Posts Tagged ‘OS


Installing Gentoo Linux on a Sunfire V440 and a Linux Rant!

Recently I got one of the Sunfire V440 machine working and tried installing Debian Linux on it. I was disappointed many packages were broken, but surprised that the openJDK worked. So I decided to go looking for another OS to install. I already have FreeBSD and NetBSD on some of my other Sparc machines, and they were relatively easy to install and configure. I was looking for something new to try so I didn’t want to use something I have already tried. Solaris unfortunately didn’t seem to be an option as it’s unclear as to whether I am able to legally use it, I don’t have a physical license for it.

So looking around I found that there are few operating systems that actually support the Sparc platform, even the newer 64 bit V9 machines. Basically the BSD systems have good support and there is some support amongst Linux distributions, but there is generally little available. I found out that Gentoo Linux had a Sparc 64bit port that should work on my system, so I decided I would give it a go.

Gentoo is a very BSD like Linux in the way that software is installed, but they take the whole thing a bit further by getting you to build your kernel and base system during the install process. So it is actually significantly more difficult to install than any of the BSD systems or other Linuxes. The investment in time is meant to pay off in the form of more efficient executables, higher performance and it can be optimised for your machine at build time.

There isn’t really an installer program, you get a basic Gentoo live CD from which you manually perform all the actions required for the installation. It is basically mandatory to follow the online guide for installation (if it’s your first time anyway). Because you install the system manually, you can set everything up exactly as you want it, but it takes much longer and it is a harder process. I had some difficulty with the Gentoo live CD in that it would have trouble talking to the CD-drive after a period of time, and some parts of the live CD did not work properly. Fortunately I was able to work around it, and if it was a more serious problem you can use any Linux live CD to install Gentoo. In fact I’d recommend you do this, the Debian install disc in rescue mode works well and would be a good option.

The process of installing Gentoo is so lengthy that I’m still in the process of setting it up! But from what I can see so far, like the BSD systems, once you have set the system up it works quite well. It is a longer process, but this is mainly because of the initial installation phase. There isn’t really an advantage to using Gentoo over BSD systems like NetBSD or FreeBSD as far as I can tell, but I haven’t finished installation and haven’t started installing packages. I’ll be interested to see if the OpenJDK works as it doesn’t build under Sparc systems on either NetBSD or FreeBSD.

This brings me to something I found annoying whilst looking around the net for a OS to install. I found on pages and articles talking about systems other than Linux, the comment section invariably had some idiot claiming that Linux was somehow superior to whatever was being talked about (Solaris was frequently derided). After now having installed and used a few different Unix like systems including NetBSD, FreeBSD, Solaris, Linux, and Haiku (BeOS ancestor) I have found Linux a bit wanting especially when installed on anything but a x86 platform.

Solaris is probably the most maligned by the Linux snobs, and I see little reason why they should apart from its commercial nature. They often claim that Solaris is slow and has lower performance when compared to Linux, even when run on the Sparc platform. Having used Solaris at University for doing most of my software development for my degree I’d have to disagree, I saw little evidence to support the claims. I ran a Linux machine at the time and it was actually slower than pretty much all the Solaris systems at the University. A large part of this was due to the bloated nature of the desktop environment that was running on my Linux at the time.

Don’t get me wrong I actually really like Linux, run it on x86 hardware, and have used it for some time. I just don’t think it’s as wonderful as the snobs claim. It is not as portable to other platforms as other systems, in particular NetBSD, go ahead check it out, I’ll wait. Something else I’ve noticed is the trend in commonly used desktop environments getting more and more bloated. Both Gnome and KDE are guilty of this, and to some extend even the base Linux distributions without X or a desktop environment are getting more bloated. Ironically this is making it behave somewhat like the most hated system by the snobs, Microsoft Windows.

Windows is probably the most derided system by the Linux snobs, they dislike many of the problems found in Windows, which technically are true. As I stated before these issues are becoming less unique to Windows, and Microsoft has been improving it systems recently, the best recent ones I can think of being Windows 7 or before that Windows XP (after the bugs got ironed out). There are however a number of factors that make Windows a better system than Linux in many circumstances, which the snobs never mention.

My main beef is with the arrogance and snobbery of these Linux snobs is the thinking that pretty much everything is inferior to their sacred distro (yes they even fight over distros). In my experience pretty much all the different systems are useful, interesting, or fill a need that the others do not. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been created and achieved any success at all! I’ve found it very interesting and challenging to try other systems, and I’d recommend that any technically minded person should do the same. You might just find something better suited to what you need.


