Just be­cause Linux is free, it has no bear­ing on the fi­nal cost to use in any sit­u­a­tion!

Sean Fin­ney thinks this Linux thing will take off on

Linux Format - - CONTENTS -

Sean Fin­ney is a con­tract en­gi­neer and Rasp­berry Pi tin­kerer who’s al­most com­pleted the switch to be­com­ing a full-time Linux user. He’s a jack of all trades: in­volved in pro­gram­ming, fault di­ag­no­sis and fight­ing with Li­breOf­fice’s take on .docx com­pat­i­bil­ity. He owns heavy ma­chin­ery, but so far hasn’t used it to de­stroy his lap­top. He was good enough to share his ex­pe­ri­ences and ad­vice with us…

Linux For­mat: What’s your back­ground?

Sean Fin­ney: I’m an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer/PLC (pro­gram­mable logic con­troller) pro­gram­mer by trade. I would say my job role is quite unique in that re­spect – it’s so di­verse. One day I could be strip­ping a ma­chine down, re­pair­ing and re­build­ing, the next project plan­ning, the next, re­solv­ing soft­ware is­sues – be it PLC, C#, Vis­ual Ba­sic, Python – or com­ing up with ideas that would add value to sys­tems. As far as pro­gram­ming goes, I wouldn’t class my­self as a pro­fes­sional pro­gram­mer, I’d say a “good am­a­teur”. My cur­rent con­tract work is all Mi­crosoft Win­dows based.

LXF: That does sound in­ter­est­ing, but also not very Linux-ori­ented. What’s been your ex­pe­ri­ence of Linux? SF: Linux is great fun. I’ve used it for al­most a decade; how­ever, there have been times (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing), when I’ve se­ri­ously wanted to strap a stick of dy­na­mite to my lap­top, light the fuse and hurl it as far as the eye can see. I’ve also re­sorted to headache tablets for the sheer amount of frus­tra­tion re­sult­ing from at­tempts to get some­thing work­ing. And I’m se­ri­ously lucky to have an un­der­stand­ing wife, who al­lows me to spend an in­or­di­nate amount of hours tin­ker­ing on my PC.

LXF: I think we’ve all had those de­struc­tive urges. Lap­tops are get­ting bet­ter with Linux nowa­days, but also more and more throw­able, so these are dan­ger­ous times. Speak­ing of lap­tops, tell us about your re­cently pur­chased lap­top and how it played with our favourite OS.

SF: Well, six months ago I bought my­self a shiny new lap­top (a Len­ovo T460). I was ea­ger to play with my new state-of-the-art Win­dows 10 PC, but found that one of the most im­por­tant pieces of soft­ware I use ( RSLogix5000 for pro­gram­ming Allen Bradley con­trollers cost­ing more than the PC it­self) wouldn’t run on Win­dows 10. Down­grad­ing back to Win­dows 7 just seemed wrong.

I have a dual-boot setup on my old PC, with Win­dows as my pri­mary OS and Linux as my sec­ondary. In my work I’m also us­ing Rasp­berry Pis as data ac­qui­si­tion units. So I’ve been us­ing Linux more and more both at home and at work. The bright idea dawned on me to run Linux on my lap­top. It seemed log­i­cal, might be fun, and then I could run RSLogix5000 in a Win­dows 7 vir­tual ma­chine. LXF: How did the ini­tial setup go? SF: Amaz­ingly has­sle free. I down­loaded the 64-bit Ubuntu 16.04 ISO, made a bootable USB and dived straight in. My old lap­top had ev­ery­thing I needed on it, so as long as that didn’t conk be­fore I’d got ev­ery­thing run­ning cor­rectly (it didn’t – phew) I knew I’d be fine. Dual-boot­ing Ubuntu with Win­dows 10 was fine, and the HD screen looked great in Ubuntu. There were a few small tweaks and per­son­al­i­sa­tions (and I ex­pect there’ll be a few more), then the usual up­date drill, and then I was ready to rock and roll.

LXF: We enjoy both rock and roll here at LXF Tow­ers. What soft­ware and tool­ing did you need to find Linux equiv­a­lents for?

SF: I use Vis­ual Stu­dio, MS Of­fice, net­work mon­i­tor­ing tools plus a host of util­i­ties to keep track of in­cre­men­tal updates and mod­i­fi­ca­tions that I do. Life is eas­ier when you can undo things. I’ll go into some more de­tails…

Net­work mon­i­tor­ing

I’m used to Wire­shark on Win­dows, and the Linux vari­ant has the same look, feel and works flaw­lessly( should we tell him it orig­i­nated on Linux? –Ed). Wire­shark is one of the tools I use most often, whether it’s for re­verse-en­gi­neer­ing pro­to­cols, analysing traf­fic com­mu­ni­ca­tions or fault find­ing.

