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 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 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 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.

FOSS: Breaking the Chains of Apple and Microsoft

It has been a few weeks since I posted an article here at The ERACC Web Log. I have been kicking around some article ideas, but nothing has gelled until today. I do have some projects going that I will be writing about once they are done. I do not believe in writing articles just to have new content. In that direction lay mediocrity. I prefer actually having something worthwhile to write about. At least something I think is worthwhile.

A recent event with a local client has started me thinking, again, about Microsoft, Apple, FOSS and vendor lock-in. I am not a proponent of vendor lock-in. This screen capture of my VirtualBox Windows XP Professional test VM speaks to that.VM with XP-pro on fluxbox window manager under linux

This local client had decided to abandon Microsoft and change out their office systems for new hardware with new operating systems. Thus already requiring retraining and all that comes with such a change. Of course, I made the pitch for Linux with all FOSS. In general, they only use their systems for e-mail and creating quote documents for clients. Under FOSS systems, the e-mail is covered with any number of FOSS e-mail applications, while the quote documents are covered with LibreOffice to create PDF files. One of the systems does run accounting software for billing and payments. But they do not do their own payroll, so LedgerSMB would work for their billing and payments accounting system.

However, their office manager is an “Apple Person”. She and her husband just adore all things Apple. Her husband once told me they have six Apple systems in their home, not including their iPhones and iPads. He said to me he “hates” Microsoft and Linux. Although as far as I know, he has never even tried a Linux distribution. Since his wife is an insider with the ear of the business owner, and I am just the outside consultant, you can guess which system they picked. Yup, they went all-in for Apple on the desktops, an Apple server and QuickBooks for OS X. The new systems do look nice and do the job required, but at a price that I personally find repugnant. That price is more loss of freedom.

As far as I am concerned this client has switched one set of chains for another, prettier set of chains. Apple is no friend of freedom when it comes to software or hardware. If anything, Apple is even more binding than Microsoft because Apple refuses to open up their operating system to run on 3rd party hardware systems. In the few cases where a 3rd party vendor has tried this, Apple has done everything within its power to stomp on that and kill it.

Apple fanatics appear to suffer from a form of Stockholm Syndrome. They are chained down by Apple and chained to Apple products, yet seem to love and revere their Apple overlord. These poor folk seem to believe Apple is the apex of excellence in computing. This perception of Apple as the arbiter of excellence in the computing market place is a fine piece of marketing by Apple. It is not Truth, but the Apple Believers think it is Truth. In the world of the mind, perception is reality.

I do my best to “market” Linux as a “computing excellence” system that is open and provides freedom. Unfortunately, I am just one businessman running one small business with no budget for large advertising campaigns. All I can do is make the pitch for Linux on a small scale with a hope that the listener is open minded and will give it a fair shot. Too often, I am up against the big marketing machines of Apple and Microsoft that pay big bucks to advertise on television, internet and radio and the True Believers for same in a business setting. The chained True Believers can point to any large computer store chain to support their claims that Apple and/or Microsoft are the way to go. There is no such “proof” for Linux use.

So far, I have some small successes getting Linux into use in some settings. Those end-users have come to appreciate their freedom with Linux. However, until there is an organization with big bucks to market “Linux” and gain mind-share with the public, the chains of Microsoft and Apple will still be unbroken for many people who are unaware of the opportunity to break free with Linux and FOSS. I do not mean marketing a specific end-user distribution such as *buntu or a business distribution such as Red Hat, I mean marketing the entire idea of FOSS and all Linux distributions.

FOSS+CSS: Closed Source DOS Accounting Meets Linux and DOSEMU

About the middle of December 2012 I received a call from a long time SCO OpenServer Unix and IBM PC-DOS using client. This client has four Point of Sale business locations and runs a mix of DOS, Unix and Windows in the retail outlets. The main office, here in my town, runs a SCO OpenServer box I built them with Advantage Accounting Point of Sale that is accessed using PuTTY on two Microsoft desktop clients at the checkout counter. The Microsoft systems are basically “dumb” terminal replacements and are used for nothing else.

