Monday, June 07, 2004

The Joy of Linux

This post by Matt Mullenweg illustrates why Linux, whatever its merits as a server, engineering and HPC platform, is not about to take the desktop by storm anytime in the forseeable future.

It’s not there yet. I’m being totally unfair, because comparing Windows or OS X to the Linux distribution I’m using (Gentoo) is like apples and oranges. Gentoo is meant for people who are comfortable with the command-line and want to experiment. (It’d be fairer to compare Windows to Suse.) But I just want to bridge a connection between an ethernet card and a wireless USB device. Is that too much to ask? When I did this in Windows I just highlighted the two connections, right-clicked, and chose “Bridge Connections.” It spun for a little bit and then it was done. End of story.

The work started yesterday, when I figured out that the reason nothing would emerge is that there were bad GCC flags in my make.conf file. How they got there, I’ll never know. Bad ebuild I guess. So I got that fixed, synced, and updated world. 85 packages! The next day I compiled a new kernel (2.6.7-rc2) but forgot to load the Tulip module required for my ethernet card. Recompile, reboot. Runs great, and I tell myself everything is running faster. Right now I’m bridging my desk LAN to the main router through the Windows desktop, and since I just moved the linux box on a new UPS I’d like to move the wireless connection there too. I was feeling lucky, so I tried just plugging it in to see what happened. dmesg, device not recognized. Search search search the excellent Gentoo forums, find out that to get my MA101 working I shouldn’t use the drivers from Sourceforge, but rather the at76c503a Atmel drivers for wireless USB devices. Download, compile against current kernel sources, install. Reboot. Don’t have any wireless tools. emerge wireless-utilities. Twiddle for 45 minutes to see why it won’t see any networks. Forgot to enable “Wireless radio (non-HAM)” support in the kernel. Recompile. Reboot. iwscan shows my network, iwconfig wlan0 works as expected. The instructions that tell me to put in ad-hoc mode are wrong. (Hour later.)
The funny thing is that this extensive excerpt doesn't even describe in full the hoops he had to go through, and what is worse yet, without managing to succesfully resolve the problems he was having.

I've been where he's at far too often in the past myself, and if there's one thing to be said about Linux, it's that its rough edges force one to learn a whole lot more about the internal workings of Unix-like systems than one might ever voluntarily have chosen to - and this is true of all Linux distributions in the long run, not just Gentoo. Does anyone really see some blue-haired grandma spending her free time leafing through Maurice Bach's Design of the UNIX Operating System or Uresh Vahalia's UNIX Internals, simply so she can get her new digital camera working?

If anyone is intent on running UNIX without going through endless hassles over arcane technical issues, I strongly suggest getting a machine from this company. Sure, it'll cost more than downloading a copy of Debian and burning it to CD-ROM, but if one's time is worth anything at all, the difference will very quickly be made up in terms of time lost for no good reason. Linux has its place - I'd recommend it over Windows Server 2003 as a DNS, web or file server any day - but that place isn't in the home of the average individual.

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