Linux: Tux Goes to Church

In today's world of shrinking budgets and shrinking incomes, charitable organizations are feeling a financial crunch from lower giving. Churches are among these organizations that are struggling to make ends meet while attempting to serve the communities around them. With budgets stagnant or shrinking does it make fiscal sense for a charity, such as a church, to spend money "upgrading" to Microsoft Windows 7 on the desktop and Microsoft Windows Server 2008 in the server closet? Does it make fiscal sense for a church to use Apple systems? No, it does not make fiscal sense to do that. Especially when there is Linux and there are thousands of Free Open Source Software (FOSS) applications that have no license costs and no restrictions on freedom.

In this article I intend to show that a church, or other charity, can financially benefit from a switch to Linux on the desktop and in the server closet. I have looked into these options because I have charitable organization clients and churches doing business with my company. I am always interested in helping charities lower their costs so they can spend more on helping our neighbors in need. So, let us begin with the operating system.

Churches are typically using Microsoft Windows XP on the desktop and are going to have to upgrade to Windows 7 at some point in the next three years if they stick with Microsoft. In many cases this will mean buying new computers to run Windows 7. Some churches are also running expensive Microsoft server systems as file servers in the server closet. Churches appear to be unaware there is an alternative "free" operating system that can serve as the underlying system for a wealth of "free" software. This same "free" operating system will run just fine on their existing hardware or even better on new hardware. Using older hardware all they need to invest is time to get familiar with the new "free" system and software.Thinking that Windows 7 will not require some retraining is naive. With new hardware all they are out is the cost of the hardware and time to train on the new system.

Of course that "free" system is Linux. Usually some local system builder will be glad to build systems and preload Linux for a church. That same local system builder can likely provide support if asked. Any Linux distribution could serve as a good base on which a church could build its IT operations. On the desktop I would still recommend Mandriva despite its roller coaster history. Mandriva is a very easy to learn, user-friendly Linux distribution. It has easy GUI tools in the Mandriva Control Center to help the Linux novice get started with setup of a Linux system. At this point I would recommend the Gnome desktop for end-users coming from Microsoft that need a full-blown GUI to be comfortable. Once KDE 4.x is back to being at least as good as KDE 3.5.10  I may recommend that again. But I do not recommend KDE at this point.

A file server can easily be run on a Linux based system using NFS, a native file sharing system for Unix and Linux, and/or SAMBA. If the church office is running all Linux in a fully trusted environment then set up a Linux server with NFS for file sharing. If more control is needed to perhaps protect sensitive counseling documents then set up SAMBA with user controls. A church office can even use both as neither the Linux system nor the file sharing systems will cost a cent in license fees.

Churches that are using Microsoft Outlook would be comfortable using Evolution for e-mail. Evolution can import Outlook personal folders (.pst files) and Outlook created CSV or TAB delimited files. Evolution also has the groupware capabilities and Calendar features that some churches rely on in Outlook.

If a church is using Microsoft Office for documents and spreadsheets then the serious contenders on Linux are OpenOffice.org Office Suite and the GnomeOffice applications. I will give a nod to KOffice as well, although it brings in the unfixed problems with KDE 4.x at this time. The only people that would ever have a problem switching from Microsoft Office to a FOSS office suite are those who are "power users" that use esoteric "features" of Microsoft Office applications. OpenOffice.org Writer will do everything that a church needs in a word processor for creating documents. Abiword will also do all that churches need in a word processor. For spreadsheets both OpenOffice.org Calc and Gnumeric will do all the addition, subtraction, division and multiplication needed in a spreadsheet headed to the church finance committee. The great thing about these tools is a church's staff can have them all installed and use all of them without incurring one penny in extra cost.

Should a church need to import pictures for documents then F-Spot can fill that need. Typically a church may have a web site these days. Importing pictures from a camera or picture card to upload to the web site is very easy with F-Spot. The same is true of importing pictures to use in a church newsletter.

