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So I've got a computer constantly reminding me of its age, a fear of breaking stuff that already works, no real desire to buy lots of new kit, and (if I'm being honest) a big case of the lazies. I know I'm going to have to rejig my various machines, ideally bringing all their functions together onto one box running a reasonable recent Linux, but I don't want to break anything that already works in the process.
Using Linux for your home server really isn't something you need to think too hard about. It doesn't cost anything, for a start, and it works with pretty much any hardware you throw it at. More importantly, everything you can control through a shiny GUI you can also control through the command line. This means your server doesn't need to have a keyboard, mouse, and monitor connected to it. You can just login in as and when you need to, do whatever it is, and clear out again. Anyone who tells you that you can remotely administer a Windows box with the same ease had never had to troll down four flights of stairs, sign for a key, and proceed with a minder through two sets of security doors to gain access to a server, solely to spend thirty seconds dinking round with a mouse.
As a further block to my actually doing anything, Etrigan, the box that I would use as the all-in-one server was running Windows. Installing Linux alongside an existing Windows installation tends to involve repartitioning the disk. When I read words like repartitioning what I hear is potentially destructive low-level disk voodoo. Now while I know lots of people have done this kind of thing without a problem (indeed I've done it myself in the past), these days I take a rather more conservative view. It's not data loss I'm worried about here, it's (as I'm sure you've gathered by now) utility loss. So I didn't do anything.
I briefly considered virtualisation. Running a Linux server inside a virtual machine running on the Windows box is entirely possible, and even rather useful. However, I'm not sure it really makes for a sensible long term solution. Not for an amateur sysadmin, who'd really rather not touch anything ever again once it's all up and going.
And then one day, while I was reading about something entirely unrelated I saw a reference to a something else that reminded me of yet another a thing, and suddenly all the dominoes were in a row and the magical inertia busting piece of software I needed revealed itself to me. That software is Wubi.
Wubi is ...
an officially supported Ubuntu installer for Windows users that can bring you to the Linux world with a single click. Wubi allows you to install and uninstall Ubuntu as any other Windows application, in a simple and safe way.Linux installed onto a Windows filesystem, with only the boot record updated. OK, modifying the MBR still smacks of potentially destructive low-level disk voodoo, but it's significant lower risk than repartitioning. If a repartition goes wonky you've probably had it, but an MBR should be repairable.
So I downloaded Wubi and had a go. There's not a great deal to tell after that, because it did exactly what it said it would. It installed Linux onto my machine, adding a new boot option. If I boot into Windows, the machine is just as it was before. If I boot into Linux, I get a shiny new Linux box to prod and poke and configure.
And that's really bloody marvellous. I can take as long as I like to configure the Linux personality, because the Windows personality is always there to fall back on. If I get a bit carried away with apt-get and screw up the Linux install, I can flip back to Windows to uninstall and just start again.
I did, in fact, have to do that. The current Ubuntu release didn't play nicely with my machine and its AMD Athlon 64 processor. It would run for a little while perfectly normally, then completely freeze. I'm assuming some kernel strangeness. I had another go, this time using the previous release, and it's been absolutely fine.
A few hours fiddling later, I was viewing everything from entirely the other side. Before, I considered myself pragmatic and careful. Now, I saw myself as having been conservative to the point of paralysis, and wondering what on Earth it was I'd been worried about. With Etrigan now handling the email and serving up Subversion repositories, I took a bit of breath, gave Animal's power switch a firm push, and everything carried on working. Only much more quietly.
Executive summary: Wubi - remarkable piece of kit.
A little too upfront? How about this instead?
The noisy fan belonged to Animal, my email and subversion server. It was never the quietest machine and it had gradually become noiser and noisier over the years. In the past few months, it had started intermittently clattering. Now one noisy cooling fan doesn't a impending catastrophic hardware failure make, but it was a constant nagging reminder that the machine was ever more aging. Rather than wait for the box to eventually keel over I decided, in a non-specific mañana kind of way, to preempt it by doing an infrastructure makeover.
Over the past year or so, I'd toyed with buying another Linkstation, reflashing it to turn it into a proper little computer (rather than a dedicated fileserver) and set that up to handle the email. It's sounds like a fun little project, but the seemingly non-stop changes in hardware and the necessary knock changes to software make for somewhat of a moving target. Plus I'm naturally inclined to laziness.
