Linux

VMWare Player

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My laptop is now ancient by date standards (I bought it 3.5 years ago), but it’s still reasonably peppy, and has some features that are difficult to find nowadays (like a 16″ non-widescreen LCD!). It was a real beast at the time I bought it (3.4Ghz desktop Pentium 4, dual 60GB hard drives at 7200 RPM each, 2GB ram, 1600×1200 screen, S-Video out, DVD +/- RW, etc.)

Every few months, I humor myself and configure up a new beast, and then convince myself that this one satisfies me in most ways (which it does), and I defer for a few more months.

When I first bought the laptop, I intended to run Linux on it full time. I kept getting errors on it, and it would die mysteriously. At first, I suspected that the Linux kernels just couldn’t quite deduce my beast’s configuration, but after breaking down and putting Windows on it, and getting similar errors, I shipped the machine back. Indeed, they found some kind of problem, and repaired it.

When I got the machine back, I reinstalled Linux and was reasonably happy for a week. Then I started to miss a few programs that I got very used to in Windows land. I then installed Win4Lin and Windows 98SE. That kept me reasonably happy, except that one or two programs would only work when I was hard-wired into the network, as they couldn’t control the adapter to their desired level if I was using WiFi (a limitation of Win4Lin at the time, probably now long resolved).

After six weeks of loving Linux 95% of the day, but requiring Windows 5% of the day (and not being happy with the above limitations), I finally, and regretfully, reverted back to Windows XP, full time.

Shortly thereafter, VMWare released VMWare Player for free. I thought that it would be interesting to reverse my previous usage, and be able to run Linux in a VM when I wanted (I had been using Cygwin forever, and still do, and like it a lot, but hey, there are other advantages to using a VM).

Unfortunately, while VMWare Player worked for the most part, occasionally it would crash on me (this was something like version 1.28). I attributed it to my non-standard config and lived with it. Until, after one crash, the VMWare image would no longer open. All of my hard work and configuration of that particular Linux install gone. I was completely locked out of it.

I uninstalled VMWare Player, and have lived with Cygwin ever since (again, reasonably happily). I can boot Linux off of a CD, or, with a floppy to a USB stick (because my BIOS can’t boot directly off of a USB device). I was also able to run the embedded distribution of DSL (Damn Small Linux).

The other day, I was browsing for something, and came across a mention of VMWare Player 2.02. Glutton for punishment that I am, I downloaded and installed it. One nice feature (which may very well have been in v1.x, in fact, it’s quite likely, but I never tried it) is that you can create a tiny configuration file (.vmx) and that file can point to any ISO file for the Player to boot.

This means that all Live Linux ISO images can be booted directly by the Player, without having to create a hard disk image for them. This is made even cooler, because by default, when you close down the Player, it suspends the VM rather than killing it. It saves the ram image to it’s own disk file, and the next time you launch the player and select the same vmx file, it opens Linux (or whatever image you were running) right where it was.

So, a Live CD image can be run over multiple sessions, with data remembered in betwen, etc. Of course, this can be a risky way of storing your data, so you shouldn’t expect it to be highly reliable. Of course, you can “back up” your data in any number of ways, including some distribution specific ones (like My DSL, etc.).

I have not used it heavily yet, but I have successfully booted DSL 4.2 a number of times (including coming out of a suspended session successfully), and Sidux 2007-4. The whole idea is cool to me and preferable for those rare occasions when I want an X-Server running on my laptop rather than using the X-Server that is available in Cygwin (that works too, but can be flaky and/or annoying at times).

It also makes for much safer browsing, especially if you are visiting a site that you have reason to be suspicious of. Fire up a Live CD version of Linux (DSL is small, and boots really quickly), browse, and don’t suspend if you suspect anything bad happened.

P.S. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting up a real permanent disk file, and installing Linux into that virtual filesystem, rather than running a Live CD over and over. Even so, I’d back up the data in that file separately, until I find out whether version 2.02 of VMWare Player is more trustworthy (at least on my machine) than 1.28 was.

In Praise of SIDUX

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I said I wouldn’t write about the old Dell Latitude L400 again, unless there was a “breakthrough”. Well, there hasn’t been one, so I’m not really writing about that machine (but of course, I really am) 😉

Really, this is more of a Linux posting than a specific laptop one…

So, unless you’re a real geek, or someone else is making decisions for you, it’s simply mind-boggling how many Linux distributions (“distros”) there are out there. For the techies at heart, perhaps that’s a good thing, as there has to be some distro out there that is preconfigured to your personal taste. Statistically speaking, since there seems to be at least one distro for every three people on the planet, that statement has to be true, right? 😉

No wonder that Linux doesn’t catch on with the mainstream public. I don’t pretend to understand all of the issues with why one should pick one distro over another, nor why so many distros get “forked” or built on top of, etc. I listen to what other geeks have to say (many of whom work at Zope Corporation) and hear which ones they use and wish others did, etc.

Anyway, back to the old laptop, of which this post is ostensibly not about 🙂

I decided to completely abandon any hope of using it for the originally intended purposes (Poker and remote Slingbox machine). Still, I was happy with it for the short time that I was using it as a guest browsing machine in my apartment. At that time it was running Ubuntu 6.06. A number of the developers at Zope Corp swear by it. In all of my trials and tribulations on this laptop, it was by far the most stable and least hassle to get running.

So, I decided that I would wipe out all traces of my previous attempts to install a dozen other operating systems, and go back to Ubuntu 6.06. Of course, I couldn’t get the same exact CD that I previously used to install again. Go figure… 🙁

I downloaded Ubuntu 6.10 (the current stable release), and it took me numerous tries before I got it installed. When I did, it wouldn’t stably boot, even with APCI=OFF (which wasn’t necessary to add the last time I successfully installed Ubuntu).

Those of you who have read my previous rants on this laptop know that I had hoped to use PCLinuxOS as my personal distro. Apparently, they still have “problems”, and my setup was not spared. In particular, I could never get my WiFi card working, and it’s an Orinoco, which you’d think every distro would correctly support, if they do any WiFi at all…

So, on to find another distro, or finally, toss this machine into the actual garbage dump.

Looking on the wonderful Distrowatch site, I happened to spot a distro called SIDUX. It had all of the features that appealed to me with PCLinuxOS, but was Debian-based (like Ubuntu), and I’ve had good personal success with Debian-based systems in the past, including Xandros.

All I can say is wow! It just works. It installed correctly the first time, had the Firefox (I mean Iceweasel) 2.0.0.2 update when it came out, etc. I had it up and running for three straight days (not under any particular load, but still, pretty amazing for this particular machine). It has crashed a few times, so there’s still something sickly wrong with the laptop, but this has been by far the most stable operating system that I’ve had on the box, and it’s attractive and reasonably peppy (on ancient hardware) to boot.

I’m pleased that I now have a reasonable guest browsing machine, and I do not intend to dork with it any longer, and this time, I’m serious. 🙂

P.S. On SIDUX, I was able to connect to a remote RDP server, over NAT from a hotel, using an SSH tunnel, and play in one full Poker tournament without anything crashing. The graphics were painful, so I won’t be doing it again, but the fact that I could do it at all was shockingly cool! Unnfortunately, I finished one of out the money (bubble boy), so SIDUX didn’t help in that regard… 😉