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Steve Carl

OpenSUSE 11 GA

Posted by Steve Carl Jun 29, 2008

I mentioned a few posts back that I had a test system stack: four identical older systems that I set up to be able to test Linux. The idea was the I could do back to back comparisons and have a good idea how each Distro of Linux stacked up on the same hardware at the same time. No sequential reloading of Distros on the same computer. Just a quick switch of the console via the KVM to look at the same thing (, Gnumeric, Evolution, Firefox, whatever is peaking my interest...) on the same type of computer, but two different Distros.



I took it all apart today. I did not reckon with two problems.


  1. Heat and noise while they were up (I left it all down when I was not using 'the stack'). The noise came from the fans in the KVM. Note to self: data center grade gear is lousy for office use.
  2. Even if the hardware looks the same, and specs out the same, when it is old, it does not necessarily act the same. This is probably true even when hardware is new, but as it ages, it becomes more pronounced. In particular, the video cards and how well they worked with the KVM, and the hard drives, and how some systems seemed to be in I/O wait for no apparent reason against /dev/sda.



I had a third reason for doing what I did, which was to learn how our new data center standard KVM switches work from actual setup type experience. I am always looking to stay as current as I can on all sorts of tech, and I had not had a chance to "play" with these yet. that being done, it was time to move on.


OpenSUSE 11


I mentioned in that post about the test stack that I was testing OpenSUSE 11 Alpha. It has since GA'ed, so it was time to go back and have a look. Unlike Fedora 9, OpenSUSE 11 had installed fairly easily even in Alpha state. I expected the GA to be smooth, and it was. All you have to do is look at all the trade reviews of OpenSUSE 11, and read all the praise for the changes that it has brought to the OpenSUSE party to get the feeling the R11 is a significant upgrade over what came before it.



A great deal of the excitement surrounds the fact that the software installer and updating process are significantly improved. They are not yet quite Ubuntu / Mint easy, but they are light years better than they were, and are closing in on the leaders of the pack. It is now dead easy to enable alternate repositories, including ones that allow you to install binary only drivers like Nvidia and ATI's. This, as it turned out, would be key for me.


I did not want to install R11 on 'the stack'. I wanted to turn that off and take it out of my office. My IBM T41 was nominated instead. It has always worked well with SUSE in the past, so I assumed it would be easy, and it was. Boot the LiveCD, run the installer, answer a very similar to Ubuntu set of questions, lay out the hard drive manually as always, and then let it spin on down.



Since the T41 had been running Mint 4, the OpenSUSE look and feel was replaced from the get-go with my customized desktop: Space Shuttle landing at night picture, standard Gnome tool bar at the top of the screen. Some things are missing:


  • No gkrellm is available from any standard OpenSUSE repository. My favorite system monitor... well, other than Patrol of course. I am sure it is out there someplace, and when I get a spare moment, I'll find it.
  • Sensors, avahi, etc all have to be installed since they were not on the LiveCD image, but they are available.
  • HDDtemp is not available!


In no time at all the desktop looks more or less the way I like. The tool bars are stocked with goodies. The Wifi card works out of the box and with no muss or fuss (something that Fedora would not have done). Evolution finds the Mint created config files and appears to work well.




Phase 1 complete. No casualties.



Crispy Nvidia 7300


Shortly after I finished up the T41, my Dell 745 desktop, running Mint 4.0, starts acting flaky. It moaned and hummed and whined and wheezed. I opened the case, and watched the fan on the video card stop and start. Speed up, then slow down. Whine then run silently. Uh oh.



A few days later, video stops working on the second monitor. "lspci" says that there is no Nvidia card at all.



I do what any geek faced with such a situation would do. I went to Fry's (I gotta love a store that has parts to build your own Linux computer and also sells Apple stuff). There I picked up an Nvidia 7200CS that had a big heat sink rather than a fan on it.



In the 7200CS went, and no luck. Mint acts like it can not see it. I decided to try OpenSUSE and see what it would do. My thinking was that OpenSUSE, being from Novell and the Open Source members of that project, should have the worlds best implementation of Evolution on it: Novell bought Ximian, creators of Evolution and the Evolution connector. In the past the SUSE version of Evolution had always been at least workable. This would give me a chance to see how well OpenSUSE worked on desktop hardware, with dual heads, with the Nvidia repositories, and with Evolution.



Late that night, I booted the OpenSUSE 11 LiveCD that I had used on the T41, and it all worked pretty much the same as it had. For fun I tried to use the Open Source Nvidia drivers first but they would not enable the second monitor. The closed source ones worked fine, and enable the "twinhead" setup. I was back in business. Even Compiz worked, and that had never happened on the 745 with the Nvidia 7300 and Mint.



