New Linux Releases from Ubuntu and SuSE

Ubuntu LogoIn the same way as you wait ages for a bus only for two to come along at once, it’s the season for new Linux releases. Today Canonical released Ubuntu 14.10, aka Utopic Unicorn, and in less than two weeks OpenSuSE will push out 13.2. I’m a SuSE user so I’ll be downloading that over the weekend and getting stuck in.

openSUSEIt’s good to see such a flurry of activity. The new releases all have a plethora of new features. Interestingly, Ubuntu is going after the Android developers with the new Ubuntu Developer Tools Centre which helps coders develop apps. The new Centre downloads the Android toolkits along with libraries and dependencies, bringing them into the launcher. Although first available for Android, the plan is to extend this to other platforms such as Go and Dart. A big win too is that Netflix now plays in Chrome without any trickery!

From OpenSuSE, the new release focuses on the much-improved Gnome desktop (3.14), though KDE users aren’t forgotten either with plenty of improvements there too. I think it would be fair to say that it’s an incremental release but there’s still plenty to look forward to – more will be revealed as the release gets closer.

Reflecting on recent use, I don’t get to use my desktop as much as I used to. Like many other people have found, tablets have taken over for day-to-day computing and the desktop has been relegated to occasional use. Between a Nexus 7, a Chromebook, a local NAS and the cloud, my big box is heading for extinction. Much as I love tinkering with Linux and RAID, I really don’t know if I’ll replace the PC when the time comes. It is undoubtedly a post-PC era.

Not happy with the look of Windows 8.x? Make it resemble Ubuntu

While reviews of Windows 8.x have been mixed, it seems there is a perception problem with the general public about Microsoft’s latest operating system. Version 8 was largely hated, and 8.1 only went so far in fixing those issues. The company plans to go further when “Threshold”, or Windows 9, debuts later this year.

However, if you’d like to at least change the look of the OS, you can get a taste of Linux with an Ubuntu theme for it. Ubuntu is perhaps the most universally loved consumer version of Linux, though Mint has been gaining steam recently. It has a beautiful user interface that makes it consumer-friendly.

Don’t worry, you won’t have to actually install Linux, or learn all of the associated commands — a theme called Mavericks (ironically the same as the latest OS X) can go over top of Windows 8 and just make it look as if you are running the rival operating system.

It’s a free to download and install, though a premium version is available for a mere $1.35, which is a small price to pay by any app or software standard. The theme was created by the good folks over at Deviant Art and can be found here. You’ll also want to read the detailed instructions and get the visual style information.

maverick_8_1_for_windows_8_1_by_dpcdpc11-d7voprz

Portal, Portal 2 arrive in Steam for Linux

Two popular Valve games, Portal and Portal 2, have arrived on Steam for Linux. The two games, released in 2007 and 2011 respectively, have previously been available for the Windows and Mac platforms.

This latest Valve game release for Linux is very good news at a time when Steam for Linux usage has been sinking. The April figures for the Steam hardware survey are now public and they indicate further losses. In March the Linux usage was at 1.6-1.7% and now, for April, it’s down to 1.5-1.6%.

portal 2

Portal is selling for $9.99, while the newer Portal 2 retails for $19.99. The Portal series is a very popular first-person puzzle-platform game. Other big releases such as Left 4 Dead 2 are expected to be coming soon.

Pogoplug Mobile Review

Pogoplug LogoThe cloud is definitely where it’s at right now, but what if you don’t like the idea the idea of Google, Dropbox et al looking after your data? Then you might be interested in a Pogoplug, which allows you to create your own cloud storage that’s only limited by the size of the hard disk. A Pogoplug is a hardware gadget that connects USB storage devices to your local LAN and then makes the space available across the Internet, effectively creating a personal cloud. The data is stored in your control and if more storage is needed, plug-in a bigger hard drive.

On review here is the Pogoplug Mobile, the 3rd generation of Pogoplug device from Cloud Engines. It offers a single USB port plus an SD card slot along with the network port and power socket. Newer Pogoplugs come with USB3 ports, but as the maximum speed of the Pogoplug cloud is always going to be the speed of the Internet connection, the faster transfer speeds of USB3 are unlikely to be a significant benefit. For testing, I used a 64 GB memory stick, rather than a hard drive, which means that the unit will run silently with minimal power consumption.

