living with Ubuntu…

a little over a year ago, I was investigating linux distributions that would be suitable for the missions field. The distro would need to be easy to use and maintain, while also providing a complete desktop environment. Another requirement was that the distro needed to be fairly standardized. Dealing with infinite configuration possibilities while supporting remote users was not something I wanted to bring upon myself. Also, the distro needed to have excellent support for languages other than english.

There were several options out there, including Knoppix. Knoppix runs off of a CD, a so-called “live distribution”, and no hard drive is required for basic operation. I wasn’t so worried about this aspect, so a traditional, disk-based distro would work just fine.

In my research, I had heard about a relatively new distro called Ubuntu Linux, “Linux for Human Beings”. “hmmm”, I thought. Sounds interesting. Upon further inspection, it offered all the items on my checklist.

So, I have been running Ubuntu linux for a few months now. I’ve installed several packages (pre-packaged software modules), removed some, configured basic things, even installed it as a server at work.

The only thing I can say is, “Wow”. The Ubuntu team has brought linux out of the dark ages, and truly lives up to its tagline, “Linux for human beings”.

Package management is a breeze. It’s lightyears ahead of the RedHat “dependency Hell”. I’d say it’s even slicker than the ports/packages collection for the BSDs. The Ubuntu system allows you to have fine grain control over your updates, or leave things alone with very reasonable defaults. I guess that’s kinda the theme with Ubuntu; reasonable defaults. A fresh install leaves you with a good selection of useful tools without overwhelming you with endless variations of the same software. There is also a focus on including default apps that seem to be very cohesive and have at least a modicum of UI consistency. Granted, much of this is due to the inclusion of Gnome as the desktop, but I feel like there’s more at work than just including Gnome. (For those KDE enthusiasts, there’s a separate distribution that uses KDE instead of Gnome, called, well, “Kubuntu”)

While I’m used to linux distros, and Open Source software in general, having good community support, I must say that the Ubuntu forums are a real treat. RTFMs and trolls are at a minimum, and people are genuinely helpful.

I’ve been using linux for quite some time now, and I’ve used several distros including Red Hat (and Fedora), Slackware (my first distro *eyes swelling*), and I’ve tried out several others. Debian (the distro Ubuntu is derived from) was one of the distros I’ve had the least interaction with. I installed it once on an old SparcStation 5, but didn’t really do much with it after the install. But, after my experience with Ubuntu, I’ve given Debian a closer look. There are a few things that I’ll have to get used to (philosophy-wise), but overall, things are pretty logical and clean for both Ubuntu and Debian. For instance, configuration files are divided quite logically by directory, and not just all lumped into “/etc”. Makes figuring things out on your own a little easier.

All this being said about Ubuntu, there are times when you want to have a bare-minumum install of your OS so that your specific application has the most resources available. Ubuntu does have a “server” install that forgoes the GUI and a lot of little utilities. However, being the OS control freak that I am, I wanted more, er, less. In this case, I’d use something like Debian which gives you a very bare-bones minimal install, or one of the BSDs (my first choice).

Another good aspect of Ubuntu is its release schedule. The Ubuntu team keep to a 6-month release cycle for major features. Of course bug fixes and point releases for packages are handled as needed. However, for the uninitiated, this scheme makes the versioning somewhat of an oddity. The versions use a YY.MM format. so, the October, 2005 release is 5.10. They also have clever (if not a bit silly) release names (“Breezy Badger”, “Hoary Hedgehog”, and the very endearing, “Warty Warthog”).

Overall, and after some good use, I’m happy to say that Ubuntu is a keeper. It’s ease of use, simplicity, support for poeple other than english-speaking Americans, release schedule, and the quality of the community make it the distro of choice for newbies and old-timers alike. Plus, for Linux neophytes, this distro will allow you to grow as you like. Most things you’d need to do can be done via the GUI, but if you prefer, you can do all your “real” work at the command line as well. So, if you’re either tired of your current distro, or thinking of giving “this linux thingy” a try, head over to the Ubuntu web site and download it (or you can order free CDs).