Evolution came up, found everything where Mint 4 had left it, and I was off and running. Well. Not so much


Stable for 24 hours, then a failure. Evolution Connector crashed.


Evolution 2.22



Evo 2.22 in SUSE has a slightly updated look and feel relative to that same app in Mint 5.0. A few more plugins appeared to ship, all though I did not compare them line by line.



My desktop can *not* have an unstable version of Evolution on it. It is my main place to read email, check my calendar, open tasks to myself, update contacts, filter emails from various mailing lists into folder for offline reading, etc.



I installed the debugging symbols for Evolution and Connector, and went into the business of sending crashes into the Gnome project. At first it crashed when I was using it. Then it started to crash even was I was no where near the computer. More and more, faster and faster, closer and closer together.


When I say crash, I mean Connector crashed. Evolution stayed up and running. It was just useless.



I created a clean ~/.evolution file, and slowly brought back over the mail folders from the backup copy now called I went through and disabled plugins that were not useful in our MS Exchange based shop, like Hula and Groupwise related things.


Crash. crash. crash.


And now, the secret sauce....



I was trying to decide what to do, and had just about opted to move to Mint 5.0 on the desktop, with a fall back plan to Mint 4, which has been stable. Then, I noticed something odd. A pattern emerged. Every single time Evolution Connector had crashed when I was there to observe it, it had been when the inbox was being filtered: When the rules were running that kept my inbox cleared out. A little status message in the taskbar about filters running was there every time, and always at 0% complete. It looked like a new message was arriving, triggering the rule to run and parse it, but that the rule was immediately freezing and Connector was crashing shortly after that. I have about 20 Rules in the ruleset. I would not think that was a large number, but who knows? My quick looks at the crash dumps before I sent them in to Gnome made me think the crash was happening in the same way every time.


I decided to try something.


  • I disabled filters aka 'Rules' in Evo-speak on INBOX for   Evolution Connector.
  • Created and enabled IMAP account to the same MS Exchange 2003 server Inbox
  • Turned on filtering on IMAP. Same exact rule set, same exact Inbox, just running via IMAP rather than Connector.
  • I made IMAP my default account. The Connector account was there and active, just not default. This means, among other things that outbound email is being delivered via SMTP rather than through the Connector's WebDAV protocol.


My idea and experiment: use Connector *only* for Calendaring, Tasks, and Contacts (including GAL lookups). Take the stress off the Connector code. If this was a timing related or load related issue.....


It has not failed even once since I did this, which means about 5 working days of uptime. Other than the first 24 hours of stability, I could not get Connector to stay up for more than a few hours at a time. It appears that Evolution Connector and the built in rules facility are not compatible at this time, at least with OpenSUSE 11 and Evolution 2.22.



In retrospect, it probably should have been a clue that the OpenSUSE 11 installation on my T41 laptop never had an Evolution crash. I do not run filters there.




As usual, I have to ask the question, is OpenSUSE 11 a viable desktop for an enterprise.  Not for geeks like me but for the average computer user that does not want to know anything about the computer itself: they just want a tool to get a job done.



The desktop itself is easy to use, easy to configure, easy to update, and a strong preview of what is to come in the next release of SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop). It has all sorts of standard Open Support, from Wikis to mailing lists to online doc.



From what I have seen the system is pretty solid except for my corner case of Evolution against MS Exchange 2003 running a fairly large set of filters on my inbox via Connector. I'd have to say I would probably have no problem supporting it, and would prefer all the new shiny goodness of OpenSUSE R11 versus the getting-long-in-the-tooth SLED 10. For the first time ever, I have left OpenSUSE on my primary desktop to be used as my primary OS at the office.



Mint will stay my primary at-home Linux version. Instead of Mint-everywhere, I'll be jumping back and forth. A new experiment has begun.

Steve Carl

Fedora 9 GA

Posted by Steve Carl Jun 16, 2008

The problem with asking a technogeek whether or not something is possible is that you will almost always get back the answer "Yes".



"Can a program be written that monitors all the computers on the network, regardless of who makes it, or what OS it is running?"




"Can it be ready a week from Tuesday?"


"What year?"



There is the rub: a technical question needs a scale framed around it. Is Linux a viable desktop OS: Yes. Can we use Fedora at the office? Yes.


Those last two, while true, ignore scale and ignore training and ignore whether or not other 'flavors' of Linux would be better. Our recent experience with replacing our Tru64 TruCluster with a CentOS based cluster is a lesser example: yes it was possible, but it did require having a guy like Dan Goetzman to read the kernel code, read the traces, find the problem, and write a workaround. Since then, it has worked extremely well. You can not ignore the fact however that most companies do *not* have a Dan or even a Dan-like person on their team. Such skills, while not unavailable are rare enough that most folks just go with a vendor created solution.



