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Guide to Linux on the Business Desktop Part 3

Laptop Linux as a business solution

Welcome to the third installment of "Guide to Linux on the Business Desktop." Part 1 (Vol. 2, issue 4) covered some of the many Linux distributions available, and Part 2 (Vol. 2, issue 5) looked at some of the major vendors' Linux desktop offerings and began to explore the Linux laptop. Part 3 completes the journey with a more in-depth look at laptop Linux.

My progress has been quite good using the EmperorLinux Rhino (www.emperorlinux.com/rhino.php). I have over the course of the last month been configuring this laptop as a Linux business solution for the novice user. My research has given me a solution with which I can find few flaws. As many of our more technical readers know, I could have put together a solution myself on a laptop bought directly from HP, Dell, IBM, or Gateway and installed Linux, maybe voided my warranty, and been offered limited (if any) support to get the configuration I wanted. I chose a different path.

I asked the Linux-savvy folks at EmperorLinux (www.emperorlinux.com) to supply me with a laptop that was already optimized for Linux and was built on hardware from trusted vendors like Dell and IBM. I believe that many of you want to run Linux laptops but aren't looking to install operating systems or to patch kernels. Plus, you may have been buying laptops from the same vendor for years and have a surplus of extra docking stations, power supplies, and batteries - an investment you would likely lose by going with a different vendor. I think you will find my approach to the Linux laptop most consistent with your needs.

For someone who wants a no-hassle Linux laptop, or any laptop, I cannot begin to tell you how impressive my first minutes with the Rhino were. First, the key to success is to follow along with the included EmperorLinux User's Manual authored by EmperorLinux's founder Lincoln Durey. Within 10 minutes of opening the shipping box I was writing this article and surfing the Web via the on-board 802.11g wireless card. I spent many hours trying to achieve this same result on my own, and having an out-of-the-box product that works this well has been an excellent experience. The only caveat is that wireless networking doesn't work seamlessly as delivered; I'm required to run two quick commands to bring down the on-board Ethernet card and bring up the wireless interface. This is relatively painless, especially considering that the procedure is well documented in the EmperorLinux manual. Considering that using my Linksys card on my old Windows laptop required me to use a utility to take advantage of my wireless capabilities, this alternative is equally workable. All in all, EmperorLinux solved some of the most common problems with Linux on the laptop today - installation and initial configuration.

Specialty Hardware Support

One of the most lamented problems with Linux on the laptop is support for specialty hardware. My definition of specialty hardware is not necessarily what PC manufacturers consider specialty. What I mean is hardware that is not normally part of the "anchored to the desktop" PC. This includes wireless cards, all varieties of PCMCIA cards, power supplies that use Advanced Power Management (APM) features to conserve battery life, and other things that make being a mobile PC user more convenient.

The trick for getting many of these things to work is finding and compiling the patches for the Linux kernel to enable these mobility features. As a general rule, Linux distributions seem to focus on the lowest common denominator, trying to run on as many platforms and chipsets as possible. The dilemma is that because of all the potential configurations, they may have to distribute a lowest common denominator kernel that may be a disservice to the mobile Linux user. You likely won't receive a kernel that includes patches for Advanced Power Management (APM) or its cousin APCI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface - still under early development for Linux) features that allow you to suspend to disk or hibernate your laptop. Also, I received the NVIDIA drivers preinstalled for the video card included in this laptop, while in a default install of a distribution I might have been required to download them from the manufacturer. My point is that you must go through some steps that are somewhat cumbersome if you are not a Linux guru. However, I don't want to discourage anyone from trying this. If you want a good resource, Tuxmobil.org (http://tuxmobil.org/apm_linux.html) has a good article and links to other resources on how to configure your laptop to take advantage of APM or the newer ACPI. Installing and patching these things on your own can be a valuable learning experience, and there is no shortage of community forums that you can rely on for advice. Fortunately, I didn't have to go through these steps; EmperorLinux had done this work for me, as they do for all their laptops.

Windows vs Linux: Initial Experience

The Rhino as requested came with a dual-boot configuration using both Windows XP and Fedora Core 1 with the empkernel (EmperorLinux's customized kernel for their laptops). I requested Windows XP so I could compare the experiences out of the box with both operating systems on the same hardware. This turned into a very enlightening experience as I got to compare "apples to apples" or, as it turns out, "penguins to paper clips."

