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Easing over to open software platforms

Posted on September 27, 2008 by daviding

I’m migrating over to a Thinkpad T61, having last moved to a T41 in March 2005. Since research is core to my personal development, I’ve been diligent about preserving my digital files. My laptop stores documents created on a personal computer as early as 1994, with an archive of documents converted from mainframe files back to 1991. Thus, to move over to a new computer, it’s taken three days (and nights) to transfer:

  • 12.5 GB of work-related e-mail and databases (i.e. Lotus Notes e-mail plus local document-sharing replicas);
  • 8.6 GB as 19,000 work-related flat files (i.e. documents and presentations, mostly created in Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint and Adobe Acrobat);
  • 346 MB as 4900 work-related modeling files (i.e. created in Rational Software Modeler or Websphere Business Modeler, with a lot of XML);
  • 1.2 GB of personal productivity files (i.e. browser profiles and plugins for Firefox and Flock, personal e-mail in Thunderbird, personal diary in Sunbird, and blog feeds in FeedDemon);
  • 9.6 GB of streaming media (i.e. temporary storage for MP3 audio that I’ve recorded and haven’t published to a web site yet, and lectures/interviews to be downloaded for listening to my MP3 player);
  • 756 MB of digital photographs archived on other servers, but yet to be blogged (or not); and
  • 2.4 GB of working files to maintain my multiple web sites (to speed up recovery if an irreversible crash ever happens).

There must be thousands of IBM employees annually who upgrade from one computer to a replacement. The company provides excellent utilities for migration that undoubtedly take less than three days. Most people would probably follow the path of least resistance: to move from an existing Windows XP platform to a new hardware with the same XP operating system.

I have a concern on the longer term, though: Microsoft stopped selling XP in June 2008, and support for XP Service Pack 3 ends in April 2010. Microsoft’s flagship product is clearly Vista. I expect to be on this laptop for another three years before becoming entitled to a replacement.

IBM as a company has been running a beta on the Technology Adoption Program for a new “IBM Standard Desktop – Vista” since April 2007. In parallel, however, there’s also been a beta on Open Client for Linux with version 1.0 released in November 2005 and version 2.0 released in June 2006. We’re now at version 2.2. This is an complete software package configured and tested on the standard models of laptops that IBM issues employees. Internal technical support specialists do the work of keeping up with newest software releases (e.g. Lotus Notes 8 and Lotus Symphony 1.1 ). Their work reduces my effort to maintain my PC, after I’ve moved my content over. In the case of a complete breakdown of my computer, I should be able to get an emergency replacement and be back up and running in less than 24 hours.

Around the office, people have been each choosing one of three paths.

(a) Move from an existing Windows XP platform to the same level of XP (SP3) on a new computer.

This feels like a ticking time bomb to me. I’ve got tens of thousands of computer files and am conscious of the Y10K problem cited by Stewart Brand in The Clock of the Long Now. I don’t want my computer records to become inaccessible. It’s not just the XP operating system, it’s also the continuing support (or non-support) of the Microsoft DOC and PPT formats. Standards committees have rejected Microsoft’s proposal of OOXML in favour of ODF — the Open Document Format. Why move to Office 2007 when the European governments haven’t endorsed the new Microsoft document formats?

I don’t plan on retiring over the next decade, so I may refer to my legacy of documents for quite a while. With some electronic documents older than half of my sons, I’m erring on the side of caution. I want to gradually ease myself off closed software platforms as much as practical.

(b) Transition from XP to an Apple platform, and OS/X.

At IBM Research, there’s been a pilot program to try out Macs. While Thinkpads used to be the only choice for IBM employees, IBM sold its PC division to Lenovo in 2005, and has a 5-year remarketing agreement (that is renewable).

There’s two ways to get a Mac at IBM: (a) make a business case for the company to provide you with one, and get approvals from your first-level and second-level manager; or (b) buy your own on the employee plan with Apple and get active in the Mac@IBM internal self-support site. The company doesn’t have a rule against using employee-owned devices in the workplace.

We have Macs in the house, so I’m well-immersed in OS/X. In terms of openness, I’m afraid that Apple is becoming the new Microsoft. Apple used to be more responsive to community-based development, but sent a signal in closing the OpenDarwin project in 2006.

In addition, while I think that Apple produces hardware of relatively high quality, I have an ergonomic constraint. In the early 1990s, my long hours on a mouse resulted in neck strain that had to be corrected by visits to a chiropractor. Since then, I’ve been a convert to the trackpoint, supplementing the “pointing stick” on the laptop with one on an external Ultranav keyboard. Mac OS/X supports a two-button mouse, but the Mac trackpad doesn’t come with a second button. When Apple sells laptops with a trackpoint, those Macbooks may become a reasonable alternative for me.

(c) Transition from XP to a Linux platform.

