Building an OpenServer 5.0.7 System on New Hardware in 2013

Your venerable (SCO) OpenServer 5.0.7 Point of Sale server bit the dust and you need a new system right away to get the Point of Sale software running again so your PoS terminals, whether dumb serial terminals or “smart” network stations, are not just expensive bricks. Of course some of the VARs that cater to the Unix based Point of Sale market stopped building Point of Sale systems on OpenServer when the former owners of the SCO brand went litigation crazy and started suing … get this … their customers. Maybe your VAR was one of the ones that moved on. Or perhaps he is just old and retired now. If not, you can probably get a new system built with OpenServer from your VAR. If your VAR has moved on, you may be looking into your options. Well, if you have the disks and the license key, why not build it yourself? I will tell you some parts you can use today, in 2013, to do just that.

I recently rebuilt a failed OpenServer 5.0.7 Point of Sale server for one of our local clients. I received a call that the server would not boot back up after a power event where the circuit breaker blew out on the power strip connected to the system. The server’s power light would come on when power was applied, but the system would not POST. This was a low-end server actually built on a desktop motherboard. It was a bit over five years old since the last rebuild and it was about time for the hardware to be replaced anyway. As my shop is an AMD shop of course this was an AMD build.

Likely just the motherboard was the dead part, but a direct new replacement for that over five year old motherboard could not be found. There are plenty of used ones on the used parts market. The client did not want some used motherboard that might die at any time. (His words, not mine.) So I shopped around to find a real BIOS based (No UEFI please.), AMD CPU capable, small business server motherboard and came up with the ASUS KCMA-D8 server board. To this I added an AMD Opteron 4122, socket C32, Quad-core CPU. Then 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) of Kingston 1066MHZ DDR3 ECC Registered RAM. The OpenServer 5.0.7 product is a 32-bit system, so anything more than 4 GB of RAM would be a waste … unless we were installing this as a virtual machine on top of another host. In this case, it was a “bare metal” install, so 4 GB it was. A Dynatron 2U and Up 60mm CPU Cooler model F661 was purchased to provide cooling for the Opteron 4122 CPU.

This Point of Sale shop does not need more “horsepower” than the build shown here. They are not even using SMP, so three of the cores on this CPU are idle. But if you need more “grunt” and you do use SMP, this board will take two Opteron 4100/4200/4300 series CPUs with up to 8 cores each. That should be enough muscle for almost any small to medium sized Point of Sale, or vanilla Accounting, back-end server.

The KCMA-D8 motherboard has no parallel port(s) and no IDE connectors. This can be a problem when replacing an older system that did have those parts. The client has two perfectly good parallel printers used in the PoS shop, so a Startech.com 2 Port PCI Parallel Adapter Card – EPP/ECP was acquired. Since the client’s old DVDRW drive still worked, and is an IDE, I found and procured a StarTech.com 1 Port PCI Express IDE Controller Adapter Card.

The old ATX mid-tower case was partially gutted to remove the Adaptec SCSI controller used for the SCSI boot/data drive, the dead motherboard, RAM and CPU. The new motherboard, RAM, and CPU were installed. Then the Adaptec SCSI controller was reinserted and connected to the SCSI drive. The new add-on boards mentioned in the previous paragraph were installed. Then the power supply, after testing in another system, was reinstalled. The system was connected to our KVM switch and powered on. The OpenServer 5.0.7 operating system came up with a few errors related to the old missing parts. But it did boot and I was able to “get root” and begin setting up the new parts after removing the references to the old parts, relinking the kernel and rebooting.

The IDE controller was seen as a second IDE device, but after running ‘scoadmin hardware’ to add the new card for the kernel, relinking and rebooting, it showed up and the DVDRW drive could then be used. The motherboard has dual Intel 82574L based network adapters. The latest eeG_5.1.2 drivers for 5.0.7 from the ftp.sco.com site cover this chip. As the network adapters were not yet working the driver was downloaded using my Mageia 2 Linux PC, burned to a CD, then copied to the OpenServer file system. From there the driver could be installed with the ‘custom’ command. This was done and the adapters were configured for use via ‘scoadmin network’, one with a static IP address for the PoS store, one with a DHCP client for use here at our office. The server does not run as a gateway, so this setup was left in place when it was delivered.

Finally the dual-port parallel card was the last item needing to be configured in the kernel. This card has a ASIX/MosChip MCS9815CV chip on it. The OpenServer 5.0.7 system sees this as “Other communications device” rather than a dual-port parallel card. So, I had to dig into the internet to find a way to set this up. To make a long search short, I found a way to get this working by hand editing the “pa” file located at /var/opt/K/SCO/link/1.1.1Hw/etc/conf/sdevice.d/pa with the IRQ 7 address assigned to the card by the BIOS (after moving the card because it was conflicting with the USB on IRQ 11), then inserting the base address and ending address for each port (After several trial and error attempts due to the card having several addresses reported with ‘hw -r pci’, but no documentation for OpenServer of course.) then relinking the kernel and rebooting. Here is how that “pa” file looked once the proper addresses were found:

pa      Y       1       2       4       7       0       0       0       0
pa      Y       4       2       4       7       0xb480  0xb483  0       0
pa      Y       5       2       4       7       0xb080  0xb083  0       0

As far as I know there is no documentation for hand editing the “pa” file in OpenServer 5.0.7. This may have been documented in older releases, but I have none of those available these days. I simply looked at a copy of the file by logging in remotely to another OpenServer 5.0.7 system that has a single working parallel port built on the motherboard and figured out where to place the IRQ and address data.