The Linux session was up and running in about 10 minutes. Windows XP at the 48-hour mark still lacked support for the on-board wireless mini-PCI802.11 b/g card. On my first boot with Windows I listened to harp music and answered questions that I felt were irrelevant. Also, I didn't have an affordable office suite or many other facilities that came with my Fedora Core installation at no additional cost. After a few days of comparing performance and functions between the two, I couldn't find a reason to boot into Windows. Actually, I had no real incentive to do so other than to compare and contrast. I found that the Rhino was a lean, mean Linux machine and Windows XP was not at all to my liking.

Running System Updates

Even though my Fedora installation was fairly fresh, there had been some updates to the operating system and other packages since it shipped. To get up-to-date, pun intended (up2date is the program used by Red Hat to update packages), I clicked on the exclamation point on my task bar indicating that updates were available for my operating system. I chose to skip the kernel update since I was using an EmperorLinux empkernel optimized for my laptop. Also, there seemed to be a conflict with the XMMS version that was installed, but using the Red Hat Agent to uncheck the conflicting packages quickly solved my problem. I find that the ability to easily choose updates from a menu is one of the things Microsoft does have going for it with their Windows Update site, and those familiar with this service may not find Linux as easy to use. This is one area of the Linux desktop that I would like to see addressed universally. There are many camps dedicated to the use of certain conventions and binary packaging methods for Linux software, as well as programs to process these updates. All have their merits, but most are specific to distributions. Not all software is available in binaries that can be as easily installed on all variants of Linux. Of course, as many of you know, those "simplified" software installs often include side effects not intended by the user, such as of spyware and other inconveniences (like registry entries that haunt us until we reinstall).

Installing Applications

After updating Fedora Core 1, my first step was to install the applications that I think make me most productive. The Fedora installation I was using gave me a lot of what I wanted, including OpenOffice (which I used to take notes for this article), X-CD-Roast (a CD burning utility), and xine (a multimedia player that plays multiple file formats including CDs, DVDs, and VCDs). Xine also decodes AVI, MOV, WMV, and MP3 from local disk drives and displays multimedia streams over the Internet. If you had a chance to read my debate (www.linuxworld.com/story/38038.htm) with fellow LinuxWorld Magazine editor James Turner over the readiness of the Linux desktop, you know that his gripes were that his DVD player had to work as well as his wireless card. So far these criteria have been met painlessly, which should appeal to a broad contingency of potential Linux users.

Firefox Web Browser - Faster, More Efficient Browsing

Many of us spend a lot of time gathering information from the Web, so fast, efficient Web browsing is critical to our being productive. That's why I chose to install the Firefox Web browser (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/) from the Mozilla project (www.mozilla.org), which develops innovative open source Web browsers. Mozilla browsers offer features that as a frequent Web researcher I find indispensable. I like Firefox because it has the best combination of speed and functionality for most of my needs, including pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing, and integrated search box.

Pop-Up Blocking

There's nothing more annoying than pop-up ads that obstruct my view and crowd my screen. I love the Firefox feature that alerts you to pop-up ads through an icon on the status bar. By clicking on the icon you can see who's sending the pop-up and choose whether to view it. This saves you from the frustration of going to a page that bombards you with advertising when you're interested in researching something or are in a hurry.

Tabbed Browsing

My favorite Firefox feature and time-saver is tabbed browsing, which allows me to open several pages concurrently. I also can bookmark a group of bookmarks in a folder so I can open multiple tabs at once. I am in the habit of bookmarking groups of similar Web sites and opening all of the bookmarks in a folder at once. That way as I read one Web site, others load in other tabs. Also, I have systems that I like to switch between to reconcile data or copy and paste, and tab-based navigation makes these tasks much easier.

Integrated Search Box

I am constantly searching the Web for new information, usually via Google. Firefox has an integrated search box to the right of the URL that lets me enter search terms directly into the box, and search results load right in my browser. There are also faculties to add Yahoo! or Dictionary.com to the search box. With well over 100 searches each day, I save a lot of time with this feature. A recent trip to an Internet kiosk equipped with Internet Explorer quickly left me longing for Firefox or Mozilla.

If you've never used Netscape or Mozilla, or if you have and want something faster, I highly recommend Firefox.

