Can System Builders Turn to Ubuntu?

By Frank Ohlhorst
Late last month, Ubuntu 8.04 arrived on the scene, right on time, right on its six-month refresh cycle and readily available via a simple ISO image file download. While that may have been big news for the Linux community, the question remains, what if any impact will this latest release have on mainstream computer users? For the majority of PC users, the impact will probably be nil. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity here for solution providers and system builders. But first they have to contemplate Ubuntu being a viable alternative to Microsoft’s family of Windows products. And that may be a big leap for many to make.

While hundreds of case studies, articles and training sessions have all shown that Linux can be a viable alternative, the simple fact remains, users are not flocking to it! Can this latest Ubuntu distribution change that? Probably not! But, the ranks of Windows users are becoming more and more disenchanted every day! There are those that shun Windows Vista (in any form), there are those still investing in Windows XP, and there are those that are just plain trapped by Windows Operating Systems and associated line of business applications. And that may be where the opportunity is for solution providers looking to think outside the box!

A little more about Ubuntu

One of the biggest misconceptions is that Ubuntu is a desktop Linux operating system, but in reality it is a lot more than just that. The Ubuntu distribution of Linux comes in many flavors, each tailored for specific markets. First off, there are two main categories of Ubuntu, desktop and server. As the names imply, Ubuntu server is for server class solutions, while Ubuntu desktop is aimed at the desktop user. Now, wouldn’t it be great if it was just that simple? But, both desktop and server have many sub-versions, which further complicate issues!

Luckily, the server side of the equation here is aimed at technically savvy network administrators and integrators, meaning that the issues that would confound desktop users (and even some system builders) won’t come into play.

The story is a little different when it comes to the various desktop editions of Ubuntu, desktop users and those supporting them have to deal with a variety of choices when it comes to selecting the right edition. First, there is a question of which of the three flavors of desktop environments to choose, there is GNOME, KDE and XFce. What’s more, there is an educational version (Edubuntu) and a version that only uses free software distributions (Gobuntu). Beyond choosing which distribution and interface, installers will need to decide if they want to use a 64 or 32bit version. Arguably, the most popular choice here is Ubuntu 8.04 32bit with the GNOME desktop, with KUbuntu (KDE) 32bit following closely behind.

 We took a system builders point of view for installing Ubuntu (and Kubuntu) to judge what would be involved in distributing a business class Linux PC to an end user. With that in mind, we assembled a mid range desktop PC, with newer components and even switched in and out various components to further complicate the installation process. The idea here was to test driver installation and compatibility offered out of the box (or actually the down loaded ISO file) and gauge the ability to swap or upgrade hardware, deal with various assembly line changes and judge the skill set needed to build Ubuntu based white boxes.

Initial installations were done with a system built using a Tyan Tomcat motherboard, AMD Phenom X3 processor, 2 Gbytes of DDR2 Corsair RAM, a Western Digital EIDE hard drive, LG DVD-RW drive and an ATI HD3470 PCI-E video card. We also did installs, hardware swap outs and upgrades by switching video cards with an Nvidia GeForce 6800 video card and a Seagate Sata hard drive, along with a Benq Optical drive. We also tried the system with 1 Gbyte of RAM instead of two.

Installation was performed directly from a Ubuntu ISO CD, which was created by downloading an ISO image and burned to a blank CD. Install CDs were created for both Ubuntu and Kubuntu.

Booting from the CD offered several installation choices, ranging from standard installs, to manual installs to OEM installs. For both Ubuntu and Kubuntu we chose to go with the OEM install process, which is meant for system builders looking to distribute the OS with a new PC.

As part of the installation process, we could choose how to partition and allocate the hard drive, we chose the easiest route, which automatically formats and partitions the whole hard drive. That means all previous data/partitions would be overwritten. The install process took about 15 minutes and the OS detected all of the major hardware components and installed the appropriate drivers - at least well enough for the system to boot up. The final step of the initial install process consists of removing the install CD and rebooting the system.

Once rebooted, both Ubuntu and Kubuntu asked for login credentials. Ubuntu defaulted to the system builders credentials, while Kubuntu offered the system builders credentials as a choice during login.Those credentials were entered during the first stage of setup, along with some other basic information, such as a system name, time zone and other locality settings.

Once logged in, the system automatically contacted an update server and downloaded the latest drivers, patches and any application updates that were needed, a process that does need to be confirmed by the user.

Once the initial update completes, a system builder can launch an application which readies the system for shipment. Basically, that application removes any accounts and settings that were used during the initial install. That preps the system for the end user and when the end user first fires up the new system, a guided install to personalize the system will automatically run. Basically, both Ubuntu and Kubuntu offer a very slick interface for system builders looking to ready a new system for shipment and prepares the system adequately for a new user to have a straightforward experience.

We did encounter a few driver issues during the basic install; both video cards needed additional driver downloads to function properly. That said, only OpenGL and 3D were affected by the lack of the new drivers, the overall user interface still functioned well enough to configure and even use the system.

Arguably, the most important requirement during installation seems to be having a compatible network card and a connection to the internet. If the operating system can connect to the Internet during installation, then critical drivers can be downloaded and installed as part of the setup process.