Sunfire V440 working!

I recently got all the parts together for finally testing and installing an operating system on the Sunfire V440 machines I had donated to me quite some time ago. The last piece of the puzzle arrived whilst I was sick, it is a system configuration card. It was a little difficult to find, and I only found one, so I can only get one of the two machines to work.

The first hurdle to get over was working out how to connect to the ALOM card via serial cable. I have a couple of DTE adapters to connect serial via RJ 45 cable (ethernet cable basically) so I initially tried just using these with a simple cat 6 cable to get a connection. Strangely it didn’t work. After a bit of googling and reading of sun manuals for the machine I found out that the serial connection requires a Null Modem adapter/cable.

I have several null modem cables, one being dual connector (9 pin and 25 pin) that is extremely useful. So after getting a 9 pin D-shell gender bender adapter I was able to cobble together a cable that worked. The ALOM messages came through to my terminal program and asked for a login. Fortunately as the SCC was new to the machine I should be able to use the default user/password to log in to the ALOM when I eventually need it, but in the mean time I just wait for the timeout to display the serial console for the machine.

Now having the serial connection I could finally turn the machines on and see the OpenBoot ROM messages and test the machines in diagnostics mode. One of the machines turns out to have something serious wrong with it as it fails a memory/CPU test quite badly. The text scrolled past quite fast so it was difficult to determine what exactly was wrong, but this will be something to investigate in the near future. The other machine however passed its diagnostics and even booted the Debian Linux Net install disc! Time to set up an OS!

I’ve been fortunate enough to recently get some nice 10,000 rpm drives for the machine, so I went about installing and testing them for bad sectors (using the Debian rescue function on the install disc). Luckily both hard drives passed their tests and I was ready to install an operating system.

I have already got NetBSD and FreeBSD running on two other Sparc systems, so I chose to install the Sparc64 edition of Debian on this particular machine. The install went pretty smoothly for the most part and everything server wise worked like a dream. There was even a package for installing the OpenJDK on the system, something the BSDs have yet to accomplish. Clearly Debian is a viable OS for running a server on these types of machines, but when I went to install a desktop environment such as Gnome I found that Gnome didn’t work at all. Unfortunately this also seemed to break many of the useful X11 applications that you can install. Other window managers seemed to work, but with applications being broken it was hardly worth the effort.

So installing Debian was only mildly successful. I was hoping to be able to log into the system via XDMCP, but with Gnome being as broken as it is under Sparc64 this isn’t really an option. I will be looking to install something else instead, but am now unsure as to what I will try. I could of course install something I know works well such as FreeBSD or NetBSD, but I’d like something different for this machine. I did think about installing Solaris, but I’m unsure if I can because of licensing. Whilst I have several Sparc machines, I don’t have any Solaris Licenses, so I don’t know if I am allowed to install it on this machine.

Does anyone else have any suggestions as to what OS I could install? Is Solaris an option? If I install Solaris would I be able to install free software? (via ports or pkgsrsc?) It seems I have some research and work to do!


FreeBSD 9.0

I downloaded a copy of FreeBSD 4.7 many years ago intending to try it out, but never did for lack of spare hardware. Along with its siblings (NetBSD and OpenBSD) to be the closest descendant of the early BSD systems made through out the 80’s and late seventies. I won’t go into details about the history, as I’ll be terribly inaccurate, and there are a lot of documents around the web already detailing the history of Unix and BSD. Here are a couple of links.

The Wikipedia page

The Open Group: Unix History and Time line

Recently I installed NetBSD to run on my old sparc, which re-sparked my interest in the BSD platforms. This week I installed FreeBSD 9.0 on my virtual machine I have on my Macbook Pro as a matter of experimentation to find out what it was like.


Installation was relatively simple and performed via a text mode using simple keyboard commands. There wasn’t much to configure, but also not many options for the base system, which I think is because of the nature of how slim the initial install is. Most of the installation is dealing with setting up the disks and partitions, and which basic services are enabled. I did note that there was no option to install the X windows portion off the disk. Like NetBSD it is important to know your Unix stuff before jumping in, you should be able to use a shell and preferably also know the basics about building software. The amount of disk space you need will depend on the software you intend to install. The base system once installed is quite slim requiring very little in the way of disk space and other resources to run quite well.

