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Looking at Mepis 7 through Enterprise Linux Desktop Eyes

 

In the world of prescription drugs, there is this practice called “Off-Label Usage”. This is where someone decided to try drug for a different medical problem than the drugs label (and FDA Approval in the case of the US) indicated it was for. They are not doing this to be scofflaws or anything: perhaps someone noticed that the drug they were taking for one thing seemed to be helping with another, different, unrelated thing. Perhaps someone really good at Biochemistry looked at the way in which the drug worked, and generalized to say "Humm: I wonder if that might help with this other biological process that uses a similar biochemistry". This off-label usage might be something along the lines of an Anti-depressant that appears to be useful in some cases for treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or the way they noticed some stimulants actually calmed down people with certain medical conditions. That kind of stuff.

 

It is logical that since Linux and all the other projects that go together to make various distros are all sourced from the same code trees (More or less) that, for example, a Linux Distro that is setting itself up as an easy-to-use end user Distro might have use as an office desktop as well. They may never ever say they are intended for that usage, but... might it work?

 

What is the Mepis thing of which you Speak?

 

In case you don't know, here is a thumbnail sketch of what Mepis is. As of this writing it is the 9th most active Linux Distro over at Distrowatch, with 700 hits per day. For comparision, number one at the same time is PCLinuxOS with 2509 hits per day. My favorite, Mint, is at 1209 HPD, and running 5th.

 

Mepis is mostly Debian based, and it's core concept is to make Linux easier to use. It uses Synaptic for package management, and supplies a few utilities like a X configuration tool to make a few of the overlooked parts of Linux easier to set up. I'll get more into some specifics as I go. Here is the blurb off their web site about what Mepis is:

 

Why SimplyMEPIS Linux?

 

  • SimplyMEPIS allows you to test and try the software before you install to your harddrive
  • SimplyMEPIS includes the very best business and multimedia programs
  • SimplyMEPIS features unique hardware detection and configuration superior to any others
  • SimplyMEPIS is pre-configured for simplicity and ease of use, you're productive in a matter of minutes, not hours

Caution

 

Even though the title hopefully implied this, I need to be very very clear about something. At no point anywhere at any time have I ever read anyone involved in the Mepis project ever claim that Mepis 7... or any other version of Mepis... was ever meant to be looked at as an Enterprise Linux Desktop.

 

Well... bullet two in the previous section did mention that the Distro includes the very best business software. But other than that...

 

Given that the guiding light of Mepis, Warren Woodford, is an alumni of Next (and Next of course is the design basis for what became Apple's OS.X), one might be tempted to think of it as a Distro that would probably be targeted at the average home user. The look of the default KDE 3.5.8 desktop would even seem to support that, since it modifies the defaults of KDE to be reminiscent of OS.X: task bar centered on bottom, Task bar shorter than the width of the screen. Blue desktop background with swirly designs. It all looks vaguely familiar to a an OS.X user.

 

The resemblance largely stops there though. Once you click on the Mepis 'Globe and Pyramid' icon (where the KDE 'K' normally lives), familiar looking KDE menus appear. Unlike stock KDE, the menus have task descriptions like 'image editor' as well as names of apps like 'GIMP' on them. This task based orientation is nice for the folks that may not know the complete mapping of application name to application usage. They are not all intuitively obvious. (Evolution is email? I thought it was a game)

 

Linuxerati probably do know a great number of the applications names and what they do, but there are over 12,000 applications / software packages in the Debian software repositories. Pop quiz time! Does anyone know them all? Then there is the fact that Mepis is not so much for experienced Linuxii as folks coming there from other places like OS.X and MS Win. Mepis does not map every single application from the Debian repositories either. Just the ones that they package, which is probably something between 10 and 15% of them. Still, 1500-2000 packages is a lot of packages to remember what they do, and Linux needs no help with new users being more obscure.

 

Wikipedia says of Mepis that:

 

"MEPIS was designed as an alternative to SUSE Linux, Red Hat Linux, and Mandriva Linux (formerly Mandrake) which, in the creator Warren Woodford's opinion, were too difficult for the average user."