How about desktop publishing for a church? Churches that are using Microsoft Publisher to create church newsletters in PDF are missing out on savings if they have not tried Scribus. While Scribus will not import Publisher files it will do any desktop publishing task I have thrown at it personally. Once one has created a template or two to use then it is very easy to create a newsletter each month using Scribus. If that newsletter needs to be printed by a professional print shop I do not know of any professional print shop that cannot work with EPS and/or PDF files, both of which are supported in Scribus.

Does a church music department need to create original scores for music? Well, the church could spend a few hundred dollars on Finale. Or the church could spend zero dollars and get MuseScore. Unless Finale does something that is absolutely needed by the music department that MuseScore cannot do, then why spend money that can be better used elsewhere?

What about church management software? Instead of spending money on church management software such as PowerChurch, Servant Keeper or the like a church should take a look at Churchinfo. The software may be run as a web based service on a local system or a remote web site and is accessed using a standard web browser such as Firefox.

What about church finance and payroll software? There are a few "free" financial applications for use on Linux. For accounting and payroll a church can get the "free" of cost but not "free" licensed NolaPro. (If anyone knows of a "free" and liberated financial package that includes payroll, please post a comment!)

So, let us total up the license cost of our FOSS software for the church office.

Linux Operating System on the desktop $0.00
Linux Operating System on the server $0.00
OpenOffice.org and GnomeOffice Office Suites $0.00
Evolution groupware client and e-mail client $0.00
F-Spot picture import and simple editing $0.00
Scribus Desktop Publisher $0.00
MuseScore music notation software $0.00
Churchinfo church management software $0.00
NolaPro accounting software with payroll $0.00
Total Cost $0.00

Yes, I know one's time is not "free" and there is a cost to invest time in learning new applications. These applications shown here are very similar to their counterparts on Microsoft and Apple systems. Thus the time investment would not be as great as some contend it may be. Once one has invested the time to learn them, that investment will last a lifetime. I submit that getting used to Microsoft Windows 7 and new Microsoft 2010 software would take a similar amount of time.

Yes, a church may need to hire a consultant to do the setup labor on a Linux server. More than likely, a church would need to hire a consultant for setup of a Microsoft server, should the church stay with Microsoft. Setting up a server of any type is more of a challenge than setting up a desktop system of any type.

To all my church friends, Merry Christmas, this article is my gift to you. (Here is another take on this issue for you church folk to consider.)

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Edit Thu Dec 9 13:02:40 CST 2010: Add URLs for Gnome and KDE.

Edit Thu Dec 9 17:51:36 CST 2010: Add URL to previous ERACC Web Log article.

Incredible Times, Incredible Technology

Here I am at around 12:30 AM local time running updates on a client's PC that was just reinstalled with Microsoft XP Media Center Edition 2005. This reinstall was done to clean up the registry and get rid of the "sluggishness" that had set in over the past 4 years of continual use. While the interminable Microsoft updates ran on that PC sitting next to my desk, I watched a movie on my personal business tower computer that is running Mandriva 2010.1 Linux. The same computer which was also downloading files in the background, periodically checking my e-mail and keeping several other software applications going simultaneously.

Suddenly, after the movie finished and I was listening to the music while the credits ran, I had an overwhelming sense of awe at how far we humans have come technologically in the last 200 years. Especially the advances that have come in just the past 50 years of my short lifetime (I am 50 this year.) suddenly seemed incredible to me. People my father's age, 70-ish, remember the Dick Tracy serial cartoon series, and Dick Tracy's video / audio two way wrist watch. At the time my father was a boy  that sort of technology was Science Fiction. Today we pretty much have that technology with cellular phones. Even though cellular phones are small, they are not a wrist watch, so some companies like LG, HP and others are making the "Dick Tracy wristwatch" happen: LG Dick Tracy(ish) Wrist Watch.

Over the past 50 years much that was Science Fiction 60 to 70 years ago, or in the realm of "magic" 150 or more years ago, is now science fact. Thanks to the United States mankind has actually been to the moon and back. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of the U.S. space program and all the basic science research that went into that program we humans now have ever smaller microprocessors, personal computers, cell phone technology, advanced plastics, and more technological afvances than I can recall while sitting here. That space program was money well spent. We need to do more of that. Much more.