Clattery-clattery ... but I had to do something. I had, after all, decided. I just needed something to come along and magically make rejiggling less faff, while simultaneously avoiding the risk of breaking anything that already works. And where do you find something like that ...
Because I like to at least pretend to be a proper software professional, I have more than one computer. Some of them of just lying around the place gathering dust, there's a laptop I permit the family to abuse, I have a laptop of my own, and then there are the three that sit under my desk serving things. These three boxes constitute the length and most of the breadth of what I laughingly refer to as the JezUK Computing Lab.
The first of the three boxes is Falcon, a little linkstation, which sits there whirring away serving files. I got it a couple of years ago to replace the previous fileserver, which was an old PC which had finally surcome to repeated exposure to houses being replastered. It's a dinky little box and if you're after that kind of thing, you should give them a look. This box it replaced, Hawk, was one of a pair of machines that have been hanging around under my desk for about ten years. As in real life (or as real as pro-wrestling gets) while Hawk is no longer with us, Animal is still soldiering on while being, by modern standards, pretty thoroughly washed up. Running an aged SuSE Linux release, Animal was an email toaster and also hosted my subversion repositories. The final box, Etrigan, a tower system so large and black and solid it looks like an escapee from a Stanley Kubrick film, was, until recently, my main dev machine. It had the scanner and printer plugged into it, and so even when it was retired from every day use got left on so that people could scan and, erm, print.
Because everything worked, I've always been loathe to change anything simply for the sake of changing. Indeed, previous changes have, generally, been precipitated by failure. A fileserver failure about 4 years provided the opportunity, for instance, to move my email clients to IMAP rather than POP3, requiring the email toaster setup. (I know this reverses the usual server cause-and-effect chain, but it's my lab, my rules.) It's a shift I'd hinted at at least a year before, but it wasn't until provoked by dying hardware that I made the change. Once Animal was set up and handling the mail properly, I didn't touch it again. No package updates, no kernel rebuilds, no nothing. Why break something that worked? This conservatism/pragmatism/laziness has been a signature feature of my infrastructure management, and I commend it to you. Print it up on a big piece of paper and pin it up on the wall - If it works, don't touch it.
In the last week though, I have made considered, unpanicked, and significant changes to the way things work, to the point where I powered down Animal (probably for the last time) and I'm looking to power down Falcon sometime relatively soon. Two things prompted these changes - a noisy fan and some very clever software.
I'll burble about both those things later ...
Dad: I put two versions on there for you, the OpenOffice version and a PowerPoint version. They both the same slides, there's just two versions of it.
Bean: Why two?
Dad: Because if you've got PowerPoint you can't open the OpenOffice version. OpenOffice can open PowerPoint files, but PowerPoint can't open OpenOffice files.
Bean: So OpenOffice is better.
Dad: I'd say so. Cheaper too. Loads cheaper.
Dad: Christ, we haven't got time to go into that right now ...
I needed to edit a video file today (first time for everything). Nothing remotely difficult, just shaving about 10 seconds off the end. Daniel cooks up little things in Windows Movie Maker all the time, so I had a go with that. I managed to do the edit, but I could only export the file as an enormous WMV file. However, I'd started with an AVI and really wanted to stay with an AVI, as I don't know what machine this thing'll end up on and so AVI is a better bet. So I canned Movie Maker, spent thirty seconds googling, downloaded something and tried that. Unfortunatly whatever it was wouldn't do it either, so I canned that, googled a bit more and hit VirtualDub. That rang some kind of bell, so I grabbed that and ran it up (no installation needed), and a minute after that had trimmed my video. Thanks VirtualDub chaps. Mild to medium boos to Movie Maker.
Oh yea, the video was a screengrab captured using another bit of free software - CamStudio.
You can download OpenOffice.org for yourself and have a dabble. Then you'll decide to keep. It's more than enough word processor/spreadsheet/presentation/desktop database (or as we laughably call them productivity suite) as pretty much anyone needs (unless you're doing something very obscure) and since you have to pay precisely no money for it, it's terrifically good value.
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