September 2, 2009

Guru Tips For The Linux Road Warrior

What is your impression of the Linux road warrior?

Perhaps it's the celebrity guru at the conference, feverishly typing away on his sub-notebook in-between speaking engagements. Slightly-quirky technology writers, enlightened editors, Open Source programmers, and chin-stroking consultants might also be in the club.

There is also a growing army of stealth Linux road warriors, that are running under the radar.

As companies fish around for cost-saving ways to work, your prospect of a working in a virtual office, could become a possibility. You may be searching for a new job, need to get out of the house to stay sane and know that a cool Linux laptop will always draw attention. Or, you might be an extreme Linux laptop user that just can't stand the thought of going on vacation, without taking a penguin machine along.

Whether a Linux road warrior by choice or necessity, the following tips can help leverage the power of portability, when you're out and about.

Make It Reliable And Be Your Own Tech

The most important aspect of effectively using a Linux laptop is to make it predictable and reliable.

The whole reason for even taking a Linux laptop away from your desk is to get work done, on your terms. Startup, shutdown, and applications should function the same every time and not require a bunch of tweaking whenever you open the lid and start a new project. A word of warning, resisting the tweaking urge is a steep order with Linux.

The good news is that, it is important to take some time to get your basic system and road warrior processes running smoothly. So, we can overlook some tweaking, here and there. We still need to get work done and the balance will come with time and experience.

We should never wait for the last minute to try to get a required application working, like right before your next sales call. Work out the bugs with your new dual-screen setup before jumping on the plane for that next client presentation. Know that your library blocks outbound email before you hit that 3:00 PM deadline for your next story submission.

One of my old corporate colleagues used to get very upset when his laptop didn't just work. Since he wore the I'm not a tech guy mantle as a badge of honor, he was dead in the water until somebody helped him troubleshoot his tech problems. We road warriors have to know our systems and depend on ourselves to get the job done because support simply might not be available. You are tech support.

Fortunately, running Linux on a laptop has come a very long way over the last few years and is quite capable of great portable operations. Next, we'll discuss some things that work well.


Linux Equipment


I've been running laptops since the mid-80's and Linux laptops since the late-90's. Testing and reviews include a number of different versions of Linux such as SuSE, Red Hat, Puppy, Knoppix, and various flavors of Debian/Ubuntu. Hardware has covered no-name Taiwanese brands, HP, Toshiba, and Asus. I even briefly used Minix on an old T-1100 Toshiba with dual floppies and an early LCD screen. Command line for everything, anyone?

The latest laptops and Linux offerings have absolutely amazing capabilities and features. I won't go into a long discussion about the various brands and models, but rather will give some general observations and guidelines.

I prefer to buy machines off-the-shelf and then install my favorite version of Linux, myself.

I also tend to buy the fastest hardware I can afford. The more RAM the better, with two gigabytes being a good starting point. You should be aware that Windows laptops billed as 32-bit Vista usually have 3 GB or less. 64-bit Vista laptops generally have 4 GB and up and usually mean 64-bit duo core processors, as well. Also, try to get a machine with a good graphics card and it's own separate video memory, if possible. My laptop has 1 GB of video RAM and a high-end Nvidia chip. Graphics details and speed make for fast response and more work getting done.

Another laptop point to keep in mind is physical size.

I've had 15-inch laptops for years and always hated the bulk. It was hard to find a bag that fit them and they seemed to pick up pounds somehow, on a long trek through the airport. I've settled on the 14 inch models as being the best compromise in a usable screen, keyboard, and horsepower verses the footprint and weight. Retail outlets are pushing the 15- and even 17-inch models. Don't be fooled, these things are big and clunky for virtual office work. More engineering details are required to squeeze the power into a neat little 14-inch package, so they tend to cost more. My laptop cost went for about $US 850. Prices tend to move steeply upward for the ultra-thin 14-inch machines and I don't think they are that durable.

Right now, I'm pretty happy with my Asus machines. I have a hot-rod X83-VM laptop and an eeePC 1000HE running Xubuntu and eeeBuntu, respectively. They both have a nice fit and finish. They also have a solid feel and seem fairly robust.

The eeePC 1000HE is a stable platform that is ultra portable. EeeBuntu can run, Firefox, Thunderbird, and terminals without problems. The default Gnome desktop works great and even the Compiz 3D capabilities are impressive. The thing will run for about four hours, or so, on a charge.