 

Since SUSE and RedHat *are* targeted at enterprise desktops, it does not seem totally off the beam to have a look at Mepis as an ELD. After all, being an enterprise user does not mean wanting a hard-to-use desktop. At least part of why folks stay using something like MS Windows XP is because they already know that environment, and they don't really want to know any more about computers than they have to in order to get the job done, whatever that job may be.

 

Sad but true. Not everyone is a computer geek. Not even everyone at BMC is a computer geek.

 

In this corner, we have the world of computers. A place so vast and complicated that no one knows everything about them. In this corner, we have all the people that don't want to know more they they absolutely have to about computers. Into that gap jumps Distros like Mepis.

 

So why test Mepis?

 

I came across Mepis in a flame war on a bulletin board a number of years ago, where some people were trying to help a new user ease into using Linux. I think the new user probably ran screaming to an Apple, given the general tenor of that particular discussion, as I recall it devolved to drawing lines in the sand and calling each other names.

 

Another "Sad But True" (TM): I think this sort of knee jerk, flame war behavior is what many people think of when they think about Open Source. They wonder why they should ever look at it when the conversation starts with people calling each other idiots. That it too bad, since such discussions have nothing to do with Open Source, and everything to do with the general signal-to-noise level of the Internet. You can find similarly well reasoned discussions over in alt.captain.kirk.rules in the NNTP news groups.

 

At that time I had never heard of Mepis so I searched it out and downloaded it, and have tried to follow it ever since as a matter of interest. One early point of confusion for me was what the difference between Mepis and SimplyMepis was. I assumed that this was sort of like "Mepis-Lite", or a stripped down, single CD version or something. As near as I can tell over the years though is that they are actually the same thing. Mepis 7 is the same thing as SimplyMepis 7.

 

I think.

 

I actually have never found anything definitive about that. It is just that I can not find two versions of the Distro. I found a number of ports to various chip architectures, and a Live CD, but nothing that appears to be a different version from a package or packaging point of view. Like Ubuntu spawns Kubuntu or Edbuntu. That sort of thing. SimplyMepis is not a simpler version.. it is simply Mepis. And that is confusing. The first thing this easy-to-use distro did? Confuse me. That has happened before though. See my posts about my early days with Ubuntu here. I was clearly confused.

 

Then there is this AntiX Mepis thing. No idea....

 

One thing that kind of fascinated me about Mepis was its history for the basis of its versions. Version 5 was based off Debian. Version 6 was based off Ubuntu. Version 7 went largely back to Debian (although Warren Woodford did say that they still source some things from Ubuntu). That sure seemed like a lot of work, but computer purism knows no bounds sometimes. This time it may not have even been totally off base. Here is a quote from Warren Woodford about it:

 

"Ubuntu is almost a whole new distro each time it's released," he said. "By using the EXPERIMENTAL code, each and every time, the Ubuntu code tree is inherently less stable than the Debian code tree, which contains additional levels of testing and vetting and fixing of code."

 

If Warren Woodford is after stability over bleeding edge (although I find Ubuntu/Mint pretty stable), then that is another argument that Mepis might be ELD material.

 

So.. is it? I spent this much time writing about Mepis because I never have here at TalkBMC before and so I needed to set up what I was going for here, and why.

 

The Experiment

 

At some future point in time, it would be useful to know how well Mepis 7 installs and configures on various bits of real hardware. Laptops and Desktops. To do a real deployment in the heterogeneous world of PC hardware Mepis would need hardware detection / configuration as good or better than Knoppix or Ubuntu.  Bullet three on the homepage said in part:

 

"... features unique hardware detection and configuration superior to any others"

 

I did not test that here though.

