Looking for help on how to distrubute a Kubuntu build over a network.

OK all you Linux gurus, I’m in need of your help. After literally months of dicking around I’ve managed to cobble together an Internet kiosk for the scanners here at work that meets my boss’s requirements using Kubuntu. I’m actually quite proud of this accomplishment, but I’m having trouble with the last part. I want to be able to deploy it to the PCs over the network as opposed to installing and building each workstation by hand. One of the guides I used during my research, How To Create An Internet Kiosk with Kubuntu over at dimmeria, suggested the following command to do the deed:

    sudo dd if=/dev/sda | ssh -t ip.target.machine sudo dd of=/dev/sda

It turns out this is an amazingly slow way to do it and it has the unfortunate habit of failing. I’ve tried it three times now and have managed only to copy 36GB, then 7GB, and then 31GB per attempt before it fails with an I/O error. This pretty much ate up most of my day here at work to this point. Doing some Google searches it seems there are about a hundred thousand different ways to do something like this all of varying difficulty and most of which don’t seem to be aimed at what I’m hoping to do. Namely I want to copy the disk layout of the current machine to the new machine exactly as it is and then just go in and give the new machine a new name and have it go.  I’ve done this sort of thing under Windows countless times using something like Ghost or Acronis True Image, but I’m not sure which of the hundreds of thousands of suggestions I’ve come across so far is the right one to take.

So I’m turning to you Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.

I don’t think I’ll be a Linux convert anytime soon.

I just lost an entry I was working on due to Firefox locking up so badly that I had to completely power off the laptop to get things back to normal. The reason it locked up? I accidentally managed to press CTRL-S and brought up the “Save Page As” file requester and when I clicked the Cancel button to dismiss that window it opted to totally fuck the OS instead of just closing back up and going away like it would on any other reasonable OS. That’s just dumb. There’s no excuse for that. Canceling a file requester should never totally lock up your system.

Whatever mojo it takes to run Linux in a stable fashion is apparently beyond my reach. I’ve managed to get things to a point where I only have to worry about applications quitting for no apparent reason as opposed to the whole system crashing for no apparent reason and I’ve been able to live with that fairly well, but when the system locks up because I canceled a file requester… I dunno. That just seems like asking a bit much.

I’ve been working on a project here at work converting the Internet kiosks we have set up for the folks out on the floor from Windows to Ubuntu. Recently someone pointed out that there’s some profiles for Kubuntu that would do most of the work for me so I downloaded the latest version (8.10) and installed it on the test machine I’ve been using. It installed fine, but when you login it never makes it through the whole login process without locking up completely. It starts showing the little icons starting with the hard drive and then as it’s fading the others in it just stops. If I install the previous version (8.04) it seems to let me login just fine. Does that make any sense to anyone? I’d expect that sort of problem if we were going from version 8 to version 9 or version 10, but we went up by .6 of a version number. That’d be like if you were running Windows XP and then installed Service Pack 2 and your system no longer let you login. Actually it’d be like you wiped the hard drive and installed Windows XP with Service Pack 2 already in it and it refused to let you login cause I did a clean install of 8.10 of Kubuntu. Hell, it seems like you’re rolling the dice just letting the system updater run.

And a lot of this is just my frustration venting at the moment. I don’t have a choice here at work. I’m going to have to work with this OS like it or not so I’ll sit down and pour through the dozens of log files in /var/logs and see if I can figure out which one might tell me what the fuck is going on and try to learn something, but I’m really starting to hate Linux. Or at least Ubuntu. Stupid shit happens that doesn’t make any damned sense on stuff that should be rock solid and trying to find out what’s going on and why is exceedingly difficult. It shouldn’t be that way. This is supposed to be the better OS.

Ubuntu 8.10 now officially released and an update on my experiences.

