Monday, 14 July 2008

Failed upgrades and linux on the desktop ...

I have a very old PPC imac which runs Ubuntu 6.06. I originally built it as an experiment, but strangely enough it turned out be incredibly useful and now lives in the study where it's used almost daily. It ended up having desk space in the study as the compact design meant I could stick it on my desk where the old toshiba laptop was. The $83 linux machine languishes in the garage for the moment as it doesn't fit comfortably on the desk, and winter's cold means it is relatively little used. 

So back to the ppc imac. Slow, low on memory and disk but works well enough as a web terminal to google docs, zoho and gmail, plus abiword for local document creation. It's all I need and use 99% of the time. And since I replaced the window manager with xfce it's been fine. So much so that I decided I should upgrade it to a more recent version of ubuntu for ppc, even if it's no longer a mainstream project

I decided to go for an in place upgrade using synaptic, so I downloaded the required cd's burned them and let synaptic do it's thing on Friday night while we did our Friday night thing, which basically consists of making an anchovy pizza, a bottle of red wine, and some tv while we unwind and talk about the week past and what we want to do on the weekend. 

Well it almost worked. It did preserve everything but it did something funny to the fonts such that all the menus where in a mixture of rectangles and glagolitic. 

Not good.

 As the machine was data free - even local documents usually end up being uploaded, I decided to blow it away and rebuild with a later version of Xubuntu. So I started it off, told it what it needed to know and went to bed. 

Come the morning I had a machine with a successful build, or so I thought. Let the machine restart and up it came. Got as far as the splash screen and then crashed back to a boot prompt. 


So, while I fed the cat, got the paper in, I downloaded and burned an earlier version - after some trouble this one started to install. 


Nope, built a base image but failed to install software properly and aborted. 

Tried the hardy heron 21 April release candidate. This failed as well, great base image, couldn't find the software. 

Now this sounds like I spent the morning doing this. 

I didn't. 

I read the paper, let the cat out, let the cat back in, made breakfast, drank coffee, did Saturday things. But by mid morning I wasn't any further forward. 

So I decided to revert to what I had before and rebuild with 6.06. Booted it up from the cd, told the installer some things, and let it do its thing while we went off to the market and have lunch out. Sure enough, when we came back I had a working bootable installation. 

Left it going for an hour while it applied all its software updates, and then installed the extra software I wanted - basically abiword, pan, and kate/kwrite. So I then had a working ubuntu machine. All I had left to do to recreate what I had before was to roll it over to xfce with the xubuntu-desktop package. 

Well we were going out that evening so I didn't do that right then, but waited to Sunday afternoon for the final act. 

Now there's a reason for this little story. 

Fixing the problem didn't take a lot of time really - it fitted round life. But it does show that slick though Ubuntu and its derivatives are, the upgrade procedures are a bit so-so. Most things work but the documentation and debugging information isn't that good. 

And what there is tends to be terse an cryptic. Not a problem, but as it moves out into the mainstream it may increasingly become so. One of the things that the commerical vendors have is very good online documentation and upgrade procedures. 

Community efforts tend not to have such good or comprehensive testing, nor the documentation. And it shows when things don't work. Linux is a viable replacement for commercial OS's. And until this little episode I'd had no more difficulty with linux than with other OS's. 

But this little drama showed that what the commercial vendors do well is enduser documentation and support resources. And that's always something that needs to be factored in to any decision to put out Linux on the desktop

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