Thanks to some other pioneers of the technology age I have an awesome operating system that runs on my space race inspired PC. Of course I mean Linux which was begun by that Linus fellow. Over the past 15+ years Linux the kernel has matured into "Linux" the marketing term for a powerful, stable, fast, secure, wondrously user-friendly, complete operating system with the help of GNU, X, various GUI window managers, desktop projects and more Free Open Source Software than I will ever need to use.

I am blessed with an embarrassment of technological riches that for the most part I take for granted … except for this morning. This morning I am allowing my mind to experience awe and wonder at the technological marvels within reach of my desk chair. I can only ponder where the next 50 years will take us, provided we humans are still here in 50 years.

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Linux: What Makes Linux Compelling to Use?

For those of you who are Linux cognoscente, yes, I know technically Linux is just a kernel. But these days Linux is also a marketing term that means an entire operating system with graphical user interface based on the Linux kernel and distributed under some other name. In marketing it is necessary to have short, easy to remember and catchy names for a product. Even for a "free" product with liberating license terms. In this case "Linux" has become that catchy name. I have chosen to live with that. You do not like the idea of "marketing Linux"? Then this article is not for you.

This question popped into my head today while I was reading my Linux based RSS feeds and URLs from Digg and Reddit. Almost all Linux based articles that try to "sell" Linux do so by comparing Linux to some other operating system. Not one of these articles I have seen recently attempts to market Linux on its own merits. In some cases, such as politics, comparing yourself to the other guy will work. In other cases, again thinking politics, such comparisons may well blow up in your face. I have been guilty of making these comparisons using Linux and some other operating system myself, but are these comparisons doing what we want? Or are these comparisons doing as much, or more, harm than they are doing good?

With Linux I think we need to concentrate more on the question of, "Why is Linux good?" and as in the title of the article, "What makes Linux compelling to use?". I think some of us have set up unintended expectations in end-users that try Linux by making comparisons to other operating systems. Based on these comparisons the end-user comes to Linux thinking it is just a no cost, a.k.a. "free", option to that other operating system and ends up disappointed, disgusted and disgruntled when Linux does not perform to false expectations.

We humans tend to think in terms of comparisons and attempt to base our decisions on what is "better" than something else. Unfortunately "better" is a relative idea and is rarely objective. What is "better" to me is likely not going to be "better" to you. So, saying Linux is "better" than system X and system Y is a recipe for failure with  some people who expect to make a comparison based on that assertion. Instead of making such comparisons we could just state why Linux is a great system all on its own. Let the end-users of other systems make their own comparisons and draw their own conclusions. We can concentrate on what is good about Linux and work on the parts that still need work. However, being like some other operating system is not a part of Linux that needs work, it needs to be forgotten.

What Makes Linux Compelling to Use for Me

I find Linux to be an excellent general purpose computing platform for day to day  personal and small business use. I like the fact that Linux does not cost me money. No, my time is not worthless, but I have wisely spent the time I needed learning how to install, configure and use Linux and the free, open source software that comes with it. I can almost do that in my sleep now. Once I have Linux set up to my liking it just works and the tinkering is over. I also like the fact that I can give Linux to my acquaintances, friends and family without breaking any laws doing so. I do not need software from Intuit, meaning QuickBooks, to run my business. If I needed such software I would not expect to run it on Linux unless Intuit released a native version for Linux. I do not try to compare my Linux based SOHO business computer to some other computer running some other operating system. I just use it as it is and enjoy what I can do using Linux and all the software and tools that come with Linux.

My accounting software is GnuCash. I can create PDF invoice documents from GnuCash and send those in e-mail to my clients.  Or I can print the invoices on my laser printer and mail them if that is required by the client. GnuCash does not include payroll, which is something I knew when I chose it. I do not need payroll software for my SOHO micro-business. If I did need payroll I would be using some other Linux based accounting software, such as NolaPro® perhaps. Should I get to a point where I need an accountant, that accountant had better be able to learn to work with the software I choose.