It is also pretty fast with 2 GB of RAM and a mid-range Intel graphic chip. The 10 inch screen might be a little harder to see for users getting on in years, meaning over 40. And, the resolution is 1280 x 600, meaning that scrolling down with documents and Web pages will be more frequent.

graphic1.pngYou certainly can't complain about the portability of the eeePC netbook. Slip the wireless mouse in your pocket, put the netbook in suspend mode, and go. A simple push of the power button when you arrive at your work location and within a few seconds you are ready to go. This is the ultimate bare bones portable office. Figure 1 shows a side-by-side view of the Asus eeePC and laptop.

A few other items will make you more productive, depending on the work that you need to do. How about a few tips on accessories.

Take Alongs

Anything to save weight and space is a good idea. And, being able to connect to a variety of other equipment might mean the difference wondering when tech support will come to the rescue or getting the job done.

The Logitech XV Nano notebook mouse is a good choice because it is wireless and has a tiny little 1/4 inch x 1/2 inch receiver that plugs into the USB port. Size and breakage are minimized.

Extension cord and power strip:
A six- to 10-foot extension cord is a life saver, when mobile. There are never enough outlets, close at hand at the coffee shop. One trick I use is to notch out the little plastic tab on the end of the outlet end, so my three prong power supply cord can still be plugged in.

A power strip could be a nice optional addition, even when traveling. Your fellow virtual office team members will respect your forethought and road warrior-ness.

CAT 5 Cable:
Packing a five-foot CAT 5 cable can come in handy when you get to your in-laws house and need to patch into the cable modem directly. I like the “patch” type cables because they use flexible, stranded wire that's easy to work with. You can make your own with connectors and regular solid core wire, but it gets heavy and stiff.

Computer Bag:
A plain, no frills bags seems to draw little to what I'm carrying. I figure if I have a mediocre bag, a thief might not think the computer inside will be worth stealing.

Packing a Linux eeePC, because it can fit in a briefcase or small carry-on, is a joy. You might not even need a dedicated computer bag. With an eeePC, you might have a little more space to take your own router, some audio cables, and tools.

Wifi Router:
graphic2.pngSpeaking of routers, there are a number of them on the market and they can come in handy when visiting relatives or hotel hopping. The Trendnet wireless line are cheap (about $US 30), small (about 6 inch x 4 inch x 1 inch), and are pretty stout. I've not had real good luck taking Netgear or Linksys wifi routers on the road, since they seem to go belly-up for no reason. Figure 2 shows the small size of the Trendnet router next to a power strip.

Cords and Power Bricks:
Don't forget to pack your power bricks and extra cords. As laptops and netbooks continue to get green their power supplies keep shrinking in size. The eeePC has one that's about 1 inch x 1 inch x 3.5 inch. Extra cords might include a 1/8 inch to 1/8 inch audio cable and one of the new HDMI video cables. Newer laptops are using this new standard so they can be hooked up to high-def big screen TVs. Corporate America is starting to use the big screens in meeting rooms so being able to connect might be important. Be aware that the HDMI cables are expensive, so make sure to look for sales.

DC to AC Inverter:
graphic3.pngWhile you wouldn't carry an DC to AC inverter around in your laptop bag, there is no reason you can't slip one under your car seat or in your luggage. You can charge your laptop/netbook battery between destinations while driving or use it for extreme portable situations. I picked up a 400 watt model from Home Depot for around $US 50. I've had no problem with the step-sine wave types, so If you are paranoid about noisy inverter circuits check out one of the new true-sine models. Figure 3 shows my inverter next to the Logitech mouse.

Odds and Ends:
You might want to pack some nice comfortable ear buds, so you can listen to music or Web page commentary. You might also include a USB memory stick or two and an extra SD card, especially if you use a digital camera. Other odd things are a small LED flashlight, some Post-Its, a small notebook, and a neatly folded garbage bag. That plastic bag will be worth it's weight in gold if you want to save your equipment from a downpour.

Work Sites


Working virtually five years ago was quite a challenge. Free wifi has become much more widespread and is now available at most hotels chains and a growing number of restaurants.

You can also find wireless access at public libraries, airports, and office buildings. Some require a simple MAC address registration, to keep track of who is on their network.

