Confession: I switched to Ubuntu

October 2nd, 2008 § 5 comments

I’ve been a Red Hat Linux user for years, from somewhere around RedHat 7 in 2000, making the switch to Fedora Core 1 in 2003 and continuing to run the latest Fedora release from there on. When I rejoined TSS, I decided that my primary desktop machine should be a Linux box; many of our backend systems are Linux-based, and it makes sense to be able to develop and deploy code from my desktop without the need for extensive hacking just to get a comparable environment. For example, I toyed with the idea of a new iMac or a Mac Pro, but while the hardware is nice and and the OS stable, the time lost in hacking around with Perl and Apache to make them interact with each other in a similar way to a standard Linux installation outweighed any street cred I might pick up for having some Cupertino hardware on my desk. And besides, I still have my MacBook Pro.

As soon as my chosen hardware arrived–a Dell Optiplex 755–I popped in the Fedora 9 DVD, and installed the OS. The installation itself was comparatively painless, but the provided open-source drivers for the ATI video card failed to work at all with the included Radeon 2400XT, requiring a hard reboot and dropping into single-user mode just to get a bash shell. I spent a couple of days coming up with a workaround hack that would allow me to boot my machine and run the OS at my monitor’s native resolution, but with no 3D acceleration.

It happened that at the time, one of my colleagues’ laptops was failing spectacularly and in need of a total replacement. In the interim, however, he needed to boot to a usable OS to keep working and to retreive what data he could. Rather than create a Fedora 9 boot disk, he went with Ubuntu, and reported a smooth installation process and ATI drivers which worked out-of-the-box and even provided friendly GUI links to download and run the non-free ATI-provided drivers. My interest was piqued, so I grabbed the Live CD, booted it up, and within minutes had a functioning Ubuntu system, with working video drivers. Out of the box. Shortly thereafter, my own laptop suffered a hard drive failure, and while waiting for the Apple store to install a new drive, I worked from a loaner laptop, booting and working solely from a USB key. Ubuntu installed flawlessly and quickly, booted and worked as fast as one could expect over USB2, and was generally a pleasure to use. I took the plunge and installed it on my desktop, and haven’t looked back.

I’ve had only a couple of gripes thus far:

  • Ubuntu 8.04 does not configure a host-based firewall by default. In my opinion, this is the single greatest problem with the distribution. If Microsoft can turn on the Windows firewall at install-time and issue appropriate scary warnings to users who attempt to turn it off, Ubuntu ought to be doing the same, and it worries me that it isn’t. Thankfully, iptables is installed by default, but it’s not configured to actually do anything. Users can use the included “ufw” scripts to configure iptables in a friendly fashion, though, so all hope is not lost. The OS should include a comprehensive firewall ruleset from the outset, however, which is something that Red Hat has done for years.
  • VMWare 2.0 doesn’t install cleanly, although it comes close. This isn’t strictly the fault of the OS, but Ubuntu apparently relies on a quirky PAM configuration which VMWare doesn’t know how to deal with when authenticating users to the web interface. Our newest hire at TSS has managed to get VMWare working on Ubuntu, though, so it is possible, I just haven’t done it myself yet.
  • Ubuntu ships with Compiz Fusion for ‘enhanced’ desktop effects. While some of the eye-candy is pleasant to watch and makes the hours sitting in front of a screen that much better, some of the defaults are headache-inducing and Ubuntu includes no way, by default, to customize the Compiz effects. You’re presented only with three levels of enhancement, essentially “none”, “some”, and “melt video card”. The latter includes the ‘wobbly window’ effect which more or less sends me running for dramamine every time I see it. Thankfully, one can find more granular configuration utilities in the default Ubuntu package repositories which allow for the disabling of the more disorienting compiz features.

On the whole, I’ve been thrilled with the ease-of-use of Ubuntu and its ability to get out of my way while I’m working and the minimal effort I have to put into keeping the OS happy. To be clear: I was never massively disappointed with Fedora, but for my purposes, its function as a proving ground for bleeding-edge software has proven to be burdensome, especially when upstream non-free driver providers like ATI are unwilling to update to the latest at the same frequency that Fedora does. By its nature as a development platform, Fedora will always feel to be in ‘constant beta’ more than the average open-source project, but I feel that for my needs, Ubuntu gets closer to the sweet spot of free software that’s stable, highly functional, and easy and intuitive to use.

§ 5 Responses to Confession: I switched to Ubuntu"

  • Michael says:

    So you were too lazy to install the ATI driver from the Livna repositories and just because Ubuntu installs closed source drivers you are now sold.

    Lol ;p

  • Larry McCauley says:

    The expansion of linux will necessarily mean that newbies will be installing / using linux for the very first time. The last thing they will want or need is a crash course presented to them upon first boot. Ubuntu are barking up the right tree, making it as painless as possible fro the new user. (They could even go a step further and introduce a newbie introduction package option at first boot).

    In the end convenience wins, even with a (I believe) a generous percentage of more experienced users.

  • Guy says:

    I chose to make video drivers a touchstone here because they’re indicative of a core part of the user experience of a modern operating system that the Fedora distribution does not fully address. This is not, by any stretch, Fedora’s “fault” – its role is to be a proving ground for the latest and greatest software, not a stable, long-term-support OS. For what it’s worth, I *did* install the fglrx drivers directly from ATI, but they neither installed cleanly nor actually functioned. Fedora has a necessarily rapid release cycle of new software and the ATI drivers simply don’t catch up fast enough, and likely never will, because Fedora’s role is not to be the easiest or most compatible, it’s to be the newest. That’s fine, but the point of the post was to say that I’ve finally realized that’s not convenient enough for me any more, at least for my primary workstation.

  • Nick says:

    I have to whole heartily agree with this post. I have been using Fedora since it arrived so I know all about rpm’s and pup and pirut etc, and was going to upgrade to 9 from 8 but had a host of compatibility problems and rpm hell. Now I now the purists will say, you should do a fresh install, and in large part I agree, but when you are really busy a short cut here and there does help.

    So I was faced with a fresh install, I then encountered more problems doing it this way. So I thought, I’ll give this Ubuntu a go that everyone keeps going on about, and it worked out of the iso straight away. Now, I agree I’m not into the ,this is better than that, as I still run several RedHat and Fedora servers without problems, and they are very reliable. I have though started looking at Ubuntu servers as well now.

    So I’m definitely not here to bash the project. All I’m saying is that in my experience, on the hardware I had, Ubuntu just worked seamlessly. That was with 7.10 and I have since upgraded to 8.04, with no issues, and I fully expect to do the same to 8.10 Intrepid. If it goes wrong then I will say so, but at the moment I have to say on the desktop Ubuntu has to be a good bet if you are having issues elsewhere.

    Lets all be honest here, apt is still the best package manager there is, and I know there are great implementations on fedora, but Debian where there 10 years ago, and they really have put this aspect to bed.

    I now run it on all my laptops and desktops with no problems, I fully suspect this is because this is where Canonical are spending their time and effort. Recent announcements from them show they are going to be accelerating this development as well. Dell also feel this is currently the distro. to trust, but things can and will change, but competition is a good thing.

    I have to accept that is not as up-to date as fedora, but then it is not exactly arcane either, and it is stable.

  • Charles Peng says:

    Well, i still like my favorite Fedora 9

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