This is basically “it” as far as this build is concerned. You should now have all the information you need to build and install your own, new OpenServer 5.0.7 system on new hardware. Of course, if that is not your cup of tea, there are still a few of us x86 Unix VARs around that can do it for you.

Open Source: Homeschool Computing

Proverbs 22:6 – Teach a youth about the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Many parents in recent years have chosen to homeschool their children. The reasons for this vary, but most include some measure of the understanding that to truly pass on one’s values to one’s children one needs to be the primary source of information for that child. To place one’s child in a school, public or private, is to give up at least part of one’s responsibility to and for that child. There is usually also a desire to have more control over what that immature mind is experiencing as it grows. Some life events should be shielded from a growing mind until that mind is mature enough to handle such events in the context of the desired values imparted by the parents.

One of the facets of homeschooling has to do with computing systems, networking and the Internet. As a homeschool parent once told me, she would never allow her children on the Internet without her or her husband present. This meant the parents could not take time out and let the child have unmonitored free time on the computer unless it was unplugged from the network. I have had that conversation tickling the back of my mind ever since. I think I might have an answer for that homeschool mother and other homeschooling parents in a similar situation. The answer, of course, involves Linux and FOSS.

I recently quoted a dual Opteron CPU (8-cores), 16 GB RAM, dual 500 GB drives, small business Linux server build to a local client. After looking over the quote, which is under $1500, I came to the realization that this server could also serve as the heart of a FOSS homeschool Linux Terminal Server system. The server could have FOSS parental controls, such as DansGuardian, with the parents having complete control of the server. Then the children could have access to the internet only through the controlled connection that goes through the home server. A diskless workstation that boots from the home server could be built for each child for a very low cost. Or, if the parents want to spend the money, each child could have a laptop or netbook loaded with Linux that connects to and through the server. The only costs to the parents are the hardware and the time to become educated about running a Linux based homeschool server.

A homeschool system built with FOSS gets one all the tools one needs to teach a child about general computing and/or programming. Plus there is the benefit of “free” office suites such as LibreOffice, dozens of “free” games, “free” educational software like GCompris (ages 2 – 10), as well as hundreds of other “free” applications. These are almost all “free” in the truest sense of the word “free”. Meaning they are unencumbered with restrictive licenses that forbid one to install an application on more than one system without paying money. They can be given away and even modified at the source code level and redistributed by one’s budding, homeschooled programmer without having to worry about Federal Marshals showing up at one’s door. An added benefit is that one does not have to worry about Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware and adware on a Linux system. A properly secured Linux home server can be set up very easily to also avoid the very few malware that may attack services on Linux.

Custom PC from ERACCIn conclusion, I believe my homeschooling friends I mention above could have benefited from such a system. Their children are now grown and out, so the point is moot for them. But there are hundreds of other homeschooling parents who might want to consider a Linux based homeschool system for their children. The idea is worth examining, in my not so humble opinion.

Open Source: When Updates are NOT the Problem

I recently had a fun experience. My Mageia 1 Linux system seemed to be experiencing hard lockups requiring a push of the reset button to “resolve”. By “hard”, I mean no keyboard input, no program updates showing in X and sometimes no ping response from another PC on the LAN. I had run some updates, including a new kernel update, and these lockups appeared after running the updates. Cause and effect. Yes? Well, no. It turned out I was having a hardware problem. Here is how I figured that out.

All was well with the world and my PC on Friday, 11 November 2011. Okay, maybe not with the world, but my PC was humming along just fine. Then Saturday came along and it was Update Day. Since my PC is my business system as well as my personal system, I usually try to run my updates on the weekends to avoid down-time during the week. The updates completed successfully and these packages were updated:

flash-player-plugin-11.1.102.55-1.mga1.nonfree Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:16:02 PM CST
libmsn0.3-4.1-5.1.mga1                        Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:15:52 PM CST
kernel-source-latest-2.6.38.8-8.mga1          Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:15:51 PM CST
kernel-desktop-latest-2.6.38.8-8.mga1         Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:15:51 PM CST
kernel-desktop-devel-latest-2.6.38.8-8.mga1   Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:15:50 PM CST
kernel-desktop-devel-2.6.38.8-8.mga-1-1.mga1  Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:15:40 PM CST
kernel-desktop-2.6.38.8-8.mga-1-1.mga1        Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:14:47 PM CST
kernel-source-2.6.38.8-8.mga-1-1.mga1         Sat 12 Nov 2011 04:14:31 PM CST

(Output from ‘rpm -qa –last |less’)

Of course, after getting a kernel update a reboot is required to load the new kernel. So I rebooted the system and everything seemed to be working fine. Sunday evening came along and I decided to play a bit of Unreal Tournament 2004, a.k.a. UT2004, and frag some bots for relaxation. Yeah, I am a “violent guy”, NOT. I was into the middle of a Capture the Flag run when my game froze hard. What was my first thought? Yup, you guessed it, “That kernel update has messed up my box!” It is sad how we humans jump to the wrong conclusions so quickly, is it not? How many folks would be happier if we all took a step back from our assumptions and reconsidered before acting? Not only that, jumping to the wrong conclusion in my case turned into a week of unnecessary frustration and angst.

I spent several wasted hours every day looking for a solution to my “kernel problem”. You may wonder why I started hunting for kernel problems. I was using an nVidia based graphics adapter running the non-free nVidia driver supplied with my distribution. During forensics after my first hang I saw this in /var/log/messages:

kernel: NVRM: os_schedule: Attempted to yield the CPU while in atomic or interrupt context

I started thinking the new kernel and nVidia driver Had A Problem and based on that poor assumption I forged ahead to find The Solution To The Problem. I will spare you the details of all the wrong turns and dead-ends I found during my week of agony. Let us just say, it was not fun trying to fix a problem that did not exist anywhere else but in my fevered imagination.