Pogoplug Packaging

The Pogoplug website has downloads for Windows, Macs and Linux, and the relevant app stores have versions for Android, iOS, Blackberry and legendary WebOS. I was able to try the Windows, Linux, Android and WebOS versions. The Windows version connects to the Pogoplug and presents it as a drive letter, allowing most Windows applications to use the Pogoplug transparently. The Pogoplug software has additional backup functionality as well, which may be useful for some people. The Linux version is command line only but anyone familiar with Linux will have no trouble getting the Pogoplug mounted into the filesystem.

The Android app is simple and straightforward with a couple of nice tricks up its sleeve. Broadly you can browse files in a directory fashion or you can view music, photos and movies in a tag or meta-data based fashion, As expected, there are viewers and players for the media, though movies get handed over to the default app rather than playing within the Pogoplug app. The music player is basic and has one really irritating flaw; it doesn’t seem to be able to pick up the track number from the mp3 files and consequently orders tracks alphabetically when playing albums. This really needs to be fixed.

Back viewPerformance-wise, the Pogoplug is always going to be limited by the upload (rather than download) speed of the broadband connection when outside of the home. This usually meant a little bit of buffering before playing music but once the playback got underway, there was rarely any stuttering. There were occasional times when folders refused to refresh but my suspicion is that any problems were down to the local data connection on my phone rather than a problem with the Pogoplug. YMMV. Inside my home, the performance was excellent.

In common with other social and cloud apps, the Pogoplug app has automatic uploading of pictures and video from the devices camera. It’s also possible to set the folder where the uploaded images are to go. Frankly, this is brilliant as my wife is hopeless at remembering to copy photos off her smartphone so by setting up the Pogoplug app on her phone, any photos she takes get automatically transferred. On occasion, a photo would sometimes fail to completely upload; again I suspect the loss of 3G connectivity than any fundamental problem, but the error checking could be improved. It’s also possible to upload any image from within the photo Gallery app.

As with most cloud solutions, you can also share with friends and family, using either the app or the web interface. It’s straightforward – select the folder you want to share, select who you want to share with and an email is sent to them with the relevant link. It’s an easy way to share photos of Junior with grandma and grandpa.

Any downsides? Only two that i can see….first, there’s no direct integration with any other apps that I could find. Quickoffice and other office apps typically allow access straight into Google Drive or Dropbox but none seemed to work with a Pogoplug. Effectively I had to download a Word doc to the phone, do my edits in QuickOffice and then upload the doc back to the Pogoplug. Not slick.

The second is that when I was at home and on the same subnet as the Pogoplug, Internet access to Pogoplug’s servers was still needed, presumably to check authorisation privileges. Normally, it’s not going to be an issue, but it would be handy to have a way to bypass this when working locally and the connection to the Internet goes down.

Overall, the Pogoplug is a handy device that gives you control over your data rather than entrusting it to a megacorp. A few glitches spoil what is otherwise a neat little solution that potentially gives as much data storage space as you need, without paying per GB per annum. For the low cost of the Pogoplug unit (about $50 / £35), it’s a bargain.

Disclaimer – this was a personally purchased device.

OpenSUSE 12.2 Out Now

OpenSuSE logoFor Linux fans, there’s a new version of OpenSUSE out today, bringing the version number to 12.2. Albeit a little late, this new version sees some significant upgrades and changes which improve performance and reliability. OpenSUSE is one of the big 5 Linux distributions so it’ll be a solid release.

In additional to the 3.4 kernel, KDE is bumped to 4.8.4 and Gnome to 3.4. SuSE has always been a strong proponent of the KDE desktop (my personal favourite) so I’ll be checking that out later. LibreOffice 3.5 brings word processing and spreadsheets to the party and Gimp 2.8 is on hand for image editing.

“We are proud of this release, maintaining the usual high openSUSE quality standards.” said Andrew Wafaa from the openSUSE Board. “The delay in the schedule caused by our growth in the last two years means we have to work on scaling our processes. Now this release is out and with the upcoming openSUSE conference in October in Prague, the community has time and opportunity to work on that.”

I run OpenSUSE on my main PC so I’ll be upgrading soon – the distro is downloading via BitTorrent as we speak – but live upgrades are also now supported so I might investigate that for the first time.