I use OpenOffice.org office suite on Linux regularly. While using it, I do not compare OpenOffice.org to some other office suite, I just use it as is and enjoy the fact that it has all the features I need and more. I do not expect  OpenOffice.org to be able to perfectly convert some closed document format that is a constantly moving target. I have no need to use closed formats for 99% of the documents I create. When I do receive a closed format document, what I see and what I can do with it using the tools I have on Linux is good enough for my purposes. If I needed to have "perfect" conversion of closed source documents I would, grudgingly, use the restricted, closed source software that created the document. If that closed source software did not have a native Linux version then I would, again grudgingly, run it in a virtual machine under Linux on its closed, restricted, native operating system. The fact that I could do this is another reason I find Linux to be compelling to use.

I send and receive e-mail using Evolution Groupware Suite, after converting from Kontact. Evolution does everything I need an e-mail, contact and calendar with scheduling application to do. It will even display the horrid HTML based e-mail that comes from closed source e-mail applications. I did set that to not display by default so I can have control over it.

As my SOHO micro-business is a small computer system builder I find Linux to be very compelling for building new PC systems for internal use and for resale. I can guarantee that the system I build works with the Linux distribution I or my clients choose to use. All the software tools I need are included with the distribution. I can load these software applications during installation using a preconfigured list or install them later as needed if I want to just get the system up and running quickly.

If I were not in the business of building computers then I would look for small, independent system builders that offered Linux based computers. Some of the places I would look would be: Naked Computers and LXer. If I were only interested in computers from large vendors then I would probably get a Dell with Ubuntu. Since I am no fan of Ubuntu I would then reinstall it with my Linux distribution of choice. The fact that I can switch from a Linux distribution I do not want to a Linux distribution I prefer without having to spend any money doing so is another compelling reason for me to use Linux.

These are just a few of the reasons I find Linux compelling to use for myself. There are more reasons than I have covered here. What are some of your compelling reasons for using Linux?

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Automotive Design Engineers

Time for me to vent a bit after working on my automobile on and off this week. You see, I drive an old junker that was new in 1984. As it is so old it "nickel and dime"'s  me with small needed repairs every few months. This week it has developed an electrical short somewhere that is keeping it from starting about 90% of the time. The other 10% it may start and run just fine. Or it may start, then run long enough to die at an intersection, then not start again that day. That is "fun". I must now find that short. Oh joy. Oh happiness. Oh glee … Oh my.

"What does this have to do with automotive design engineers?", you ask. Since you asked so politely, I will tell you. My first inclination was to check the tune-up chart and see that the car was overdue for a tune-up. So, I took the bus to the auto parts store, a two hour round trip, and bought the parts to do a tune-up. I dread doing tune-ups on this car. Some dingbat automotive design engineers decided that if one could easily get one's hand down between the engine block and the wheel wells there was too much room. So, they made sure that to get one's hand down to put a socket on a spark plug one must have the hands of a four year old child. My hands are the hands of a large, 50 year old, adult male. I need to find a four year old child to work on my car …

No, not really. But I once again have cuts and contusions on my hands wrists and forearms after swapping out the spark plugs on this car. Now let us discuss heater cores.

I have a bum heater core in this car. I have bypassed the heater core by looping a hose between the cooling system inlet and outlet that circulate hot coolant through the heater core. I also have a brand new heater core … in its shipping box. "Why is it not installed?", you inquire. As you so nicely inquired, I will tell you. I am certain the same, drooling, half-wit, automotive design engineers that I mention above determined the location of the heater core. It is on the firewall, beneath the dashboard, behind all the other components that fit under the dashboard. That's correct, one has to remove the entire guts of the dashboard to get to the heater core. A single 24 hour day is not enough time to do that for us mere, ordinary, shade tree mechanic, mortals.

So, all you automotive design engineers with such brilliant ideas, I hereby consign you all to repair your own designs. As a "shade tree mechanic". Every day. For forty years. Then maybe you will rethink your asinine design decisions. Have a nice life in that back yard, under the hood and in the dash of your poorly designed cars …

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Linux: An Interesting VPN/Remote Project (1)

This is the first article of at least two articles about this project. The next article will follow once we are further into this project. A possible third article may follow at the end of this project.