What happened to get me on the correct track? Yesterday, 22 November 2011, my system suddenly started hanging when not running a 3D game. I was just looking up parts to order for a new PC build for one of our Linux clients. This was the “Ah ha!” moment for me. I had not had this happen before under any Linux system except when I had a hardware problem. So, I shut down the PC, pulled my CD case out of my brief-case and loaded the Live Parted Magic CD to run hardware tests. The RAM was tested first – no errors. Then I rebooted to the PM GUI and ran GSmartControl disk tests simultaneously on my four SATA drives.

The first drive finished with no errors. While waiting for the other drives to finish, Parted Magic had a hard hang. My very next thought was, “It is the graphics card!” Because the only time I have had Parted Magic hang like that was when I encountered a bad graphics card on a client’s PC I was trying to diagnose. Yes, this is another bit of assumption. But this time it was correct.

However, I wanted to be sure I was following the correct path this time. So I did some more forensic investigation before marching ahead. What I did was reboot my PC off the boot drive to Mageia 1. Login to my console on my Linux router and ‘ssh’ in to my PC. Then ‘su’ to root and ‘tail -F /var/log/messages’ to watch what was happening while I used the PC. In a few minutes of use the PC “froze” and these were the last lines displayed in the log:

Nov 22 21:41:33 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 8, Channel 00000000
Nov 22 21:41:35 era4 kernel: NVRM: os_schedule: Attempted to yield the CPU while in atomic or interrupt context
Nov 22 21:41:37 era4 kernel: NVRM: os_schedule: Attempted to yield the CPU while in atomic or interrupt context
Nov 22 21:41:42 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 16, Head 00000000 Count 00017c0c
Nov 22 21:42:09 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 8, Channel 00000020
Nov 22 21:42:26 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 8, Channel 00000020
Nov 22 21:42:41 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 16, Head 00000000 Count 00017c0d
Nov 22 21:42:50 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 8, Channel 00000020
Nov 22 21:42:59 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 8, Channel 00000020
Nov 22 21:42:59 era4 kernel: NVRM: Xid (0000:01:00): 16, Head 00000000 Count 00017c0e
Nov 22 21:43:13 era4 kernel: NVRM: GPU at 0000:01:00.0 has fallen off the bus.

See that last line? That means the driver could not “see” my video card any longer. I think the hard lockups were because the non-free, proprietary nVidia 3D driver has hooks into the kernel to do its “3D magic”. It can cause a video failure to hang the entire system. If there is a way to do fast 3D processing under X without hooking into the Linux kernel, well, I vote for that. Why? So that an ‘ssh’ into a desktop Linux box with a dead video card has a chance of being successful so a savvy troubleshooter has a chance to do forensics on the running system. In any case, a switch to a new video card solved the problem.

My new video card? It is an “old”, unused ATI Radeon X1650 Pro I had sitting on a shelf here. It is using the “free” ATI driver supplied with my distribution. Oh, and my 3D game, Unreal Tournament 2004, works just fine with that. However, I have not gotten Quake 4 to run yet with the “new” setup. I expect I will be able to get Quake 4 working if I decide to take the time to look into that. But for now, I am happy with what I have. At least I can get my work done, which is much more important than any game.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get back to building Linux based systems for our clients. Thanks for stopping by though.

Custom PC from ERACC   Custom Notebook from ERACC

Open Source: Why Military Forces Should Use Linux

Why? Because the level of skill required to crack a Unix-like OS is much higher than that needed for a Microsoft OS. Further, properly configured Unix-like systems are much more robust than Microsoft systems. Were Military forces using properly configured and properly secured Unix or Linux systems we would not see items like these below being reported.

I just had a, “What were they thinking?!”, moment while reading this article at ars technica: Computer virus hits US Predator and Reaper drone fleet. First, it is not a “computer virus”, it is a Microsoft operating system virus. Second, using Microsoft operating systems for any critical Military computer systems is just wrong. I know the US Military has specifications for rugged computer systems that must be made in the USA. That makes sense. What does not make sense is the fact that the US Military will accept Microsoft operating systems on its critical, sensitive hardware at this date in time. That is like specifying a bank vault that can withstand a nearby nuclear blast, but allowing the builder to install a screen door for access to the vault. It is just a Bad Idea!

This was a deja vu moment as well. I was following news about Military systems back in the 1990’s and had a similar experience when I read about the US Navy “smart ship” running Microsoft Windows NT … and having a ship killing system failure: Software glitches leave Navy Smart Ship dead in the water. I completely agreed with Ron Redman, deputy technical director of the Fleet Introduction Division of the Aegis Program Executive Office, at the time when he stated:

“Unix is a better system for control of equipment and machinery, whereas NT is a better system for the transfer of information and data. NT has never been fully refined and there are times when we have had shutdowns that resulted from NT.” … and … “Because of politics, some things are being forced on us that without political pressure we might not do, like Windows NT,” Redman said. “If it were up to me I probably would not have used Windows NT in this particular application. If we used Unix, we would have a system that has less of a tendency to go down.”

Actually, after re-reading that, I disagree that NT, or any Microsoft OS, was or is “a better system for the transfer of information and data” when compared to a Unix-like OS. I would use Linux for that too. Especially in a critical Military system like a “smart ship” or a drone control center. Frankly I do use Linux for operational security and the secure transfer of information and data in my own small business. I thank God that I do not have to succumb to political pressure forcing me to use a Microsoft OS for my business. It seems to me, if I can figure out how to implement Linux for my personal and business use, surely the US Military can do the same for its critical systems infrastructure. Obviously some people in the Military “get it” when it comes down to what system is best for critical control systems. Now if only the Microsoft lobbyists can be shut down from affecting the decisions as to what systems are best for the US Military.