The full press release is here.

A Slice Of Raspberry Pi

Image Couresty of The Raspberry Pi Foundation

The long-awaited U.S. release of Raspberry Pi hit snag this month when the folks behind the pint-sized PC (credit card-sized, actually) realized the units were manufactured with non-magnetic jacks. “No magnetics means no network connection,” a blog post stated on the Raspberry Pi site earlier this month.

Tech folks have been buzzing about this British non-profit start-up (The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a UK registered charity) since it announced it was taking pre-orders for its Raspberry Pi and demand outstripped supply within minutes. Originally designed to provide a cheap, versatile and powerful little PC for young people to learn programming with, Raspberry Pi has instead captured attention from the entire programming world – many of whom (myself included) are waitlisted for the $25 to $35 dollar machine (probably more like $50 after taxes/shipping).

The draw is threefold – it’s inexpensive, versatile and small. Essentially, it’s a little Linux machine on a RM11-based Broadbom BCM2835 200MHz ARM processor with up to 256MB of SDRAM, composite and HDMI outputs, USB and memory card slots. No case, no bells, whistles, etc. They have a pretty extensive FAQ – it will answer all of your technical inquiries and then some.

Sounds pretty cool – a neat little PC that programmers both novice and pro can push and pull in many directions. The Raspberry Pi team has already taken to testing this little wallet-sized computer to the max, like running Quake 3 on it with minimal issues.

Outside of the technical impressiveness and the attractively cheap price, it’s the goal of this project that deserves the most respect. From the Raspberry Pi team – “We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we’re doing. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children. We think that 2012 is going to be a very exciting year.”

They’ve got the buzz. They’ve got the mission. Now, all they need is magnetic jacks. Stay tuned.

Moving from Windows Media Center to Linux Media Center

When I first decided to put a computer in my home theater cabinet I wasn’t sure how much we would really use it.  After all, I wasn’t ready to give up DirecTV so I wasn’t concerned with the DVR functionality because there is no DirecTV tuner available.  What I wanted was to have all of our photographs viewable on the TV, our music (almost 100 GB) to be playable through our receiver and speakers, and our DVD’s to be ripped and placed in an easier-to-access location than a drawer.

Consequently, I bought a cheap used desktop (as in non-tower case) computer off of Ebay.  My first goal was price and my second was something that would sit on a shelf in the cabinet with the HD DVR, receiver, and the like.  Because I wasn’t sure how much we would use it, I went cheap – a Pentium 4 processor system.  I did some back-end upgrades when I received it – I added RAM and upgraded the video and sound cards to give it SPDIF audio out and DVI video out.  This got the video and audio into the A/V receiver via a SPDIF cable and a DVI to HDMI cable.  The system has been solid for two years running Windows 7 Ultimate, with Media Center set to open on Startup.  I have customized the software also – Media Center Studio is great for tweaking the WMC interface, and MyMovies is a much better DVD library than WMC’s built-in library.

The computer is now outdated – okay, maybe it was when I bought it – and we use it EVERY day.  I am faced with two options – buy a new computer or scale back the load on the existing one.  In the long run, I will be buying a new PC.  In the short term, however, I am considering scaling back the software – not the functionality, just the processor and memory intensive parts of it.  In fact, I will be adding functionality while my computer does less work to run it.

I stumbled on Linux Media Center a couple of years ago and was intrigued by it, but never took the plunge.  Since then I have checked back with their website periodically and watched it evolve.  I have marveled at the functionality it brings that isn’t present in Windows Media Center.  There’s control of the home security system, home automation, telephones, and more.  Sure, some of that can be added to Windows Media Center, but it’s added – not built-in.  And, in some cases, it will cost you.  Linux Media Center also comes with mobile apps for smartphone and tablet use, while WMC doesn’t.  There are unofficial WMC apps, like the MyRemote for Android, which I use, it’s not quite the same as a full-featured, fully-integrated app.

So, I am now contemplating taking that plunge that I have so long considered.  Over the next few days I will install Linux Media Center and will begin exploring and writing about what I encounter and what I like and don’t like.  In the meantime, I have posted a couple of random screenshots below and if you want more information, you can visit LinuxMCE.com.