(One of the locations runs that Intuit PoS system. I had nothing to do with that one.) Two of the other locations run DOS based Advantage Accounting Point of Sale on stand-alone DOS boxes. One of these boxes I had built them about 10 years ago finally gave out. The hard drive would spin up, but the box did nothing else. So, they called me to get a new DOS PC. I explained that DOS was best served these days in a virtual machine or using a DOS emulation layer on something like Linux. We talked over the options and they decided to send me the old case to gut and rebuild with new parts, Mageia 2 Linux and a DOS Virtual Machine.

I ordered the new parts to go in the old case. While waiting for the parts I gutted and cleaned the old case. Everything came out except the old hard drive, which did still work. The new parts finally arrived. Then a new hard drive and all new “guts” went into the case with the old drive. The old drive, being an IDE, had to have an IDE <> SATA adapter. This was installed to access the old drive after Linux was installed on the new drive. I backed up the old drive to a file with ‘dd’ once booted to Mageia 2 on the rebuilt PC.

Then VirtualBox was installed and the ‘dd’ copy of the drive was cloned to a virtual disk image (VDI) using the VBoxManage command line tool. A virtual machine to run the IBM PC-DOS on the VDI was created and booted to test. All seemed well. However, this PC needed parallel port printing. The motherboard ordered has a parallel port and serial port on-board. But no matter how I tried to get parallel printing working with VirtualBox, it never did work. I either got errors (No, I do not recall the errors exactly. I remember permission errors, I think. Silly me lost my notes about that.) or making changes to the setup got no errors but no printing either. This was a show stopping problem, until I recalled that DOSEMU allows one to set up printing to Linux print queues in its configuration file. Whew!

So, out went VirtualBox and in came DOSEMU. I copied the files from the old drive to the appropriate DOSEMU directory under the user account. Edited the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT for use of IBM PC-DOS in DOSEMU. Then I set up a RAW printer to use with the DOS accounting application and placed the command to access that in the appropriate section of the DOSEMU configuration file. A test print worked as expected and all was well. Well almost.

I still needed to address backups. The old floppy tape drive would not work because these new motherboards do not include a floppy controller. Besides, tape is just so passe. Instead, I took a CDRW disc and used K3B to create a backup job that could be run with a double-click from the Xfce desktop used with this build. Yes, I could have whipped out my bash foo and created a backup script from tabula rasa, but time was of the essence on this job. I usually want to spend a bit of time tweaking my scripts to make them extra awesome and fool proof. In this case, I just did not have the time to create an excellent, one off, debugged script. The shop needed its Point of Sale system back “yesterday”. Besides, K3B works fine and this PC has plenty of resources for adding in some KDE bloat to run K3B. Plus, these guys need to see some eye-candy as this is the first Linux box they have ever had.

Now they have their DOS Point of Sale back in place. They also have a new Linux based PC with a GUI, LibreOffice and other office goodies installed for creating flyers, making custom spreadsheets and all the other office PC tasks a DOS only system just cannot do easily or at all. Mission accomplished.

P.S. Old DOS Geeks – Yes, I know there are still those of you using WordPerfect for DOS, Lotus 123 for DOS, [insert name] for DOS and you can do whatever you want with those. But I live in the 21st century and so do my clients. We like the pretty GUI while we do our work. 😉

FOSS: A Linux Conversion

My friend Jerry is 70+ years young. Jerry has also been a client of mine on and off over the past several years for on-site support calls at his home office. Recently he was telling me how his aging Dell Dimension 2400 with Windows XP was running so very slow it was frustrating. We all know the story, the Microsoft OS was suffering from crud creep after several years of use. A cleanup and/or reinstall was needed to get it back to running faster. The other option is a new PC. Jerry is on a fixed income and cannot afford to replace the PC with a new one running “Microsoft Latest OS!” at this time. I talked with Jerry about his options, and he decided to give Linux a shot on this old Dell.

The system has 768 MB RAM and a 30 GB hard drive. The CPU is a single core CPU and “not fast”, but decent enough for a modest Linux install. I went over to Jerry’s home and backed up his Firefox bookmarks and his files in the Microsoft “My Documents” directory. These were placed on my 16 GB USB flash drive. Then the system was installed with Mageia Linux, online sources were added and all updates were applied. I did this for Jerry while he sat in and watched. I also set up his system with LXDE at first. Jerry saw that it looked like “Windows 95” and wanted something different. I know heavy GUIs like KDE 4 or Gnome 3 are out of the question unless one does a lot of tweaking to strip those down for a low resource PC. So, I installed Xfce4. He liked that much better, I am glad to say.