If you’re a happy Ubuntu Linux fan then you’ll be pleased to hear that version 8.10 is now available to download or upgrade on your machine. The official press release can be read here and the folks at ArsTechnica.com have a brief writeup here:

Ubuntu 8.10 includes Xorg 7.4, which has improved support for input device hotplugging. This takes Linux one step closer to completely eliminating the need for Xorg configuration files. Network configuration gets a big boost in this release with the addition of Network Manager 0.7, which adds support for managing 3G and PPPoE connections and configuring static IP addresses. The new version of Network Manager also has a more complete end user interface that exposes a variety of other configuration features.

Ubuntu 8.10 also includes the Dynamic Kernel Module Support system, a framework created by Dell that will automatically recompile kernel modules when kernel packages are updated. This will hopefully reduce breakage of VirtualBox and other applications that rely on third-party kernel modules.

I should take a moment here to update you folks on my own experiences with Ubuntu as I’ve written at length on the troubles I’ve had with it. I recently restaged my work laptop once again with a fresh download of 8.04 after an experiment left my system hosed so badly that I didn’t know where to start to try and fix it. The first thing I did after the install was run the update manager and install all the patches and then run EnvyNG and have it install the ATI drivers for the Thinkpad’s video card. The only additional software I’ve added since, other than official patches, has been Adobe’s Flash plugin for Firefox. The result has been a very stable system, much more stable than in the past at least. Firefox will still lock up and “gray out” on me for short periods of time every now and then, but it isn’t crashing anywhere near as frequently and the crashes due to the video drivers seem to be a thing of the past. My already receding hairline is quite pleased by the lack of pulling it has had to endure as of late.

That said I’ll probably give it a few days, if not weeks, before attempting to upgrade to the 8.10 release. At the very least I want to be sure EnvyNG is available on the new version to ease the installation of the video drivers if it should be necessary to reinstall them. You folks who aren’t afraid to upgrade to 8.10 right away are welcome to report your experiences in the comments if you wish.

Ubuntu really, really hates me.

Yes, I’m still struggling to make Ubuntu run properly on my work laptop. For awhile it seemed I had solved the crashing problem by installing, of all things, the BSOD screensaver. Of course that’s total nonsense, but for about four days I had no crashes to speak of and the only change I had made was installing said screensaver which I had done in a fit of pique. Then on Monday whenever I locked my screen forcing the screensaver to kick in I’d come back to my desk to find a login prompt staring at me as the GUI had apparently crashed and kicked me out to the login. I couldn’t even pull up the screensaver preferences to change it without it crashing out so I had to uninstall the screensaver completely.

I decided it must be the proprietary ATI drivers causing all the trouble so I went ahead and uninstalled those as well. The one good bit of news is that the default Ubuntu drivers are now able to detect my external monitor connected to the docking station, the bad news is it won’t allow me to run it at a higher resolution than the laptop without totally screwing up the screen layout. So I have this nice monitor that should be running at 1900×1200 running at 1280×1024 which is all kinds of distorted, but I’m living with it. This also seemed to fix my problem until tonight. Whilst browsing the web I was once again greeted with a GUI crash that kicked me out to the login screen.

So I’ve still not managed to figure out what the hell the problem is, but I have successfully lowered the incidence of it occurring. Instead of crashing eight to ten times a day it’s now crashing once or twice every other day and that, at least, is some improvement. Meanwhile the laptop I don’t touch all that often sitting right next to this one which has an absolutely base install of Ubuntu with nothing else added hasn’t crashed one me once since I set it up. I couldn’t tell you why.

Very, very frustrating.

Ubuntu stability. I’m still not seeing it.

Here’s some more red meat for all you Linux fans to chew me up over. My Lenovo T60p laptop here at work continues to be annoyingly unstable and I can’t seem to figure out what the cause is. I’ve gone as far as to completely re-install Ubuntu adding in only the bare minimum of extra stuff to get it operational and yet it’s crashing to a black screen, which requires me to power off the machine to get it running again, upwards of 5 to 8 times in a day. In the two hours I’ve been here this morning I’ve had to reboot it four times and that’s just unreasonable. These crashes occur in one of two ways: 1) simply browsing the web and 2) logging out at the end of the day. And, before you ask, I have Desktop Effects totally disabled. The two things beyond the basic install that I put on were 1) ATI’s graphic drivers with the Catalyst Control Center and 2) Adobe’s Flash player. That is it.