Ubuntu Linux Heads for Smartphones and Tablets

ZDNet is reporting that Canonical is intending to make the next release of Ubuntu, 12.04, a LTS (Long Term Support) release with intention of then expanding Ubuntu beyond desktops and laptops into smartphones, tablets and smart TVs, with a target of 2014 for an all-platform release.

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, in an interview said, “This is a natural expansion of our idea as Ubuntu as Linux for human beings. As people have moved from desktop to new form factors for computing, it’s important for us to reach out to out community on these platforms. So, we’ll embrace the challenge of how to use Ubuntu on smartphones, tablets and smart-screens.” The full announcement is expected at the Ubuntu Developer Summit, which starts tomorrow and runs for a week in Orlando, Florida.

Having already been in discussions with partners for around 18 months, it seems that this is more than wishful thinking, but one can’t help feel that the whole Palm-HP-WebOS debacle bodes badly for any company wanting to get in on the smartphone and tablet space. If HP can’t make it happen with a solid OS and Zen of Palm, what hope has Canonical? When quizzed about this, Shuttleworth said that he saw “Android as its primary competitor…..We’ve also already heard from people who are already shipping tablets that they want Ubuntu on the tablet.” And of course, “Ubuntu already has a developer and customer base.”

While there’s no doubt that the mobile space is still maturing and there’s plenty of change still to come,  I have a hard time seeing Ubuntu on anything but a small niche of tablets and an even smaller niche of smartphones. iOS and Android have their foothold and Microsoft will be a solid third if Windows Phone 7 continues to deliver and Windows 8 delivers as expected. A fourth player is going to have difficulty making inroads, especially one as relatively unknown as Canonical and Ubuntu.

Smart TVs are a more plausible destination as the internal software is of less concern to the consumer. Most people buying a TV are looking at the exterior brand such as Sony, Samsung or LG, and not what’s inside, although this may change if a “Powered by Roku” or “Google TV inside” campaign runs. Plenty of change to come in this space too.

I wish Ubuntu every success.

Check File Copies with Linux Scripts

OpenSuSE logoFor several years, I’ve had an original Buffalo LinkStation NAS as my main fileserver. Being on 24×7, it’s gone through several fans and at least one hard disk, but it’s now time to retire it in favour of a LinkStation Duo which will give me more space, RAID capabilities and faster transfer speeds.

Naturally, as my main fileserver, it’s backed up. However when I copy the files to the new Duo, how do I know that they’ve all copied correctly and none have been missed? There are hundreds of thousands of files and checking each one by hand would be pointless.

Linux has lots of tools that tell me how much disk space is used, such as du, df and filelight, but they don’t always report back consistently between filesystems. Mostly for reasons of speed, they report the total size of the file blocks used to store a file and as block sizes can vary between filesystems, the total number of blocks used for a set of files will be different. For example, I have two folder sets that I know are identical and du -s on one reports 210245632 and on the other 209778684.

Fortunately, there’s an extra command line flag that will change the behaviour to take longer and sum the actual bytes. In this case, du -sb will return 214813009920 bytes on both filesystems. On the whole, I can be reasonably confident that if the total number of bytes used is the same between two filesystems, then all the files have copied correctly.

But what if the total number of bytes don’t match? How can I find the missing or truncated file? After thinking and tinkering, what I want is to get a list of files with each filesize from the old and new filesystems and then compare the two. And here’s how you do it (each section here goes on one line).

find /home/old_folder -type f -printf '%s %p\n' |
sed 's/\/home\/old_folder\///' | sort > old.txt
find /home/new_folder -type f -printf '%s %p\n' |
sed 's/\/home\/new_folder\///' | sort > new.txt
diff -wy --suppress-common-lines old.txt new.txt

If you aren’t used to Linux, this can look a bit scary, but it’s not really. The first two lines create the text files with all the files and the third line compares the two. The the first two lines are much the same in that they do the same commands but on different filesystems. There are three sections, find to list all the files, sed to chop the directory path off, and sort to get all the files in some sort of order. Here are some explanations.

find – finds files
/some/folder – where to start finding files
-type f – only interested in files (not directories or links)
-printf ‘%s %p\n’ – only print the filesize (%s) and the full pathname (%p) on each line (\n)

sed – processes text
‘s/x/y/’ – means replace x with y. In our instance, it’s replacing the leading folder path with nothing. It looks worse than it is because the slashes in the path need to be escaped by a preceeding backslash, so you get these \/s everywhere.

sort – sorts text
> file.txt – copy everything into a text file.