That is the eternal tradeoff of IT: Roll your own and get exactly what you want, but then be forever locked in to being the maintenance and update group, or go with a vendor solution where all of this is essentially outsourced.



Our CentOS cluster is an enterprise grade solution, but in point of fact, only because Dan is standing behind it. CentOS has no vendor support. Without Dan, we would have used RedHat Enterprise Linux and bought support instead.



It is in this frame of reference that I went to look at Fedora 9. I know it is not supported, and that it is not meant to be an Enterprise Linux Desktop, any more than my recent foray with Mepis is or was. Fedora is a technology exploration, and I was exploring.


Back to the Stack



I started out a while back to create a test environment where I could compare various Linux environments side by side. At the time, Fedora 9 was pre-GA, and was not behaving well on the test gear. At the time I was trying out the LiveCD version of the install, but Fedora was just not getting the video right, where pre GA or just-recently-GA versions of Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, and Mandriva were working fine on the exact same type of computers. These are standard Dell desktops no less. Nothing to weird about them. Certainly not laptops and their more esoteric hardware.



Even before I did the test installs, I was starting to feel a certain level of frustration with Fedora. I could not quite figure it out. It used to be my *main* distro. I used it ahead of everything else: Where Mint sits today, once there sat Fedora: From Fedora releases 1-5, it was, for me, the *it* distro, replacing Mandrake.



With Fedora 1 through 5 I had to hack the wireless to work on all my laptops. I was getting downright fast at it. Either finding the unsupported-by-Fedora-but-Linux-native-driver-stuff, like MadWifi, or shortcutting it with NDISWrapper. Either way, Fedora was on the air in short order. It was no harder to get going than SUSE back then, and Fedora hacks were better documented on the Internet. it seemed like everyone used it.



When I started using Linux as my full time desktop here at the office, it was Fedora. Not any more, and not for a while. Now-a-days, I only install it to see what is happening in it, and it usually ends up being frustrating because in terms of ease of install and supported hardware it has been passed standing still. Fedora feels stuck in the past, with the Anaconda installer: In truth it is no different to install now, in terms of difficulty, and need to add in 3rd party repositories, than it was in the beginning, or at least that is the way that it feels. One person at the office (a fellow Linux desktop user) said that they felt that Anaconda itself was getting more fragile with every release.



Ubuntu, Mint, Xandros, OpenSUSE, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS... you name it. All of them are dead easy installs, and usually they just work out of the box.


Fedora stands alone



Fedora is outstanding in its field: That is where we found it. Out standing in a field... Sorry.



I have known intellectually for a long time that Fedora is different from all the other highly used Linux Distros. Knowing that and have a visceral understanding of it are not the same thing though. I used to think of OpenSUSE as being a kissing cousin to Fedora, once SUSE started to use the Fedora-like development model. But there is a big big difference, especially now.



Here is where I get into trouble sometimes when I am looking at things like this. I have to recall that Fedora may look exactly like any other Gnome based Linux; Same menus, same packages, same projects underneath it all, but it is assembled out of the bleeding edge stuff. Can it be made to work: yes. Is it interesting to see what some packages are doing? Yes. Should you use it as an ELD: Only of you don't need support.



The OLPC project has been working for a long time to create a production version of Fedora 7... and the Fedora project is two releases down the road from there. Support on OLPC is about what you'd get from Fedora too: online forums, Wiki pages for Doc, etc. No number to call, no throats to choke if you are so inclined.



You can get support, from a commercial company, for years, on Ubuntu (especially the LTS versions like the current 8.04). Mint is community supported but close enough to Ubuntu to be pretty supportable. Many of the things published in the Ubuntu forums work on Mint. Xandros and SUSE stand behind their versions with support options.



You want support on a Linux desktop from RH, you go with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 Desktop or one of its variants.



Part of what made relative lack of support for Fedora pop back into focus for me was a note I got from the CodeWeavers folks:



...The bad news is that extensive testing on Fedora Core 9 has revealed
severe problems with FC9 itself.  There's a serious font-drawing
problem, and also a periodic crashing bug.  Both of these are problems
in Fedora and outside of our control, so this latest release is likely
to exhibit those problems as much as the betas did...



That was interesting two ways: The obvious technical issue, but also that Codeweavers was *trying* to support Fedora as a viable desktop for Linux.


