April 14, 2004

Real World Linux 2004, Day 1: A real world experience

Author: David 'cdlu' Graham

Real World Linux 2004 Conference and Expo is taking place this year at the Metro Toronto Convention Center, North building, next to the Canadian National Tower in the middle of Canada's largest city.

On Tuesday morning I left home on the 6:10 a.m. city bus to the train station, arriving in Toronto about half an hour before the start of the day's tutorial sessions.

After orienting myself in an otherwise unfamiliar environment, I set about registering my presence. I'd been in touch with RWL04's media publicist, Stephanie Cole, and had been assured that I was registered prior to arrival, but I still needed to pick up my badge.

Symbiotic relationship between press and conferences

I should note that, unlike most conference attendees, reporters and others working for media organisations do not normally pay to attend conferences and are seldom constrained in where they can go or what they can do. This is not out of the kindness of organizers' hearts, but because media organisations and conferences have a symbiotic relationship. Media organsiations get free and limitless access in return for the coverage they bring to the conference.

At about 8:40 I began waiting in line and chatted with a few fellow attendees. After a few minutes, it was my turn at the desk. I gave the person behind the counter my name and indicated that I should be under their "media" registration list. They were not expecting any media prior to the show and didn't have any media passes ready. A few minutes passed and just a couple of minutes after 9 a.m. I was on my way, badge around my neck. I was making progress.

I walked down the hall seeking the session I intended to attend. I was greeted at the door by a small man whose job can best be described as a bouncer. He scanned a barcode on my badge and allowed me into the room. Inside, another conference official, an usher, pointed me to a stack of handouts for the presentation. I was now sitting at the back of a small sessional room where "Tuning and Cutomizing a Linux System" author Dan Morrill was giving a three-hour tutorial entitled "Linux Customization: Three Case Studies," already in progress due to the delay at the registration desk.

Dan's presentation was a case study of his home computer network. He set up an NFS file server, a firewall, and an arcade-style game console using three Linux computers running the Fedora distribution of Linux. When I arrived, he was discussing the basic structure of an operating system and how UNIX and UNIX-based operating systems live off a single root process known as "init"; he also touched on Sys5 versus BSD-style initialization scripts.

After an explanation of the basics of running anything under Linux, he set about explaining what exactly it was that he had done that warranted a presentation.

I must say I was a little apprehensive that anyone could make a three-hour tutorial on how to set up an NFS server, firewall, and game server, but Dan did a pretty good job of it.

Dan Morrill explains how to set up firewall scripts under Linux.

He made the point repeatedly that on a new installation of Linux it is necessary to remove unnecessary packages from your system. If you are running a computer that is attached to the Internet, remove services you are not using lest they become the source of a security compromise that could otherwise have easily been prevented. Also, he noted, having extra packages kicking around is a waste of the computer's resources.

NFS: Simpler than first thought

His first project was the creation of an NFS server, which he demonstrated by mounting a local partition remotely on his laptop using an overhead projector. I must confess that I've never actually used NFS before, and it is a lot simpler than I thought.

After typing only a small handful of commands, he could change directories to a "remote" directory that was really local. He explained that NFS is a trusting protocol and assumes that whatever the client tells it is probably true. Thus if you have an NFS server and an NFS client, if the client tells the server that its user is "cdlu" (which is actually represented numerically to the computer), the server will believe it and give that client computer access to all cdlu's files. As such, he advised NFS be used with care, and all hosts that are not supposed to have access should not. This can be accomplished using firewall scripts.

His second project was not all that interesting, but to those not familiar with it, it was probably the most useful and informative. It won't be rehashed here, but he explained how to set up a firewall under Linux kernels 2.4 and 2.6, with proper forwarding rules within his home network so that not everything had to run on his gateway.

His third project was the most interesting but the least useful of the three. He discussed in detail how he took a computer, installed Linux on it, and ran it with only a TV out card and an arcade control pad of some description. He built a box around it, put a TV on an angle in it, and thus made himself a true arcade-game console. Remember them? They were the things used in the movie "War Games" before David Lightman war-dialed his way into the U.S. military computer and started a simulated thermonuclear war.

After a brief question-and-answer period, his presentation was complete and everyone was given a copy of his book. He signed for those who requested it.