One of the clever things about Unix-like operating systems is that you can pass information from one command to another using a pipe. That’s represented by the | symbol, so the find command gets the information on files and files sizes, passes it to sed to tidy up which then in turn passes it on to sort before sending it to a file.

After running this set of commands on the old and new filesystems, all that needs done is to compare the files. Let’s look at the third and final command.

diff – compares files line-by-line
-w – ignore whitespace (spaces and tabs)
-y – compare files side-by-side
–suppress-common-lines – ignore lines that are the same
old.txt new.txt – the two files to compare

So what might the output of the diff be? If all the files copied correctly, you’d get absolutely nothing. Other possibilities are that the file partially copied or didn’t copy at all. Here’s what the output might be like.

598 i386/compdata/epson3.txt | 500 i386/compdata/epson3.txt
598 i386/compdata/onstream.txt <

The numbers at the beginning of the entry are the number of bytes, so the first line shows that the epson3.txt is only 500 bytes long in the new file but 598 in the old. The second line shows that onstream.txt is present in the old file but not in the new, as the arrow points to the old file.

To close the story, did I find that I had lost any files? Yes, I did. I discovered a couple of small files that hadn’t copied at all because of non-standard characters in their filenames. The filenames were acceptable to Windows but not Linux and I’d used my Linux PC to do the copying. Fortunately, the files were saved and all the scripting was worth it.

Read more on Linux at Geek News Central.

Network Switches and Data Transfer Speeds

I recently upgraded my home network from 100 Mb/s to 1 Gb/s by replacing the switches. The main house switch is an unmanaged 1U rack-mounted switch, with a second desktop switch. Out of pure interest, I took the opportunity to do a little bit of speed testing to see how much of a difference upgrading the switches made in terms of actual data transfer speeds.

A few basics to avoid confusion  – b/s is bits per second and B/s is bytes per second. All of the reported figures will be in MB, so converting b/s to B/s:
Fast Ethernet = 100 Mb/s = 12.5 MB/s
Gigabit Ethernet = 1 Gb/s = 125 MB/s

100 Mb/s and 1 Gb/s refer to the speed of the underlying technology but data transfers at these rates are never achieved because of protocol overheads and such. As a baseline, if I write a large file (8 GB) to my PC’s local disk, I get a data transfer of between 50-55 MB/s.

On my network, I have two Buffalo Linkstation NAS devices, one with a Fast Ethernet interface and one with a Gigabit Ethernet interface. 2 GB’s worth of data would be written to each of these devices with different Ethernet switches in place to see what actual data transfer speeds would be achieved. The following Linux command was used five times in each situation and the result averaged.

time dd if=/dev/zero of=testfile bs=16k count=16384
Switch Model Data Rate to Fast NAS Data Rate to Gigabit NAS
1U Rack
Dynamode SW240010-R(Fast) 6.2 MB/s 8.6 MB/s
TP-Link TL-SG1016 (Gigabit) 6.4 Mb/s 21.4 MB/s
Desktop
D-Link DES-1008D (Fast) 6.2 MB/s 8.6 MB/s
Netgear GS605 (Gigabit) 6.5 MB/s 21.1 MB/s

I also carried out two further tests:

  1. With Gigabit Ethernet only, I wrote to both NAS devices at the same time. The data transfer speeds were unaffected.
  2. I connected the two Gigabit Ethernet switches in series and wrote to the NAS. Transfer speeds were reduced by 1 MB/s on the Gigabit NAS to 20 MB/s. The change on the Fast Ethernet NAS was minimal.

There are several things that can be deduced from the information shown in the table above and the other tests.

  1. Actual data transfer rates are considerably less than the theoretical maximums.
  2. There’s no performance difference between rack-mounted and desktop switches.
  3. The write speed of the NAS can be a limiting factor.
  4. Gigabit Ethernet switches give large improvements with Gigabit Ethernet devices.
  5. Gigabit Ethernet switches give small improvements even with Fast Ethernet devices.
  6. Keep the number of switches in the network path to a minimum.