Mod­bus is one of the most com­mon ma­chine pro­to­cols for both se­rial or Eth­er­net. In the ab­sence of Wire­shark, a Mod­bus-en­abled de­vice re­fus­ing to com­mu­ni­cate usu­ally ends in a heated dis­cus­sion, fin­gers point­ing in every di­rec­tion and no one be­ing any the wiser as to why it isn’t work­ing. But with a sim­ple Wire­shark trans­ac­tion cap­ture, in con­junc­tion with an un­der­stand­ing of the pro­to­col, one can quickly find the un­der­ly­ing cause, ad­dress it and re­solve it, often with­out even a hint of shout­ing, wail­ing or gnash­ing of what­ever teeth you have left.

Tcp­dump is an in­cred­i­ble Wire­shark equiv­a­lent for com­mand line nerds such as my­self. That said, thanks to the ex­cel­lent Zen­map (the GUI for Nmap) I’ve be­come lazy and can hardly re­mem­ber even the most sim­ple Nmap op­tions. Zen­map makes a very good, “point, click, don’t have to think about it” tool to con­firm net­work topol­ogy.

Vis­ual Stu­dio

Com­ing from a .NET en­vi­ron­ment, I thought this would be easy to carry over and in­stall un­der Wine. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m sure there’s a huge fan­base of Wine; how­ever, af­ter three at­tempts, mul­ti­ple crashes, days of tweak­ing and work­ing with text that’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to read at 1080p, I be­gan to hate it with a vengeance. Headache tablets weren’t im­prov­ing my tem­per­a­ment, and that stick of dy­na­mite and duct tape were loom­ing ev­er­closer to my PC on a daily ba­sis.

The de­ci­sion was made for me when my wife handed over a two-pound lump ham­mer. I knew it was time to cut my losses and move on. I’d done so may hacks that I de­cided the best op­tion would be to wipe the PC clean, start again and move on to MonoDevelop. I take my hat off to the MonoDevelop team. Okay, it has its quirks, but it’s a good al­ter­na­tive.

Vis­ual Stu­dio .NET is an un­ques­tion­ably

on net­work di­ag­nos­tics “Tcp­dump is an in­cred­i­ble Wire­shark equiv­a­lent for com­mand line nerds”

out­stand­ing IDE. Any­one can get to grips with it and it’s a de­light to use. But since the ad­vent of WPF (the Win­dows Pre­sen­ta­tion Foun­da­tion), which is a must-have to take ad­van­tage of scal­able fonts on ap­pli­ca­tions, I think it’s kind of alien­ated the tin­ker­ers and ama­teurs, due to the two- to three-fold in­crease of code needed.

Pro­duc­ing graph­i­cal apps in MonoDevelop seems clunky at times. For ex­am­ple, cre­at­ing even the most sim­plis­tic menus seems need­lessly com­pli­cated com­pared to Vis­ual Stu­dio .NET. I had to port a cou­ple of in-house client apps, orig­i­nally writ­ten in Vis­ual Ba­sic (VB). I’m lazy, so rather than a re-write I used .NET Re­flec­tor to re­verse en­gi­neer VB into C# apps for per­sonal use. The VB side of Mono is lim­ited, and I’d ad­vise LXF read­ers to stick to C# for GTK ap­pli­ca­tions. How­ever, for com­mand line ap­pli­ca­tions, Mono worked like a charm. What made it come into its own for me, was the abil­ity to run these apps on a Rasp­berry Pi with the mono-run­time li­braries in­stalled. A joy to use, and to get paid to do it is a bonus.

MS Of­fice

What­ever we may think about Mi­crosoft, in the busi­ness world Mi­crosoft rules. In the web world, Linux rules. In the me­dia, Ap­ple rules. Each cap­tur­ing their own mar­ket share at what they do best. And in that cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment, Mi­crosoft’s Of­fice suite de­fines the choice of OS, leav­ing Linux out in the cold. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny Of­fice has cor­nered the pro­duc­tiv­ity suite of tools mar­ket.

Find­ing a Linux al­ter­na­tive with a good com­pat­i­bil­ity for doc, docx, xls, and xlsx files has been the bane of my life. Li­breOf­fice has led me to suf­fer too many em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments with some of my con­tract work. Com­pat­i­bil­ity with doc and xls for­mats is bril­liant; how­ever, with docx and xlsx it still leaves much to be de­sired. Try­ing to jus­tify why the para­graph pag­i­na­tion has changed on their PCs with re­spect to mine, or how an im­age has moved on to the next page gets tire­some af­ter a while.