Certain places are much better virtual work sites than others.

For example, Panera Bread has a pleasant atmosphere, free wifi, good coffee, and lots of tables. It is made for socializing and usually has steady business. The cinnamon crunch bagel, warmed up in the microwave, with plain cream cheese is tasty and satisfying.

You'll want to make sure to get a spot early and avoid the lunch rush. Free wifi is great for the price of a bagel and cup of coffee, but let's not abuse it by taking up a spot for a paying lunch customer.

By contrast, Starbucks seems to be discouraging virtual office patrons. Their coffee is pricey, they have pay wifi, there are a few small tables here and there, hardly any power outlets, and the colors are dark and brooding. Maybe they are trying to attract the paper and pencil fiction writers. No offense to them, of course.

One unusual place to work is the local mall. Simon Properties malls have free wifi for customers that are shopping. I've used the eeePC to get on their network while my wife and kids were buying clothes. It might not be the place to do kernel programming, but it could come in handy for a quick check of email, putting a few thoughts down on a new project or just to catch up on world events. Don't forget, suspend on the netbook is the hot ticket.

Since we've been talking about working in public places, let's just touch next on security.

Keep It Safe

There are two types of security associated with virtual office activities. One is keeping the physical parts safe from theft and accidents. The other is network safety.

I don't want to risk losing my machine, so I never leave my setup unattended. If I'm not in a group of friends, that means putting the laptop/netbook in the bag and hauling it to the sales counter or bathroom. I've seen other people leave their laptop and completely disappear for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Nothing has ever walked away, but I certainly am not that trusting.

I'm also very careful about placing my equipment in my car. The valuables are always covered or in the trunk. And, don't park somewhere, walk around and drop the laptop in the trunk, then walk off to your destination. Criminals watch for that sort of thing and it is an open invitation to break in and take your stuff. Much better to put the thing in the trunk beforehand, so you don't have to expose the stash, in front of undesirables.

Linux road warriors are well equipped for network security.

Most public access points have no encryption or authentication running. They are made for easy connections with minimum fuss. Laptops and netbooks should always have a software firewall engaged, when accessing these networks. I like the Guarddog setup for choosing which ports allow traffic. It manipulates the kernel IP-tables and does a great job. The downside is that you have to specifically open up http or ssh, otherwise you'll sit there for a few minutes wondering why you can't access sites. I keep the basics like http and DNS open for regular use and open access to ssh only when needed.

You have to wonder how many Windows users are plugged into these public hot-spots, without anything to keep out the bad guys? I suspect more than a few.

Let's finish up with a quick word about virtual office logistics.

Virtual Work Flow

Lots of opportunities exist to waste time, when virtual, so you have to plan well and stick to your tasks. Some people just can't make it work. Others like myself, find it challenging and require a focused effort to get maximum productivity. It takes time and solid commitment to succeed.

Travel time to and from your virtual workplace can be a real efficiency killer, as is standing in line for your bagel and coffee. Ideally, the coffee shop and library are right down the street. I like to go to a variety of places to work, mostly for the change of scenery and inspiration. I also don't want to wear out my welcome with the business owners.

Connectivity issues or lack of power are additional problems that virtual workers face. Sure, you can usually get a solid two hours of work in on a laptop battery charge, but my typical story takes anywhere from five to ten hours to write. What to do? Turning off wifi and bluetooth, turning down the screen brightness and running on the lowest CPU frequency helps stretch your work time. Try plugging in the inverter and top off your laptop battery between your stops. Working virtually gets to be an exercise in logistics, that isn't for the faint of heart.

As I mentioned before, Linux laptop users are also highly prone to excessive system tweaking, when they work virtually. I'm guilty of downloading applications while virtual. Slow network speeds usually help check my bad behavior. Hey, I have an excuse, since I write a lot of application reviews and such.

Let's Get Going

Lastly, being a productive virtual worker, whether guru, writer, programmer, or consultant is just a matter of commitment to getting the job done. Using Linux on your laptop gives a huge advantage in reliability, depth of applications, and capability. Take your old corporate work ethic, enjoy your portability, and deliver outstanding results.

Rob Reilly is a emerging technology consultant, writer, and portable computing expert. Tech trends, seminars, and writing projects are his stock-in-trade. His mission is to deliver exceptional value to his clients. Visit his Web site at

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