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Using Linux at Work Review

I’ve been programming since a young age, and Linux has always seemed like a natural progression, especially as my development environment is PHP/MySQL/Apache. A while ago, this was all done on a Red Hat installed system, using the “Plesk” web interface. Although I spent quite a few hours at the console sorting out problems, Plesk hid the real nitty gritty from me and I was often just following “How Tos” in order to get things fixed. In saying that, I did manage to write a wrapper script that fixed a compatibility between MailMan and Plesk, so I wasn’t doing too badly. However, I would hardly say I felt confident in Linux, and using it for my day to day work seemed strangely frightening.


They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this ties in greatly with productivity. Windows has always done everything I’ve needed it to do, and moving OS offered little or no benefit to my productivity. It was just a lot of hassle and a steep learning curve.


However, around 18 months ago, I built a file server for my LAN, using a VIA Epia 800MHz motherboard and a couple of 200GB hard drives. With Windows installed, it was so slow that I had 10 or 20 second delays when trying to access the share across the network. The overhead of Windows was just too great for it to work effectively – odd for such a minor task. Finally I had the necessity and I decided to give (linkout:http://fedora.redhat.com) Fedora Core 4 a go. Fedora is the free version of Red Hat, and is actually used on many web servers (including this one). It’s use on web servers was a key reason to choosing this, as I wanted an environment that was similar to the Red Hat box I was used to, while also learning skills that could be transposed directly over to web server administration. Interestingly, a Fedora is the type of hat shown in the Red Hat logo (something a girlfriend of mine had to point out to me), so it is in fact a little play on words.


Installing Core 4 was painless and before I knew it, I had set up a fully secure file server that was almost instant to access. It was amazing how much difference in performance there was. When mapped as a network drive, it felt like it was a drive in my computer.


One of the great things about Linux, is its flexibility. If you can think it, you can do it. So instantly, I started adding more functionality to my machine. Remote access, streaming MP3 servers – I could even check the temperature of my hard drives through a web browser. Although much of this was done through the console, I still started to get a good feel for the GUI using VNC.


About six months ago, I decided that I was finally comfortable enough with Fedora to give it a go as my office machine. Down came an ISO of Fedora Core 5, and I prepared a machine. The machine I built was a 3.06GHz Pentium 4 with HyperThreading, an ATI Radeon 9200 and 2GB of memory. By today’s standards, a fairly low-end machine. But more than enough for my needs.


Installing Fedora was no problem and I felt instantly at home. One of the benefits of Fedora is “yum”. Using this, I can install applications without having to hunt down the source and compile it. From the console, “yum install firefox” would download and install the latest version of FireFox, compiled for my system. By using the yum system, you can periodically run “yum update” and any newer packages can be downloaded and updated. There is also a GUI front end to yum, should you be afraid of using the console.

Yum is far from perfect though. New packages can often kill your installation from incompatibility and rolling back to a previous version is not exactly obvious. Each package will also have dependencies on other packages. When installing this isn’t an issue, as it will also download the other packages needed. But this can make removing programs a little tricky. I once tried to uninstall CUPS, as I wasn’t using a printer on this machine, and it tried to remove the entirety of Gnome (the default graphical interface in Fedora).


There are also multiple repositories that can conflict. Unlike Windows Update however, you can update everything – not just the base OS.


Very quickly I had enough applications installed to go about my daily duties. For e-mail, I used Thunderbird. I found this to be particularly good, as its support for IMAP was much better than Outlook. For instance, I could cache e-mails under a certain size – an option I’ve not seen in Outlook.


For browsing, I naturally used Firefox. I did however need to install a package of standard fonts that many web sites use. This made a big difference.


For instant messaging, I came across aMSN. Unlike GAIM, this has almost all of the functionality of Microsoft MSN Messenger, including file transfers and Avatar pictures.


For office work, I use OpenOffice. Quite honestly, there is nothing I do on a daily basis that can’t be done using this suite and more people should consider using it. The only issue I had was when creating the graphs for our graphics card reviews. Although it worked fine, it was rendered differently and I needed it to match.


The piece of software I’ve been most impressed with, is GIMP. I’ve always used Paint Shop Pro, and never really liked Photoshop, but I couldn’t believe how quickly I got used to it and how powerful it really is. For reference, I cut out the photos in recent reviews of the Port Ergostation and the MACS TEC Cooler using GIMP.


I was quite surprised at how many pieces of software are already ported to Linux, such as Skype and Picasa. Much of this could be due to software being coded for Mac use as well, which is easier to port to Linux than Windows code.


Recently, Fedora Core 6 was launched and with it came some rather fancy looking desktop effects, which use OpenGL to render them. I upgraded my Core 5 install and set it up using yum. I might add that I originally decided to do a graphics card upgrade and tried a Radeon X1600 and a GeForce 7600 GT. Both of these cards gave me terrible driver issues and never got either of them working completely. However, getting the Radeon 9200 to work was very easy and amazingly, performed well. This is odd, as I’ve generally heard better things about the nVidia Linux drivers.


The new desktop effects renders all four desktops on to a 3D cube that can be spun around. Other effects include wobbly windows, where windows wobble as they are moved, maximized or restored. You can also adjust the transparancy of any window (although it did struggle when trying to do so with Mplayer..). You can also zoom in, or have every window open represented on one screen so you can select what you want.


For an example of what XGL does to the look of Linux, take a look at this third party YouTube video. As well as the effects described above, it just generally makes the interface feel nicer – a little like OSX. When I turned it off, I really missed it and the whole interface felt flatter and less alive.


Although I have dabbled in doing some complex things using Linux, almost everything I do, or have done using Fedora can be done through the GUI. Installing software is easy, and keeping a workstation going is also very easy. I’ve really grown to like the XGL 3D effects and it will be interesting to see what Vista does to compete.


I am by no stretch of the imagination a Linux expert, but my overall experience has been excellent and I shall continue to use Fedora for my day to day work. My productivity has not been affected at all, and anyone who wants to try something different, or take a cheaper OS route, should consider a look at Linux – it’s really not that scary.

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