Microsoft still makes a decent gaming operating system. But that is about the sum total for which I would agree a Microsoft system should be used. Even there I am agreeing reluctantly only because the majority of current PC game development targets the Microsoft OS.

Hey, US Military folk and US Senators with military oversight, if it has to be from the USA, ever hear of Red Hat Linux? How about the US NSA’s own Security-Enhanced Linux? Perhaps it is time for you folk to rethink the requirements for Military computing systems and make one of these Linux operating systems part of the requirement. Or take the Linux kernel source code and use your own internal Military IT staff and programmers to collaborate and build a custom system just for Military use. Any of these would be a better option than relying on a “known to be owned” OS like any of those from Microsoft. I will be glad to introduce you to Linux if you want to pay me for a Linux consultation. Just sayin’ …

Custom PC from ERACC   Custom Notebook from ERACC

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Edit Sat Oct  8 20:57:30 CDT 2011: Due to a salient observation elsewhere, change “pwn” to crack in the first paragraph.

Linux Hardware Support Better Than Windows 7

Are you in the market for a new laptop, desktop or server PC with Linux installed? Please give us the opportunity to quote a preloaded Linux laptop, desktop or server system for you.

I will start this off by adding, “… with the exception of some wireless chip sets and high end graphics cards.” to appease those of you who will act like Arnold Horshack (1, 2) if that is not mentioned. If there are other unsupported devices on Linux that are supported in Windows 7 feel free to scratch your itch and tell me in a comment.

The concept of better is a subjective idea. What is better to me is possibly, even probably, not better to someone else. In my case, and in the case of some of my clients, Linux hardware support is “better”. I do not buy cutting edge hardware and tend to keep systems and peripherals until they stop working and can no longer be repaired at a reasonable cost. When a new release of my favorite Linux distribution comes out I can be 100% certain that my hardware that works with my current release will still work with the new release. That is something I just take for granted. This is not so in the Microsoft camp.

For those people who hold on to working hardware through new Microsoft versions, their hardware may or may not be supported in a new release of a Microsoft OS. Take the example of a recent conversation I had with the manager at one of my client offices. I will call her “Mrs. B” here. Mrs. B is a Microsoft fanatic and will not even consider switching to Apple, much less Linux. When I mentioned switching to Linux for her office desktop during our conversation she laughingly said, “Gene, you know better than that.”, because we have had that discussion before. This came up in our recent conversation about her HP Photosmart 1115 printer.

Mrs B recently had to purchase a new PC for her office use because her old Microsoft XP Professional based PC died. She bought a cheap, commodity PC with Windows 7 Home Premium installed from an on-line discount store. She did not check whether or not her existing peripherals were supported. Why should she? They worked before, so they should still work. Correct? Not so correct. You see, HP has, for whatever reason, decided to not make drivers for the Photosmart 1115 for Vista, much less Windows 7.

Mrs. B had asked me to see if I could help her get her printer working on Windows 7 because she could not find the driver CD. So, I went to www.hp.com and did a search for drivers for her. I already suspected that HP had not created drivers for that model, and I was correct. I informed Mrs. B and mentioned that the printer does have support under Apple OS X and Linux. So maybe we could switch her to Linux so she would not have to get rid of her still working printer just to buy one that has Windows 7 drivers. That is when I got her response above. So, Mrs. B will be buying a new printer and either throwing away or giving away the still functional Photosmart 1115 printer.

While at HP’s web site, just for curiosity’s sake, I looked at the list of unsupported products in Windows 7. That is quite a list. Then I took items from the list at random and checked to see if HP reports they are supported under Linux. Oddly, some of the items in that list do have Windows 7 drivers. It seems even HP is not sure which of their products are not supported. Some of the products are not supported under Linux according to the HP driver search for them. Those also only have drivers for Microsoft Windows 3.1, Microsoft Windows 95 and Microsoft Windows 2000. It is possible these very old models are “win-printer” types that are gutted of any stand-alone capability and require a driver to function at all. But the other models I looked up all had support under Linux listed, but no support under Windows Vista or Windows 7.

One problem here is that Microsoft drivers are so closely tied to the system kernel that a new release of the operating system breaks old drivers. Under Apple OS X and Linux this is not a problem because most drivers, including those for printing, are separate from and not tied to the kernel. On Linux any driver that does require a specific kernel can be, and usually will be, easily recompiled by a distribution’s maintainers and released along with the new kernel. If the driver works with DKMS, even better. Printing runs as a separate subsystem, usually using CUPS. So, if one’s printer worked with Fedora 9 it still works with Fedora 15 and will probably still be able to work with Fedora 25 or whatever Fedora releases may be called later. So, one’s beloved Photosmart 1115 printer can still be used under Linux while it cannot be used with Windows 7. In my book, that is better hardware support with Linux.

These days I will only purchase new peripherals for my SOHO that specifically state they have Linux support or are shown to be supported by open source drivers. If the package says “Linux” on it, I also try to take the time to send an e-mail to the manufacturer letting them know I chose their product because they took the effort to put on the packaging the fact they support my preferred OS. This is my small effort to keep these manufacturers interested in supporting Linux. Perhaps you can do the same.

Do you have your own “peripheral horror story” with a Microsoft OS? Feel free to post a comment about it.

