My Early Linux History

There was another useless post on Slashdot asking what did you first do with Linux?. I thought it would be interesting to recollect that experience. Sorry for the detail, my memory produces lots of random tidbits.

I was fortunate enough to attend an engineering school with the latest technologies that were available in the market. Which basically means we had Sun Ultra Workstations, running Solaris Operating System using CDE. So for me “Unix = Sun”. That was 1997 and I was incredibly impressed. I never even knew of Linux till 1998, when one incredibly over achieving colleague mentioned he was going to use an old 386 to run Linux. I immediately thought he meant “unix”, so my first question was: “Don’t you need a more powerful computer?”. Keep in mind the Pentium MMX was the state of the art consumer desktop at the time. And that’s when I first heard it on a bus, in the winter, heading to the engineering campus: “Linux can run on anything! Even really old hardware!”. So began my interest.

Later in 1999 when my programming classes got more involved, I was finding that Borland C++ 5.0 on Windows NT 4.0 was not sufficient compared to GCC on Sun. A co-worker of my brother suggested Linux but warned me that I need to be very careful to make sure I check the video card support under the X-server (XFree86 at the time). Ironically that warning still holds true to this day! Luckily my Matrox Mystique 4MB was in the “supported list”!

In the late 1990’s you could find the most popular linux, RedHat, on shelves at your local Best Buy retailer. I had seen version 6.0 on sale, but by the time I got around to purchasing it, sure enough version 6.1 was there. As I recall it was only 1 CD and 1 CD full of source code (I think I still have those CD’s somewhere). By the time I figured out how to repartition my hard-drive and actually get linux to work (I think the 3rd installation I got it right), I was told version 6.2 was available! This (sometimes annoying) trend still persists today as well.

Due to my experience with CDE on Sun, I immediately thought KDE was the same thing. So I just started using Gnome. Everything was foreign, but since it was so much easier than Solaris, I liked it a lot. Not long after I became comfortable with Redhat, I heard that Pogo Linux was giving away free linux CD’s. This was great since finding someone to make me a copy was impossible and copying at school a big pain. I got copies of Caldera, TurboLinux, Mandrake, and maybe others? I don’t really remember all the versions I tried from them. The only one that stood out was Mandrake and I loved it for its cool selection of software and included niceties (especially “color gcc” – which made cryptic C errors fun again!). Unfortunately all those little additions came with their price. I found Mandrake incredibly unstable compared to RedHat (it could have been my inexperience) so I switched back. I stuck with RedHat till Fedora, but that’s another story altogether.

So that’s my brief exposure to Linux from 1999 to 2001. It was all caused by a requirement to use gcc for school work but ended with a lot of random discoveries. I never saw it in day-to-day activities – so instead I went and found it myself.

What was your first linux experience?

Evince and Acrobat PDF Form Edits

Newer versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader have provided the feature for users to edit the contents of form fields in a PDF file. Depending on the permissions set by the author of the PDF file, Acrobat Reader will allow or deny the ability to save the file with the form edits in place. The United States IRS has allowed for this functionality in recent years in its official tax forms, which is great for people who might otherwise need to fill out forms with pen. This way a record can be saved entirely electronically.

Adobe in the past has had a hit or miss record of providing up to date versions of Acrobat Reader for Linux. (Although as of late the support has significantly improved). Open source PDF readers have typically missed some feature that Acrobat Reader supported – in this case the form field editing – which is why I still install Acrobat. However the one thing I always forget about open source applications in general is that they often rapidly improve. I just tested Evince (a PDF reader) in Fedora 10 Gnome and sure enough form editing was working fine!

Ever since I have been doing tax forms with PDF files, the nuisance I’ve had was that the State of Michigan Treasury provides their tax documents with editable fields – BUT saving the file is not permitted! Needless to say this is quite frustrating! Acrobat Reader warns the user that edits should be printed since they cannot be saved. I was using Evince when I realized that the application ignores these restrictions and saves a copy of the file with field edits in place. And the best thing: Acrobat Reader will read them and still complain I can’t change them, which is fine since my edits are there already. I was truly impressed with the open source reader, even the PDF alternatives in Windows did not do this for me.

Anyways, I was pleased with the improvements, I have been telling people for the past 2 years that I don’t use open source PDF readers since they have missing functionality! Even though the permission issue was bypassed I will still be writing to the State of Michigan to complain about the restrictions (if you are in the same position as I, please do so as well).

ps. KDE users: I tested Okular as well but the interface was a little quirky when it came to the field editing and I found the application a bit unstable. I will re-test a little later, but the basic functionality seemed to work just like Evince.

Change of Direction

In certain scenarios I am a little skeptical of Linux and open source applications as worthwhile competitors for closed source or proprieraty alternatives. This is not to say I do not think that there is any lack in potential. In my opinion I do disagree with some choices made by open source projects or linux distributions. In any event the point of this post is not to argue any of that. I was reading a post claiming that Linux needs critics, and I do agree with this. The nice thing the author points out is there is a difference between a complaint (negative) and criticism (positive).

I don’t think I have ever really made any constructive criticism of Linux or Fedora. Unlike the author who wrote the above post, I am a software developer. I could try to help more instead of complaining. (I have complained a lot.) I have never submitted a patch or even filed a bug report. I have probably spent more time trying to get an older unsupported version of software working than I have trying to help with the shortcomings of the newer version. This, I will admit, is quite counterproductive.

For the things that I feel are important I plan to try a bit harder – slowly but surely.

Personally I still feel that Linux and open source will never be a complete solution for all my needs, but whenever possible I hope that with some effort it will be.

CentOS 5.3 Released

For those who might not be familiar with enterprise linux distributions, CentOS is a rebranded free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). For enterprise usage Red Hat supports each release for 7 years, while carefully updating packages for backwards compatibility. Each .1 “point release” is an Service Pack update. RHEL 5.3 was released at the end of January.

Typically it takes a few weeks for the CentOS team to repackage, build and distribute the source of RHEL into a CentOS release. Last night CentOS 5.3 release was announced. The seemingly long delay was due primarily to some personal issues within the CentOS team.

I have been running a personal server on CentOS for 1 year now and I could not be more pleased with the results. I plan to update my server tonight when I am at the console. The following are some tips I’ve read online for a smooth (and fast) upgrade:

# yum update glibc

The glibc update is due to a RHEL 5.3 known issue.

After that, I would generally do the following. This basically updates the YUM installation system first to take advantage of any improvements in a newer YUM release. :

# yum update yum rpm
# yum clean all
# yum -y update

Even though past updates have been flawless for me, please do make proper backups, and read the Release Notes for more information.