Jerry had already been using LibreOffice on Windows XP, so his documents restored from backup “just worked” when I opened them in the new LibreOffice install on his “new” Linux desktop. Jerry’s e-mail is web based through Yahoo! Mail, and that “just worked” too when I showed him where to find Firefox to get to the web. His printers and scanner were set up and “just worked” too. He now can use Xsane to scan his documents and can print what he needs to print.

I showed Jerry the ‘root’ access to “Mageia Control Center” and to “Install & Remove Software”. I explained privilege separation and how one uses ‘root’ only for administration tasks such as installing and removing software. Jerry had no problem understanding this concept. However, Jerry did not like having to login to his desktop every time he started the PC. So, I set up “auto-login” for his account and that was exactly what he wanted.

Now Jerry has a PC that is running “faster” than it was with the old, aged Windows XP install. It is also a modern OS and will serve his needs until the PC finally quits working. His only wish so far is for a plain old Solitaire card game. I guess I need to find him one.

Open Source: Oooo that rackin’ frackin’ … e-mail!

I grew up in the USA during the end of the age when kids were allowed to just be kids and cartoons on Saturday morning television were not a “statement” of some nanny state group trying to brainwash kids with some political or social agenda. Yeah, I mean the days when Daffy Duck could actually get his beak blown off with a shotgun, pick it up, put it back on, then say, “You’re desthpicable!”. That was hilarious to an eight year old boy sitting in front of the television on Saturday morning. No matter how many times it happened. (Cue the nannies, “Oh gee! The kids will think they can shoot each other and live! Ohhhhhhhh Nooooooeeeeessss! Kids must be stoopid!” … break, gimme, please.) As a young boy getting my Saturday morning Captain Crunch sugar rush while watching cartoons, one of my favorite television cartoon characters, other than Daffy, was Yosemite Sam. I mean, he could “swear a blue streak” and never actually “cuss”. I loved that!

Recently I have been emulating Yosemite Sam, but with less creative verbiage. “Why?”, you may ask. Well, it is due to the “new and improved” Evolution 3.4.1 in my shiny Mageia 2 upgrade on my daily use tower PC. Oh, it works fine to download e-mail, it is more stable than the old Evolution 2.32.2 I migrated from, it works great with the Maildir tree I have meticulously created over several years of e-mail storage. It just will … not … send mail via our SMTP hosted e-mail provider for our small business. I have tried on this PC, on another PC, from a fresh VM install on this PC, from a fresh VM install on another PC. I have even tried the 3.4.2 release that was kindly placed in Mageia Cauldron for me to try. (Thank you, Olav Vitters! I do appreciate that!)  No, 3.4.2 will not send at all with our SMTP host either. You can see my bug report if you want details.

Yes, a VM install of Mageia 1 with Evolution 2.32.2 will still send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. Yes, Thunderbird will send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. Yes, every other e-mail application I have tried will send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. But not Evolution 3.4.x in Mageia 2, which is what I want to use since I settled on Evolution after abandoning Kontact + Kmail many moons ago. Again, I am considering yet another e-mail application switch due to a broken e-mail application following an upgrade. (Broken for me! I don’t care if it “works” for you!) I do not care to go back to KDE’s Kmail since my experience with that breaking following upgrades was just as problematic. My requirements are still the same as last time:

  1. It should be targeted toward businesses and thus be more likely to avoid disruptive changes in the future.
  2. It must be able to import most or all of my data from the former application.
  3. It must support Maildir mail directories.

Well, I thought I had #1 with Evolution, but that proved false in the past week+ that I have been on Mageia 2 with Evolution 3.4.1. Not being able to reply to clients from within my chosen e-mail application is fairly disruptive as far as I am concerned. I would use Thunderbird, but the Thunderbird developers have been avoiding proper Maildir support for well over 10 years now. For me, a local Maildir store is an immutable requirement for my mail application.