We did run into some problems when switching video cards. If we replaced the ATI card with the NVidia card the system would hang (or at least not load the GUI) when we tried to boot. The simplest way to overcome the problem was to reinstall the OS . That said, both Ubuntu and Kubuntu offer boot up utilities or a "safe mode" that allows a technician to change or reload drivers. Interestingly, switching from an Nvidia card to an ATI card seemed to work without a hitch, the system auto-detected the new card and loaded the appropriate basic drivers, akin to how Windows XP or Vista would handle that same situation.

Simply put, hardware detection has come a long way with the 8.04 release and is a major improvement over previous releases. It is still not perfect, but comes pretty close to offering a Windows style experience and should suit even the most particular of end users.

Both Ubuntu and Kubuntu offer a great deal of features right out of the box, which translates to almost instant productivity for business users. Users will find an office suite (Sun Open Office), a web browser (FireFox or Konqueror), an email client (Evolution Mail) and various productivity applications that make the system quite usable.

Both the GNOME and KDE 4.0 interfaces are pleasing to the eye and prove simple to navigate and picking one over the other may prove to be a hard choice for many. Both offer similar applications, utilities and features, but in a different fashion. For those familiar with Windows XP, Gnome may be a better choice, while those more familiar with Vista may prefer KDE 4.0.

Regardless of the interface, users will have the ability to download and install hundreds of applications, using an add/remove system applet. Most application installs can be done automatically, but users will have to make sure the applications they choose will work with their installed desktop. It would be nice if the application loader automatically filtered out incompatible application choices for users, but it currently does not. But, when it really comes down to it, 8.04 has eliminated the need for using the command line or most any other manual process to install applications. That in itself is a major improvement for Linux in general.

GNOME and KDE 4.0 do a very good job of hiding Linux’s complexities from the end user, perhaps too good of a job! For example, with Windows XP and Vista it is pretty simple to retrieve a list of the installed hardware and what drivers are in use and figure out if a particular piece of hardware is not supported. That simple task is extremely difficult to replicate under the default installations of GNOME and KDE.  What’s more, Windows (XP and Vista) does a better job at installing applications, especially when it comes to adding applications to the start menu and informing the user on how to launch those applications.

Another area that Windows seems a little more intuitive with is setting certain system properties, such as choosing startup applications, customizing menus, setting up dual monitors, burning CDs and many other minor features that users have grown accustomed to. While all of those things can be accomplished under KDE or Gnome, finding the options can be a bit of a challenge or may require installing additional applications.

With the abundance of USB and Firewire devices on the market, plug and play functionality has become one of the most important capabilities of both MACs and PCs. Here, Ubuntu is no slouch either, pretty much anything we plugged in worked fine, but Gnome seemed to perform the task a little smoother than KDE.

We did encounter a problem with a USB based WiFi adaptor from Zyzel, although the OS identified the device and even showed available wireless networks, we were unable to connect to any of the wireless networks. We tried to connect to both open and WEP enabled WiFi networks. No matter what we tried, we could not successfully connect and were presented with credentials to try and connect again, even with the open networks. The lack of error messages telling us exactly what the problem was did not help! We eventually gave up on trying to use WiFi and attributed the problem to the flaky WiFi support that is all too common in most Linux distributions.

As we delved further into the feature set of both interfaces, we were pleasantly surprised by Ubuntu (and Kubuntu) support for networks. We were able to connect to and browse the various Windows networks on our Ethernet connection. Even more surprising was how smoothly we could connect via active directory (using the Likewise Open Utility) to Windows Servers with Gnome. That capability eliminates one of the biggest complaints surrounding Linux OSes, as far as network connectivity is concerned. As far as networking is concerned, Gnome outdid KDE and offered a more "windows like" experience. Users will appreciate some other Windows’ centric features, such as a terminal server client, a remote desktop viewer, drag and drop file management and so on.

The more we used both Ubuntu and Kubuntu, it became clear that Ubuntu (with Gnome) was somewhat easier to navigate and use and offered a better overall end user experience. Gnome organized applications in a more logical fashion and some tasks, such as burning a CD from an ISO image or using a USB hard drive, or changing visual effects was somewhat easier with GNOME .

Both Ubuntu and Kubuntu are viable choices for users willing to try something different and the 8.04 releases are by far the best to date. Both have excellent installation wizards, an impressive set of applications and very good performance. For most users, the Gnome interface will be a better choice. Gnome proves to be easier to navigate and customize than KDE. Ubuntu with Gnome is less likely to cause confusion for end users and should generate less support calls. Yet, KDE does offer a more visually stunning appearance and offers several desktop effects that can make Linux that much more fun to use. Of course, both desktops have a great number of inconsistencies and those issues can cause some grief for users raised on Microsoft Windows.

But, in the end it will all come down to the applications, if the necessary business applications are available under Linux, then the OS becomes that much more viable for business and home users. One thing is certain, Ubuntu gets better with every release. The OS becomes more stable, offers more point and click features, adds more compatible applications and will become that much harder to ignore. 



This article was originally published on 2008-05-26