Worse, graphs cre­ated in Calc can some­times look com­pletely dif­fer­ent in Ex­cel, or break en­tirely. I be­lieve the large num­ber of an­noy­ances, seen in the Mi­crosoft world as in­com­pat­i­bil­i­ties, are re­lated to the font dif­fer­ences be­tween MS Of­fice and the Linux open source ecosys­tem. The de­fault fonts used in MS Of­fice don’t help in the other di­rec­tion, either. OpenOf­fice and FreeOf­fice are no bet­ter, and in my opin­ion aren’t even up to the stan­dard of Li­breOf­fice.

Google Docs is great but lim­ited. It does a good job if you just need the ba­sics and have an In­ter­net con­nec­tion. WPSOf­fice is an ex­cel­lent al­ter­na­tive, but to get the full set of fea­tures you need to buy a li­cense. How­ever, when deal­ing with xlsx and docx files, it does well to pass scru­tiny in the MS Of­fice world. I’m lucky in that I only use a small por­tion of the huge ar­ray of fea­tures in any Of­fice suite – just enough to get the job done, and be able to de­liver in time.

Pow­er­ful Email

Thun­der­bird, with the ExQuilla add-on to ac­cess MS ex­change ac­counts, is one of the most re­li­able email clients out there. For ev­ery­day use, it does the job perfectly. Yet the pro­gram has one tiny glitch which, al­though ex­tremely triv­ial, is driv­ing me in­sane. So much so, each time this oc­curs, my col­leagues sit­ting either side of me will silently dis­ap­pear as I hurl a large volume of abuse at my PC.

When writ­ing an email, hit Return and the cur­sor will stay in its last known po­si­tion. You nat­u­rally as­sume you haven’t hit the Return key cor­rectly, and hit it again. Start typ­ing and you’re now two lines down. WT*?! Last week, a re­cent up­date to my sur­prise fixed this (phew), a huge sigh of re­lief. Nope – three days later the glitch is back again. Mozilla devs, please, please, fix this for the sake of my poor col­leagues who have to sit next to me.

On time be­ing a pre­cious com­mod­ity “Just be­cause Linux is free, it has no bear­ing on the fi­nal cost to use in any sit­u­a­tion”

Back­ups, ver­sion con­trol

We need to keep track of all the it­er­a­tions, mod­i­fi­ca­tions on all our re­mote ma­chines. The choice of method­olo­gies out there in the open source ecosys­tem is over­whelm­ing. Mine ended up be­ing on the com­mand line us­ing rsync over SSH. All wrapped up in a few Bash scripts. Then us­ing Git to keep track of it all. I can’t thank the con­trib­u­tors of Git, Git Cola ( https://git-cola. github.io) and Git Diag enough for their ef­forts. Living in a world where ac­count­abil­ity and keep­ing a record of what has been done is key, this has taken a huge weight off my shoul­ders. Usu­ally I’m ab­so­lutely lousy at keep­ing track of all the for­ever chang­ing tweaks I do for im­prove­ments and sta­bil­ity.

(Many) Text edi­tors

One item that caught me by sur­prise was the good old text ed­i­tor. Ev­ery­one has their favourites and I’d heard of sev­eral: Emacs, Sub­lime, Atom, gedit, Geany, Nano, Vim, GVim, Ul­traEdit, Blue­fish, Kate… I could go on, but you’d prob­a­bly lose in­ter­est ( No way! Text edi­tors area con­stant source of im­pas­sioned dis­cus­sion her eat LXF tow­ers–Ed ). My choice ended up be­ing Vis­ual Stu­dio Code. You may ask why? I have to be hon­est: sheer ran­dom luck. My cur­rent work re­quires a knowl­edge of Python (which I had none of at the time). It’s the first one I tried with a Python ex­ten­sion added. It gave me the abil­ity to test code line by line, which is very use­ful for users like me who have to get to grips with a new lan­guage fast. Ev­ery­thing worked out of the box with­out hav­ing to al­ter a sin­gle file. So I stuck with it for ev­ery­thing else that I do. LXF: In­ter­est­ing choices in­deed. So it’s been six months – what are your thoughts? Are you go­ing to stick with Linux on your lap­top? SF: Yes, I’m still us­ing Linux as my pri­mary OS. It’s a close call. Time is the defin­ing fac­tor. For work it’s im­por­tant to be neu­tral and have no af­fil­i­a­tion to any OS I in­stall on my PC. That’s not what my clients are in­ter­ested in. What is im­por­tant is com­plet­ing the work in the con­tracted time agreed. If I spent a large por­tion of time edit­ing doc­u­ments and putting data into spread­sheets, I wouldn’t be hav­ing this de­bate. As I’m not, the tools in Linux have been able to save me time, en­abling me to use it as my pri­mary OS and enjoy do­ing so.

Just be­cause Linux is free, it has no bear­ing on the fi­nal cost to use in any sit­u­a­tion. Time, I’m afraid, in this day and age is the most ex­pen­sive com­mod­ity, not the OS, nor the ap­pli­ca­tions for ev­ery­day use. But Linux is my ev­ery­day de­fault now, and I’m happy with it. I still have to dual boot with Win­dows 10 and I have a Win­dows 7 VM for be­spoke ap­pli­ca­tions that only ex­ist there.