Adding More Software

The main package management system for FreeBSD is called ports, it is one of the older package distribution systems and as such has more packages available for it than the other BSD systems, and more than many of the Linux distributions with some notable exceptions. You have two options for installing packages, one is installing binaries provided to you by either CDROM, or download. I wanted to try out the ports system for automatic download and building of packages and I wasn’t disappointed. First I installed bash and nano as the base system didn’t have either of these two there by default. The build process was pretty simple, you just located the directory of the port you want to install, and then type make install. During the build process you are asked about the options you want to use when building the software. This is better than pkgsrc as it required you to edit some files to change what options you wish to use. I went on to build X and attempted to build Gnome 2. I must have changed an option that gnome didn’t like as I couldn’t get it to build completely, but I am sure this was my mistake, I just couldn’t work out how to fix it within the limited time frame. I had a bit of trouble getting gdm to work as well, but that was solved after a bit of reading on the FreeBSD website, but other software such as xdm and FVWM were very simple to get up and running. Xfce built, installed and ran quite well, and to me looks like the best option for user interfaces as it is lighter than both Gnome and KDE, but has many of the features that most users want out of a modern operating system. If you’re after a minimalist user interface, FVWM is a good choice and has one of the later versions in ports as compared to pretty much all the other systems out there. In doing all this I found that it can be a very lengthy process to build the larger bits of software from source, the upside being when it is done, it’s optimized by the compiler for your hardware, and you get the latest version if you keep your ports collection up to date. Otherwise you should pick the binary install option as this will save you alot of time.


FreeBSD is better supported than its cousins NetBSD and OpenBSD, and as such has more in the way of packages that are updated more frequently. FreeBSD and it’s siblings have the advantage over Linux in that they seem to have a more mature and stable code base. For instance, in the time that I’ve been using Linux, the kernel and supporting utilities have changed dramatically, making some older software completely un-buildable now, where as the BSD systems seem to move slower and are keeping compatibility for older software alive. I think this contributes to them being more mature than Linux as the software has time to have the bugs worked out. I’d say this methodology also affects how the design and user interface is built. Configuration via configuration files seems to be easier than Linux, as all the files were generated by humans and as such are easier to read. For instance setting up gdm to start with the system required only adding two lines to the rc.config file.


It seems that some software creators for various reasons are dropping support for BSD and various other Unixes in favour of only supporting Linux. I think some of it is ideological, which I disagree with. Some of it is because of the problems supporting multiple platforms, this particularly applies to projects that are supposed to be libraries or system utilities for other programs. This has a ripple effect making software further down the line also incompatible with non-Linux systems. What is the point in using a library or package that interfaces with the kernel for you if it doesn’t support many kernels/operating systems? You might as well write it yourself! You may have heard that Gnome is officially only going to support Linux in its future releases. I’m not sure how true this is, but it could be quite an inconvenience for a good many BSD users as well as people on Solaris and commercial Unixes that use Gnome. It seems the root cause is that the automounter package used by gnome and a few others (Xfce for example) have decided to drop support for the other operating systems. I hope I’m wrong, as I’d hate to see the community of free software developers divided.

BSD versus Linux

There seems to be a difference in how both the communities view what an operating system should be. The bigger Linux distributions take the view that everything is part of the operating system, which is very evident in something like Ubuntu. There also seems to be a move towards hiding the traditional Unix portions of the operating system from users, which can be a good thing when not over done. BSD seems to see the operating system in a minimalist kinda sense, where the base system is small, stable and mature. Everything else including the user interface is up to the end-user to customise. It’s also not afraid of being a traditional Unix system.

There are also some differences in licenses, but that’s not really something I’ve ever really cared about. I only want to know that the system is free, and the source is available and can be modified.


FreeBSD is a good place to go if you’ve been curious about BSD systems and have some experience with the command line on something like Linux. You’ll find there are more packages, that are updated more often than its siblings NetBSD and OpenBSD. However it’s not as well suited as NetBSD is for using on exotic hardware such as the sparc platform, so you will want to run it on a PC or PC compatible. There is very little in the way of cruft in the base system which means there are few points of entry for hackers, so it would actually be a better option for running a server than many other systems. But you do have to set up all the components yourself, which does give you more control, but also takes more time to do. To use it as a desktop system workstation again needs a lot of time to set it up initially, but you’ll have exactly what you want.


