My Mate Fedora

I’ve been using Fedora 18 on my laptop for a couple of weeks now. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I found Gnome 3 and the Gnome Shell to be a way-better experience than I’d remembered from my previous dabbling with it. It looks pretty good and behaved more-or-less rationally -and that meant I was happy to stick with it, despite me hating it last time I tried.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last!

Gnome 3/Gnome Shell on this particular laptop, anyway, has turned out to be incredibly unstable, locking up at least once a day. The laptop didn’t crash, mind: although my display would freeze (so progress bars, for example, would stop progressing; and application windows would stop being clickable or drag-able), I was able to hit Ctrl+Alt+F2 and switch to a new text console, which would function perfectly well. I was even able to Ctrl+Alt+F3, log on in a third new text console, do a startx and launch an entirely new desktop. So: definitely not hung.

But a pain in the neck, and not conducive to serious productivity.

I toyed with the idea of a new O/S, but in the end decided I liked Fedora 18 well enough to try an alternative approach. I ended up issuing this command:

yum groupinstall "MATE Desktop"

That buys you a few tens of megs of download… and then a desktop that looks exactly like the one which ships with CentOS 6.3 (i.e., a Gnome 2 desktop -though Mate now uses a lot of Gnome 3 libraries, meaning it’s not the programming dead-end it originally appeared to be when it was first forked from Gnome 2).

First thing to say: I really liked it. I thought I liked Gnome 3, but the sense of relief when the MATE desktop appeared was palpable. I will confess that it took me a while to stop mousing into the top left-hand corner of the screen to quickly bring up an overview of all open windows -a Gnome 3 nice touch. MATE has exactly the same functionality, though: it’s just that you mouse into the top right-hand corner!

Even better, a quick:

yum install compiz compiz-mate fusion-icon-gtk compiz-plugins-main \
compiz-plugins-extra compiz-plugins-extra-mate compiz-plugins-main-mate \
compiz-plugins-unsupported compiz-plugins-unsupported-mate

…followed by….

yum install emerald-themes emerald-themes-extra

…and I had my old friends -wobbly windows, desktop cube and some glitzy windows title bars- back where they belong. Call me old-fashioned, I suppose, but the inability to have those particular desktop effects in Gnome Shell was something I definitely missed.

More to the point, though: not only was the new desktop immediately more comfortable and familiar than I’d expected, it also has turned out to be much more stable and reliable. Gone are the lock-ups experienced with Gnome Shell: this thing is still Fedora 18, but hasn’t skipped a beat since it was installed.

My only gripe is that my menus have lots of duplicates in them: two “Archive Managers”, two “Calculators”, two “Disk Usage Analyzers” and so on. Using alacarte to manually prune menus hasn’t altered that, but it is, in any case, just a minor niggle.

All up, then, I thoroughly recommend Fedora 18… just not with the Gnome Shell.

Loyaulte me lie

Loyalty me lie …Richard III’s motto, “Loyalty Binds Me” (and that’s his skull on the left). The discovery of the bones of the late King in a Leicester car park inspired me (finally, after years of dithering) to part with a few dollars and join the Richard III Society (whose members effectively funded the recent dig).

Some of us always knew that Henry VII was a money-grubbing, tight-fisted charlatan with no more right to the Crown of England than Mrs Miggins and her Christmas Pussycat. It is so nice to have been vindicated at last.

It will eventually transpire, I think, that the two Princes in the Tower buggered off for a fortnight in the Costa del Sol, circa 1483, and decided to set up a Grappa and Schnapps scuba dive bar, rather than face the trauma of steering the English throne through the travails of the Renaissance.

Anyway, I’d just like to add that we are all Plantagenets now.

Handbrake on Fedora 18

Needing to install Handbrake on Fedora 18, I found a bunch of different instructions in different corners of the Internet, none of which worked without tweaking. Here are the commands that worked for me (done as root, of course):

yum groupinstall "Development Tools" 

yum -y install libass-devel libsamplerate-devel libogg-devel libtheora-devel libvorbis-devel 

yum install yasm zlib-devel bzip2-devel fribidi-devel dbus-glib-devel \ 
libgudev1-devel webkitgtk-devel libnotify-devel gstreamer-devel \
gstreamer-plugins-base-devel libsamplerate-devel 

svn checkout svn://svn.handbrake.fr/HandBrake/trunk hb-trunk 

cd hb-trunk 

./configure 

cd build 

gmake 

make install

Toshiba P870 and Fedora 18

It hasn’t exactly been plain-sailing with my new laptop! It shipped with Windows 8 and I won’t touch that with the proverbial barge-pole, so it was clear from the outset that some sort of O/S re-installation would be required. I didn’t expect it to be such a trauma, though.

For starters, none of my distro CDs or DVDs would actually boot. Traditionally, this usually happens because the computer BIOS has a boot order set, and the hard disk often appears in that before the DVD drive. So, no problem: change boot order, make sure DVD is top of the list… and still nothing.

