Monday, August 31, 2009

Closing down my 64-bit Ubuntu Linux experiment

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux.

Late last year I began experimenting with 64-bit Ubuntu Linux. I decided to try to use it for everything I could think of. I wrote a fair number of articles in this series detailing my experiences, problems, solutions, etc.

I went on to do other things with this Linux distro that I never got around to documenting:

  • I connected an HP flatbed scanner. The built in scanning software recognized the device and instantly scanned a document for me - awesome!
  • I was able to download torrents and burn DVDs all with the built in software - no muss, no fuss.
  • I used it to connect to my work VPN through a Cisco/Citrix solution. I have to say the user experience far exceeded what I was used to in Windows. (Part of that was the open source client not respecting host requests to disconnect me from my network printer, etc. :-D
But there have been a number of small irritants that I haven't been able to resolve yet. I suspect there are solutions to most of them, but I lack either the time or know-how:
  • Although the webcam video worked like a charm, I never did get the audio recording to work. The wrong drivers or something kept causing pops and hisses over the audio track.
  • I was never able to do anything with the handy buttons around the screen or use the handy wireless media remote. I don't know if anyone came up with drivers for those, but they sure would have been handy.
  • I never did install the drivers for the touch screen or the on-screen Wacom pen. The drivers do appear to exist, but they look cludgy and the instructions confusing.
There are other things that used to work, but which eventually stopped working. I never did anything to specifically change the settings in question, but my tinkering and many automatic system updates have exacted their toll:
  • The thing that upset me most was my video drivers. I spent a lot of time getting them just right. At some point a system update changed the video options and also the behaviour. I could no longer just dsconnect the second monitor and have the system continue working. Instead, the system would only boot to a black screen until I returned the second monitor so that I could disable it in the software. -- Problematic when you take off with the laptop for a trip :-(
  • At some point my DNS name resolution started giving me grief. It seems to look to the wrong place for resolution. I have to wait until it times out in 10 seconds before finding a better place to resolve a name. I don't know if this is a result of my VPN tinkering or some system update. Quite irritating though.
  • I also seem to have lost connectivity to my SMB shares on my Windows network. It sees the workgroup but will go no further. This is the final nail in the coffin.
I have learned a lot through my Ubuntu experiment. I have been quite impressed at how advanced this operating system is. I can respect the solid foundation the system is built on. But I am being irritated by too many little annoyances. I suspect some of these may be cause by my choice of going 64-bit. I have since learned that 64-bit is a bit early for general consumption. It would be best to wait for applications and drivers to catch up. There was really no need for me to move with my hardware of only 4GB.

It's time to wipe this system and start fresh. I'm thinking 32-bit Suse Linux....

Monday, March 9, 2009

RDP to Windows from Ubuntu

This article is part of my series on exploring Linux.

If I am to replace my desktop computer with the Ubuntu OS, I need to be able to do everything I was doing in the Windows days. As a networking guy maintaining servers, I am constantly using RDP to administer servers and lab computers remotely. This is functionality I'm not willing to live without.

I didn't need to worry. There's a product for Linux called rdesktop which includes an interface called Terminal Server Client (tsclient). It does exactly what I'm used to with RDP - with a few more options available.

The software is available via Ubuntu's package manager. I installed it by simply typing the following command from the terminal window:

sudo aptitude install rdesktop

Wow! the software looks just like the RDP I use in Microsoft land:

It works as you'd expect. I had absolutely no issues accessing Windows computers via the RDP protocol.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


This article is part of my series on exploring Linux.

Like every other IT guy on the planet, I must use a word processor to write documents. Naturally, as a Windows user, I have been using MS Word - and for the past couple of years Word 2007 with the docx file format. Let's see how I handle the transition to Open Office...

Open Office is a free, open source word processor. It is included with Ubuntu and is also available for Windows. There is no doubt - it is a full featured word processor. It had every feature I was looking for. Perhaps a publisher might need more... but maybe not.

I tested it out by creating a document with a complex table (something I can get frustrated by in Windows). I included graphics, hyperlinks, custom styles, cell colouring and split cells. It did quite well:

The table formatting menu that Open Office provided put MS Word to shame!

Although the menu was a pleasure to use, there were some problems. I could easily split cells, but then they became impossible to manage. There was no way I could select a row including split cells (as shown above) to save my life. This prevented bulk formatting, copying, etc. I had to actually copy each row and then manually split cells afterward.

