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Sunday, 18 November 2007 17:13

The Linux Distillery, SlashDot and the Ubuntu test

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Welcome to my shiny new blog on ITWire. Pull up a chair, settle back and enjoy a glass from the Linux Distillery. Oh, if you have to drive, never fear: we’re distilling knowledge and experience. And talk about experience! Every scar on my hand tells a story. Every scar on my arm tells a story. Every scar on my – well, that’s another story!
Previously, I filed two Linux articles weekly under “IT News”. Yet, the stories I was writing weren’t really “news” per se, but tutorials or overviews of technology. This includes how to get a domain name, free web hosting and then really set up a top-class open source content management system, the real reason Linux needs anti-virus tools (where I said “Windows attracts malware like faeces attracts flies”), how to find kick-ass games on Linux, all about Linux certification and many more.

You can see these are, I hope, informative and useful but not “breaking news.” At the same time, I treaded a difficult line of personal opinion when I criticised Microsoft’s Office Open XML file format, but then – after some feedback by Microsoft themselves – suggested that software developers could be pragmatic; OOXML exists, so you may as well embrace it if you have Microsoft-dependant friends who work best with the tools they already know. Although I had not said “OOXML is terrific” nor made any value judgment on OpenXML vs ODF this posting met with much derision – so much so I had to quickly add a disclaimer that my views did not necessarily reflect that of ITWire or its editor.

Much like matter meeting anti-matter, these two factors combined and the Linux Distillery – the very blog you’re checking out right now – is the result.

So, what can you expect to see here? In one sense, it’ll be business as usual. I’ll still be writing about Linux security, why and how people can and should switch operating systems, periodic looks at the newest and hottest free open-source apps out in the wild as well as the “all about xxx” style pieces.

On the other hand, you’ll also see some less formality and more personality; we’ll go through some Linux experiences together. I have a couple of computers in my garage including an unimpressive Celeron PC with on-board video and sound, as well as a RAID-5 hot-swappable Compaq ProLiant server. I’m keen to see if Gutsy Gibbon loads on them both without any driver issues. We’ll do it together. If it doesn’t work, you’ll hear about it.

Another upcoming story will show you the Red Hat certification exam process. I talked about Linux certification once before, and advocated Red Hat’s examinations and certification as the loftiest accolade due to its depth and rigour. Other certifications, like LPI or CompTIA’s Linux+, have a definite place but their attempt to cover that which is common means they cannot be quite as intense as Red Hat.


That story was well received – and is even linked to from CompTIA’s web site. Yet, I don’t just want to give people an academic knowledge that there are certification exams available; let’s see if I can take it a step further and give people the confidence boost to actually sit such an exam. Therefore, I’m going to do it myself. And I’ll tell you every step, from online enrolment through getting the result.

One other thing you’ll find in this blog is that I’ll speak back. I want to interact with you. ITWire offers a facility to comment on every article, and I read all these comments – but there’s never really been an opportunity to address them. This is particularly the case when the SlashDot effect comes into play.

Three times now I’ve had the honour of being on the front page of SlashDot. This brings literally hundreds of thousands of readers from around the world. It’s a dream to get that publicity. Oddly enough, I thought some of my best works were ones like the major players in Linux and free- and open-source software today. The ones SlashDot’s editors chose were part two of Open Source’s hottest 10 apps, Hardening Linux and Getting Grubby: demystifying the Linux start-up processes. SlashDot readers aren’t particularly well-known for holding their tongue if something displeases them: I did receive some good feedback, make no mistake – and the “hottest 10 apps” was well received in general – but there was no uncertainty that others thought the last two stories were smouldering pieces of a proverbial coal-powered train out of Cleveland.

Some felt the articles were too short to do justice to their topics; that’s fair; there is a word limit and perhaps I should be careful to zoom in further next time and give a more focused topic better coverage.
One criticism I wasn’t quite as agreeable to was the notion that these articles were too distro-specific. It’s true that Getting Grubby did concentrate more on Red Hat – and the title did give a clue, GRUB being the boot loader made popular by Red Hat, but for the most part, the concepts explained were true across all Linux distros – after all, Linux boots via a boot loader. This loads the kernel. It starts off an uber-process to kick everything else off, and it uses different run-levels. This is true whether you use Ubuntu or Red Hat or Damn Small Linux or Slackware or anything else.

In the Getting Grubby piece I made reference to, among others, a Red-Hat tool called chkconfig which could help manage run-levels. Some SlashDotters slammed the article, appealing to the reference to chkconfig as evidence that the story was rubbish, and “completely” Red-Hat specific with nothing of value to anyone else.
Actually, chkconfig has been around for decades. It existed in IRIX long ago, and it can be downloaded for any non Red-Hat Linux distro also. However, that’s not important: I’m not really writing to counter those arguments, but I’m driving to something else.


Here’s what I’m getting to: the SlashDot readers made me think. Ubuntu is well-regarded as the most popular variant of Linux today. So, I’ve coined a term, “the Ubuntu test.” From now on, when I talk about software tools or commands, I’m going to check that every single command or line of code applies to Ubuntu.

At the same time, I don’t want other Linux users to miss out: I hold to a fairly abstract view of Linux which I want to promote. I think I’m right – of course – and I think this view can help Linux users understand their OS better and extract more out of it.

This view is fairly simplistic. The way I see things is generic: any Linux distribution has, at its heart, the one and the same Linux kernel. There’s no differentiation there. Next, any Linux distribution has a suite of software, which is mostly from the GNU project, and which includes a window manager. What is bundled with a distro will vary, but except for anything which has been specifically supplied by the distro vendor, this software is largely Linux-generic. If it can be downloaded for one variant of Linux then it can be downloaded for any other. Thirdly, a Linux distro contains a package deployment system which is the key to sucking down pre-provided content. It’s these last two items which define any particular distribution.

Actually, one of the greatest things about Linux is that there is such a rich suite of software for it and it can all be had with little effort. So it seems mysterious to me that anybody would be happy to see a useful tool and then say the article sucks just because that tool doesn’t come naturally with your distro of choice. When it comes to Linux, the truth is you can have it all.

Thus, in practical terms, anything that can be done in one variant of Linux applies equally to any other. Perhaps a few flags might differ; perhaps a path may be distinct, but fundamentally, and conceptually, Linux is Linux.

So, from here on in, the Ubuntu test will apply – but at the same time, I’ll be constantly trying to stress the point that a person’s choice of distribution should not ever be viewed as restricting their freedom – whether the extent of software they can have, or their ability to innovate using available tools.

This is the Linux Distillery! Thanks for having me, and thanks for reading my stories. I look forward to making this blog much more personal and much more interactive. Let’s have some fun along the way and share some Linux adventures together. Tell me the things you’d like to see covered, and remember to drop by every Monday and Thursday. All the best!

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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