Monday, October 03, 2005

Converting DTI to Ubuntu

On the request of the provincial director, I began converting the provincial DTI office's computers to Linux last Friday. Though their resident IT guy already had Fedora running on one machine, I opted to use my current favorite distro, Ubuntu.

The first conversion went smoothly, of course. The machine had a CD-ROM drive, so I popped in the disc and did my work. There were curious queries from the staff, but thankfully, their needs were neither esoteric nor frivolous. No legacy Windows applications to contend with, and no requests for Ragnarok or MU Online. Their requirements fell smack into the sweet spot of web browsers and office productivity suites.

The second conversion was a bit trickier. The machine had no CD-ROM drive and no floppy. The only thing it had in its favor was that it was fairly new and therefore supported PXE boot.

I knew the quickest way to run the installation was to do a network installation, but unfortunately, this is not a very well documented procedure in Ubuntu. I shall have to write a full to-do on this sometime, maybe after I figure out what I did right. I also did not want to set up another DHCP server on the local network as it might conflict with their real DHCP server.

Searching through the Ubuntu forums was a real chore. Both on Google and on their local search facility, some promising results pop up; but they usually lead to broken links because of some renaming exercise. Very frustrating, really.

My first attempt used a procedure to begin the installation process by booting GRUB from the Windows partition. Apparently, some folks have written GRUB for DOS and GRUB for Windows. Grabbing the requisite root disk (initrd.gz) from the Ubuntu archives, I set out to work. And what do you know, a few minutes later, I was actually looking at an Ubuntu install screen which I had booted into from Windows.

But I hit a snag when I couldn't quite find the instructions to use a local server as the source of my installation files. What should I do? Set up an FTP server with anonymous access? Set up a TFTP server? Set up a web server? Do I need some other files? The installation procedure proceeded fine using the Ubuntu archives on the Internet, but it was darned slow. I couldn't get it to find my local source files.

Further probrems plagued me when I somehow ruined the boot sector of the machine I was working on. No choice now but to work from PXE. I ended up installing a DHCP server, after all. And surprise, surprise, it worked.

Why did it work? I don't really know. What did I do different? The second time around, I had a TFTP server and a web server running on my installation server. So it might have been these. I need to confirm using separate installation.

Ubuntu, much though I like it, has some minor irritating quirks. Top of the list is poor sound card support. This is my problem with the systems on which I have it installed here at home. Next on the list, not directly Ubuntu's fault, is the tricky configuration of X.org.

Yes, X.org works well enough, but not nearly so. I am frequently stuck to only one resolution under the default configuration files. So I have to go into xorg.conf to tweak a couple more settings, as I had to do with DTI's machines. I wish this process were easier.

I'm thinking of the small scale cybercafes who are exploring the shift using Ubuntu. This will typically be the main snag that they will hit, never mind activating video acceleration. The problem becomes worse because these small cybercafes will have different video card configurations. I can only hope they persevere because Ubuntu has several other good things to offer beyond these hurdles.

So at the end of the day last Friday, I had two DTI machines running Ubuntu, and at decent screen resolutions, too. When I paid a visit to DTI this Friday, they were still running and the staff were breezing through their work.

A query did crop up: for some reason, working through the web-based Business Name Registration System snagged on a selection window based on Javascript. It was supposed to fill in three other fields automatically, but it wouldn't work. Luckily, I had identified the problem earlier in the afternoon.

Cause: only works with Internet Explorer, not on Firefox (even on Windows), and not on Epiphany. Crappy Microsoft.

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