I’ve been watching the Open Client for Linux development, based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop for some time. In many respects, the browser is the new operating system, and Linux is well-supported by IBM — especially in the external marketplace. I’ve been encouraged by Bob Sutor starting a life without Windows, and living with Linux for three months before finally removing the Windows partition.

I’ve been preparing for this third path most seriously over the past year. In my spare time, I’ve taken a few steps:

  • Host content on the web when practical:
  • Favour cross-platform tools:
    • Since we’ll continue to have XP, OS/X and Linux around our house for some time, we should be able to walk up and use any computer with minor dissonance. My tool choices include …
    • Kompozer (as a follow-on for Nvu) for taking everyday notes. The HTML can be imported into Microsoft Word for anyone that can’t handle web pages. (Converting Microsoft Word to plain HTML web pages is unduly complicated);
    • Mozilla projects for personal productivity: Firefox browser, Thunderbird for non-work e-mail, Sunbird calendar (for a diary);
    • Lotus Symphony Presentations for developing slides (outside of my day job, where client requests for Powerpoint are honoured);
    • OpenOffice Writer for serious documents with footnotes (e.g. my dissertation) with toolbars and style sheets from The Integrated Content Environment project at the University of South Queensland;
    • OpenOffice Draw for sketching diagrams as vector graphics that will can be pasted into Symphony, Powerpoint or Writer, or imported into Inkscape when SVG becomes viable in browsers;
    • Xnview for simple manipulation of digital photographs; and
    • Skype for voice communications and instant message queuing, and Pidgin for multi-protocol instant messaging (e.g. AIM, MSN).
    • It helps a lot that IBM’s standard collaboration platform — e.g. Lotus Notes and Sametime — is architected and released for Windows, Linux and Mac.
  • Learn the basics of Linux:

As much as I may be an early adopter, I have a day job where clients usually expect outputs in Microsoft Office and/or Powerpoint. Thus, a variant of the third path — Open Client for Linux — is workable as a dual boot installation: take an XP platform, and add Linux as alternate software. This led me to the following activities over the past three days:

  • Get a bigger hard disk:
    • I’ve been running close to full on the 80GB drive from 2005. With dual boot as a business justification, I was approved for capacity beyond the new 120 GB standard. The expedient choice was a 250 GB SATA 2.5″ internal notebook drive for $109.
  • Install Windows XP and applications:
    • IBM’s internal IT support has developed a Lifeboat installer. Download the software, burn a CD, and then start the new computer while it’s attached to the network. A few simple decisions, and a new image of XP and basic applications are downloaded and installed. When I was in the office, this took a few hours.
  • Partition the disk and install Linux:
    • XP is installed on a NTFS partition. Using GParted, Linux will reallocate the space on the disk to create an EXT3 partition for the operating system. As an advanced option, GParted can also create a third partition and format it as FAT32. The FAT32 file system is desirable, because both Linux and XP can recognize and access files there.
    • I decided — as a guess — to allocate about 64 GB each to NTFS and EXT3, leaving about 100 GB for FAT32 for data. My day job will require me to install two big software packages over the next month, but right now, …
      • XP and Windows applications fills 15 of 64 GB on NTFS,
      • Red Hat and Linux applications fills 10 of 64 GB on EXT3, and
      • my data fills 38 GB of 100 GB on FAT32.
  • Ensure the FAT32 partition is visible to both XP and Linux:
    • When XP starts from the NTFS partition, it automatically mounts the FAT32 partition. (With a CDROM drive as D: , the FAT32 partition shows up as E: ). I renamed the NTFS partition as SATA-NTFS, and the FAT32 partition as SATA-FAT32.
    • The Linux installation recognizes the FAT32 partition, but doesn’t automatically mount it. The instructions on how to mount a Windows partition are helpful and relatively straightforward.
  • Determine which programs need to share data across XP and Linux:
    • Most programs (e.g. for word processing and presentations) can store their data files anywhere on the computer. Others — e.g. e-mail, calendaring — aren’t meant to be accessed by other programs, and have inobvious locations during default installations. In my case, finding Lotus Notes and Mozilla data directories required a little detective work.
    • I was surprised at how many computer programs stash their data in hidden directories, i.e. in the /Documents and Settings/Administrator/Application Data directory and the /Documents and Settings/Administrator/Local Settings/Application Data directory. I was also surprised at the dozens of directories left on the disk for programs that I tried once and then discarded. In Windows Explorer, under Tools … Folder Options … View …, select Show hidden files and folders .
  • Transfer data and expose hidden files (XP to XP):
    • The files in hidden directories were surfaced by copying them to visible directories created on the FAT32 partition. Visibility simplifies access and maintenance from both XP and Linux programs. Normal files (e.g. documents, images) are straightforward to copy onto the FAT32 partition.
    • I used Filezilla to transfer my content from the old laptop to my new laptop. Part was done using a crossover cable between the two laptops, and part was done with two cables plugged into a router. Since transfers took multiple hours, I scheduled them to run overnight (while I slept).
    • There’s lots of files that I want backed up — IBM runs Tivoli Storage Manager to ensure information assets are preserved — but I’ve learned that lots of temporary files (e.g. digital photos and MP3 audio being staged for other devices) led to backup times longer than necessary. I’ve now created two major directories called “Perpetual” and “Transitory” to ease to differentiation on the FAT32 partition.
  • Retarget XP-based programs to data on the FAT32 partition:
    • On each of Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird and Sunbird, I launched and created a new profile as a directory on the FAT32 partition. I then deleted the new contents of the profile directories, and replaced them with my legacy content from my old computer. The Mozilla programs work again under XP as they always have, and the visible locations ensure personal records will be backed up without effort.
    • I was pleasantly surprised that the first launch of Lotus Notes 8 under XP asked where the data directory is located. Alternatively, it’s not that difficult to edit notes.ini to point to the directory on the FAT32 partition. When I’m working in Lotus Notes, there will still be minor cleanup, because desktop icons still point to the old location of replicas (i.e. at c:/notes/data ), rather than on the new FAT32 partition (i.e. e:/Transitory/notes/data ). That’s easy to remedy situationally.
  • Retarget Linux-based programs to data on the FAT32 partition:
    • Open Client for Linux comes with “IBM Software Shopper” — a customized version of Yum Package Manager, so installing Thunderbird was easy. Sunbird hasn’t yet reached 1.0 status, so it took a little more research to discover how to unpack and install the rpm file. Lotus Notes 8 is a basic part of the Open Client for Linux package.
    • There’s some slightly dated instructions on how to configure dual boot sharing of Firefox, Thunderbird and Sunbird data, written at Clemson. I learned how to make symbolic links in Linux, and then found that linking to a directory works just as well as linking to specific Mozilla files, obviating some duplication. Some Firefox plugins that work on XP are disabled in Linux. Thunderbird and Sunbird work seamlessly on files on the FAT32 partition, from either XP or Linux.
    • On Lotus Notes 8, the XP-based and Linux-based desktops can’t be shared, since the paths to local replica databases will be different (i.e. pointing not at E:/notes, but to /mnt/sata-fat32). I copied desktop6.ndk from the FAT32 partition over to the EXT3 partition, and manually edited notes.ini for Linux.