I installed the ATI drivers because it’s the only way to get Ubuntu to work properly with the 22” HP monitor I have hooked to the docking station. The built-in screen resolution utility with the default drivers absolutely will not detect that I have two displays (laptop and external monitor) attached, though it will kind of clone the display to the second monitor. Nor will it let me set the external monitor to a resolution higher than what the laptop screen will handle. And I installed the Adobe Flash software because the other two options are not fully compatible and everything I’ve read says that version 9, which I’m using, should work just fine with Ubuntu. My guess is that there’s something wonky with the ATI drivers, but there’s nothing in the way of alternative drivers that works properly with the setup I have here.  Again I freely admit that my lack of Linux knowledge is a contributing factor to my troubles, but it really shouldn’t be this hard to get a stable system that actually does what it’s supposed to do with so little extra crap added to the box. Every now and then I’ll get lucky and Firefox will just quit for no apparent reason—no error messages, no “this application has to be shut down” dialogs, just gone—and I won’t be able to launch it again until I figure out how to kill the process or reboot the system, but those are rare compared to the black-screen-of-death crashes I’ve been getting.

I read an article recently that said Microsoft should be worried about Ubuntu because it “out Vista’s Vista” and I had to laugh. Here’s the relevant snippet:

Well Steve you forgot your biggest threat so far, forget Apple for the moment, they have a few problems of their own to worry about before they are any real threat, Google is so far in front of you at the moment that they possibly dont even consider you a threat yet and Yahoo, well the further you distance yourself from that, the better, you really need to worry about Linux, and Ubuntu in particular as the current version called Hardy Heron out Vista’s Vista. It out performs Vista on the same hardware and it works right out of the box without a drama, the inclusion of Wubi, thus giving it the ability to install within a folder on a Windows machine, yet run as a complete OS without having to fiddle with boot loaders and such will give a lot of die hard Windows users a look at just what Vista should have been, and maybe turn them towards open source.

Not from my experiences it doesn’t. I’ve been running 32 bit Vista Business Edition for quite some time now and it has been rock solid stable. Certainly much more stable than Windows XP was and a helluva lot more stable than even a minimal install of Ubuntu has been. Useless as it is I can enable full desktop effects on Vista without worrying if it’s going to crash my system, not true on Ubuntu 8.04. I can install the proper video drivers for my video card and access all the features without having to worry if it’ll make my system unstable. I can install Adobe’s Flash player and not have to wonder if it’ll make my system unstable. “Works right out of the box without drama”? From what I’ve seen it is to laugh. This became even more glaring to me when I consider the fact that literally all I do on my work machine 99% of the time is run Firefox. Compare that to my Vista box which I not only browse the web with, but edit videos, play system taxing 3D games, playback music, and a whole host of other much more intensive applications.

Let me reiterate that this may be entirely the fault of my own personal ineptitude at using Linux, but it seems like it’s a lot harder than it should be. Perhaps it’s the laptop I’m trying to run it on. I’m told that some Lenovos don’t play well with Ubuntu, but I don’t have a choice in the matter as it’s a work machine. The odd part to me is that I have two Lenovos sitting here – the aforementioned T60p and an older T43p – and Ubuntu works just fine on the older laptop, but then I hardly touch the older laptop during the day so it spends most of its time idling. I also haven’t installed anything extra on the older machine as compared to the two things I installed on the T60p. Is the message I’m supposed to take away from this that Ubuntu is great so long as you can live with the default install and hardly ever use the damn thing? That wouldn’t work for me because I’m an unabashed tinkerer. I’m always trying out new software and new things on my hardware. Am I foolish to expect that the OS should know how to handle dual monitors without barfing all over the place? Is it really too much to ask for a simple hardware interface that doesn’t require poring through obscure text files to change system settings in hopes it’ll solve the problem? Google searches turn up no end of suggestions all of them providing differing changes to be made to various system files and none of which seem to solve the problem. The point I’m trying to make, again, is the fact that I’m considered a “Computer Professional” and I’m having a hard time. Do you really think Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular can really steal Microsoft’s crown with the average computer user if I’m having this much trouble?

