eRacks Open Source Systems Blog

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Debian.  That’s a Linux distribution, right?  Debian is (understandably) strongly associated with Linux.  But, did you also know that a port of Debian exists that’s built on top of the FreeBSD kernel?

Say What?

The project is called KFreeBSD.  At first glance, it may sound like a contradiction.  After all, how can you run Linux on FreeBSD?  The answer to this apparent paradox is that you’re not running Linux at all.  Linux is just a kernel, and actually has little to do with the rest of the operating system.  An entire Linux-based OS consists of much more, specifically a hierarchy of libraries and executables.  These libraries and executables don’t have to run on top of Linux.  In fact, they can operate on any *NIX-like platform.  All the Debian developers have done is to port these libraries and executables over to the same kernel used by FreeBSD.

But, What’s it Good For?

Lots of stuff.  Unlike Linux, the FreeBSD kernel has support for ZFS.  Unlike Linux, the FreeBSD kernel has built-in support for NDIS drivers.  Unlike Linux, the FreeBSD kernel interfaces have changed relatively little and have remained largely consistent.

Ok, then why not just use FreeBSD?  You may prefer the Debian package manager to FreeBSD’s ports.  Perhaps you prefer a Debian-style init system.  Maybe you’d like to take advantage of code licensed under the GPL without having to compile third party kernel modules, like built-in support for ReiserFS or XFS.

For more information about why you might be interested in giving KFreeBSD a try, have a look at this: http://wiki.debian.org/Debian_GNU/kFreeBSD_why.

Ok, I’m Interested.  Is it hard to install?

Not at all!  If you know how to install Debian Linux, you also know how to install KFreeBSD.  The process is identical.  When you first boot off the CD image, you’re presented with the following GRUB prompt:

CD Boot Prompt

CD Boot Prompt

Once the installer starts running, you will see the following screens throughout the installation process:

Language Selection

Language Selection

Setting the Hostname

Setting the Hostname

Disk Partitioning

Disk Partitioning

Disk Partitioning

Disk Partitioning

Installing Packages

Installing Packages

Look familiar? 🙂

Is it Easy to Use?

Yes!  KFreeBSD is as easy to use as Debian Linux.  The only unfamiliar sight you may encounter is when the kernel starts to boot:

Booting the FreeBSD Kernel

Booting the FreeBSD Kernel

After all the foreign kernel messages, you’ll immediately recognize the init scripts that are being called, as well as the login prompt when the system is ready:

KFreeBSD Login Prompt

KFreeBSD Login Prompt

Want to install an application?  Simply type apt-get install <application>, just like you would on Linux:

Installing a Package

Installing a Package

Do you prefer to use a GUI?  Simply choose to install a Desktop Environment during installation  and you’ll be presented with the following GDM prompt after the system boots:

GDM Login

GDM Login

Once logged in, you’ll get to navigate around using the already very familiar GNOME window manager:

GNOME Window Manager

GNOME Window Manager

 

What’s the Catch?

Unfortunately, there are a few.  For starters, due to a bug in the Debian userland, wireless network adapters, while supported by the kernel, do not function.  This can be worked around by running the FreeBSD version of ifconfig in a chroot jail.  Also, there’s only partial support for Java via GIJ.  This very incomplete implementation does not include Swing.  The Sun JDK has yet to be ported, though there’s hope for the future on this point, since Sun’s Java does run natively when linked against the FreeBSD userland.  Finally, the port is still experimental, which means you will likely encounter bugs.

For more information about KFreeBSD and the trade-offs of using it versus Debian Linux, consult the FAQ.

Conclusion

Part of what makes Open Source so attractive is choice.  With the Debian userland now at least partially ported over to the FreeBSD kernel — a third port also exists based on GNU’s HURD — Debian users now have more freedom than before to mix and match technologies according to preference.  While KFreeBSD’s experimental and in some respects incomplete status precludes it from ordinary use, it is nevertheless an interesting project, and one that will serve its users well when complete.

June 15th, 2011

Posted In: Open Source

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I’ve been evaluating various open source media center applications in an effort to put together a new unit and had the opportunity to weight the relative pros and cons of each. Below, you’ll get to read about my findings and hopefully learn a little bit about what’s out there. So, without further ado, here’s a list of the packages I looked at, in order of preference.

1. Boxee
(http://www.boxee.tv/)

Boxee was my first pick. It has a slick interface, can draw from a variety of different sources such as Hulu and Youtube out of the box, makes available a plethora of plugins (called “applications”), is easy to navigate and has an interface very suited for a remote control. The biggest con for me is that, while the project itself is open source, in order to use it, you need to register for an account on their website.

2. XBMC
(http://www.xbmc.org/)

XBMC, which stands for “X-Box Media Center,” was originally designed for the X-Box and has since been made available on the PC. It sports a very polished interface, and like Boxee, is easy to navigate and makes using a remote control easy. Support for online sources such as Youtube is missing out of the box, but there are plenty of plugins to help. Unfortunately, unlike Boxee or Moovida (which is next in our list of applications), you have to go to external sources in order to find them (check out http://www.xbmczone.com/). Supposedly, it’s easy to install a plugin once you’ve downloaded it, but the directions I found online differed from how things worked with the latest version, and I ended up having to install plugins manually by unzipping them and copying the files to the right directory.