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The Century of the Linux Desktop

Here we go again. Some fellow has gotten all whiny about being such a big Linux fan, "… hardcore Linux user …", but he just had to go back to Microsoft to get things done. Why? Because he is tired of having to tinker with Fedora Linux to make things work, or fail to work, with cutting edge hardware … and 64-bit Flash on 64-bit Linux is sucky … and Skype on Linux is sucky … and … and … and. It was all just so painful and time consuming he could not take it any longer and went back to the safe arms of Microsoft to escape the horror that is Linux. Good grief.

Okay, first and foremost, a true "hardcore Linux user", in my mind a fan of Linux, is unlikely to switch from Linux to anything else. Oh yes, he or she will switch Linux distributions in a heartbeat, or maybe three heartbeats, if a distribution fails to work as needed. But switching to Microsoft and leaving the Linux desktop behind? Not likely, my friends. I consider myself a true "hardcore Linux user" and I see no voluntary switch from Linux in my future … ever. Here is why.

I deal with Microsoft systems for our company clients that insist on Microsoft, or need Microsoft for some lock-in software that only runs on Microsoft. I clean up Windows malware infected Microsoft systems, yes even Microsoft Windows 7 with anti-malware installed gets infected. I can, and do, install and set up modern hardware systems running Microsoft Windows 7 that run quite well day after day after day. The Windows 7 operating system is fairly stable and works well with the systems we custom build for clients to use with it. The software written for Microsoft Windows 7 installs and "just works" in every case where we have set up a system for a client. So am I tempted to defenestrate my Linux DVDs and install Microsoft on my personal and business PC systems? Uhm … no.

I am a fan of Linux. I mean the word fan in this sense of the word:

From WordNet (r) 3.0 (2006) [wn]:

fan


3: an ardent follower and admirer [syn: {fan}, {buff}, {devotee}, {lover}]

 

As a fan of Linux I am not going to switch to something else voluntarily. I can and will admit that Linux distributions and FOSS packages all have flaws and need work. The KDE4 debacle I think proves my point. When KDE4 applications I used finally ticked me off enough with fighting their problems, I switched … to different FOSS software running on my Mandriva Linux desktop, not to Microsoft. Of course, nearly everything designed by humans is flawed at some level. Any long-time programmer knows that a program is rarely "finished", it is just "released". Then the programmer moves on to work on the known flaws to fix them for the next release. This is true of Microsoft software, Apple software, proprietary UNIX software and FOSS/Linux software. None are exempt. End users get software that is "good enough" in most cases and are somewhat content. So, since this is true, why care about switching desktop platforms or not switching desktop platforms?

I care about software freedom as much as I care about software usability. I am not willing to tie my hands with restrictive licensing without a Very Good Reason. A compelling reason. An "I have no other choice" reason. FOSS and Linux gives me a choice in every case of software that I need to run my micro-business and use on my personal computers … and I love it. Yes, I could run much of this on a Microsoft based system too. But why would I want to? Microsoft licensing ties my hands. Besides that, my printers all work including the multi-function ones I chose. I have decent sound (no Pulse Audio please). When I need to use Flash the 32-bit version works "good enough". I am not interested in using Skype since I have a perfectly good VOIP SIP phone from http://www.8×8.com/ for which I pay a monthly fee. I create all my documents in OpenOffice.org, soon to be LibreOffice with my next distribution upgrade. I can create invoices and keep up with finances using GnuCash. So on and so forth.

I do not use cutting edge distributions of Linux such as Fedora. I use a Linux distribution, Mandriva, that is a wee bit behind the bleeding edge and does all the heavy lifting to get hardware working for me. DKMS is included and handles the proprietary bits from nVidia that I use. If Mandriva did not work for me there are many other distributions to try until I find one that does work for me. Once I get a system set up with my Linux distribution of choice I never need to tinker with it, period. It … just … works. The desktop Linux systems my company sells and have installed for our clients all just work. The desktop Linux systems one can purchase preloaded from other vendors off the internet just work. If one wants to break out of the box and tinker with Linux, the option is always there. But if one just wants a system that works to do web browsing, picture editing, document creation and editing, e-mail and other typical desktop PC tasks without tinkering … well, a Linux distribution can do that. If one wants something atypical from a desktop PC, Linux can do that too. But be prepared to tinker in that case.

Some witty Gamer Person is going to mention gaming. I know you are thinking about it even if you do not mention it. Sure, the bulk of modern games are written for proprietary, restricted, "you are a slave to our license" systems. If you care more about gaming than anything else, then stick with proprietary systems for now. Given time this too will eventually come over to Linux and FOSS. But the movement is slow because gaming companies in the business of gaming only care about where they can make the most money. At this point in time those markets are the closed, proprietary Microsoft desktop and the closed, proprietary gaming consoles. I am mature enough to care about my freedom to the point I am willing to give up gaming with some cutting edge, new games. Crysis does not run natively on Linux? I could not care less about it then and will never spend my hard earned money for it. There are good enough games for me that run natively on Linux when I need a break from reality. Because they run natively on Linux I buy them. Maybe some day you, dear Gamer Person, will be mature enough to understand and agree with me.

Why the title on this article? My prediction is not that 2011 is "the year of the Linux desktop". My prediction is that the 2000's are the century of the Linux desktop. All human endeavors controlled by a few elite eventually pass away. This was true of Sun Microsystems, SCO and many other now defunct companies. This will also be true of Apple and Microsoft in the long run. But Linux and FOSS are different. They are not controlled by a few elite and cannot be so controlled due to the open licensing these systems enjoy. Eventually, based on the long history of human endeavors, FOSS wins. If the world does not end in 2012 that is. 🙂

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New Linux Laptop from ERACC – Self-Review

Edit Wed Oct  5 23:28:50 CDT 2011: The laptop in this review is no longer available. Our new laptops use nVidia video controllers and thus work fine for 3D with the nVidia drivers if that is what one wants. Go to Laptop Quote on our shopping site to see the specifications for these.