So, I am looking around for yet another e-mail application on Linux that properly supports Maildir, does not have disruptive updates, might have some chance of importing my dozens of filters I have created by hand in Evolution and works with my hosted mail provider for authenticated SMTP mail sending. At this point I am desperate. So, I am thinking about downloading and compiling Balsa for myself. Balsa is not included with Mageia. But if it ends up working for me, you can bet I will be requesting it be added to Cauldron for the next release of Mageia.

Open Source: Mageia 1 to Mageia 2 Upgrade

I am jumping the gun a bit and upgrading my Mageia 1 installation on my personal / business SOHO desktop PC tonight, May 21st, to Mageia 2. Officially Mageia 2 is not due to release until May 22nd. But the online repository for Mageia 2 is in place at my preferred mirror and I know that it is basically ready to go right now. So, I am upgrading. Ironically, I am starting this article from my soon-to-be-retired Mandriva 2011 install on the SOHO router / Bacula backup server. I have X and fluxbox installed on here just for occasions such as this where my main PC is being serviced. I am publishing this and will update as I go, so any of you that follow this site via RSS can make comments if you wish while this is being written.

This upgrade is being done over the Internet using the new Mageia 2 media sources with ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ from a command line login as root on console #1. I have stopped X at this point and the PC is in “runlevel 3”, meaning no GUI. Which is going to be good since X will be upgraded while this process is going.

The initial phase of the upgrade was some 200+ packages to get the bits of Perl, RPM and urpm* tools that will be needed once the upgrade enters the 2nd phase where more low-level stuff starts being replaced. The second phase is running as I type this paragraph and has 2,679 packages to upgrade with a total download over 2GB. Phase two is at 370 packages and counting.

One of my hopes is that the new Mageia 2 will have a release of Evolution mail that is more stable and works better than the one in Mageia 1. I have had crashes nearly every day using the older Evolution with my local Maildir store. It also has problems keeping up with the message counts and with deleted mail “resurrecting from the dead” even though I want it to stay “dead”. Sometimes I get new mail and it is filtered to the Maildir store … but no new message count shows up. I have missed some business mail for a couple of days due to this problem. My fervent prayer is the new release will work much better. I will of course report about that here in a later article once I have a bit more experience with the upgraded Mageia install under my belt.

May 21 21:55 CDT – 531 packages installed and counting.

May 21 22:30 CDT – 820 packages installed and counting. I have noticed a few “installation failed” messages pass by during this process. I have seen this happen before when upgrading from CLI. That means I will have to run ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ again when this pass is done. I will do that and report on it when I do.

May 21 23:52 CDT – 1134 packages installed and counting.

May 22 00:44 CDT – 1427 packages installed and counting. It is into the freaking huge KDE 4.8 bundle now. What a beast. Although I do not use KDE myself, meaning the desktop, I have it installed to support my clients that do use it. It helps to be able to see on my screen what they should be seeing on their screen. It is a good thing I have set aside a great deal of drive space (16 GB, currently 93% used!) for my /usr partition. 🙂

May 22 01:08 CDT – Stopped the upgrade to remove some of the old kernel-source packages. The /usr partition got to 99% full and I was a bit nervous about that. Restarted the upgrade after removal of these. Note to self, remove these first next time.

May 22 01:40 CDT – I notice that many of the “failed to install” packages are *handbook packages for KDE applications. They are failing because they require the upgraded application to be installed. It appears none of the applications required for the *handbook packages are upgraded yet. A bit of a backward update attempt there I think.

May 22 02:35 CDT – Upgrade ended with a LOT of un-upgraded packages. I had to install some libraries, libpoppler*, individually. Then many of the un-upgraded packages did upgrade along with those libraries. Then when that finished I ran ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ once more and another seven hundred(!) packages started upgrading that had been skipped. Among them … LibreOffice, which is one piece of software I use nearly every day.

May 22 03:09 CDT – Upgrade stopped again with 250 packages still not upgraded. Started it again and some more packages, but not all, did update. Looks like this is going to take some more runs though the upgrade process. Each time getting a few more packages updated.