Let the gnashing of teeth begin.

Not happy with Ubuntu today.

One of the first things I do when I get to work is check my email, personal and work related, which are both web based. After logging into my laptop I was dismayed to find that I wasn’t able to access the Internet. It seems Ubuntu has decided it doesn’t want to hold onto an IP address for more than a few moments at a time for no apparent reason. I’ve been running a ping in a command line window for the past 20 minutes or so and it’ll ping fine for awhile and then it gives a “network is unreachable” and then starts pinging fine again. That’s when I have the network configuration set to roaming mode. If I set it to DHCP or configure it as Static then it just won’t work period.

The weird part is that the damned thing was running just fine all day yesterday and the only thing that I know for certain has changed is I went home and came back. I’ve tried everything I can think of and all the suggestions I could find on the web (which I’m accessing from the kiosk PC I’ve been working on). I’ve tried it undocked, I’ve tried it on a different known-to-work network port, I’ve tried it using a different cat5 cable, I’ve even gone so far as to wipe out the installation and reinstall on the off-chance that it was an package update causing the problem. So far all of that has been to no avail. The only thing left is to track down a PCMCIA network card to see if perhaps it’ll work which I’ll be doing after lunch. Again I’m sure my relative lack of experience with troubleshooting Linux doesn’t help, but neither does the fact that all the different distros seem to put their config files in different places so consulting a Linux+ certification book is actually counter-productive because it deals mostly with Red Hat and therefore is useless for figuring out where stuff is under Ubuntu. If this were Windows I’d probably have figured out exactly what the problem is by now.

So posting to SEB may be light today as my primary machine is currently trying to decide if it wants to network properly or not. I love it when stuff breaks for no apparent reason.

Linux doesn’t seem to live up to the stability hype.

Every time I write about computing on the Windows platform here, particularly when discussing problems, I can be assured that I’ll get at least a dozen comments/emails from folks encouraging me to switch to Linux because it’s the most secure and stable operating system in the universe. I’ve only dabbled in Linux previously, having used it mainly because my webhosts are all Linux based, but since taking on the new job some two months ago I’ve had to become a lot more familiar with it. Specifically I’ve had to get to know Ubuntu Linux rather quickly as it’s the primary distro used here at the office. I’ve mentioned before how one of the tasks assigned to me was to put together a Ubuntu based kiosk for the scanners to use when on break to browse the web. I’ve made a lot of progress since I started on that project, but there’s still a bit to go before it’s completely done. I’m still far from a Linux expert, but I’m much further along than I was when I started two months ago. Installing the OS and various packages is no longer a knuckle biting experience and I’m getting quite comfortable with VIM despite the fact that I hate it.

One of the things I’ve noticed in that time is that the much vaunted stability that Linux is supposed to be known for is largely a myth; or at least it appears to be for me. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have ant least one crash that requires me to completely reboot the laptop to get it working again and there are often several crashes during the day that I manage to recover from. When you consider that I spend around 85% of my time running nothing other than Firefox 3 and Pidgin, that’s an impressive bit of crashing. Just getting a malfunctioning program to close is an annoying process and half the time it doesn’t restore the system to a usable state. Logging out of the system using the CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE key combination and then logging back in will fix things once every six times or so that I try it. Every now and then I’ll get lucky and an application will freeze up, the window turning an ominous gray, and then unfreeze on its own after a couple of moments for no discernible reason.