 

My criteria for an ELD first is how well it supports the daily tasks of a desktop computer. It does not matter if it installs well if it is dysfunctional as a work desktop. Since I live in an MS Windows world when I am at the office as far as document formats and email infrastructure, that comes down to the two killer apps of Linux: Evolution and OpenOffice. I'll take it as a given that between all the Linux browsers that are available (Firefox, Opera, Konqueror, etc) that the web is covered. That may not be true if you have to deal with intranets designed and deployed by people that have no idea what they are doing. If so, you will probably need IE too. Getting IE going under Linux is not that hard though, with tools like IEs4Linux, so I am going to pretend that need is covered or moot. Nothing protects you from the ills of an Active-X only [ -2- ] Intranet like IE on Linux. Well, that and re-doing the Intranet with a clue. But I digress.

 

I was/am on the road for two weeks at the time of this testing/writing and not wanting to carry an entire computer lab with me, I used my MacBook Pro running 10.5.2 with its installed internal second hard drive and Parallels Desktop 3.0 to set up the test bed.

 

Pain in the (Virtual) Hard Drive to Install

 

My first challenge was to get Mepis to install at all in Parallels. It took about twenty or so tries before I hit the magic incantation that got the boot past early stages of hardware discovery or ACPI bits. It appeared from the failures to be an issue with the virtual screen device driver. Maybe it was the unique and better than anyone else's hardware detector not liking the virtual world. What ever the problem was it was not enough to tell the Mepis installer to use VESA (which it recommends right there on the boot screen) for a VMWare environment. I also had to press F4 and specify the X by Y dimensions of the virtual screen. Once that was done, it booted, and was fairly easy to install after that.

 

Parallels does not source a Linux virtual device driver for xorg as far as I know. Certainly no Linux I have installed ever had an option to have Parallels Tools version as an option for the graphics driver, even though some Linuxii do source a VMware Tools xorg driver option. Some quick Googling showed nothing about Parallels Tools, Linux version.

 

That might be an argument for using VMware Fusion on the MBP rather than Parallels, but I really like Parallels in most ways so much it would be hard to give up.

 

The MacBook has 2GB of RAM, so I gave the guest 512 MB, and that seemed to be plenty.

 

My Macbook has two hard drives inside it: The 120GB disk it came with and a 160GB where the DVD drive used to be. I keep all the Parallels guest OS images on the 160GB disk. I also in this case put the downloaded Mepis 7 .iso image on the 160. That does not seem to be a best practice. :) Every now and then I would see install timeouts:  It probably would have been better to put the ISO on the OS.X OS hard drive instead . It installed, but there were a fair number of hangs for I/O.

 

Once up I hunted around and found the Mepis X server setup widget. It has many nice setup options for when one is running on real hardware, but it appears to be largely useless in a virtual world. Nothing I changed the settings to had any effect on the screen size of the VM. Finally I went in as root and hand edited the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file to get the geometry I wanted for full screen.

 

I am not dinging Mepis for any of this. It was a pain however I would need real hardware to know if any of this matters to a real user in a a real ELD. Just noting the issues in the VM install in case someone else comes down this path.

 

Up and Running Virtually

 

Once I had the screen real estate I wanted, I got serious about configuring the Mepis 7 guest as if it were an Enterprise Desktop. OpenOffice was already installed, and at version 2.3.0, it was pretty current. 2.3.1 is out as I write this. Mint 4.0 still has 2.3.0, and that is my main, production, ELD.

 

Side Trip: The more I messed with the system, the more the default look and feel of Mepis made me crazy. I use a real Mac. I do not think this desktop would bother anyone else but me. But my thinking is that if you are going to make the taskbar look like the one on the OS.X desktop, it should also act like it, at least a little bit. This thread over at KDE (KDE is the default desktop of Mepis, but the way) probably explains the disconnect between me and the world here:

 

"Nearly all mac users, myself included, don't particularly like the OSX Leopard dock. Nearly all turn off the icon zooming and many apply a hack that makes it 2D and closer to kicker.

