Sunday, April 16, 2006

Linux 102 - Decisions, Decisions

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In my previous article, we discussed choosing a Linux ‘distro’. The choice is highly personal and depends upon your needs, so I will not go much further than that.

Before you start installing Linux your application needs should be decided upon before you start as well as HOW you want to install it.

Let us start with the Desktop. There are several to choose from. If you were to ask twenty people that used Linux regularly, which they would recommend, you would get a handful of answers, but the two that would get the most responses (or votes) would be Gnome and KDE. In fact, these two cause heated debates over which is best. To add to the debate, a newer Desktop called XFCE is becoming very popular. There are several others, like GNUStep, that enjoy a rather limited popularity and provide some rather interesting displays. If you want, you can install all of them and play around with them to see which you like best.

KDE was the first. It provides a wide array of applications that cover almost everything from Office Productivity to Gaming. When it was originally developed, the Qt library and tools used were not Open Source nor was it free. (It is now.) KDE was free for use but a group of developers did not care for the idea of having to buy a library from someone to develop software for the Desktop so they developed Gnome. Everything about Gnome was Open and no cost. There is not quite as much software developed specifically for Gnome as there is for KDE, but the Application Framework for Gnome is loose enough that most applications developed for Linux will fit nicely into the Gnome environment. Which is better? Neither and both is the only answer you will get from me. It is up to you to decide. Either Desktop will do what you need. Just keep in mind that Linux is not Windows and it will not look or operate the same.

XFCE is a good choice, too. You can closely approximate the Windows look with it and it also has a selection of Applications written for it, but it is ‘the new kid on the block’ and still being developed in some areas. That is not to say that the Desktop is not usable. Far from it! XFCE is a well-tested and mature product that performs as well as Gnome and KDE! It is just being improved and expanded as new services and capabilities are being regularly added.

Most Linux distros allow you to install one or more of the Desktop environments as well as the ability to switch from one to another, so install what you want and try them.

There are a few ways to install Linux that need to be decided upon as well as the application mix. There are three methods to consider, each with advantages and disadvantages.

The first and easiest is using a dedicated system for Linux. In this instance, Linux uses the entire system for operation. You actually replace everything on the hard drive(s) with Linux software. It is a bad idea to go this route if you want to keep Windows on the machine since Windows will be totally removed.

Another method would be to use a hard drive partition or second drive for Linux. This is called ‘Dual Boot’ and will allow multiple Operating Systems to be available for use. With this choice, Windows will be left alone on the system so it will be there if you need it. There is little chance Windows and Linux will intermix files since they use different file system protocols so it should be safe. To shift from Windows to Linux and back requires you to shutdown whichever OS you are using and start up from initial boot.

The third is to use VMWare. The VM in VMWare stands for Virtual Machine and is rather interesting for its own sake. It allows you to install Linux along side Windows and the VMWare system literally builds a virtual system inside your computer that recognizes each environment separately and keeps them apart. It does require a bit more memory and a faster system because of VMWare’s overhead, but if configured correctly, will allow you to run Linux and Windows with ease. In addition, switching from Windows to Linux requires a predetermined sequence of keystrokes but not a full scale reboot. VMWare is free for Home use and they have good support available.

Since Linux will run happily on older equipment, I suggest getting a separate system (Pentium I or even an 80486 system) for Linux use. The cost is usually low since the older systems will not run the newer Windows, and they should be plentiful and available (possibly in your own closet, garage, or basement). You might want to invest in additional memory and perhaps a larger hard drive but Linux will run in 128 MB of memory quite nicely and you can install a full Linux Personal Workstation onto a 1.2 GB hard drive with a lot of space left over. Whatever the distribution has as a default should be your starting point. Get used to Linux before trying to get ‘fancy’. If you are new to Linux, leave the server and development stuff alone and just install either the workstation or Personal system. Learn your system first and then add stuff.

Next time we will discus update methods.

Have Fun!