Now I accept that it’s possible I could just be a dumb fuck who’s doing something wrong and causing his own problems, but I find that difficult to believe because I’m not really doing anything all that advanced. I’m running a web browser and an IM chat client—two things that hardly ever crash on my Windows XP box at home.  I’m sure I’ll get tons of emails about how some folks have had their Linux workstations working non-stop for 10 years with nary a crash in sight, but, based on my own experiences with it, I can only imagine it’s because you never do anything with it. I say this because I have two laptops here, both running Ubuntu, and the one that doesn’t crash at least once a day is the one that I only touch occasionally to check the web based workstation monitor on. It seems as long as I don’t do much with it then it runs along just fine, but if I spend any amount of time using it it gets all pissy. I’ve been good about patching things when the little icon shows up and says there’s important updates to be installed—something which is a near-daily exercise as well—and I’ve been scanning the web looking for info on what may be causing the issues and there’s a whole host ranging from the various hardware drivers in use to issues with some Firefox plugins.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to like about Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular, it’s a shit load easier to install than it used to be for example, but from the standpoint of an every day user I have to say that this crashes at least as often as any Windows installation does and is about ten times harder to diagnose as to why. For as far along as the GUI has come on Linux, it still seems like if you really want to be sure the changes you make take hold and you’re seeing all there is to see that you have to open a command line and wade through endless text based configuration files and logs which, if you’re lucky, might be semi-readable in content. I recognize that my years of using Windows makes it seem easier to use in some respects, but I don’t think it’s all an illusion brought on by familiarity either. I’m sure some of this will become easier to diagnose as I become ever more familiar with Linux in my day to day use, but at the moment I’m less than impressed with its much-vaunted aura of stability.

Weekend roundup and first big challenge at work.

This past weekend was a little on the busy side. We got up early to go looking at potential new places to live as we’re hoping to move out of the in-law’s place by the end of June after Courtney’s graduation and open house. Only made it to two places in Canton before a stop at an Office Max resulted in Courtney buying a new computer desk for use in the new abode forced us back home. Why? Because our only vehicle at the moment is a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix and, with Courtney in the back seat, we had to try and fit the box of desk parts into the trunk and it didn’t fit entirely. I was reluctant to leave it sitting in parking lots hanging out of the trunk hoping no one would walk off with it.

What was interesting about our first stop is that it wasn’t an apartment building, but a mobile home park. It seems some parks have started renting out mobile homes over the past few years because folks are more likely to rent than to buy as these homes tend to be notoriously hard to resell. The rates seem to be slightly less than some apartments depending on the size of the home in question and you still have the option to purchase it later if you wish to do so. The tricky part about looking now is that they really don’t know what they’ll have available in a month’s time so we could only get ballpark ideas. The other place we stopped in was for town home apartments which include a usable basement. The rent on those was higher, but it’s hard to argue with the utility of having a basement to stick crap into. We’ve still got a few other places we want to look at, including some in Ypsilanti which would be closer to work and the community college Courtney and I are likely to be attending this fall so no final decisions as of yet.

The other thing we did on Saturday after dropping Courtney and her desk off at home was go to the local Honda dealer to consider a second car. I decided awhile ago that I think I’d like to get a Honda Civic as my next car and, after sitting in a couple of them, that lust has only grown. Still, after the debacle with the computer desk earlier, we also looked at the Honda Element which I also liked, but not as much as the Civic. New models are currently out of our price range at least until Anne can land a job so we also looked at some of the Honda certified pre-owned vehicles and, for good comparison measure, a brand new Honda Fit.

I have to say that the Honda Fit surprised the hell out of me. It’s a fucking dinky car, but for being so damned small it has a surprising amount of room in it. Headroom in particular was more abundant than I expected and, when you fold the rear seats down, the damn thing will haul quite a bit of crap around. The one we looked at was priced around $14,995, but even going with a no-frills base model we still weren’t sure we could swing the payments until we figured out what our monthly rent was likely to be. So we didn’t end up buying a car, used or otherwise, though once we get settled and have an idea of whether or not we can swing a down payment (we were basing our initial inquiries on not having one, which obviously drives the payments up) we’ll probably go back and get us a Fit to start with plans to buy a Civic later.