The first day of September 2010 I received a web-form e-mail from a long-time client who lives and works in Alaska. My client's name is Wayne, so that is how I will refer to him for the rest of this article. Wayne bought one of the first AMD dual-CPU systems with eComStation my company built back in 2001. That system has been running ever since and is now ready to be retired. Wayne is going to be getting a new PC from my company, but first he has a project for which he asked me to provide assistance.

Wayne and his sister have pooled their resources and bought a vacation property in New Mexico. They are having a vacation home built there that will be shared between them. The home will be finished this month, October 2010. Wayne is an avid stargazer and has contracted for a small observatory to be built on the property about 200 feet from the home. This observatory will have a computer controlled, motorized retractable dome and computer controlled telescope. Unfortunately the software to control the dome and the telescope is apparently only developed for Microsoft systems [1] (Can you say vendor lock-in? I knew you could! Does anyone have hints on doing this with FOSS on Linux?). Wayne is also looking at Axis PTZ outdoor video surveillance cameras for the property.

How does this involve Linux, VPN and remote access?

Wayne wants to be able to do the following:

  • Have remote access from Alaska to New Mexico for running the telescope system over the internet.
  • Have remote access to video surveillance at the observatory and vacation house during the months that no one will be occupying the vacation home.
  • Be able to remotely power cycle all devices on the remote LAN.
  • Have a support person who can access these systems remotely to set it all up once connected.
  • Do all this on a budget that he can afford.

This is where I come in and Linux enters the picture. Wayne has already ordered one of our Tiny PC (Mini-ITX) systems that will be his router and VPN host for the vacation home. This Tiny PC will be running CentOS Linux with OpenVPN and sshd accessible over the internet. Wayne will be ordering a second Tiny PC for his Alaska home to set up a persistent VPN between the locations over the internet.

The New Mexico home and the observatory will be connected with 8-port or 16-port ethernet switches that connect with fiber-optic cable. There will be a single Category 6 cable run between the buildings as well. The fiber-optic cable will handle the data stream between the obeservatory and the home. The Category 6 cable will be used as a jumper between a base power management switch at the house and a client power management switch at the observatory.

The power management switches can be controlled over the phone using touch-tones to cycle power on individual devices connected to one of the 8 power ports on each device. The Category 6 cable that will connect these will extend the ability to cycle power in the observatory with the client power management switch. Wayne has already ordered these power switches and a UPS for the base unit from my company as well.

While this project is not cheap, it is going to be done within a budget that Wayne can afford. Part of the reason for that is CentOS Linux, the powerful, enterprise class software used to host his VPN and ssh remote access, is free of charge. So far, this is all vaporware in the design and configuration phase. Sometime in the next few weeks this will be put together and be a working system. Check back later for the next chapter, Linux: An Interesting VPN/Remote Project (2).

[1] The software mentioned here is TheSky/X Professional. It is actually for Microsoft and Apple systems. There will supposedly be a Linux version available … sometime. Of course the software is not free as in libre, nor free as in cost. Neither is it inexpensive in the opinion of the author. (Go back.)

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Site Changes – New Plugin CKEditor Added

Within the past few weeks I have migrated our on-line web shop to Drupal 6.x with the CKEditor module added for page editing. I have decided I like the ease of use brought by CKEditor for creating and editing web site pages under CMS. CKEditor is a powerful and feature-rich CMS editor that works very much like a word processor, such as OpenOffice.org Writer, AbiWord or KOffice Kword. As such it contributes to allowing a writer to concentrate on his writing, rather than HTML, PHP and other underpinnings of a web site. In any media content should be King. The medium to create and display that content should be unobtrusive and easy to use.

What does this mean to you, our readers? You get a small subset of the CKEditor features to create your comments. These features will allow reader comments to easily include bold, italics, bulleted or numbered lists and links to off-site URLs and images. Of course the other HTML code recognized by the standard WordPress comment editor still works too. If any of you want to see a specific CKEditor feature enabled on the comment editor, let us know. We will consider it, and may just add it for you.

Sat Aug 27 13:27:43 CDT 2011 – Reenable comments to test cache program with anonymous user comments.