3. Moovida
(http://www.moovida.com/)

Moovida, formerly known as Elisa, is another media center option. Like Boxee and XBMC, it sports an easy to navigate interface suited to a remote control, and unlike XBMC, integrates the process of finding, installing and updating plugins a part of the application itself. The reason why I rated this one below XBMC is that there aren’t a lot of plugins available, and because the interface to XBMC is, in my opinion, slightly more polished.

4. Miro
(http://www.getmiro.com/)

(My reason for rating Miro at the bottom isn’t that Miro is a bad application. In fact, I enjoyed using it. It comes with support for many video feeds by default and does a good job of organizing media. My problem, for our purposes, is that it’s not such a great application for set top boxes. The UI is easy to use, but I don’t think it would be as friendly when hooked up to a TV with a remote control. Also, it’s difficult to add sources such as Youtube, as you have to manually add RSS feeds for the channels that interest you. Nevertheless, it’s a useful application, and I recommend giving it a try.

August 6th, 2009

Posted In: media center, multimedia, Open Source

Tags: , , ,

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Have you ever thought to yourself, “gee, it would be a lot of fun to learn how to write software,” but you didn’t want to shell out money for books or a development environment? Perhaps you’re just curious, or maybe you aspire to be a developer one day. Whatever your reason, thanks to open source software and free documentation, you can pick up the skills required with no cost to you (other than your time, of course.)

Where to Learn

Before you start writing code and playing with a compiler (a program that translates human-readable programs into instructions the computer can understand), you’ll first need to learn a programming language. You could spend anywhere between $30 to $70 on a book. Or, you could instead go online. Not only can you use Google to find countless tutorials for just about any programming language, you can also find sites that offer free e-book versions of published works (for an extensive collection of books in any subject, including quite a few on programming, check out http://www.e-booksdirectory.com/). For most of your programming needs, you’ll find that buying books really isn’t necessary.

As you grow in skill, you’ll find that learning by example is a powerful tool. Fortunately, with open source software, you have a plethora of real world applications, their source code layed bare for all the world to see (source code is the human-readable version of a program.) If you want to look at the implementation of a text editor, for example, you can check out the source code for projects like vim (http://www.vim.org/), nano (http://www.nano-editor.org/) or emacs (http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/). Do you want to know how various standard library functions are implemented in C, such as QuickSort? Then check out the source code to Glibc (http://www.gnu.org/software/libc/). Are you instead more interested in systems programming? Check out the kernel source trees for Linux (http://www.kernel.org) or FreeBSD (http://www.freebsd.org). You’ll find open source software for just about any need, from web browsers to mail clients, from 3D modeling to audio and video editing solutions. Whatever you want to look at, you’ll more than likely find examples written by others that can help you learn for your own projects.

Where to Get the Software

So, you already have at least some conception of what’s involved in programming, and you want to get your hands dirty by actually writing some code yourself. At the very least, you’ll need a text editor to write your code and a compiler or interpreter to run your programs. You may also desire a more elaborate solution, such as an IDE (integrated development environment), which offers you a one-stop solution for writing code and compiling/running your programs, all from the click of your mouse.

Either way, open source once again comes to the rescue. For C, C++ and a few other languages, you have the GNU Compiler collection (http://gcc.gnu.org/). There are also various interpreted languages, such as Ruby (http://www.ruby-lang.org), Python (http://www.python.org/) or Perl (http://www.perl.org/). If you’re looking for an IDE roughly like Microsoft Visual C++ or the like, you’ll find KDevelop (http://www.kdevelop.org), Eclipse (http://www.eclipse.org/) or NetBeans (http://www.netbeans.org/), among others.

For more advanced needs, such as revision control (a means of tracking changes in software), you have applications like Subversion (http://subversion.tigris.org/), Mercurial (http://www.selenic.com/mercurial/) and Git (http://www.git-scm.org/).

There are many more applications for a variety of needs, so whatever you’re looking for, give Google a spin.

Conclusion

It is possible to learn how to develop software without breaking the bank. With free documentation and open source software, you have all the tools you need to learn as little or as much as you want. Here at eRacks, we understand the needs of the developer, and can provide you with a machine pre-loaded with all the software you need to write professional programs. Contact us, and ask for a quote today!

June 1st, 2009

Posted In: Development, Open Source

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If you’re a student like I am, you know how important it is to save money. Some students are too busy with their studies to work at all, and those who can are usually only able to do so part-time. And, like books and tuition, software is a significant source of financial burden to the average student. While it’s true that student licensed versions of software are significantly discounted, popular titles such as Microsoft Office will still cost you somewhere in the ballpark of $130. And of course, that’s only if you don’t intend to use the software for anything other than your academic or personal endeavours. If you utilize the same applications on the job, you’ll find that you’re no longer eligible for student licenses, and suddenly you’ll discover that $130 magically turns into $300.