May 22 03:16 CDT – Had to install gstreamer0.10-vp8 and python-gi by themselves with urpmi. Then libclutter1.0_0 by itself with urpmi. Then 61 other packages came along with libclutter and updated. Appropriately further cluttering my drive with software. 🙂 Still 139 packages to go. Gee, this is fun. I start the update again with ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’. This time I notice Gnucash installing … another program I use nearly every day.

May 22 03:32 CDT – Everything is updated, except for one problem package – qt4-examples is error-ing and will not install. I can live with that. going to reboot now to load the new kernel and see if anything goes “boom”.

May 22 03:35 CDT – Yup, it went boom.

Dependency failed. Aborted start of /data1

Welcome to emergency mode. Use “systemctl default” or ^D to enter default mode.
Give root password for maintenance
(or type Control-D to continue):

Bleh, that /data1 is a complete drive mount that has a lot of important “stuff” on it. Yeah, it is backed up. But who of you really wants to have to rely on your backups? This should extend my “fun” to new heights. What the heck, I’ll use Ctrl D and see what happens. Nothing. Okay root password and I have the # prompt. Gotta do some forensics folks. Be back in a bit.

The /data0 and /data1 mounts were not mounting even though they were working just fine prior to the upgrade. This is a multi-drive system with many more mount points than the average PC user might have. Still a bit disappointing that the upgrade did not “just work” for me. The “fix” was to edit /etc/fstab by hand in “emergency mode” with ‘vim’ to comment out those mount points. Then reboot.

I am writing this paragraph from my newly updated PC running Mageia 2. The ‘diskdrake’ tool is choking on this when I try to run it to edit the mount points:

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sdc1   *          63     8177084     4088511   82  Linux swap / Solaris

That is a swap partition on the first part of one of the disks. Looks like I get to  use gparted to remove that to see if I can then get the ‘diskdrake’ tool to work. There is nothing like an all-nighter upgrade to make one appreciate … sleep.

Okay, something had marked all the first partitions on each drive with the ‘boot’ flag. This was causing diskdrake under Mageia 2 to die on those disks that are not actually boot drives. Using gparted to remove the ‘boot’ flag then allowed me to load diskdrake and redo the mount points. Whew! For the record, this is probably not a problem most folks will run into. My system is used to run a lot of testing stuff for support purposes. So, the problem is probably something I did. That said, diskdrake should have been able to handle this problem instead of dying an ignoble death. At least gparted came through and helped me fix this problem.

My suggestion for an upgrade is, clean out any old stuff you don’t need, such as kernel-source files, before upgrading. Also, check your partitions if you have multiple disks. If each first partition on each disk is marked bootable, this might cause problems if you have more than two disks as I do. Use gparted to remove the boot flag on any partition that is not actually a bootable partition prior to upgrading. While I was able to get everything working after I had already updated, I do have over 20+ years dealing with PC hardware problems under Unix and unix-like systems. Due diligence to look for these problems I found before you upgrade could save you some headaches … and a sleepless night.

Good morning all. I’m going to bed now.

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: Mageia 2 (Cauldron) Looking Good

If you have not been following the saga of the Mageia Linux distribution then you are unaware that Mageia 2 is slated to be released on May 15th. At this point the distribution is in Beta 3 testing and then will have a Release Candidate out right around May 2nd.

Since I am a business user of Mageia, I decided to assist with the testing for the new release to help uncover any bugs still hanging around in the distribution. At least for any of the software that I use. As there are no CD / DVD images out for Beta 3 yet, I decided to take our VirtualBox Mageia test install up to the Mageia Cauldron (development version) release from which the new Mageia 2 will be created. I usually do all upgrades from the command line using these commands below, so the lack of CD / DVD media for Beta 3 is not a problem for me:

# urpmi.removemedia -a
# urpmi.addmedia  –distrib http://(insert/repository/here)
# urpmi –auto-update -v

Before beginning the upgrade, but after selecting the new media source, I started the Mageia Control Center (MCC) and selected the “non-free” and “tainted” media sources that are not enabled by default. Otherwise I would have not had a complete upgrade as I have chosen some packages to install from both of those on our test install.

In my not so humble opinion, the Mageia Control Center is still one of the defining features of Mageia. The new release keeps the GUI MCC and the command line mcc for the times that the GUI may not be available.