It turns out that this is a direct consequence of Microsoft’s insistence on “Secure Boot” (which you can read about here, for example). I’ve followed that particular saga on various websites for months, but never imagined I’d become one of its victims. But that’s exactly what I was: dig around in the P870′s UEFI settings long enough and you’ll find an option to disable secure boot… after which Linux distros will boot fine. I find it annoying that something trivially easy to do in the past has now become difficult and non-obvious to fix: if you didn’t know about Secure Boot and its consequences for Linux, how would you know to go looking for the option to disable it? You could well argue that someone wanting to boot Linux is likely to be technically clued-up enough to know about Secure Boot -but although I would consider myself to be in that bracket, it wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind and I had no idea what I was looking for in the BIOS even after I suspected that it might be a secure boot problem. I call that irritating.

Anyway, I finally managed to boot Fedora 17 and install it on a partition I’d vacated from within Windows. Installation was smooth… except that Windows 8 was no longer bootable afterwards. I did everything I could think of to get Windows 8 bootability back, but nothing worked. Fundamentally, I didn’t mind much, because I’d never expected to use the O/S much anyway -but having paid for the damn thing, it would have been nice to be able to at least burn some ‘rescue media’ to use later, if I wanted. I was, actually, a bit miffed that Toshiba supply absolutely nothing with their Prince of Laptops: no drivers disk, no O/S disk, nothing. Instead, it’s all on a ‘rescue partition’, and you’re supposed to burn off copies from there before you stuff around with anything. Being the gung-ho chap that I am, however, I didn’t do that. So, without Windows 8, I couldn’t access the rescue partition. And without that rescue partition, my license to use Windows 8 at some point in the future no longer existed.

In the end, I was reduced simply to wiping the whole thing and just kissing goodbye to Windows 8 entirely (my Technet subscription will get me a copy if I ever feel the need for it in the future, I guess). It disappoints me, though, that Toshiba don’t provide physical installation media for what is their their top-of-the-line laptop.(I’ve read that apparently they do… if you are prepared to pay them $66 for the privilege of them sending it to you. Seems a bit steep, to me).

On went Windows 7, with mercifully few dramas: Toshiba have a page-full of Windows drivers you can download and apply, so everything ended up working quite easily -except for the graphics. Before you can install the NVidia graphics driver (which Toshiba supply), you are told you have to install the Intel integrated graphics driver (which Toshiba doesn’t supply). A not-so-quick trip to Intel’s bewildering website later, however, and even that was sorted. So I had a fully-functioning Windows 7 laptop, finally… and only two days after I’d bought it!

Then, it was a new install -this time of Fedora 18, the latest and greatest from the Fedora fold. There are two fundamental problems with using Fedora on this laptop: the Ethernet port is not detected; and the Wireless Ethernet port is not detected either. So you can install the O/S perfectly well -but you’ll have zero connectivity, making it as useful as a chocolate teapot, basically.

Thankfully, this is fixable. First you will need to copy a bunch of rpms off your installation DVD to some directory or other (hunt around in the packages directory for each of them, being careful to match the names exactly):

cloog-ppl-0.15.11-4.fc18.1.x86_64.rpm
ppl-0.11.2-10.fc18.x86-64.rpm
ppl-pwl-0.11.2-10.fc18.x86_64.rpm
libmpc-0.9.3.fc18.2.x86_64.rpm
cpp-4.7.2-8.fc18.x86_64.rpm
gcc-4.7.2-8.fc18.x86_64.rpm
glibc-headers-2.6-24.fc18.x86_64.rpm
glibc-devel-2.16-24.fc18.x86_64.rpm
kernel-headers-3.6.0-4.fc18.x86_64.rpm
kernel-devel-3.6.10-4.fc18.x86_64.rpm

Install them all in one go with (as root) rpm -ivh *.rpm.

Once those packages are installed, you can download compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p.tar.bz2 using someone else’s PC, transfer them to the laptop via a USB stick, and (still as root) issue these commands:

tar xvf compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p.tar.bz2
cd compat-wireless-2012-03-12-p
./scripts/driver-select alx
make install
modprobe alx

The network icon on the top-right of your screen should spring in to life -at which point, click it, select Network Settings and type in appropriate IP, Gateway and DNS addresses: Ethernet wired networking should now be properly functional.

To get wireless networking going, you’ll have to download a driver for the Realtek adapter, unzip it, cd to the new rtl_92ce… directory and then issue the commands:

make
make install
modprobe rtl8723e

As soon as you’ve done that, clicking the Networking icon in the system tray area at the top of your screen should display a list of nearby wireless networks you can now connect to.

Just be warned that if you use your new-found network connectivity to update your kernel at any time, the kernel modules for both network interfaces that you’ve just compiled will immediately stop working… and I’ve not yet been able to get them to re-compile, despite using newer compat-wireless downloads ad infinitum. For the moment, at least, I’m therefore trapped using a 3.6 kernel, instead of the latest 3.7.x variety… but I can live with that.