I now have 98% productivity across both XP and Linux. I can do all of the normal daily office activities, i.e. use browsers with all of my same bookmarks, edit documents, check day job e-mail, check personal e-mail, use instant messaging.

My direction is to use Linux when I’m working with heavy-duty modeling tools, i.e. those applications that developers use (e.g. in Rational Software Modeler and Websphere Business Modeler). I’ll be in XP when I need less-corporate and more-personal applications (e.g. loading my MP3 player, or ingesting digital photographs).

To get to 99% productivity — reducing the reboots from Linux to XP and back — I need to follow through on instructions to install VMware Server so that XP applications will run on Red Hat Linux. On the Ubuntu 8 distribution of Linux, the Wine translation layer is now part of the standard package. For business use, the commercial version of Wine, called Crossover Linux, supports Red Hat and is inexpensive. Since I spend many hours per day on this laptop, I’ll gradually learn whether reboots will or won’t be an annoyance.

I’ve been following the progress of Linux-based laptops such as the Asus Eee PC. In a few years, when spinning hard disks are replaced by solid state drives — for laptops on the order of 64GB storage, recognizing today’s iPod Touch comes with a 32GB flash drive — we could all be using Linux … whether we recognize it or not.


P.S. For people inside the IBM firewall, the above instructions were informed by “A Linux Install Guide” on WikiCentral. I haven’t finished the VMware installation, but am following the instructions on “Running WinXP inside VMware on a Raw Partition” on WikiCentral.

2 to “Easing over to open software platforms”

  1. Even better productivity could be gained by letting all the harddrive be used by Linux and run necessary Windows software in VMWare or VirtualBox. VirtualBox is Sun’s desktop virtualization product that has opensource version and free private use version. And from what my tests tell, it is not at all bad.

    Running windows on raw hardware seems to be good idea only if you need straight access to some specific hardware that you have, and/or if your hardware does not yet have proper linux-support. I haven’t had the energy to fight with linux on laptop so I don’t know what the current status is. As I want my laptop to just work, OS X has been a great choise for me.

    But at work and at home, I do have commodity hardware Linux boxes that ooze raw power and are just a pleasurable development machines. Though I do have all the necessary tools also on my laptop, and Eclipse runs nicely – running 4 to 8 gigabytes of memory in a dualcore Intel machine is a huge productivity booster.

  2. Simon says:

    Hi David, really enjoyed this post. Looking forward to reading about your adventures with VMWare!



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