Monday, August 10, 2009

Linux Monday: Updating the Old Boxes

Linux Monday: Updating the Old Boxes

It's been a while since I've had a Linux Monday post; as with the lack of garden posts it's been a matter of more doing and less writing.

We're just finished with curb-shopping season in Iowa City, and between scrounging and Freecycle I put together three more bootable machines. I also stripped for parts and unloaded seven more machines that had cluttered the basement, mostly of a Pentium II 400 vintage.

How many computers is too many? According to me, I have a 16 port hub and I still have slots left, and hey, I shut a couple down with the thermonuclear temperatures of the past weekend. (When I close the office door it gets noticeably warmer. CPU's generate heat and that's why server rooms are air conditioned.)

According to my wife it's some number less than what we have running now:

  • My good dual core laptop: technically a dual boot but almost exclusively in Ubuntu. I last actually used Windows on it in maybe... January? When I boot Windows, alll I do is... update Windows.
  • The old laptop, now in use by my wife and still on XP
  • Her old machine (2 GHz, XP) in use by one kid
  • A 1.4 gig machine running Qimo Linux for Kids that the other son uses
  • A 2 GHz Ubuntu machine that I use to test stuff on before I try it on the good laptop
  • A varying constellation of other Linux boxes used to play with distributions and detect space aliens.

    The ultimate goal, I keep telling my wife, is giving some of these away, which I've actually done once. I'd also like to set up a house-wide network with a server and firewall.

    I've got some Pentium III's running at 866 MHz and 1 gig. Those would crawl and stall in Vista but are nice and snappy in Ubuntu. But if all you're doing is searching for space aliens, you don't need a big, desktop-oriented setup.

    The flexibility of Linux means you can install a full-featured desktop, or a minimalist system. SETI@Home is all about the CPU speed, but with a low-resource distribution, that old machine is using less of its CPU to run itself and more of its CPU to detect aliens.

    The slowest machine I have up is a Celeron 700 that's running Puppy Linux. It seems to be really sturdy, and it's an old-style horizontal (as opposed to tower) case that physically fits into an odd nook. It went 57 days without a restart until I bumped the power cord. I originally had Damn Small Linux on this but Puppy was friendlier to my relative newbie skills.

    Even though Puppy is nice and reliable, there's a couple quirks. I need to manually reconnect to the net and manually mount the hard drive each time I restart. (You can save sessions to a removable drive, but with two months between restarts I just haven't bothered.)

    You can also take a full-feature distribution and tweak it for low resources. My basic setup for the the 866 and 1 gig machines is:

    1) a standard Ubuntu install
    2) run the Update Manager to get all the latest fixes
    3) SETI@home setup, and
    4) Fluxbox, a minimal desktop manager.

    This gives me options: All the bells and whistles of the full-featured distribution when I want it, low-resource speed when I need it. You can choose between Fluxbox and another desktop manager at login. Ubuntu's default is called GNOME; xfce and KDE are also popular. Each gives your desktop a different look and feel.

    The Fluxbox look and feel is very Smell The Glove: It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.

    To get anywhere you right-click anywhere and you get the menus. You can do some text-edit voodoo to customize them, but I haven't needed to. If you've installed Ubuntu and then add Fluxbox, all the programs appear on the menus. However, even though you see them, (such as GNOME Terminal) don't seem to respond to the Fluxbox menu. And when I open Nautilus, GNOME's file manager, then close it, my right-click menu is either gone or buried and I can't get anywhere.

    But I've also fired up Firefox and browsed away. The fonts are a little simpler but everything seems to work.

    I've also tried Blackbox, Flux's ancestor, as well. That works in a very similar fashion and is supposed to be a little bit lighter-weight. But I had trouble with it on one machine and it called up only a very limited menu.

    But if I had found Crunchbang first I might not have taken the standard Ubuntu plus Blackbox approach. #! is one of many Ubuntu-based distributions and works a lot like what I did on my own: a Blackbox-style right-click menu.

    Crunchbang, geekily abbreviated #!, is one of many Ubuntu-based distributions (such as Qimo and Linux Mint) Libe other minimal distros, #! is designed to boot from a CD or flash drive and load the whole system in RAM. That makes the minimalist distros ideal for system recovery, which is how most people use them.

    You could also do a full install of #!, but I just checked out the live CD. Unlike stright Ubuntu, which makes you take one extra step to enable proprietary media formats like Flash and .mp3, #! takes the Linux Mint approach and supports them from the get-go. Took me about 30 seconds to figure out how to connect the wifi and I was surfing.

    #! generally includes lighter weight applications that Ubuntu: smaller media players, Abiword for word processing instead of Open Office. It also has a lot of keyboard shortcuts and has a vibe of steering you to the command line.

    So I may do a full #! install on one of these old machines... but first I need a nice scientific organized system to determine speed and help me figure out which ones to shut off. What I should be doing, of course, is just booting to the command line and detecting aliens from there. But I'm not that geeky... yet.
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