During the upgrade process I was given a choice to keep using “legacy” System V initialization or switch to systemd initialization. This is a nice touch. Since almost all modern Linux distributions derived from Red Hat will be moving to systemd, I went ahead and selected that during the upgrade. I wanted to see if the upgrade would smoothly handle the switch from System V to systemd. I am glad to report that it appears to have handled that very well. As you can see in this short video the OS boots very fast with systemd.

I think I am becoming a systemd convert. The OS is also very responsive in this virtual machine. I look forward to seeing how it does on the “bare metal” after I upgrade our systems here. The bottom line is, it seems at this time that the Mageia 2 release will be well done and a contender for the end-user desktop.

Open Source: Using Mageia 1 for Six Months Now

I am back writing again after my hiatus. If you missed me, good. 🙂 If not, maybe I can write something this year that will pique your interest, inform you, or help you smile. Then the next time I take a hiatus you will miss me. 😉

Back in the Fall of 2011, September 4th to be exact, I decided it was time to migrate from the sinking ship of Mandriva to the new Mageia distribution which is based on the best of Mandriva while leaving the chaff of Mandriva behind. It is now six months later and I am ready to report on my experience so far. To sum up this article in a sentence, “Mageia works and works well.” If you just want the summary, that is it, you can stop reading here. If you want more, read on. I will start with what I haven’t liked since that is my shorter list.


One problem with Mageia 1 is it did not, and still does not, include all the software I had installed and used on Mandriva 2010.2. However, this is really a niggle because all of these applications still work following the migration upgrade I did. Further, most of these, if not all of them, will be included in Mageia 2 which is due out in May 2012.

The other problem, to me, is that Mageia will be switching from System V style startup and management to systemd with Mageia 2. I like System V and spent a lot of time learning how it works. Now I have to scrap all that and learn something else that I am not at all convinced solves a real problem. To be honest, this is not just Mageia switching to systemd, many other distributions are doing the same. Therefore I would need to learn about systemd anyway. I still reserve the right to dislike the switch and whine about it.


The window managers / desktops I prefer, fluxbox, Window Maker, Xfce, are part of the official distribution and continue to work as I expect. I do not have to worry that KDE4 + ROSA, the only “official” GUI on Mandriva, will be the only GUI supported in the future. My primary “desktop” is fluxbox. All my custom keyboard bindings and startup settings for fluxbox are still working as expected under Mageia 1. Since fluxbox is part of the official distribution, I can rest assured it will continue to be supported and receive updates through the official Mageia updates.

Mageia is responsive to bugs and new package requests on their Bugzilla bug tracker. For example, my recent request to have the latest release of Wesnoth included for Mageia 2 was handled promptly. (Thank you Stormi!) Mageia still needs more packagers to join the team to help out. But the folks that are already on the Mageia packaging team are doing a great job, in my not so humble opinion.

The Mageia administration team has recently worked on its server infrastructure to make things work faster, more smoothly and to repair a RAID problem that was affecting service. Donations from the Mageia community allowed this. They even took the time to notify us lowly end-users as to what was being done. I personally appreciated the latter. (If you use Mageia and haven’t donated yet, take a minute to send them a small donation. If you can’t donate money, then donate some time to helping others in the Mageia IRC channels.)

Mageia updates work as expected and continue to add new packages that are upgrades of the Mandriva packages I still have installed. The Mandriva list of installed packages keeps getting smaller, as expected. (I ran into a hiccup with updates right after I migrated. An update included some packages intended for Mageia 2. But that only happened one time, and as far as I can tell the problem was fixed as it has not occurred again.)

The Mageia folks are rather friendly and so far I have not seen one person told “RTFM” when asking for help on the IRC channel (See above for the URL). This is a plus as far as I am concerned. Grouchy Linux curmudgeons may disagree. If one just wants to “shoot the breeze” with other friendly folks, I recommend the Mageia Social channel at Freenode. You will find it a good place to chat about just about anything, including Linux in general and Mageia in specific.

Custom PC from ERACCAs far as I am concerned Mageia is my new desktop Linux distribution of choice and will be into the foreseeable future. Please feel free to post comments with your experience, impressions, likes and/or dislikes with Mageia.

