Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Linux for Human Beings - AND Roland too!

I've been busy exploring open source software for some years now.

I think it was Erik, a friend of mine, that first told me and explained what open source software was about. Then, he was right in the middle of developing the backup tool Abakt and we then discussed XML as a format for storing configuration data. He used (and still uses, I think) an open source SAX parser, I can't remember which one exactly.

Anyway, he introduced me to MySQL, OpenOffice, Mozilla - all these different kinds of products. My initial reaction was one of disbelief: How in the world could this software be free of charge? Put another way, how can it be free of charge, and be of good quality too? What's the catch?

I then briefly explored MySQL (Still a 4.0 I think?) and at the time, I thought I knew what the catch was: MySQL was not that good. At least, not compared to what I was used too (Oracle, MSSQL, Interbase even). It didn't have a lot of things that I used (and still use) a lot. Declarative Check Constraints, Views, Stored Procedures. Besides, it had all these strange features such as really eerie NULL handling. On top of that, you had to configure all that InnoDB stuff and go to all kinds of trouble to enable transactions and foreing keys.

Mozilla was sort of the same story. At the time, I didn't have built-in XSLT support (like IE does), and although it claimed it implemented only standard DOM to perform DHTML, I really was unimpressed as the interface IE offered seemed so much richer and easier to me.

Of course, I just consumed the products, briefly glancing over the features. And my perpective was quite narrow towards open source software, almost exlusively focussed on the costs, and not on the inherent quality or the community process. Some of the things I really did dig then was the Java programming language. I thought that was open source too, because it was free - of cost that is. Also, I had a tendency to compare all this stuff to the equivalents I was familiar with - being mostly Microsoft products, or commercially available software running on the Windows platform.

Gradually, my attitude changed. A product that definitely made a difference in this respect was PHP. At the time, I was using three different technologies to develop web applications: Oracle Mod_plsql, Java servlet pages and Microsoft Active Server Pages. To me, the problem with all these technologies was their lack of portability. I want to develop applications and let my customers decide what underlying infrastructure (Web server, database server, and of course: Operating System) is best for them. With these three, this is an utopy.

I stumbled into PHP again via Erik. Also, I noticed that funny php extension on all these webpages I was browsing, and I made a note I had to check it out sometime, ifnot to know why not to use it. Finally I downloaded it, and read the installation notes. Then, I set up in both Apache and Microsoft Internet Information Server - both up and running within 10 minutes. This was amazing! This was a product that I legally did not pay for, it had clear documentation AND it worked exactly as described on two very different webservers (at least, marketing-wise). Better still than not paying for it, I could even use PHP to build applications on a commercial basis!

(Actually, I was using Apache quite alot then too, but listen up, hear this and try not to laugh at me: I did't know Apache was open source! See, I was familiar with what was (and still is) called "the Oracle HTTP Server powered by apache" wich is about 98% apache that's shipped with the oracle database as of version 8 (among that 2% is that mod_plsql I've blogged about here an there). Mind you, they havent even succeeded in using a Apache 2 based product, it's still Apache 1.3 there. tsk..).

From then on, I looked at open source software from a different point of view. I started using MySQL. The 4.1 is of course objectively a big improvement over the 4.0 version I met initially, but of course, my change of attitude has made all the difference. And my confidence in open source software has got another boost by getting involved (in my own modest way) in the MySQL forums, and in writing the odd blog or article.

However, all this time, I have been glued to the Windows operating system. I've been wanting to convert there too, but there's something about the nature of an OS that doesn't make me change. I mean, I don't like particularly configuring stuff, making my computer and OS see my hardware, solving IRQ conflicts, man you name it.

But now, something has come to my attention that might change all that. It's the ubuntu Linux distribution. Ubuntu advertises itself as "Linux for human beings". They do not explicitly say to what kind of a user base the other Linuxes are targeted, but for now, I'll gladly assume the mean "human beings that do like to configure, make the OS see my hardware and solving IRQ conflicts".

People might be wondering why I'm picking it up so late, but the result's what matters to me. (In case anyone cares, I picked it up through Morgan Tocker's blog wich I picked up through PlanetMySQL: thanks Morgan, thanks PlanetMySQL!).

Actually, I'm writing this blog from my freshly installed Ubuntu. It ships with Mozilla Firefox. I'm really impressed with how it looks, and how fast it works!

I'm still runnin it dual boot with my Windows XP OS, and I'll probably hang on to that too (actually, I haven't got much of a choice there as I need it to serve most of my customers). I had some installation troubles of course: I wanted to run it from an external hard drive, in part because I was a bit afraid the installation might corrupt my windows disk.

Anyway, power to the community, here as well: on the ubuntu forums, it took some 10 hours for me to get the issue solved....using a pointer to an existing thread (that I would've found if I had searched better). So, thanks for the pointer aysiu. And of course, many thanks, and a big thumbs up for my hero of the day: DaBruGo, who has so kindly explained to us all how to set ubuntu up using an external hard drive.

No helpdesk can beat this kind of support - it's just amazing.


Unknown said...

I run a webserver of my home computer,, and you know what, I use Apache, Perl, PHP, etc. ALL OPEN SOURCE. In fact, I liked your post so muc I linked you in my blog (which is not a nice blog, i say what's on my mind, uncensored, and uncut). My blog is and you may want to check it out.

rpbouman said...

Hi Segin,

thanks for your comments!

For, running Linux is probably a natural thing. It should become natural for me too. You see, i don't mind hacking scripts, learning shell syntax etc. I mean, I shouldnt mind, after all, I'm half a programmer jobwise.

It's just that I do need some friendly basic environment that I can fall back too. The Ubuntu Gnome GUI seems to be all that, and so much more!

Erik, the friend I mentioned in the post has kindly offered me the O'Reilly book "Running Linux", quite a while ago now. I intend to study that and familiarize myself with all the concepts.

I guess, half a year from now, I should be able to handle basic administration via the command line.

I just checked out your site, but I got bounced for running Internet Explorer :D. (Anyway, it's not a problem for me, I've been runnng IE, Opera and Mozilla classic and Firefox next to each other for quite a while now.)

Anyway, thanks again, and CU

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