Open Source: My Migration from Kontact to Evolution

I will say again, for the record, I am not a fan of bloated GUI desktops like KDE and GNOME. I am a GUI minimalist and use the fluxbox window manager for my “GUI desktop”. However, I do like some of the applications that are available for both KDE and GNOME. For a long time now I have been using Kmail and then Kontact with Kmail for my e-mail needs. With Kontact/Kmail I have saved a few thousand messages in Maildir format going back several years, have dozens of contacts both personal and professional, and over 200 filters to keep messages organized. I have been pleased with Kontact/Kmail … until now.

You see, the KDE folks decided to pretty much dump everything prior to KDE4 and rewrite KDE4 and applications for same from the ground up while rethinking everything to make it “better”. While this is a commendable idea, it stinks in the real world out here where we who rely on these applications for real work get to deal with the consequences of these actions. Frankly, I blame both the KDE project and the many distributions that jumped on the KDE4 bandwagon before that thing had enough wheels. My best friend in the world, who is a former KDE fanatic, has stated she will never use KDE again after moving all her stuff to GNOME. My friend is so adamantly opposed to the direction of KDE4 that she refuses to use any QT applications that are designed for KDE and has completely migrated to all GTK / GNOME based applications. She was determined to do this because of all the problems she had with the “new” and “improved” KDE4.  The last straw for her was when Amarok “broke” and no longer worked like her beloved Amarok 1.4. I had to help her with her Kontact to Evolution migration, which for her needs was fairly simple. Now it is my turn, and it is not so simple for me. I have actually dreaded having to make this move.

Why leave Kontact? After upgrading my Linux distribution and all the applications for same, my Kmail address book is not working correctly. It now uses akonadi or whatever for managing the contacts and will just stop responding after a while. Given enough time, I could likely figure out how to fix it. I do not believe I should have to figure out how to fix it. The address book / contact list should just work always. Even after a major update it should still just work always. I honestly do not have the time to fix it, then hope it does not break again with the next KDE4 update, then fix it again when it breaks again. All  this is a result of the KDE folk deciding on a rewrite and the Linux distributions deciding to include alpha level KDE4 software. Thus, I am moving to something that is stable and I can expect to keep working even after an upgrade.

Enter Evolution. Before closing Kontact for, hopefully, the last time I restarted it to get the address book working long enough to export my contacts. Then I closed Kontact and copied my Maildir mail from Kmail to a new ~/mail/ directory in preparation for migrating to Evolution. Unfortunately I know of no way to export / import my 200+ filters I have created in Kmail, so I will just have to recreate those as needed while using Evolution. I then started Evolution for the first time and ran through the setup of my initial e-mail account. I have several e-mail accounts that would have to be added later. Then the “Evolution Setup Assistant” got to the “Importing files” screen. I deselected both options and clicked the [->Forward] button. Nothing happened. No matter what I did on this window, no going forward. So, I canceled, started the process again and got the same result at the same spot. This was not looking good.

I opened an xterm and restarted Evolution setup by typing evolution at the command prompt. When I got to the page that was hanging, the xterm terminal window displayed this:

(evolution:29817): Gtk-CRITICAL **: Page flow is broken, you may want to end it with a page of type GTK_ASSISTANT_PAGE_CONFIRM or GTK_ASSISTANT_PAGE_SUMMARY

A critical error was not going to let me proceed. I pondered the problem a bit and then decided to try running the setup from within a GNOME session. Luckily under Linux I can switch to a console screen, login with my user account and then type startx gnome-session — :1 to start GNOME without having to exit my preferred fluxbox. Regardless, that did not work either. Then I noticed I had some updates waiting for installation. On a hunch I checked the updates. Sure enough there was one for Evolution. Figuring this could not make things worse, I installed the update to Evolution and removed the .evolution directory that had been created during the failed setup. That solved the problem and I was able to get Evolution set up with an initial e-mail account.