On the whole, it’s a painless process getting both networking interfaces working -and as far as I could tell, pretty much everything else on the laptop works as advertised (speakers, webcam and so on). I was worried that the graphics wouldn’t be right (as mentioned above, the laptop uses a curious combination of Intel integrated graphics and NVidia GT 630M), but they appear to work fine. My standard test is the framerate displayed once Stellarium has been installed and run:

That screenshot shows I’m getting about 45 frames per second, which is a bit on the low side, but entirely usable. In the Windows 7 installation, Stellarium manages ~70 frames per second, so clearly there’s some graphical optimisation I could do on the Fedora side of things if I was so inclined… but really, it’s perfectly usable as it is, so I probably won’t bother.

The only other bother I had with Fedora on this laptop was a biggie: VMware Workstation 9.0 produced a kernel panic immediately it was installed …and repeated the feat routinely at every subsequent startup. This turns out to be a reasonably well-documented problem that VMware has with Linux kernels 3.5 and above, generally: it affects VMware Player, too, for example. Happily, a slightly more up-to-date 9.0.1 version cures the problem -though at 395MB, it’s a regrettably large download.

Of course, before you can install that new version, you have to uninstall the old version -which is a bit tricky to do when the presence of the old version causes your O/S to keel over before you get a chance to uninstall it. In my case, from the black screen full of dire warning messages that results when the crash occurs, I was able to press [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[F2] to get to a command-line login prompt. Logging in as root, I was then able to issue the command

vmware-installer -u vmware-workstation

…to get the old version removed. After a reboot, the graphical desktop starts perfectly, so installing the new version was trivial. Fiddlier than I’d have liked, for sure; but fortunately, on this occasion, not a show-stopper after all.

So, apart from a lack of networking and an incompatibility with VMware, Fedora 18 runs nicely on this laptop. Bizarrely, too, I find that Gnome 3 is nowhere near as ghastly as I remembered it: improvements have been made, and the thing now seems to run slickly, looking good as it does so. I found the original Gnome Shell hopeless for a multi-monitor setup, but this newer versions seems a much better fit on a single screen laptop. I had been intending to install Mate, but quite honestly (and much to my surprise) I think I’ll give this particular slick implementation of Gnome 3 a good long run first.

A cautious thumbs up, then: Fedora and the Toshiba P870 work quite well together, with a modest amount of fiddling first. I’ll be happier if and when I can upgrade my kernel, but there’s no functional deficiency in the meantime.

So true…

I couldn’t help but nod vigorously as I read this story: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/02/07/home_lab_career_saver/

In case that ever disappears, here are the salient bits:

IT professionals can’t assume their employers want, or can afford to, train them in the latest technologies and should hone and acquire new skills at home in a self-built test lab. That’s the opinion of Mike Laverick, VMware’s senior cloud infrastructure evangelist.

“The days of being sent on training courses is gone,” he told the user groups. “The burden is now on you to get the skills and knowledge you need. It is assumed you will learn as you go.”

“I drove my career development by not waiting for my employer to say this is an interesting technology. I told my employer I have used this in my home lab and this is what it can do.”

My new PC (see last blog) was a nod in this direction (though taken long before that article appeared). With some solid state hard disks of sufficient capacity, an 8-thread CPU, 32Gigs of RAM and some virtualization software, there’s not a lot you can’t simulate for a thousand dollars or so at home. (I have been coping with 3 other PCs, 4 laptops and a Xeon server before the latest acquisition, but the new PC makes a lot of that redundant).

Similar thinking has just lead me to buy a ‘mobile home lab’, in the form of one of these. It wasn’t cheap ($1900), but 1.5TB of hard disk (spinning variety) and 16GB RAM means I can simulate the key things I need (RAC, DataGuard, Oracle/SQL Server integration, Active Directory authentication of Oracle users and so on) on the train.

Those comments about knowing what interesting technology can do, without having to wait for formal training to find out, are key, I think. I used to get asked a lot what it took to become a good DBA… and one of the most important ingredients, in my view, was the willingness and the ability to experiment with the technology at home. The magic ingredient for that was virtualization above all -and it’s funny that it’s now a VMware man humming the same sort of tune. Virtualization plus a decent bit of hardware (without going overboard!) means that’s truly possible in a way it wasn’t always when I was first banging on about it back in 2000.

I particularly liked Mike’s comments about “the Girlfriend impact” of a home lab, though: ToH can attest to the accuracy of his description of the way this metric waxes and wanes, depending on how many cables, screwdrivers, mice, keyboards, RAM sticks and hard drives are left scattered around the dining room, against how much money is spent on new kit that renders that sort of tinkering redundant! I reckon we’ll have to have won the world’s biggest lottery draw before ToH nods through an £870-per-month server hosting arrangement, though! Obviously Mike is blessed with more technologically-understanding other halves than some of us!!