Debian 6.0.3

I started using Debian quite some time ago, it was for work and I was running it on an old celeron 433Mhz machine with very little ram (less than 512Mb). I was using the machine to develop a website in php, and needed a platform to edit and test the website. I had to pretty heavily customise my installation as gnome was a bit too taxing for such a old machine at the time. I installed FVWM and IceWM as replacements, I used IceWM mostly which worked very well. I did eventually get an upgraded machine, I was finally able to run gnome! Today I’ve installed the latest version of Debian via the network installation disk. I’m using the same setup as last time, on my macbook in virtual box, and using all the default settings with the main desktop portion installed.

If you’ve used Ubuntu and Debian, you may notice that they are pretty similar to each other in many ways, in fact using the same package management software at the base level. Ubuntu is in some ways a descendant of Debian, the differences being mainly ideological, aesthetic and in how the packages are configured when installed.

Debian is meant as an universal operating system, having software and components to do pretty much whatever you’d like to do with it. There are lots and lots of available software packages that allow you to set up your machine to do pretty much anything. The question remains, is it easy enough for an ordinary user to use.


I picked the expert installation option as I’m pretty experience with the Debian OS. This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds, and I found it pretty easy to to install. An ordinary end user would probably find this difficult, but that is to be expected. It is true that the expert installer could be easier to use, but if you picked it and can’t use it, you can always switch back to the simple one which is alot like the Ubuntu installer. You get a lot more options for software to be installed, and you can choose a set of packages to set it up as a server or a desktop workstation. Having only one distribution is a nice touch and means that if you are used to dealing with a Debian server and happen upon a workstation running Debian, you are basically on familiar territory. It also means that you can set up your workstation with all the server software for the purposes of development and testing of software you are writing. I installed the basics for the desktop, but also added in a SSH server. I found that the software included in the base desktop was much more comprehensive than that on Ubuntu, you got some decent photo editing software in the GIMP, and tools for making vector graphics. I also noted that the entire Open office suite is included in its original form, as opposed to the version in Ubuntu, which as far as I can tell is not the complete office package, and seems to be a change for the sake of being different aesthetically. There are many other bits and pieces that tell a similar story. Installation of new or extra software is pretty simple, you can use synaptic, or the software centre to select new packages and the software will download everything required to install them.

The User Interface

The interface is no where near as pretty as the Ubuntu one, but I can’t help but feel more satisfied and more at ease with this one. Finding an application is easy, you just navigate the menus at the top of the screen to find what you want. The applications are organised sensibly in categories. In many ways the windows widgets are very much like those from windows XP, which is good for PC users, but probably less so for mac users. What really stands out here above windows XP is the ability to customise pretty much everything that you see. You can change the shape and location of panels and menus. There are many applets that you can add as well, one of my favourites being Wanda the fish, which is simple a graphical way to access fortune. This means if you find the interface annoying in some way you can do something to change it! Something I would have liked in Ubuntu!


Something I noted in testing Debian is that it took longer to load than Ubuntu for some reason. Upon investigation I found more puzzles, Debian seemingly used less ram upon login, and responded faster once it had finished loading. This of course is preferable, it’s just strange. Oddly I suspect this newer version of Debian would work better on my old system than earlier versions did.


The base features are pretty impressive, there are all the basic applications that normal people need such as word processing, email and internet. There are also some extra bits that I was happy to find that would appeal to the more advanced user. For instance there is a decent RDP and torrent client installed. There are nice dialogs for changing system settings, and user preferences that cover all the important aspects of the system, although I was disappointed by the login screen configuration being dumbed down, I preferred how they had things set up with gdm 2.30. The login screen themes are gone, and the configuration program has nothing for remote users via xdmcp. I realise that very few people use X over the network these days, but with thin clients starting to look like a good option, this could be taken better advantage of. On the up side, there is nothing stopping you from editing the configuration manually to achieve the effect you want, it’s simply not in the user interface. You could always use the package management to install a older version of gdm, or use xdm in it’s place. This is the true spirit of Debian in a sense, you customise your installation as much as you need to suite you. There is nothing saying you even need to use gnome, you can elect to use KDE, or install a small form factor window manager such as FVWM.


I kinda have a biased opinion of Debian because I’ve been using it for quite a while. I have found it easy to use, and easy to customise to my needs as well. That being said, the average user may have a fun time doing the trickier things. But at least you have the option or trying, and all the simple things like finding an application are easy and familiar to those of us that have used systems such as windows. Unlike Ubuntu, Debian hides the Unix/Linux part of itself less, which could be difficult for some people, but would allow those interested to learn something about it. Debian also lives up to being a universal operating system, you can do pretty much whatever you may need. I’ve used it as a file server, a web test bench for development, as a games system, and basic desktop workstation. It used to be the case that people new to linux would have had to avoid Debian until they learned more about linux. The newer versions seem to make it easier than it used to be, but the complete computer illiterate should probably get a knowledgeable friend to help them. If you’re interesting in using linux, Debian is fertile ground for learning all about it, as much as you want to learn.  Do I recommend it? Yes!