I then restarted Evolution and imported my contacts. Since I had exported the contacts from Kaddressbook to a LDIF file the import worked flawlessly. Then I had to set up a “bogus” account to access the ~/mail/ directory with all my Maildir files in it. I created an account named Maildir and pointed it to that directory. Evolution “saw” all my old e-mail and displayed the “folders”. The old Kmail Maildir directories that began with a period had to be reorganized to get Evolution to work correctly with the Maildir structure. The new  directories have no preceding period. I had to close Evolution and use a file manager (mc) to get rid of all the directories that had a leading period after I reorganized everything.

At this point I began to set up all my e-mail addresses, both business and personal, and began creating filters to organize the messages in the Maildir  format as that is what I prefer. Since I had over 200 filters in Kmail I am obviously not going to be able to recreate them all from memory. I plan to recreate them as needed while sending and receiving e-mail. This is how I managed to get that many filters in the first place. This will let me learn the Evolution filtering system as I go along. So far, I am not too fond of the separate inbound and outbound filters. In my opinion both should be accessible from the same window without having to switch back and forth. I seriously miss the Kmail filter option to set a single filter to work for both inbound and outbound messages. But I will get used to the new way even though I find it irritating to need to create two filters that are just alike, one for inbound and one for outbound, to keep my messages organized.

What I would have liked to see for this migration:

  • Evolution setup asks me if I am migrating from Kontact/Kmail and just handle all the grunt work for me. Yeah, I’m lazy and just lay around all day so I have time to do this myself … not.
  • Evolution filters give an option to import filters from another popular e-mail application. Like maybe, oh let’s just pick one at random, Kmail.
  • Evolution DEFAULT to using Maildir.

Now that I am using Evolution I look forward to not having to change my e-mail application ever again for as long as I live. Amen.

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Edit Wed Sep 29 01:46:16 CDT 2010: Add URL for mc project site.

Linux: Using Remote Wakeup (Wake on LAN)

Here is the scenario, you are an independent IT consultant and/or an administrator of some business IT infrastructure. The systems you manage are a mix of Linux and Microsoft desktop and server systems. You do much of your system updates and other management tasks after hours using remote access over VNC or a VPN so you can be home with your family. The upper management, also know as “suits”, at your location has decided that shutting down PC desktop systems after hours is a great cost savings measure and tells you to implement a plan to do this. The suits also want the desktop PC systems to be up and running when employees arrive in the mornings so time is not wasted while people wait for their PC to start up. How do you do all this and still give yourself that time at home at night when you need to do those after hours management tasks? Enter Remote Wakeup, otherwise known as Wake on LAN.

I was presented with a challenge like this for one of our charity organization clients that is trying to cut costs as much as possible. The idea originally was that each PC will shut down each night after running its nightly backup. Then each morning the systems would be restarted by the users when they came in. Since most of the support provided by my company happens after hours this meant we needed to implement Wake on LAN so we could still provide that after hours support while giving the client the cost savings from shutting down the PC systems overnight. To do this we use the ‘wakeonlan’ Perl application with a mix of cron job and hand created scripts to wake up PC systems as needed. Each PC that needs to be awakened has its BIOS set with Wake on LAN enabled. One Linux PC system is set up as the “master” system for managing Wake on LAN and that PC is never shut down. That one PCs BIOS is configured to auto-restart that PC after a power outage so it will always be available.

Another hitch in this request is that some of the Windows desktop users do need access from home either after hours or over weekends. These people are completely unfamiliar with Linux and so need to be given an easy way to access the ‘wakeonlan’ capability of the Linux PC that handles this. This is accomplished by giving them PuTTY on Windows at home with a saved session that logs them into an account on the Linux PC over SSH. From there they just type ‘wol’ and are given a menu from which they can choose the PC they need to “wake up”. Here is a copy of the ‘wol’ script as it exists today:

