linux in 1997, is simply that the Mac/Apple would be a draconian form of Microsoft, if it could.

    I am now a Mac service Tech. while also installing Linux on everything I can find in the business, scholastic, and consumer environments.

    Linux is much superior in it's ease of use, depth of offerings, and, I have yet to find a computer that presents any challenge to my install of GNU/Linux. has 310 distros. Live, and FREE!

    One trick is to collect about 10 of the more popular Distros, and try them on any older computer, until it does work. So far, has worked on everything from Celeron/PII 300 Aspires, to the latest AMD 64 iron. It is only 32 bit... but, comes with 1900 games programs, applications suites, on the LiveCDrom!

    Microsoft offers too much pain and too few solutions, is almost un-tenable, for all the users I am meeting in the home, scholastic, Non-Profit,and business environments. Huge DRM and mandatory registration/re-registration issues, plus the horrid 114,000 "Microsoft Virus Definitions" are a monstrous expense in overhead.,,, all the servers/routers on the Redmond Campus, most of the tech. Lab systems, and run Linux for a multitude of reasons. I follow their lead, in efficiency and cost savings, and, paid the small price of learning the ropes.

    Now, I can network almost anything. If you know nothing of climbing mountains, and don't have the patience or equipment, then what the hell are you doing up here on Mount Everest? Trying to task my resources in your rescue attempts? Either you have the intelligence and proclivity to get it right, or you don't deserve to be here. So, most of the complainers are in this category, and can be ignored.

    I do have two really great Linux Users Groups, who have provided me a great deal of instant support.

    Find your support on the Forums, of the website for your distro, or, in newsgroups, IRC, and, at any of the LUGs.

    Just quite your whining, and go on back to your virus magnet Microsoft DRM crapola, bloatware. I am thrilled to run old iron at 50X faster speeds, in true multi-processing, multi-tasking, multi-desktop environment, than M$ ever thought of.

    BTW, while composing all this, one other Desktop (I have 20 open in KDE) is doing a complete install to my First drive, from the Live CD running in RAMdisc, while 30 GB of music and programs is being transferred between the second drive and an external Firewire drive! And, music is playing, Frostwire is tossing and grabbing files, all concurrently! Not even possible in consecutive processing M$ crapola!
    • Hey pberry... just curious

      While you seem to have run a little bit of everything what's a basic spec for a machine you are running linux on?

      I ask because while I've gotten it to install before on say a P3/128 machine I can't say that it really screamed along... I've tried Ubuntu and SimplyMEPIS.

      That also said, we're in a heavy Office Suite environment and while Open Office is suppose to be the tonic to displace M$ Suite I have never been able to enjoy the interface of Open Office and to boot it has run somewhat sluggish in my opinion.

      Based on your experience what are your top 3 linux distros and do you have any particular comment on Open Office?

      • Real quick pberry...

        Forgot P3/128/500 and 550 machine.
  • But what else can you do?

    The software simply is not there to run a small business on a Mac. I don't buy a computer to run an operating system, but to run a business using industry specific software. Unless you are in a graphics field or do your own software development, Mac won't help run your business.
  • I understand where you're coming from.

    My first experience with Linux was an older
    distro called Progeny Debian, and while it was a
    good introduction to Linux, it would have been a
    nightmare to run as a main system. Since then I
    have tried various distros with various degrees
    of success. The bottom line problem with Linux
    has always been hardware compatibility and the
    learning curve associated with it. Right now,
    I'm writing this using the Kubuntu distro on my
    Dell laptop, and this is the best distro I've
    seen so far, but even then, it's not perfect. My
    Wi-fi card still won't work, but that's more of
    an annoyance than a real problem, at least for

    I would however caution you regarding Vista. It
    won't run at all on anything less than a 1Ghz
    processor and 512MB of RAM, which means it won't
    run on any of the systems you just cited. I'm
    actually surprised that XP runs on them with any
    reasonable speed, especially with all the

    Linux will eventually get there,and with its
    rate of evolution, it will probably overtake
    Windows within the next year or two. I wouldn't
    wish Vista on my worst enemy, though. I beta
    tested it.
    • Hardware support is the issue.

      If just anyone could buy Linux pre-loaded and configured on most any workstation configuration from Dell, HP, or Gateway, we might begin to see wider adoption of the Lunux Desktop, and the challeneges faced by Ed Tech would begin to decrease. But, until Linux vendors make that happen, the support issues which impact TCO will leave people like Chris without a reasonable alternative to Windows or Macintosh in a production computing lab environment.
      M Wagner
  • Try Novell/SuSE

    If you want pure user friendliness and outstanding support for hardware, try SuSE 10.1. Note the removind the soundcard etc. steps just aren't an issue anymore (for >5 years?) - you will occasionally get an issue with peculiar ACPI implementations; just disable in the BIOS.

    If you want outstanding mass installation manageability, shell out for SLED 10.

    And if you want to experience the XP installation reality, try a newer (last 3 years) brand-name PC using just vanilla XP media.