After lunch I found my way over to Marcel Gagné's presentation on migrating to Linux. His enthusiasm and casual approach dominated the room and his presentation was both interesting and informative.

As Marcel prepared to start, he held up a book he wrote called "Moving to Linux: Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye!." Ironically, the overhead project attached to his laptop refused to cooperate and gave a blue screen with the words "No signal. Help?" The projector was changed, and he started by announcing that, no, Marcel doesn't like PowerPoint.

He was casual. It was not a one-way discussion but a seminar in which he became the teacher and the audience his students.

Wake up and smell the penguin

The presentation was oriented to the IT guy who needs to smack the company he works for and get them to wake up and smell the penguin, and to that end he gave many good pieces of advice. He was also very clear that Linux is not the be-all and end-all of modern computing -- but is a very good and cost-effective tool for the majority of companies.

Marcel Gagne explains how to get business users to switch to Linux.

Those interested in introducing their companies to Linux should do so in stages, he argued. OpenOffice.org will run in Windows and is a good launching point. A Windows user's first experience in Linux, he said, should be in KDE, notwithstanding the civil wars such comments can elicit from the GNOME community.

KDE is not necessarily his first choice for his own use, he said, but as the most mature and full-featured -- and similar in functionality and feel to Windows -- desktop environment, KDE is the place to start.

Crossover Office from CodeWeavers, VMWare, and Win4Lin, are all options for those Windows applications that users still need, and can ease the transition, Marcel said.

In an effort to show us the merits of the various programs, he demonstrated Crossover Office happily running Microsoft Office programs without requiring a Windows installation on the computer. It appeared to work well for more programs than just Microsoft Office. He was not, however, able to show us Win4Lin, because he did not have a copy available. His demonstration of VMWare failed when Windows simply refused to load, apparently having something to do with the fact his laptop was not on his home network.

PDFs save costly Windows upgrade

At a business in the area, he told us, a company was refusing to move to Linux out of habit. Eventually, he showed the president of the company OpenOffice.org's ability to save a file directly as a PDF, and pretty soon the whole company was using Linux instead of making a costly upgrade to a new version of Windows. Such is the power of OpenOffice.org.

Among the other selling points of Linux to push in a business environment, he told us, is the native ability of many desktop environments to run multiple virtual desktops. Instead of having people spend unending amounts of time minimizing and chasing programs around the screen, having separate desktops for each user is a benefit that many users have not considered. Gaim, the X-based instant messenger client, and KDE's Kdict are two other important pieces of software for users new to the experience of Linux. Kdict allows users to highlight words and click a button on the bottom menu to get definitions of the word from a variety of Web dictionaries.

Just in case your business types aren't yet satisfied, the full-featured browser Mozilla and its stripped-down brother, Firebird, and their ability to do anything from block pop-up ads to limit cookies as needed, should provide that extra push, he said.

But whatever you do, give your boss something concrete with which to work. Something like a Knoppix CD, he said, is the perfect place to start. It provides them with completely working Linux and absolutely no risk to their existing systems.

Recycling old computers as dumb servers

Marcel spent a large part of his presentation dealing with a topic with which many people aren't familiar. He explained the concept of recycling otherwise obsolete computers as thin clients, essentially dumb terminals that can run Linux. He has gone into this topic in depth before at Linux Journal.

The Linux Terminal Server Project and ROM-o-Matic.net are the places to start, he said. Setting up an old hard drive-less 486 or a purpose-built thin client can be more cost effective and environmentally friendly than upgrading to a computer. For many businesses, thin clients are the best way to go, as the actual uses of the computer are not so process intensive as to require new systems.

As a sidebar, Marcel mentioned that a company called linuxant.com allows people to pay for a software package that will allow drivers written for Windows to work under Linux for hardware such as winmodems or 802.11g fast wireless internet cards that lack native Linux drivers to run under Linux.

In short, Marcel's presentation gave all present a strong selection of arguments and tools with which to pursuade the companies they work for to see the light and move to Linux, though he did emphasize one last time at the end: Linux is not always perfect for everyone in every situation.

After Marcel's presentation, I meandered back over to Union Station to catch the train home, there being no more events for the day.

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