StarOffice 7.0 and OpenOffice

I did install StarOffice 7.0, my preferred choice for a Linux office suite, but not until after I started to take notes in OpenOffice, which was included by default with the laptop. Either one gets the job done, but StarOffice offers a few niceties like templates and the security of professional QA testing; plus, it seems like documents load faster in StarOffice 7.0 than in OpenOffice 1.02. Both suites are very good and differences between them are minimal, so if you want the security of vendor backing and a little more polish, you can go with StarOffice; otherwise, OpenOffice is an excellent choice. These suites are not just for Linux, and if you're implementing Linux desktops in your business you may want to consider either one as a replacement for existing office suites - especially since they may help you with cross-platform compatibility issues. One bonus feature of OpenOffice and StarOffice is the ability to export documents as PDF (Portable Document Format), which is a very handy way to move documents and preserve formatting and fonts. This feature sets the StarOffice and OpenOffice suites apart from others, even leading commercial office suites.

Figure 1 shows the GNOME desktop running OpenOffice, xine multimedia player, X-CD-Roast, and Firefox Web browser with tabbed browsing - great for watching training videos and movies when stuck on long flights.

Windows Migration - 'Three Partition Monte'

Many of you have made the switch to Linux wholeheartedly, but many users are in transition and want to keep the security of Windows while dipping their toe into the waters of Linux. This makes sense - downtime in many people's businesses translates to lost money. Following are some suggestions on how to make sure your Windows data can be maintained simultaneously on Windows and Linux, depending where you boot. I suggest that you look at the setup that I call the "Three Partition Monte."

Data Partition

The key to making a Windows-to-Linux transition is to find a way to share data back and forth, so my solution is to have a data partition (I chose FAT32 format, since there is read-write support for that file system under Linux and it's obviously supported under Windows). The data partition is then mounted under Linux at /data. I like to create all my files and save all my data to one place, that way I can grab it from either operating system. Rarely do I have to go to Windows, but when I do it's nice to know that I have left important documents in one easily accessible place. Since I don't have an office suite on the Windows installation, I will install StarOffice so I have a good cross-platform solution.

Windows Partition

If you are dual booting and accessing files from both operating systems, I suggest that when booted into Windows you download Microsoft's PowerToy TweakUI (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/downloads/powertoys.asp) and use features there to map key Windows folders to the data partition. I don't believe Microsoft knew how helpful this would be for Linux migration, but I find it to be invaluable. By using TweakUI, you can easily change the location of system files and folders. (As is good practice for any kind of change to your PC, please make backups first.) Then relocate your My Documents folder to the data partition. In my setup the data partition shows up in Windows as drive D. I also use Outlook under Win4Lin (www.win4lin.com) so I make sure that my Outlook files are saved there too; later on I can create a symbolic link to the file under the Linux file system. I can also do the same thing with Quicken or TurboTax, two other applications to which I have yet to find a native Linux equivalent. Once I used the TweakUI control panel to move my Windows My Documents settings to my D drive I booted back into Linux (see Figure 2).

Linux Partition

My data partition is mounted under the path /data. I chose to mount my data partition as readable and writable for my Linux login (directions for doing this were included in the comments of the /etc/fstab file thanks to EmperorLinux). For those of you with other hardware, here's a link to LinuxForum (www.linuxforum.com/linux_tutorials/14/1.php), where there is discussion on how to do this.

I then chose to make a link to My Documents on the Linux laptop by opening Nautilus (the GNOME graphical file manager) and dragging and dropping My Documents to the desktop; now I have a good conduit to pull across files from Windows. Also, if I need to go back to Windows I have a way to check mail and grab files I worked on in Linux from Windows, and vice versa.

Summary

There are many viable Linux laptop solutions out there; I've highlighted one approach of many. EmperorLinux and other Linux-aware vendors make it possible for you to buy Linux products that are reliable and can save you time. Many of us need ways to bridge our Windows installations to Linux in order to make a commitment to an open and less vendor-dominated operating system. Strategies that minimize transitional downtime are essential - they make it possible for end users to enjoy the limited-pain tactics for migration and help more users enjoy the long-term benefits of Linux.

As I finish this article I sadly say goodbye to my friend the Rhino as it gets shipped back to EmperorLinux in Atlanta. I hope to highlight some other solutions for high-performance Linux laptop computing in the coming months, and I encourage you to contact me with ideas for future columns.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Vice President of Community at Cloud.com. the maker of the open source cloud computing management software, CloudStack He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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