Looking at BMC for a moment, we only support versions of Linux that have vendor support for the version: currently Novell and RedHat GA releases. I personally would like to see Ubuntu added to that list, but I am sure that comes as no surprise to anyone that reads this blog. No I am not announcing or hinting at anything. Just wishing.


ELD and Fedora



Anyone who is a Linux maven could make a go of Fedora as an ELD. I know lots of people here at BMC that do just that. Fragile installers do not scare them, and fixing drivers is no big deal, etc. Fedora, for them, is beauty because it is bleeding edge. Sure the Xorg server in R9 is experimental and causing screen tearing. Now. In a few days or weeks it will get fixed, and then they'll have access to the latest greatest features. The speed. The bleeding edge hardware support. It will have been worth it. To them.



As an ELD for the masses though, all Fedora is going to do it give you a clue as to what you will see in some point in the future: maybe RH ELD 6.  And even that is not a dead certainty: RH will err to the side of stability, so some bleeding edge stuff will not make the cut. Maybe RH ELD 7. Maybe never.


For use in a shop like ours.. an MS Exchange based shop, I always look at what Evolution is looking like and how it is behaving. I have learned over the years that the point release of the project is not all you need to know. The way that the Distro packages and tests it is important. See what happened when I tried to run Evolution under Mepis for example.



I did test 2.22 on Fedora 9. It works almost the same as 2.12 did on the last Fedora, and it also works about the same as 2.12 or 2.22 does on Ubuntu or Mint. Recall the 2.12 and 2.22 are adjacent releases, despite the jump in the numbering. Evo has all the same features, and all the same problems. Do a mass delete from Evolution on one computer, and the other one will completely loose track of the inbox message count. Exchange back end crashes fairly often still. Finally, nothing has really happened (as I feared it would not) on the MAPI support front.



I did do one experiment I have never done before: I set up both IMAP and Connector at the same time and pointing at the same inbox on the same server. When the connector crashes, IMAP keeps right on running. This tells me that the instability is probably not in the base Evolution code, but in the protocol connector of "Connector" itself.


Install of Fedora 9


I originally planned this post to be about how the Fedora 9 installer has changed between the pre GA and GA code. I changed my mind. I was interested in the 'fragile' comment that had been made. It matched my experience with the pre-GA LiveCD. I decided to go conservative, and download the install CD set (the Dell test computers not having bootable DVD media). It was by and large the same Anaconda install I have seen for a while now except that it would not run in GUI mode. I had to run it in the ASCII character based curses based mode to see it. No big deal: Done that before.



When the final boot came, the same thing happened that did with the LiveCD: The video mode was whacked (same as the GUI install it appeared), and the boot messages were invisible. The Dell monitor said "This video mode can not be displayed".



I booted to single user, erased the /etc/X11 xorg.conf, ran 'system-config-monitor', and got past that problem. But now 'firstboot' had not run, so I manually added userids and config-ed things on the system that the firstboot stuff normally does.



I don't know if this is a global thing or not, but I have to agree now about the fragile comment my co-worker made: the installer is not very solid. We both have Dell gear to work with so it could just be a limited sample type problem. Given the ubiquity of Dell gear, and the fact no other OS is having these issues with the same hardware, that seems odd. Perhaps by being on the bleeding edge some backward compatibility was left behind?


Once up and running, it is a very standard Gnome desktop: None of that MS look-and-feel stuff that SLED or Mint is going in for. It is fairly crisp on the older hardware, but that is a Linux hallmark. I would have been shocked to see it going slowly. 2.0 Ghz and 512 MB of RAM is still a *big* Linux system, even if this hardware is over three years old.



Applying maintenance via yum makes the video break again on reboot. I guess a new xorg came in, and replaced the /etc/X11/xorg.conf on arrival, but that is just a guess. I powered it off and put it away. I know what I came here to find out. It will be there should I get curious about something else.


The Computer Pile


Fedora now lives in that same logical place in my pile of computers that MS Vista does. Something I fire up whenever I get curious about something. Not that Fedora is as bad as Vista: I got curious about how Vista works after SP1 is applied, and I came to test that last weekend. Answer: No idea: It needs 8 GB of free space just to unroll the patch bundle! Vista takes up 12GB of the 15GB partition. It would be all kinds of work to get it more space.



I decided to try applying point patches. Over two hours later, I had about 23 patches installed. When I did the patch update on Fedora I installed over 100 new or patched versions of things, on much slower hardware, in about 15 minutes. No: Fedora is not Vista. It just is not Mint-Ubuntu-SUSE-Xandros-PCLinuxOS-etc either. That is neither bad, nor good. It just is marching to the beat of a diffrent drummer and and I need to remind myself of that from time to time.

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