Now, how about compatibility with the rest of the world? This isn't as big a problem as you might imagine. For one, my children's school just switched to Open Office (this seems to be a trend) so there is obviously no problem there. For the rest of us using MS Word in the work environment, Open Office supports most common file formats - let's test it!

I've heard that Open Office works very well with standard MS Word .doc files, but I've been using MS Word 2007 .docx files for the last while. Despite the docx format being only a couple years old, Open Office did a very good job of converting the file. But that's the problem. Open Office converts the document into something it can understand and it doesn't do a perfect job.

I tried editing some guides I had been working on. The documents had the usual headings, table of contents, page headers, cross-references, etc. But things just weren't right. Things like my indents were not the same and the page headers were all buggered. I quickly realized that I couldn't use Open Office to edit my work documents. There was no way I could check a document out from work, edit a couple paragraphs and return it in the same condition.

(Here's an example of the results. Open Office on the left, MS Word 2007 in the middle. (I'll discuss the image on the right in a moment.))

I realized I couldn't live without MS Word 2007, but I'm still dedicated to trying to do everything in Linux. It's time to try Wine.

Wine is an extremely interesting product. It's a Linux application that creates an environment into which a Windows application can be installed and used. Many people call Wine a Windows emulator, but it really isn't. There isn't the overhead of an emulator. Wine calls itself a "translation layer". It basically provides Windows applications with the Windows services it expects to find (such as the registry) in very much the same way that Windows does it. Apparently Wine is so efficient that people are able to play first-person shooter video games within it!

I used Wine to install and run MS Word 2007. I am now able to edit my work documents from my Linux PC and check them back into the office with no issue. Very cool! It's even quite neat how Wine integrates Windows applications with my desktop - it's almost seemless - take a look at the shortcuts:

However, as with everything, I found issues you may want to know about. Before I get to that, I'll cover how to install Wine and Word 2007.

To install wine:

It looks like my 64-bit version of Ubuntu complicated the installation of Wine a bit. I found some good instructions buried in this forum post that helped quite a bit. The first thing to do was to add a reference to a Wine repository to my system's list of APT sources for the version I am using - here's the command to enter into a Terminal window:

sudo wget -O /etc/apt/sources.list.d/winehq.list

Next, I added the repository's key to my system's list of trusted APT keys:

wget -q -O- | sudo apt-key add -

Then I updated my package information and installed Wine:

sudo apt-get update
sudo aptitude install wine

Wine is now ready to be used to make Windows application work in Linux.

Installing an application (MS Word 2007 for instance) couldn't be easier. I just had to start the process from the Terminal window. I found the Windows commandline command for initiating an installation and just prefaced it with the word "wine" (i.e. wine setup.exe).

Because of Wine, the application's installer proceeded as I would normally expect. When it completed, I found shortcuts in the Applications menu under Wine|Programs.

I was very pleased. I then ran MS Word and opened one of my test docx files. The results are shown in that third example on the right in the earlier image above. Everything I tried in MS Word 2007 worked flawlessly. All my formatting and 'complex' document features were preserved (this is MS Word 2007 afterall). There were just two small problems...

Can you see the problems in the sample on the right as compared to the sample in the middle? For one thing I lost my bullets to some strange numbery thing. After some research I learned that the problem was with Linux/Wine not having the symbol.ttf font that Word uses to display the bullet symbol.

Luckily my machine is still licensed for Vista. I simply browsed the Vista NTFS partition for the missing font files and copied them to the folder Wine uses - in my case it was:


Problem solved.

The only other very slight problem that you may have noticed from the earlier sample, is that the pagination / page formatting is out of wack. This seems to be due to a difference in the way fonts are handled - very much like when you change from one printer driver to another. This isn't a problem as long as I don't worry about the pagination at home and wait until I get to work to make sure things line up. If I don't disrupt the formatting of a document signed out from work, there are no issues at all.

As I worked with my documents, I noticed another generic Wine issue. I had troubles pasting screenshots from my Linux environment into my Word documents. It turns out that Linux and Windows handle paste buffers very differently. As a result, they don't always interact as one might hope. I had no troubles handling strings of text, but pictures were a no go. To circumvent this, I just had to save the picture as a file and then import that file into Word the usual way.

I was very impressed by what I was able to accomplish in Ubuntu regarding document editing even if it wasn't perfect. I look forward to the continued growth of Open Office both in capability and popularity. I am convinced it is the future.