Ubuntu 11.10 desktop

I’ve got the internet on at my house now so I’ll be able to post on a regular basis again. At work we set up a computer with the latest Ubuntu desktop system. We initially were not really that impressed. This made me think about what operating systems are available, and who they are designed for. So this week and in the coming weeks I will write some short review type stuff about some of the free operating systems. This week I’m starting with Ubuntu Desktop, but I will also be covering Debian, Fedora, Xubuntu, and FreeBSD. To test the systems I will be installing them to virtual box on my macbook, which will be set up to use 2 cores and 1 gig of ram with a 20G virtual hard disk. I won’t be changing the default settings all that much if at all, but I will be installing all the desktop components of the systems. If you have any suggestions for operating systems that I should add or try out please leave a comment bellow.

As I mentioned this week the first OS I’m looking at is Ubuntu. The focus of it is to make a stable and usable free operating system for anyone to use. Given that most people use their systems for surfing the net, checking email and work type applications such as word and excel, this is what I expect the system to focus on.


Installation of Ubuntu is about as easy as it gets with operating systems. It’s a nice graphical system which is reasonable easy to use, especially if you plan on having it exclusively on your system. Installing it in tandem with another OS is pretty straight forward as well, but you really need to be familiar with how disk partitioning works in order to do it. The only real downside of the installer is that you can’t choose what additional software you’d like installed at installation time. This is only really a problem if you want something installed which isn’t already installed. The base installation has pretty much all the basics you might need, but excludes more advanced programs such as the GIMP and some others that more advanced users may find necessary or useful. Fortunately the package management system is relatively easy to use to install extra software. It however does hide the more “technical” packages from view unless you specify you want to see them.

The User Interface

The user interface is very pretty, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a very close clone of the Mac OS X interface. A lot of the design components are very much like those on the Mac. For instance the sidebar is pretty much a clone of the dock, The initial applications there are pretty much just firefox and some basic office applications. I was surprised to see there was nothing there for access to email. If the application you want isn’t in the sidebar/dock you have to look for it elsewhere. At first I found this a little hard to find, you have to click the Ubuntu symbol then search for the application that you want. Surely there is a better way of doing this. I believe the reason they have made this design choice is to de-clutter the screen and menus so as to not overwhelm people. The downside is that even a experienced user such as myself has trouble simply finding applications that they might want to use. Once you have found the application you want, it works pretty much the same as on any other OS, although I did note that scroll bars didn’t have much of a visual presence, so I was never really sure of where I could scroll and where I couldn’t. The standard menu of the application is moved to the top of the screen in the same way that Mac OS does. I’m not really a fan of this on either system, it disassociates the menu from the program, which can be confusing particularly when you have more than one window open. It’s not a huge problem however as unlike Mac OS, you can’t end up with a program running and having a active menu bar, but no windows active.


All the features you’d expect out of a operating system are present. It seems however to be trying to be Mac OS in what it provides. Many features and applications in Mac OS have equivalents in Ubuntu desktop, even going as far as having similar cloud based services. The only feature on Mac OS that I couldn’t find was garage band. It bordered on the eerie when I noticed that even the system preferences looked very similar between the two.


This version of the Ubuntu desktop achieves what they set out to when they created it. It is relatively easy for new users to get started, and for people with only need of the internet and basic office applications. If you are a more advanced user, or in need of applications that do a bit more, you’ll find the experience out of the box lacking. The unix/linux nature of the operating system is very well hidden, which does go in it’s favour for new users, but if you like the command line then you would be better served with either a different Ubuntu variant, or perhaps Debian instead. The main audience of course is the mass market of relatively unskilled users so some of this is to be expected, But a few questions stick in my mind. If this is so much like Mac OS why would someone choose Ubuntu over a Mac? Why would anyone already using a Linux distro want to use it over another distribution or even variant of Ubuntu? Why did it have to be so unintuitive finding applications not on the sidebar? I’d like to hear about your experiences with Ubuntu, did you find it similar to mine, or was it completely different for you? Please leave your comments bellow.

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