Laptop Running Mandriva 2010.2If you are interested in a new laptop pre-loaded with Linux or shipped with a bare drive for self-install read on.

About a month ago, April 22nd 2011, I quietly posted a “press release” about the laptop line we are using for Linux, FreeBSD and FreeDOS installations. Since we were just getting lined up for offering these laptops and had not actually installed anything on one yet, I did not want to post all over the world until we had a chance to vet one. Right after that post, I received an order (1) for one of these laptops with 64-bit ERACC Linux Laptop - Lid ClosedMandriva 2010.2 installed on the drive and eComStation 2.1 (2) and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit in virtual machines. We had not even gotten one of these laptops in for a test install and already had an order for one. I explained this to the fellow wanting the laptop and he said he did not mind financing a test install as long as he got a working laptop at the end of the test. I agreed, of course. Following is the most objective review I can create for this laptop, the good, the iffy, and the bad, regardless of my interest in selling them.

This laptop was ordered on a tight time schedule so some of the things I would like to do, such as install and configure with different Linux distributions and FreeBSD, had to be skipped. I will do those tests with the laptop we order for in-house use, once I have the funds for that. Or, one of you “out there” could order one of these laptops with a bare drive and beat me to that review. I would not mind that at all.ERACC Linux Laptop - Lid Open

The bad. I am aware that the Linux driver for the Intel HD 3000 video chipset is very new. The Mandriva 2010.2 release does not include this driver and rebuilding the kernel and video system to include this driver was not something the end-user wanted us to do even if there had been time to do it. He stated he does not need 3D video. So, the video is running in VESA mode. The VESA mode works good enough to use the laptop. I did post a request for a back-port to the Mandriva Bugzilla site. But was told that was unlikely to happen in the Mandriva 2010.2 release. Which is not surprising considering that the Mandriva 2011 release is imminent.ERACC Linux Laptop - Keyboard

The iffy. I tested suspend to RAM and suspend to disk. These appear to still need some work in Mandriva at least. After leaving the laptop suspended for 30 minutes in both cases I could not “wake it up” again. In both cases I had to power cycle the laptop. This might be considered part of the “bad” section to some. For me it is “iffy” as I have never used any suspend feature with my own laptops under any operating system. If I am not going to be using it, I just save my work and shut it down. In any case, suspend should “just work” no matter what laptop one is using.

The user ordered a serial Express Card for use to control some hardware that needs a serial connection. He said the serial control is not something that is a critical need, just desirable. This needs to work from within the Windows 7 Professional VirtualBox virtual machine. The serial express card is working just fine from Linux. I connected a MultiTech 56k MultiModem to the serial port and used minicom to send AT commands to the modem. I was able to control the modem from minicom. Unfortunately I could not get Windows 7 in the VirtualBox virtual machine to use the serial port. I tried every permutation of serial configuration over a period of about two days and never got Windows 7 to “see” the serial port. The client is going to keep the Express Card so we can keep trying to get it working with remote support. This is in the “iffy” section because it may work in the future even if it is not working now.

The good. Everything else I was able to test works. The sound is working. The wireless NIC connected to our wireless router and pulled an IP address from the wireless router after I entered the WPA2 security information. The wired NIC, when connected to our LAN switch, pulled an IP address from our Linux internet gateway. The DVDRW drive is working to read and write DVDRW discs. USB ports are working. The external headphone and microphone jacks work. I do not have any eSATA hardware, so could not test the eSATA port. As already reported above, the Express Card port works. Even the 1.3 Megapixel Web Camera works. I started Kopete and ran the video configuration to test this.

Here are a few more pictures for you to enjoy:

ERACC Linux Laptop - Left Front ERACC Linux Laptop - Left Side -  Rear
ERACC Linux Laptop - Right Side - Front

ERACC Linux Laptop - Right Side - Rear

The bottom line is this laptop is a good Linux system. For now we are still working on a quote page  to put up on our web shop for this laptop. So to get a quote one has to use our main contact form shopping site contact form and choose “Quote Request” from the Category drop down. If one wants to do a self-install, then request a quote with a bare drive. There are other laptop models we hope to offer in the future if we see there is a demand for laptops pre-loaded with Linux.

  1. Intel Core I5 CPU, 8 GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive. 3 year depot hardware warranty added. Default hardware warranty is for 1 year. (Back)
  2. Actually, the order was for eComStation 2.0 and a license for that was ordered. But eComStation 2.1 was released before the laptop install was completed so we automatically upgraded the order to the 2.1 release. An eComStation 2.0 license can legally be used with the eComStation 2.1 release. (Back)

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Edit Mon May 23 09:49:07 CDT 2011: change contact information to shopping site form for quote requests.

Linux: Updating BIOS on an Old SCSI Controller

I have a FreeBSD file server sitting in my office that has happily been serving files for a few years now. But the server is built from a conglomeration of very old parts and some of them are now wearing out. I am in the process of building another PC from old parts to replace the existing server.

One of the old parts is an Adaptec 29160 SCSI controller that will host a used Maxtor Atlas 10K4_36LWS 36 GB SCSI drive and a used Seagate ST173404LC ~80 GB SCSI drive. The Seagate, having an 80-pin connector, has an adapter to get it to work with the 68-pin cable for the Adaptec. When I got the "new" server assembled and booted it to run the SCSI disk utilities and reformat the drives, the controller saw the Seagate drive as a 4 GB drive. This just would not do. I needed a BIOS update for the 29160 controller which Adaptec supplies as an .exe for extraction and use with a bootable floppy.