As for the new job, it’s been going pretty well despite a rather hectic week last week were I was on mornings for a good part of it, and today I was given a Special Project to work on. We have a number of machines set up as kiosks sitting around for the folks out on the floor to make use of during their breaks/lunch for browsing the web, entering their time cards, etc. that are largely run under Windows XP. Windows XP is much hated here and so I’ve been tasked with turning them all into Ubuntu based kiosks locked down to just a few apps and then turning that into an ISO image that can be slapped on a machine whenever it needs to be staged. Needless to say I’ll be reading up quite a bit on how to make a Linux kiosk setup in the next couple of weeks. If you folks have any recommendations for good resources on the web, let me know.

I’ve been dicking around with Ubuntu.

I don’t know if I mentioned it or not, but one of the other things I picked up as a result of some PC side work lately is an old donated IBM Thinkpad 600E. Damn thing is ancient (Pentium II 366 Mhz), but I was able to bump the RAM in it up to 512MB and slap a 20GB HD in it so I’ve at least got a working laptop once more. So I figured I’d see if I could get Ubuntu to install on it to try out and quickly discovered why Linux has a long way to go before it’s going to replace Windows Vista or any other Microsoft OS.

Everything I read about Ubuntu claims it’s the easiest of the Linux distros to work with. So far that has not been my experience. I started off with downloading the Live CD/Install CD image that was recommended on the Ubuntu website. That was a mistake as it apparently doesn’t give you a choice on whether to launch the Live CD (which essentially runs Ubuntu from the CD-ROM) or just do an install. It turns out that starting a Live CD takes some time, no, make that a lot of time. So much so that I thought it wasn’t doing anything at all and maybe got a bad image. After talking with some coworkers one of them mentioned that it took upwards of an hour for his to startup on some hardware that wasn’t quite as old as what I was running on, but he put that down to only having had 256MB of RAM. So I tried again that night and let it sit for two and a half hours with no apparent signs of life coming from the system.

Returning to the Ubuntu website I don’t find any suggestions that would be helpful in speeding this process up any or bypassing the launch of the Live CD, but I do find a link to downloading an “alternate text-only install CD” which I proceed to grab. This drops the whole Live CD bit and gets straight to doing the install, but this still took an inordinate amount of time to complete. By my estimates it took at least an hour and a half to finish the install and it wasn’t an entirely smooth process. The laptop itself has a Linksys PCMCIA wireless card in it and Ubuntu did manage to see the card, but wasn’t able to actually get it to work for some reason. I tossed in a 3COM 10/100 card I had and that didn’t fare any better despite the fact that it’s listed as being compatible on the Ubuntu website.

But it did finally install and I found some help pages on the Ubuntu site that offered some suggestions on how to get the networking cards working. To say that the process of installing alternate drivers and enabling them was a convoluted and involved process would be an understatement. Hell, just finding where to configure the damned things was a lesson in trial and error. To top it all off it still didn’t work even after trying everything suggested on the website. Not having a working network interface pretty much negates the whole point of having the laptop for me as I wanted it specifically for accessing the Internet away from my desktop.

So I wiped the hard drive and tossed my Windows XP CD-ROM. Total install time was an hour and four minutes. Both network cards were detected and while I did have to download drivers for the Linksys wireless card, I was able to do so using the 3COM card without issue. Considering the age of the laptop XP seemed to run pretty well probably thanks to the half-gig of RAM I had in it. The difference in the two experiences was amazing. Despite being a pretty crappy OS in many ways, getting Windows up and running was a no-brainer.

While I’m certainly nowhere near as knowledgeable about Linux as I am Windows, I have been working with it for years with my webhosts so it’s not like I’m clueless. If the difference in setting up the two OSes is that profound for me then I can only imagine what it’d be like for your average I-just-want-the-damned-thing-to-work Joe User and it drives home the point of why Linux won’t be replacing Windows anytime soon no matter how much safer, faster, better it happens to be.

I’ve not completely given up on getting Ubuntu to work as I’ve had some more suggestions from coworkers that use it on how to possibly get it up and running. Might even try reinstalling it tonight, though I’m debating downloading the Kbuntu variant as I like the KDE desktop a bit better than Gnome. Depends on whether I feel like tearing out what little is left of my hair.