Linux ‘Just Works’ For Me (or, how I came to love Red Hat and Gnome)

I keep reading all these tales of woe of people having bad experiences with Linux. Sure, I’ve had my own bad experiences, across many an OS, but just lately I’ve been running a Red Hat Linux 9 desktop full-time at home and have yet to run into any major issue. What follows is an overview of my personal experiences with Linux. But first, a bit about me.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

I’ve been involved with computers since my Dad brought home an Atari 400. That must have been around 1979 and I would have been eight years old. It’s now 2003 and I earn my living from IT, architecting and supporting a datacentre full of wintel servers. I work with Windows enough to love it and loathe it in generally equal amounts.

My first playful encounter with Linux was in 1999, I think it was Red Hat Linux 5.x. I got as far as installing it on some old and abhorrent IBM PS2 486 complete with MCA architecture and 16/4 token ring. After configuring network connectivity and using Netscape for a bit I git very bored and began tinkering. Naturally I broke something and (shock!) Linux crashed, dead. Nothing for it but a hard reboot. This was before Linux used a journalled filesystem and the box never recovered. It took me a long time to forgive Linux for that.

In 2000 I was a well paid IT contractor and I came across a security consultant who ran Windows2000 atop Red Hat Linux 6.2 using VMware workstation. I was impressed, albeit confounded by the seemingly pointlessness of the exercise. Until I saw tools like Nmap, Ethereal, Etherape and Samba. Tools like that could cost a fortune on the Windows platform, certainly at that time. I wanted to know more about Linux. I still considered myself an utter newbie and began researching for the easiest to use distro. I considered at the time that Red Hat Linux was for experts so it didn’t really get a look in. All reviews and personal opinions seemed to point to Mandrake 7. I don’t remember using it for long – just long enough to break it through my own mix of exploration and stupidity. It’s very true that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing!

Another contract later and in 2001 I kept reading great press about SuSE 7.1 and how it was a ‘Windows Killer’. Well, if nothing else that must mean it’ll be easy for a dumbass like me to get it up and running. And it had ReiserFS! Hurrah! I began running my business on SuSE/KDE – webserver, mailserver, desktop (I used Smoothwall on my ADSL/USB connection). At client sites I would fire up VMware on my laptop (running at 500MHz) and boot into Windows for the daily chores while all the time trying to make the most of my SuSE Linux experience.

The pinnacle of my SuSE experience was 7.3 on that 500MHz laptop – Linux was still improving and I wanted to take those improvements onboard. When it came to buying my next laptop I chose based on Linux compatibility – mainly the graphics card. I opted for a 1GHz Dell Inspiron 4100 with a 16MB Radeon and a combo DVD/CD-R which I still use as my main desktop computer today. It came with XP and I kept a dual-boot system for gaming purposes. From SuSE 8.0 upwards I’ve found the distribution wanting. They left out the GLX packages meaning that 3D didn’t work out of the box. SuSE 8.1 and 8.2 are still wanting – 8.1 had horrid and small fonts on my 1400×1050 display and neither ship with kernels that support my laptop APM fully. I’d also come to realise that, although it ships with a plethora of software, the Apt4rpm repositories were nowhere near as brimming as other popular distributions.

In the interim to all this usage of SuSE the IT contracting market slumped and I was forced to close my business and get a permie job (where I find myself today, a year later). Because I was so disappointed with the SuSE 8.x series I began to look elsewhere. For a while, Mandrake 9.0 was it. I’d discovered Apt4rpm and URPMI and excellent website resources to help get me going and bring back things to my desktop that Windows users take for granted – namely multimedia. The single best general Linux portal that caters for all ‘consumer orientated’ distros that I’ve found is PCLinuxOnline. It’s a great starting point for anyone new to Linux, and EasyURPMI is a fantastic timesaver. Of course, a broadband connection is essential.

Through using URPMI and Apt4rpm/Synaptic I managed to uglify my desktop and break my RPM database. Well, I didn’t (and rarely do) have time to fix stuff so I knew it was going to be a reinstall. Besides, I still had my XP install on the other partition so I had a working system one way or another. About this time Red Hat Linux released 8.0. Well, I figured I’d been using Mandrake long enough, and Mandrake was originally a KDE-biased fork of Red Hat Linux so how hard could Red Hat Linux be now? (I’d used Red Hat Linux 7.3 with Ximian desktop for a while but was frustrated with Gnome 1.4)

My first impressions of Red Hat Linux 8.0 were good. It installed flawlessly and KDE wasn’t broken (although I do understand the KDE developer’s point). My laptop would suspend and resume okay. It was trivial to install fonts (at last!) and there were other nice, polished, touches. A previous stint using Red Hat Linux 7.3 and Ximian Gnome had me yearning for that Gnome/Nautilus look. It’s purely personal but I’ve always felt that Gnome has the edge aesthetically and KDE has the edge with functionality (Konqueror is awesome). Since I spend a lot of time staring at my computer desktop it should be as easy on the eye as possible. I could never get KDE to look ‘arty’ but I could never get Gnome to do what I wanted – it always seemed like things were half implemented (example – when setting file permissions with Nautilus it cannot be done recursively). My opinions had changed by the time Red Hat Linux 9 arrived.