#!/bin/bash
# wol script by ERA Computers & Consulting www.eracc.com
clear
wolmenu="wol.menu"
woldata="wol.data"
wolloc="`dirname \"$0\"`/"
if [ ! -f $wolloc$wolmenu ]
then
     echo Cannot find my menu file. My files should be in $wolloc.
     elif [ ! -f $wolloc$woldata ]
     then
          echo Cannot find my data file. My files should be in $wolloc.
     else
          cat $wolloc$wolmenu
          echo;echo Type the number of the PC to awaken or c to cancel and press Enter:
          read n
          case $n in
               c) exit;
               ;;
               C) exit;
               ;;
               *) echo Waking up `grep ^$n $wolloc$wolmenu`.;
               ipsubnet=`grep ^$n $wolloc$woldata|cut -d ' ' -f 3`;
               hwaddress=`grep ^$n $wolloc$woldata|cut -d ' ' -f 2`;
               echo The command running is - wakeonlan -i $ipsubnet $hwaddress;
               wakeonlan -i $ipsubnet $hwaddress;
               ;;
     esac
fi

There is more that could be done to check for invalid input and to check to see when a PC starts responding to pings, but this serves our needs just fine as it is written. The wol.menu and wol.data files contain the information needed to present the users with a selection and then to take the selection and send a wakeup signal to the selected hardware address on the LAN. Here is the menu structure:

Number PC Name             HW Address         IP Address
====== =================== ================== ================
1      ACCOUNTING          00:11:22:33:44:50  192.168.1.10
2      FINANCE             00:11:22:33:44:51  192.168.1.11
3      MANAGER             00:11:22:33:44:52  192.168.1.12

Here is the data file that corresponds with the menu:

1 00:11:22:33:44:50 192.168.1.255
2 00:11:22:33:44:51 192.168.1.255
3 00:11:22:33:44:52 192.168.1.255

Yes, I know we could grab the data direct from the menu using some tool other than ‘cut’. However, what is done here works even though it is not as elegant as some would like. If some of you with elite bash scripting skills would like to share how to do this with just the menu, please do so in a comment.

The one other item we need to address is waking up all the PC systems before the employees arrive in the morning on Monday through Friday each week. This is done in a cron job on the same Linux PC. Here is how the job might be set up:

30 6 * * 1-5 wakeonlan -i 192.168.1.255 -f /home/user/scripts/autowol.data

What this does is tell the cron scheduler to run the command “wakeonlan” at 6:30 AM (“30 6”) every Monday through Friday. (“1-5”) This command reads the hardware addresses from a file (“-f /home/user/scripts/autowol.data”) and then sends the wakeup signal to each address on the chosen subnet (“-i 192.168.1.255”). The hardware address data file looks like this:

00:11:22:33:44:50
00:11:22:33:44:51
00:11:22:33:44:52
00:11:22:33:44:53
00:11:22:33:44:54

It contains all the hardware addresses of the PC systems that need to be awakened at that time of day. One hardware address per line.

So, if you are an IT consultant, systems administrator or Joe User who wants to use Linux at home, perhaps this article gave you some idea of how to manage your own Remote Wakeup scenario.

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Cracking Linux on the Desktop – A Proposal

I have been touting the security of Linux on the desktop for several years now. But a question from Artremis on my article Open Source: FOSS Security Updates vs Microsoft Patch Day has me thinking about how to attempt to prove that. I know one “cannot prove a negative”, barring odd philosophical views from odd philosophers on that. But I think we in the FOSS Linux community can do more than just talk.

Maybe we should put up or shut up. I propose a contest with a sufficient prize to attract the attention of many security researchers, hackers and crackers. I do not have the hubris to believe I could do this myself. But I know the Linux community could do it. Besides neither I nor my small company alone could put up a decent enough prize to attract enough attention. But doing it all alone is not what FOSS is about is it?

Let us “open source” a contest where some respected entity or other holds the purse strings and collects funds for a prize. Then once sufficient funds are collected to make a contest interesting we choose a party to judge the contest and come up with the parameters needed to decide what constitutes a “win”. At the least this would have to be an exploit that can take over a Linux PC from userspace on the desktop using web or e-mail. It cannot be a social engineering attack [1] because we all know those would work given sufficient user ignorance and willingness to follow instructions from a web site or e-mail message. Linux does not protect one from that sort of blind ignorance.

Those are the basics. Other details can be hashed out the “open source way” once some place is found that can and will host the contest.

I know some of you who read my web log have contacts in the FOSS community and business world to get the ball rolling on this. What do you say? Do we put up or shut up?

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