September 18, 2008

Workbench Linux distro is a workhorse for software developers

Author: Mayank Sharma

If you develop applications using FOSS tools, Workbench is an ideal distro for you. In addition to packing a gamut of development tools, the distro also bundles everyday apps and eye candy, so you can use it on your desktop as well.

Workbench is based on Xubuntu, the Xfce-powered Ubuntu flavor, but unlike Xubuntu it doesn't fit on a standard 700MB CD. With all its development tools and productivity apps, Workbench weighs in at 1.4GB. You can download the distro from either a low-speed direct download server or BitTorrent.

You can use the distro as a live DVD or install it to the hard disk. The installer is the standard Xubuntu installer and is pretty ease to use. If you have trouble installing the distro, you can ask for help on any Xubuntu or Ubuntu forums; Workbench doesn't have any dedicated forums of its own.

At first glance, without any documentation, or avenues for help, the distro looks like a hobby project from a developer who wanted a distro with all the tools he needed for his line of work -- which it is. But the distro is also surprisingly stable and responsive, even on an old 1.33GHz Celeron laptop with 1GB RAM. It's no slower or quirkier than the distro it's built upon.

The highlight and focus of the distro are its development apps. And there are plenty of them, both for online and offline software development and testing. Workbench packs compilers and IDEs for almost any environment or programming language you want to build on. There's the GNU C Compiler (GCC) and Anjuta IDE for C and C++ developers. You'll find the comprehensive Eclipse platform for various programming environments, including Java, for which the distro also packs the Sun JDK and the Netbeans IDE. For C# developers there's MonoDevelop, and if you maintain Pascal code, there's the Lazarus IDE. For developing user interfaces there's Glade and wxGlade.

In addition to the compilers and IDEs, Workbench also packs in handy developer utilities and apps. There's regexxer, the graphical search and replace tool that lets you use Perl-style regular expressions; the Geany text editor, which can double-up as a basic IDE; Umbrello for modeling Unified Modeling Language (UML); and Subversion with a graphical client.

For those who develop, test, or tweak Web apps, Workbench packs the all-in-one web server package XAMPP, which includes the Apache Web server, MySQL database, and interpreters for PHP and Perl scripts.

To edit PHP it bundles the gPHPEdit IDE, which can also handle HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Also included are the Bluefish and KompoZer HTML editors, and Cssed Editor for editing and validating CSS.

Since Workbench doesn't include a dedicated Perl editor, I tried adding the Perl extension to Eclipse via the EPIC project. Irrespective of whether I tried adding it on the live CD or on Workbench installed to the hard disk, Eclipse always froze and had to be killed. Except for this glitch, all other IDEs and apps worked without any issues.

Programmers do other things too

In addition to all the programmer tools, Workbench bundles everyday productivity and multimedia apps such as the Firefox 3 Web browser, Thunderbird for email, Pidgin for instant messaging, FileZilla for FTP, and Transmission for BitTorrent. You can use the included OpenOffice.org office suite, or the AbiWord word processor and Gnumeric spreadsheet apps.

For multimedia files, Workbench includes the ubuntu-restricted-extras package, which has codecs for playing restricted formats such as MP3. Also included are the VLC media player, Rhythmbox audio player, and Totem video player, as well as sound editor Audacity and the SoundConverter app for converting audio from one format to another.

For eye candy, Workbench includes the fancy Cairo-dock launchbar, and desktop widgets via the screenlets project.

Workbench is a good distro, especially if you are into software development. It isn't an everyday distro for a desktop user, but rather a desktop distro for everyday developers.

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