 

It is representative of most flashy desktop effects i.e. they are great for impressing people who haven't seen them before but generally get in the way when you're actually trying to work"

 

Oddly, I have never met anyone that has ever changed this setting on their Mac. Given the way Apple implemented the graphics layer on OS.X, graphical effects do not use much CPU, and low end hardware like my 500 Mhz Power PC based  iBook ran it without pause. I also rail about useless graphics stuff all the time, and admit that if it does slow my computer down, I turn it off. I have almost everything in the effects department turned off in MS Vista for example.

 

There are ways to make a more OS.X style taskbar appear in KDE. Ksmoothdock and KXDocker are two I have seen and played with at one time or another. There is also one called Kiba-dock, but I have never looked at it. The two I did play with I soon disabled because unlike OS.X they were quite clearly not integrated into the window manager / composite layer and they were slow.

 

KDE 4 probably changes this speed issue around since the KDE 4 development team utterly redid the compositing window manager. Well... assuming that the OS.X style docks take advantage of the new features. Mepis 7 is still KDE 3.5.8 though, and most of these distros appear to be waiting for KDE 4.1 before they make their move.

 

One never has to waste time being crazy about look and feel issues with Linux. One can always make it look however they like. I put the task bar at the top of the screen (less neck craning on a laptop), Gnome style, full width, made it smaller, and was happy.

 

Devolution

 

OpenOffice worked on everything I pointed it at. Spreadsheets that came my way during the week. Documents. Presentations. Pretty much what OpenOffice always does these days. OO 2.3.0 on Mepis was more or less the same experience as OO 2.3.0 on Mint, except for the KDE (Mepis) versus Gnome (Mint) decorations.

 

Evolution was not such a happy story. First off, Mepis shipped with a back level version of Evo: 2.10. Current Evo stable version is 2.12, and 2.12 was a major stability release for me, at least when it comes to using Evolution against an MS Exchange server. Mint and Ubuntu and PCLOS all had 2.12 at least as options. Mepis... not so much.

 

I worry about doing something to a distro that the folks that created it did not test, because now I am not only off label, I am off road too. I tried 2.10.

 

No luck. 2.10 was not working well against MS Exchange 2003. To be fair to Mepis / Evo combo, I was over half a second delay in the network away from the MS Exchange 2003 server, and being on the road I did something stupid. I forgot to enable my desktop system for remote access. It is locked down, and I can not get to it to archive my emails there. That means I have 1500+ emails in my inbox. The Evolutions of the past usually do not like large inboxes.

 

Having said that: Mint 4.0 had no problem running Evo 2.12 from that exact same place and with that exact same network delay. Even if that inbox size, and that network delay were the *problem*, they were not an excuse for Evolution version 2.10, Mepis special packaged version. It would not even try to connect to MS Exchange via Connector.

 

Plan B and off-road time.

 

From an Enterprise Linux Desktop in an MS Exchange shop point of view, this problem with Evolution was probably a head shot wound. In an MS Exchange based shop, this just would not fly. Still, I was (as usual) curious. What was the problem? Was it the special package? was it the back level release? Was it a Gnome app under KDE problem? Time to dig a little deeper.

 

A bit of poking around in the forums and I decided the way to get what I wanted was to enable the Debian "Testing" repository inside Synaptic. This took a bit of work. I had to manually add the repository, and then in "preferences" I had to tell Synaptic to prefer "Testing" over "Mepis".

 

A refresh of the repos, and I had 2.12.3 from Debian available. I picked Evolution and Evolution Exchange connectors only, plus I took Synaptics recommendations for co-reqs. After about 50 packages were installed, I pulled my changes back out of Synaptic so that it went back to preferring Mepis as a source. The idea here was to contain the changes to only those needed to get Evolution up to date. I was not trying to test the entire Debian 4.0 Etch "Testing" code tree, but a mildly-modified-Mepis (say that fast three times).

 

Evolution via Connector now worked, but only email. Calendaring was a no-show.

 

To this point in the testing I had not changed any config files. I was using the ones created by 2.10. Usually when issues occur during a version upgrade, I just need to let Evolution re-create the config files under the new release.