I now run Red Hat Linux 9 and Gnome pretty much exclusively, and my WindowsXP partition is gone. Replaced by a virtual machine. I have learned that what you can’t accomplish in the Gnome GUI is usually some sysadmin related task. I am forcing myself to use Bash more. I think this is a good thing, and in no way a step backwards. I can create an ISO image of a CD in one line. That’s pretty amazing if you ask me. But more importantly, it’s testament to underlying philosophies and concepts that are some 40 years old. While Windows struggles to become a true multiuser environment (trust me, it’s struggling – I administer WTS/Citrix farms) everything is already there in Linux. Linux has a solid foundation. Windows has its foundations in ‘New Technology’ which by Bill Gates own admission, NT was to become “more Unix than Unix”. If you ask me, Windows has its foundations in mergers, acquisitions and marketing; its underlying philosophy seems to be ‘on error resume next’.

So why am I so pleased with Red Hat Linux 9? Surely there must be something I miss? Let’s take stock, from basics upwards:

Q: How do I browse the web and read my email?
A: Mozilla. It looks georgeous in Red Hat Linux 9.

Q: What about typing a letter, writing my latest screenplay or doing some spreadsheet sums?
A: OpenOfficeOrg is good enough for me. Again, well integrated into Red Hat Linux 9 (though still takes a while to fire up!)

Q: I hate VI and EMACS with a passion – how do I edit text files from the console?
A: Joe is my current favourite since it doesn’t wrap lines by default and has useful help built-in

Q: How do I ensure my PC clock is telling the right time?
A: Easy! Enable NTP via the Gnome clock applet and use one of the preconfigured Red Hat Linux NTP servers. Nice touch.

Q: How do I burn a data CD?
A: Type burn:/// into Nautilus (if it doesn’t do it for you when you insert a blank CD) and drag in your data

Q: How do I create an ISO image of a CD? (great for attaching to virtual machines!)
A: In Bash, for example, dd if=/dev/cdrom of=someiso.iso

Q: How do I administer those Microsoft Windows Terminal servers (RDP)?
A: rdesktop someservername

Q: How do I run those Citrix published applications (ICA)?
A: Citrix provide a native ICA client

Q: What about administering non-TS wintel boxes?
A: VNC !!

Q: My two year old daughter broke my CDROM eject button – now what to do!?
A: eject /dev/cdrom

Q: What about multimeda? DVD, MP3, AVI, ASF, WMA, MOV …
A: There is MPlayer and associated win32 codecs, and an MP3 plugin for XMMS.

Q: And my digital camera?
A: mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/camera – although your actual sda device and mountpoint may vary, and your camera must be a compatible USB mass storage device (most modern ones are)

Q: Games! I need more games! Are there any good games for Linux?
A: Amongst my personal favourites are Quake2, Frozen Bubble, Freedroid and Gxmame (a front end to Mame and all the roms I have downloaded from my collection of arcade machines 😉

Okay, so far I haven’t mentioned the ‘killer app’ that’s going to keep me with Red Hat Linux for the forseeable future. Well, first and foremost I would probably have stuck with SuSE if I didn’t get a broadband connection. But with my broadband I discovered the joys of downloading ISOs and testing various Linux distros and …. FreshRPMs. Here’s how I quickly overcome my Red Hat Linux woes after a fresh install of Red Hat Linux 9 (I’m not clever enough to use anaconda yet 😉

1. Download Apt4rpm for Red Hat Linux 9

2. Open a console and su root

3. rpm -Uvh apt*rpm

4. apt-get update

5. apt-get install synaptic

6. synaptic

7. Behold! Aladdin’s cave!

Actually, there’s a step I perform between 3 and 4, and that’s to joe /etc/apt/sources.list and add the following lines:

### Dag Apt Repository for Red Hat 9
rpm Red Hat Linux/9/en/i386 dag
rpm Red Hat Linux/en/i386/9.0 newrpms

That ensures I can easily get hold of Freedroid.

So I’ve succumbed to the corporate branding of Red Hat Linux? Well, yes (although frankly I detest Bluecurve and use ThinIce/Mist). If Linux is good enough for artists at ILM and throughout the Hollywood CGI effects industry then it’s good enough for my everyday desktop use. Red Hat Linux gives me excellent hardware device support and a good balance of new and useful packages via Apt4rpm. Linux could be a Windows killer, it will likely be a proprietry *nix killer. It could just as easily become as successful as OS/2 Warp.

About the Author:
I’m a 31 year old Datacentre Systems Architect and use Linux in conjunction with Citrix, Terminal Services and VMware. I’ve been known to play the odd game or two, too. In the last few days I’ve erased my Windows partition in favour of using Red Hat Linux 9 fulltime on my home computer.


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