LXF: What about desk­tops? I know you’re us­ing Ubuntu with Unity at the mo­ment. Have you tried other desk­tops? SF: I did use Cin­na­mon for years. I like to do things by hand so I ended up in­stalling it on Ubuntu rather than in­stalling Mint and mak­ing life easy for my­self. How­ever, af­ter 16.04 that be­came a lot trick­ier and messier to do; I’m not sure if it was Cin­na­mon be­come less por­ta­ble or Unity be­com­ing more im­mutable. As for the big names – Gnome and KDE – I’ve never re­ally warmed to either of them. I’m not sure why: they’re both out­stand­ing desk­tops, but they’re just not for me. LXF: What have you learned from your ad­ven­tures switch­ing to Linux? SF: We as a hu­man race are fickle and lazy in my opin­ion. Mi­crosoft has taken full ad­van­tage of that. A nice eye-candy in­ter­face and a good num­ber of point and click ap­pli­ca­tions make it very easy to use. To the aver­age Mr and Mrs Bloggs, that’s all they want. Much like their car, they have lit­tle in­ter­est in what’s un­der the bon­net. Linux eye candy is catch­ing up fast; how­ever, it still has a way to go with re­gards to point and click.

In ad­di­tion, dur­ing an in­tro­duc­tion of Linux to the aver­age user, the OSS can eas­ily be mis­con­strued as dif­fi­cult to use – not helped by the large choice of in­ter­faces avail­able. But if these things are ex­plained cor­rectly and care­fully, those mis­con­cep­tions quickly dis­ap­pear. If you take it fur­ther, as I did, and be­come one of those lucky ones who are will­ing to look un­der the bon­net, you’ll see the in­cred­i­ble choice of tools cre­ated by the open source com­mu­nity. It’s a PC me­chanic’s de­light. For that, my grat­i­tude knows no bounds. LXF: There are plenty of guides out there about switch­ing from Win­dows to Linux. And a lot of them are much of a much­ness. We do one once a year, and we try and add some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent, but that can be hard when you’re not in the mind­set of a Win­dows user. Are there points that you feel such guides miss, or any­thing you wish these guides told you in ad­vance? SF: I sup­pose there’s al­most an el­e­ment of de­cep­tion. Be­cause desk­tops such as Cin­na­mon and MATE make the tran­si­tion to Linux cos­met­i­cally very easy, but un­der the hood Linux and Win­dows are com­pletely dif­fer­ent beasts. It’s like a petrol en­gine vs a diesel en­gine: they both do the same thing and to the un­trained eye they both look the same. But the fuel re­quired for both and the method­ol­ogy to con­vert it into use­ful work are com­pletely dif­fer­ent. To me that’s the key. Let it be known from the start that the cog­wheels that make Linux and Win­dows turn bear no re­sem­blance to one an­other. LXF: Nice – I’ll be sure to ad­vise po­ten­tial converts that they must let go of their Win-cen­tric pre­con­cep­tions. What about this mag­a­zine? Has Linux For­mat helped you in your jour­ney to the pen­guin side? SF: Ab­so­lutely! The small snip­pets of code be­lie a wealth of use­ful learn­ing. Or when a new app ap­pears in an ar­ti­cle, and it makes you think, “I could use that!”. There’s al­ways some­thing around the cor­ner. Al­ways some­thing to keep you in­ter­ested! LXF: Aww, thanks, you’re a true gent. Any fi­nal tips for new Linux users? SF: Yes. Three ac­tu­ally. First, when look­ing for an ap­pli­ca­tion, say an email client, it’s al­ways worth try­ing two or three be­fore set­tling on one. Linux is all about choice. Sec­ond, get un­der that bon­net. Get to know the com­mand line as your friend. Point­ing and click­ing may be easy, but it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the quick­est way. For ex­am­ple, you can cre­ate 100 num­bered text files with touch my­files{1..100}.txt .

Fi­nally, set your­self a time limit. Linux some­times has a nasty habit of let­ting you de­vi­ate from the topic at hand. If you’re spend­ing too much time try­ing to re­solve some­thing, move on to the next sub­ject. A fresh eye the next day usu­ally re­veals the an­swer.

on hu­man fail­ings “We as a hu­man race are fickle and lazy, Mi­crosoft has taken full ad­van­tage of that”

Here’s the orig­i­nal chart from Ex­cel. Note the pleas­ing gra­di­ents on both the bars and the back­ground…

…and here’s Li­breOf­fice’s take on the sit­u­a­tion, in which we’ve lost the data al­to­gether. That’s not very help­ful at all!

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