 

I deleted .evolution, .gconf/apps/evolution, killed Evolution and Bonobo processes, and restarted clean. Normally I would not delete these things. I would move them out of the way in case I needed something back out of them, like all my old emails. This was a test system. I could blow them up completely. It did not matter though. The Evolution account configuration widget wouldn't let me add Exchange as a server type on server type choosing dialog.

 

IMAP: yes. Exchange: No.

 

Exchange is there on the chooser, but there is no place forward from there. It does not appear to understand that I have picked Exchange as the server type and that I have entered my userid. It seems to be waiting for input. If I pick IMAP, the 'forward' button on the bottom right hand side of the dialog panel un-grays, and I can continue.

 

That is the end to anything I can do with Mepis 7. It was never meant to be here in ELD-Space. Well, unless your ELD space does not have to deal with MS infrastructure. If that is the case, then you are probably in good shape.

 

Assumptions Do Not Always Pan Out

 

Sometimes going off-label you get the same results as if you had taken the placebo.

 

I documented why I thought that the use of Mepis 7 as an ELD was probably pretty safe. It probably would be quite good in a non-MS Exchange environment, but since so many shops using MS Exchange, the question has to be asked and answered about how well it would work in that specific kind of shop. For better or worse, it is unlikely that the glass house folks are going to toss out MS Exchange in the near future if they already have it.

 

I am going to venture off into the underbrush some more (because sometimes, off-road just isn't far enough into the weeds), and speculate as to why Evolution Connector 2.10 (Mepis edition) and 2.12.3 (Debian version) does not work under Mepis when connecting to MS Exchange.

 

First: Evolution/Connector is a Gnome application. Mepis is a default KDE distro (although there is a Gnome Desktop installable for it). Evo can easily be made to work under KDE (and in fact the IMAP stuff does work). It appears that sometimes it takes a bit of work to get gnome stuff as complicated as Evolution going under KDE, and that work does not appear to have happened here, at least as far as Connector is concerned. This makes sense to me: for Mepis to test Connector, they would have to have access to an MS Exchange server, and most Open Source projects either outsource their email to folks like Google, or run an Open Source email server. I would expect Evolution on SUSE to work because Connector is their code, and they truly are positioned as an ELD.

 

Second: The Connector bit has a long history of being persnickity, and it appears that the general trend might be away from Connector toward Brutus.  I did not test Brutus. Not this time, not ever. I do not like the general idea of Brutus. If I am forced to go to Brutus in the future, I will, but not till I hear that the Evolution folks are throwing in the towel on Connector. And even then, I may just decide to just live with the Outlook web interface rather than go to Brutus. I try not to be overly purist, but it really gets up my nose to use an MS Windows box as a shim to interact with MS Windows infrastructure. I can do that by just running MS Windows as a guest OS on VMware.

 

I suppose the advantage of a separate box running MS Windows and the Brutus would be if something gets sideways in MS Windows land, like another Nimda or something, it is at least not running on my machine. I can just burn down the Brutus gateway / shim / interface / proxy / whatever it is called and rebuild one box rather than many. But I digress.

 

Three: It matters if you test stuff. Evolution and Connector are complicated bits of code. If changes have been made to the distro, Evo / Connector might lose track of something they need. Move one file that Evo requires, or change it's format slightly, and it suddenly starts acting whacky. I don't know that this happened: it is pure speculation. But the fact that there is a Mepis packaged version of Evo implies to me that someone on the project at least thought they had to do something to re-package it for Mepis. The fact that I can not even define a new Evolution account when Connector is selected tells me this combo-burrito never was QA'ed. The Mepis special package of Evolution let me define the account. Something changed someplace.

 

All of this is speculation. All I know it that right here, 1400 miles from the MS Exchange Server, Mint 4.0 and Evolution 2.12.1 work, and Mepis does not with either 2.10 (Mepis) or 2.12.3 (Debian Testing). Without Evolution's MS Exchange access, I can't easily use it as my Enterprise Linux Desktop.