Here's the problem, my new PC systems all are built without floppy drives. The motherboards do not even have floppy controllers on-board. I have been meaning to buy a USB attached floppy drive Real Soon Now™ for about 2 years and never have. I am doing the work to replace the server this weekend because the old system cannot even be backed up at this point. It gives SCSI errors and reboots if lots of disk calls are made sequentially, which happens when streaming data to the backup server. So, I need to get this server replaced now, today.

The "new" server does have a floppy drive as it is using an older technology motherboard and I have some floppy drives sitting on a shelf in my office, just in case I need one … like today. My Linux router built from a ~5 year old Compaq Presario tower PC that was given me by a friend / client, also has a floppy drive. My Mandriva Linux desktop business PC is running VirtualBox with a copy of Windows XP Professional installed in a virtual machine. So, I figured out a process to get a floppy made from which I could boot the "new" server and update the 29160's BIOS.

First I ran this command to create a 1.44 MB diskette image file:

mkdosfs -C 29160upd.img 1440

Then I started the XP Pro virtual machine, mounted the diskette image and "formatted" it as a bootable diskette. Once that completed I ran the .exe from Adaptec to extract the BIOS update utility and files and copied those to the mounted diskette image. Then I detached the image from the virtual machine and copied it to my Linux router, where a floppy drive resides. But wait … there were no floppy devices in the /dev/ directory. This was a stumper. But this command found something interesting:

locate floppy|grep dev/

I noticed a file for udev, the device creation and maintenance utility, that looked promising:

/lib/udev/create_floppy_devices

A quick look at the help output for create_floppy_devices gave the clue I needed. This command, run as root, made the floppy devices that I needed to use the floppy drive:

/lib/udev/create_floppy_devices -c fd0

Then I used the good old 'dd' command to copy the diskette image to a floppy disk:

dd if=29160upd.img of=/dev/fd0

I had to try three old diskettes before I found a good one. Once that completed without errors I removed the diskette, placed it in the "new" server, detached the SCSI cable from the controller per the instructions that came with the utility, and powered on the "new" server to boot from the diskette. The BIOS update ran successfully and the controller "saw" the correct size of the Seagate drive. It is now reformatting that Seagate drive for use with a fresh FreeBSD install.

Hopefully, some of you that find this article will be able to use this information to fix your own old controller or motherboard that requires a diskette based utility. If you do, please share a comment with us about your experience.

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A Miniature Linux Office Solution (Mini ITX)

Back in January of this year (2011) I was on-site at one of our local client offices setting up yet another Microsoft Windows XP system for a dedicated use. That PC is there just for running the United Parcel Service (UPS) WorldShip™ software for the client to enter UPS shipments off-line then batch upload them at the end of the day. Of course that software "requires" a Microsoft operating system to run. (As an aside, It irks me that people have to buy a Microsoft license just to run software like this. When are major companies like UPS going to realize it is in their best interest to create this "free" software they give away to their customers and make it available to run natively on Linux? Please do not start with the "use WINE" comments. If I wanted "Windows" software I would use a Microsoft OS. So would most Linux users, I would bet.) When I was finishing up with the shipping system the office manager asked me about setting up a dedicated system for sharing scanned versions of all their client files. They want to reduce the time it takes to look up client information in their several thousand or so paper client records. I told her I would get some prices together and send her some quotes for that.

If you are a Linux administrator for a Linux/SAMBA file sharing system in a mostly Microsoft based LAN you likely already have an idea about my plan. I put together prices for some dedicated Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives. I also put together a price for what I call our Miniature Office Server or Miniature Desktop PC. A system we build around a Mini-ITX board using motherboards from two different manufacturers and Lian-Li Mini-ITX cases. This system is installed with a limited selection of Linux distributions depending on which motherboard is needed for the end-user's desired purpose. In this case I chose Mandriva as it is my personal favorite and the end-user needs a relatively easy to use and configure Linux distribution.

Be aware that this client has never had a Linux system in their office before now. I have mentioned Linux as a possible solution to upgrade some of their systems from Windows XP, and that is still on the table at this point. After reviewing the quotes our client contacted me a couple of weeks later and said to go with the Miniature Office Server system running Linux. Picture of Mini Ofc PC Front We arranged for the parts and built the system once they arrived. After the system ran through diagnostics successfully we installed Mandriva 2010.2 Linux x86_64 and SAMBA. A minimalist LXDE "desktop" with X was included since this client is familiar with using a GUI to manage their systems. I called and arranged for delivery of the new system and set up a time to deliver.Miniature Office Server / Desktop PC Installed with Linux (Back)

I delivered the system thinking it would just be used as a file server to share documents scanned from one of the Microsoft systems in the office. To my surprise this system was to be used not only as a file server, but as a "scan station" with a scanner attached and a real live person sitting at a desk interacting with the PC. There had been a break-down in communication between me and the client. But this was easily remedied once I got the idea of what they wanted to do. Had I realized this in advance I would have installed something other than the light desktop that I installed. Probably Gnome would be my choice in this case as the office manager is an OS X user and Gnome has been favorably compared to the Apple GUI by some. Besides, I am still not convinced KDE in Mandriva is up to being ready for production use yet after the KDE 3.5 versus KDE 4.x fiasco that has ensued over the past many months.

Now the project was not just to configure SAMBA shares for their office LAN, but to configure an Epson GT-S50 ADF scanner and get it working on Linux. So I used Mandriva 'urpmi' to download and install Xsane. Unfortunately Xsane did not "see" the GT-S50. I know that Epson drivers for most of their scanners are found at the Avasys web site. So I accessed the site and downloaded the software and drivers for the scanner there. After installing the Image Scan software and testing it all appeared "okay". The following day was for training the young lady that would be using the system. However, once we began using the Image Scan software it was discovered that the page size could not be adjusted. There were no settings in the configuration to change this so a different solution had to be found. The young lady I was to train left as there was nothing she could do until this problem was resolved.