Open Source: A GUI Minimalist Tries e17

… and likes it … well, mostly. Hopefully this article will help you if you are searching for that “just right for me” GUI on your Unix/Linux system. But be sure to give e17 a try yourself, do not just pass it over because of anything you may read on the web.

For years now I have been a die-hard GUI minimalist relying on light window managers / desktops such as fluxbox, Window Maker and XFCE4. As such, I was dismayed when the Mandriva Linux distribution decided to drop official support for all GUI options other than its in-house “ROSA” interface. When I found that information and added it to the other disappointing news coming from Mandriva I decided to move on along to Mageia Linux. After that move was completed I decided to take a look at the other desktop options available. While looking at these I saw e17 listed. This is e17 version 0.16.999.55225 for those of you who want to know version numbers. I had seen e17 listed in the package management system for Mandriva in the past, installed it and taken a brief look at it. But I had never decided to give it a real try. This time, I decided to use e17 for at least a month and not use any other desktop or window manager. That was around the middle of September 2011, it is now into the second week of December 2011 and I am still using e17 … for now. Following are my impressions, likes and dislikes regarding e17 so far:

e17 Impressions

  • Appears to take very few resources, which appeals to my GUI minimalist mind.
  • Seems a bit rough around the edges in a few places.
    • Auto-hide of the shelves stops working sometimes. Have to open the settings dialog for a shelf and save it again to “fix” this.
    • At times the Taskbar gadget running in a shelf mishandles / overlaps / truncates the items that it shows running on a desktop. Opening the shelf settings dialog and saving again “fixes” this.

e17 Likes

  • One can configure keyboard shortcuts for pretty much anything.
  • One can change the mouse context menus to match what one prefers, such as right click the desktop for the Main menu.
  • One can quickly switch workspaces just using ALT + Fn keys.
  • One can have multiple desktop background images on a per-workspace basis.
  • One can have multiple shelf objects and have them auto-hide to maximize the usable screen area.
  • All the e17 settings appear to be saved in the ~/.e directory. Making it easy to backup and restore custom settings.
  • Does not start out with a lot of garbage add-ons loaded that one then has to disable or remove to get a streamlined GUI.

e17 Dislikes

  • Binary configuration files?! What?!
    (This will be the reason I end up eventually abandoning e17. I truly loathe the use of binary configuration files under unix-like systems. That is just wrong. Use of plain text for configuration files and log files is one of the primary reasons I love unix-like systems as well as fluxbox, Window Maker and XFCE4. Being able to repair problems or tweak settings by hand in a plain text file from a command line is a big plus for me.)
  • Apparently e17 handles windows so differently from fluxbox, XFCE4, Window Maker, KDE and GNOME that my favorite screen capture tool, Shutter, cannot find windows of which to take snapshots. There is a screen capture application included for e17, but it has fewer options and functions than Shutter.
  • When my X sessions kept crashing due to a bad graphics card recently, e17 lost all my custom settings after one such crash. While this can be recovered from a backup of one’s /home/user directory while at a command line without e17 running, this is at minimum very annoying. Of course loss of all settings happened to me when I used some KDE4 applications for a while too. So this is not just an e17 problem.

As a GUI minimalist my concerns are not glitz, glitter, bells and whistles. I want function over form. If the GUI does what I want it to do with as little memory, CPU and GPU use as possible, which means less power consumption, then I could not care less about transparency, wobbly windows and fire burning up my closing windows. If the GUI is pretty as well, that is just a bonus.

Since Mageia did include e17 0.16.999.55225, which is a “work in progress” release, it is possible to probable that some of the problems I note here have been fixed in subsequent releases. The latest “snapshot” release of e17 as of the time if this article is 0.16.999.65643. As I do not go outside my distribution’s package management system for anything other than a few games I will just have to wait for Mageia to catch up with the latest release of e17 to see what is fixed and what is not.

For the most part, I am favorably impressed with e17. However, the use of binary configuration files is a serious enough personal problem for me that I will eventually move back to one of my favorite GUIs. Of course if the enlightenment desktop team changes course and begins to use plain text files to store configuration data, well, I may just decide to add enlightenment desktop to my small list of favorite GUIs. I am not going to hold my breath waiting for that though.

Custom PC from ERACC   Custom Notebook from ERACC