Fortunately, the current digital climate is rife with free software alternatives, which have the potential to save students (or parents!) hundreds of dollars.

The Operating System

Let’s start with the most fundamental bundle of software, the operating system (hereby abbreviated as OS.) The OS is what sits between the hardware and the user’s applications. Some examples are Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

For many students, purchasing an OS will be a non-issue, as most computers come with one pre-installed. For those in this category, most of the software mentioned below will run on both Windows and Mac. That being said, there are also a significant number of people who need to include an OS in their financial plans. Perhaps you purchased your computer used and without software. Or, maybe the OS on your machine is old and needs to be upgraded. You could have even assembled your own computer, as many hobbyists do.

It’s true that students can purchase Microsoft Windows at a discount of 30-60% off, but why would you do that when you can get your OS for free? Over the last few years, a veritable cornicopia of easy-to-use free software-based OSes have emerged, the most popular, and in my opinion, the easiest to install and use, being Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/). For the more technically inclined and perpetually curious, there are a slew of other Linux distributions, as well as the *BSD family of OSes — FreeBSD (http://www.freebsd.org/), NetBSD (http://www.netbsd.org/), OpenBSD (http://www.openbsd.org), PC BSD (http://www.pcbsd.org/) and Dragonfly BSD (http://www.dragonflybsd.org) — and Sun’s OpenSolaris (http://www.opensolaris.org/).

In reality, we do still live in a Windows world, so you may find yourself in a position where you have to use a program that only runs on Windows. Luckily, there’s a very mature and very complete open source implementation of the Windows API that’s been actively developed since 1993 called WINE (http://www.winehq.org/) You simply install WINE through the point-and-click interface provided by your OS and install your Windows applications on top of it. Many will run out of the box, and others will run with a minimal amount of tweaking.

Office Productivity

As mentioned earlier, a student copy of Microsoft Office will cost roughly $130, and in some cases, students won’t even qualify for the student license, making the product much more expensive. So then, simply by installing a single free software replacement, you’ve literally saved hundreds. There’s a fantastic open source alternative called OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org/), a spin-off from Sun Microsystems, Inc. The download is a little large (over 100MB), but the price tag is worth it (it’s free), and OpenOffice really is a solid application capable of doing anything Office can. It includes components that replace Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, as well as additional components for drawing and for editing HTML documents.

In addition, you’ll find Scribus (http://www.scribus.net/) for desktop publishing and the creation of professional quality PDFs and Dia (http://live.gnome.org/Dia) for drawing diagrams, roughly like Microsoft Visio.

Multimedia

Of course, no college-ready system is complete without the ability to play movies and music! Fortunately, open source has you covered there as well. With Totem (http://projects.gnome.org/totem/) and Xine (http://www.xine-project.org/), playing your videos on Linux is a snap (Windows and Mac users of course have their own respective built-in players and don’t have to worry about this.) As well, there are applications like Banshee (http://www.banshee-project.org/) that do a great job of managing your music (it also plays videos.)

You’ll also more than likely be managing a great deal of pictures. For editing them, you’ll find the GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/), which is very similiar to Adobe’s Photoshop, and for browsing and managing your pictures there’s F-Spot (http://f-spot.org/).

You’ll only run into a couple of hitches when dealing with multimedia on an open source OS. The first is that you won’t be able to play many Windows Media files. Fortunately, this can remedied by purchasing the Fluendo Windows Media Playback Bundle (http://www.fluendo.com/shop/product/windows-media-playback-bundle/). True, it’s not free, but for $20 it’s a small price to pay compared to all the hundreds of dollars you’ll be saving on everything else, and if you can live without Windows Media, you can save yourself the expense. The second is that technically, according to the controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act (http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf), you’re in a legal predicament if you install software to decrypt your DVDs. More than likely nobody’s going to care, and the software to do so is readily available and in common widespread use, but if you choose to play your DVDs on an open source OS you should first take the time to thoroughly understand where you stand from a legal perspective. [Ed. note: there are fully licensed DVD players available for Linux, but even so, legal scholars now feel that this area of the DMCA has not yet been fully tested in court, but recent precendents suggest that if it were, in the end, that Fair Use doctrine would win out in the end over the DMCA – Ed.]

A Plethora of Other Goodies

Depending on your field of study, you’ll find many other professional-quality free and open source applications that are outside the scope of this blog that will save you even more money. Just google around. You’ll find all sorts of amazing applications, all of them free.

Conclusion

Fellow students, let loose the shackles of expensive proprietary software and embrace the freedom of open source. Not only will you save hundreds of dollars, you’ll be drawn into a community of users and developers that are passionate about writing and supporting software. Once you get used to using free software alternatives, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.

Here at eRacks, we specialize in providing users of all kinds with open source solutions to meet their needs. So contact us today, and ask us how we can help you save money and get even more out of your academic experience!

April 20th, 2009

Posted In: How-To, multimedia, Open Source, Reviews, ubuntu

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