Sunday, April 30, 2006

Re: Pietro, buongiorno.

I wrote this mail, but it got quite long and (possibily) interesting, so I might as well blog it. Sorry for typos and stuff, dind't have time to reread!

Dear Vladimiros,

I'm really glad you want to try out Linux! I'm sure you will like it :-) I'm always trying to make people using it, and it's a shame that so few in our course actually do. In a EEE course I would expect a 99% of Linux users!

I'm sure you'll do some reading about various things before start installing, but let me say something about it and give some (non requested!) suggestion. "Linux" actually refers only to the kernel of the Operating System. I.e. the very low level drivers and stuff that make every bits and pieces of your hardware work together. On this system you've got GNU, that provides the standard Unix tools (viz shell, copy/move/rename files, a C compiler, and many many (many!) other things). Then you have other important software, like desktop environments and window managers (to show, move, manage menus, windows, etc), a print server, a log tool, a cron daemon. Then you've got random software to do stuff like reading your mail, browsing the Internet, etc. etc. For any of these tools there is _choice_, you can try, experiment, and pick the one you like more.

Now, with all this different stuff (made by different people!) you've got to have a way to put all together, so that you can easily install software without worrying too much. Here they come "distributions". Distributions (abbr. distros) actually select a fairly large number of softwares, they "package" them and provide a package manager, i.e. a way to install/remove/update them. Distros also provide you with init scripts (i.e. the things that make you computer boot and shut down) and basic configuration for the system. They also provide an installer for the all thing!

Each one of these distros has its own pros and cons, and you will hear people advocating this or that. (People can kill for this! :-) ). You will also hear someone saying that they are all the same and it's only a matter of personal preference. It is definitely true that the only way to understand what are the strength or weakness of a distro is to try it and see, but there are some things that I think are useful to know:

there are some distro (e.g. Mandriva, aka Mandrake) that are made to be
"easy to install and configure". One may think that they are good for beginners, but in my experience they tend to be awkward: they think they know what you want, and after a while they get very messy. They seem easy at the beginning, but if you have a problem is nearly impossible to know what to do for solving it, _especially_ for beginners. There are others that are a pain to administer: I'm thinking about rpm based (e.g. Fedora (by Red Hat)) ones, rpm is IMHO a pain in the * and a shame of the Linux world. So, do your experiments etc etc, but if you want a suggestion, stay away from Mandrake and Fedora. Yes, they are good in some sense, but I don't think it's what you're looking for.

There are some good ones you can try, i.e. Slackware, Suse (by Novel), and zillions of others. Up to you.

And there are some _very good_ ones. For example Debian. Debian is one of the oldest, rock solid, extremely stable. The fact is that to be so stable usually uses quite old (i.e. one year) software, they do a lot of testing and are very professional but it takes time. If you want to be a little bit more bleeding edge, try out Ubuntu. Is derived from Debian, it shares some of the strengths, but it's rejuvenated, pretty and not particularly difficult to install. It's quite new, and it's very popular. I personally don't like it *at all*. But I recognize that it's good, and that actually is bringing a lot of people to Linux, and that's always positive.

What I like, then? Well, try out Gentoo. Gentoo linux differs from other distributions for a simple reason: instead of downloading binary (i.e. compiled) packages you download the source code and compile it on your computer. Now, you will hear some ricers saying that this compiling boost performances and gives extreme speed to your system. It is true that you can get out some performance by optimizing for your system, but this is not _the_ reason to use Gentoo. The real reason is that it's extremely configurable and neat. The installation process is quite difficult (no installer, you go manually) and so people say "it's not for beginners": this is totally B.S. When you get at the end of the installation (there is a lot of documentation, very clear, and very easy to follow) you not only have a good bleeding edge system, but you've gained a lot of knowledge that it will be useful for using the system. You will know your system, know what you've done and why. Gentoo has the best (IMO) package system, it's extremely easy to install/upgrade software, it keeps your system light and clean. Configuration is very neat and logical. And the support is great, there are forums with 112.000 registered users and something like 3million posts. Any problem, go there and someone helps you. (There is even a greek one!) I'll go for it.

This mail it's getting long, so I'll better finish, if you've got any question ask me, I'd be glad to answer (if I know!). I can provide support for Gentoo related problems, and for general Linux ones. I don't really know inside out other distros, but I might know where to search.


> But, I insist. Opera is better;
> ...
> Longlive Linux. Longlive Opera.

Uh, one last thing. We can discuss for years about features and stuff, with the right extensions I'm sure FF can do everything Opera does and vice-versa. This is likely to be a non-sense dispute on fancy features. This is not the point. The point is freedom.

You know, the "open source world" is split in two. Some think that Open Source just gives quality to software. They think that since the source it's available the software gets better, people can improve/modify it, it's more secure and standard compliant. These are very fair points, and I strongly believe in them. But nothing denies a well written closed source software to be as good. Some others don't think that it's all about "open source". They don't think that it's all about quality and features. It's a matter of freedom. I really suggest you (maybe after exams!) to read what's on the www.gnu.org website. Freedom to use/modify/study a software should be put _above_ any other issue. One should never give up on freedom just because maybe someone else offers some more bells and whistles. I really think Opera it's a great browser, adds competition to the market and puts a little pressure on Firefox on features, and that's positive. But it will never give you the freedom of free software.

This topic is very broad, and I really enjoy talking about it, but this mail it's already too long (sorry about that!), so I may continue some other times! I'm really glad you've chosen to give Linux a try!

Have a good (revision) weekend!

Pietro
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