Luckily, now that the Avasys driver had been installed Xsane was able to "see" the GT-S50. I spent some time figuring out how the scanner would work with Xsane and making mental notes about multi-page scanning, as almost all their scans will be multiple pages for client project records. Then made a few tweaks to the SAMBA setup to allow some of the staff "administration" access to be able to rename and delete documents as needed. Everyone else got read-only access.

The following training day arrived and we began again with training on the new system This time, things went much more smoothly. The only glitch with Xsane is it apparently does not have a way to use the dual-sided scanning capability of the GT-S50 scanner. However a work-around was developed that would be satisfactory when using Xsane's multi-page scanning feature. Then one other problem cropped up. Some of the directories created on the Linux side were showing up in the old, broken DOS 8.3 format on the Microsoft systems. This turned out to the a name mangling problem with the version of SAMBA used and ending a directory name with a period, such as "Acme Explosives Co." The simple solution is to not end directory names with a period, and that is what was decided. The only item left to be decided is how much extra drive space may be needed in the future to store thousands of the scanned documents stored as PDF. Of course the eSata ports, shown in the picture above, will be put to use in the event more than the 400 GB available is needed. Logical Volume Management will be used to seamlessly add new storage to the existing storage.

There you have it. A Linux based solution to an office need in a real-world environment. No need for expensive, and/or proprietary, and/or freedom killing sofware. Further, this PC can easily expand its role to include document creation and editing with any of the several word processors available on Linux. Or it could be used to create and edit graphics using The GIMP along with the scanning capability of Xsane. Essentially almost any task that does not require a proprietary Microsoft operating system can be done with this PC. I will let you know if this system gets retasked in the future. In the meantime, feel free to add your comments about other small business Linux solutions that you have done.

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Edit Thu Feb 24 12:55:57 CST 2011: Fix a run-on sentence.

Linux with badram Saves the Day!

Have I said lately that I love Linux? No? Okay then, "I love Linux!" I found yet another reason to promote Linux over other operating system software this week. Bad RAM chips. Some of you may now be thinking to yourselves, "What? Is this guy nuts?" I assure you I am completely sane. I will explain.

One of my business clients is also a Linux fanatic. I introduced her to Linux several years ago and she almost instantly adored Linux. Having that cute "Tuxie"Tux the Linux Mascot helped I think. She first began using Linux with KDE, then tried and liked Gnome as well and switched back and forth using either one or the other for specific tasks. However, she became seriously disenchanted with KDE when the poor decisions were made to foist an unfinished KDE 4 upon the unsuspecting public. So I helped her switch completely to Gnome on her AMD Quad-core based office PC in 2010. She has been a happy camper ever since the switch, until a recent upgrade from Mandriva 2010.0 to Mandriva 2010.2 seemed to be going flakey on her system.

After this upgrade in late December 2010 she started having problems with Nautilus (Gnome's default file manager.) running slow and hanging. Then certain applications such as Firefox began to crash regularly. She called on her computer guy, me, to take a look at the system earlier this week after her Linux system experienced a hard hang that required a press of the reset switch. The hard hang was bad enough that she could not even ssh into her PC from her laptop to try to see if she could kill a runaway process, like I had shown her how to do. She knows that the Linux kernel just does not hang like this, so something had to be wrong with her hardware. I immediately suspected a RAM problem after she enumerated all the hangs, crashes and especially the hard hang of the complete system.

Enter Memtest86+ to check that RAM. Sure enough Memtest reported memory errors in the address range 0x0d646aa8 to 0x0d646f68 (hexadecimal). This is a very small range of memory in her 2 GB of RAM and tossing the RAM out was not an option at the moment as money is tight. But she still needed to use her PC. So, I went looking for a solution as I had seen an oblique mention of some kernel hack called "badram" at one point. Sure enough, I found Rick van Rein's pages for his badram hack. A little further research showed that Mandriva has included this as a patch in their kernels for quite a while. So I edited /boot/grub/menu.lst on my client's PC and added a new kernel stanza:

title linux-badram
kernel (hd0,0)/boot/vmlinuz BOOT_IMAGE=linux root=UUID=bb2a27be-33ed-4a18-b576-37adb9bdfa3b splash=silent vmalloc=256MB vga=788 badram=0x0d646aa8,0x0d646f68
initrd (hd0,0)/boot/initrd.img

I rebooted her PC, chose the linux-badram menu option and told her to try the PC for a couple of days and let me know if that solved her hangs and crashes.  If so, I would make that the default for her. Two days have passed since then with no report from her, so I asked her about the system this morning. She was so excited when she reported a stable system this morning that I had to smile. She said, "Nautilus is fast again and not one application has crashed." Prior to this she had been having multiple crashes of her X applications every day. Problem solved with the Linux kernel and the badram patch. Thanks Linux kernel team and Mr. Rein for your attention to little details like this. This is part of why I love Linux.

So, if you are looking at some misbehaving RAM in your own PC consider using the badram patch before you toss out otherwise good RAM. Of course if you are not using Linux I suppose you will just have to throw out that flakey RAM and buy new RAM … or you can send it to me. 🙂

Update Thu Feb 3 11:26:43 CST 2011: This labor was a warranty job, so the client paid nothing for us to implement this fix. The RAM is under a limited lifetime warranty from Kingston and is going to be replaced. In the meantime, Linux with badram is allowing her to use her PC.

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