A Return to Linux on the Workstation

Posted on September 20, 2012

In my day to day work I rely on two systems, a MacBook Pro and a custom built PC workstation. My Mac is used for all my travel needs and communications (email, Jabber, Skype, etc). All my “real work” is done on the workstation which I refresh to the latest and greatest every 3-4 years, run dual headed, etc. Up until about 30 days ago my primary workstation ran some variety of Solaris for nearly 10 years, starting with Solaris 9 when X86 became viable on X86, then OpenSolaris and the various Solaris Express releases and finally Solaris 11 Beta. It was one month ago today that I finally re-installed it with Ubuntu, returning me to Linux officially. Times are a’ changin’… so I thought I’d share the tale of my long experience and the events that brought me back to Linux on the desktop.

As I stated in a recent talk, and then was humored to see quoted on Twitter a couple times since, I never really intended to run a “Solaris Desktop”. I didn’t want a desktop, rather I wanted a server on my desk. Building a desktop operating system is really hard, it involves supporting all manner of new and strange hardware. Its hard enough on desktop PCs but its absolutely redicuous when you consider all the variations of laptops. On my workstation I always installed a standard Intel e1000g dual port NIC, a Sound Blaster 16 or 128, and a well supported NVidia graphics card. So long as I could start an X server on dual displays and start Enlightenment, my window manager of choice, I was happy. The only apps I rely on are a browser and several dozen Eterms… little else. What was important to me was that I had a platform on my desk with which to experiment and prototype on Solaris for later implementation in the data center.

With the addition of ZFS, Solaris became an extremely powerful testing platform. Several large disks in my workstation formed a Zpool on which everything but the base OS was installed. The OS root itself was on a small 16GB SSD (it was bad ass once upon a time). This allowed me to frequently do fresh installs of new releases of Solaris and OpenSolaris. After install, I just imported the Zpool which put my home dir, /usr/local, /opt, etc back into place and I was running again.

What has always bugged me about Solaris is that the software packaging solutions have always been aweful. For a long time we were limited to whatever shipped with Solaris or was available from Blastwave. But Blastwave was little comfort because so frequently a single package install would have an absurd dependency on some very foundational package therefore forcing an upgrade of everything, like it or not, which invariably would break something. In my former Linux days I was fond of Linux from Scratch and latter became a fan of Gentoo, therefore my solution for Solaris was to hand build all my fundamental applications myself and then simply drag those binaries from release to release for a very long period of time. While I appreciated having the latest and greatest Solaris on my desk, I certainly missed the ease of simply installing an RPM and being done. The idea of trying the latest KDE was a seemingly insurmountable challenge and waste of time.

About 30 days ago two factors caused me to finally throw in the towel on Solaris as a workstation OS.

The first was that I finally joined the club of folks who have spilled liquid on their MacBooks. After 3 years of faithful service my Mac was dead. This happened on a Saturday and I suddenly realized that on Monday I’d be unable to join our corporate Jabber channels and I wouldn’t have Skype access. Suddenly I became aware of how much I was relying on my MacBook for daily communication and that I was essentially going to be cut off. Getting all these types of services working on my Solaris workstation was possible, but hardly seemed worth the effort and I only had a day to get back to full capability to be ready for Monday morning.

The second was that Solaris is dead. Illumos is the future of the platform and the desktop options there are very weak. All my work these days is on SmartOS, which is dedicated hypervisor platform, so there was no way I was going to whip it into a workstation platform in short order, not to mention that it’d be a fruitless exercise even if accomplished. It was clear that having a server on my desk that also possessed the basics required for a passable X environment was at an end. Besides that, thanks to KVM support in SmartOS it was becoming increasingly clear that I was completely out of touch with the Linux world which I was now supporting more frequently as a guest OS. And, last but not least, Linux now has ZFS support, so I could theoretically install Linux, get ZFS supported added, and then import all my important filesystems. It was time to return to a Linux workstation.

I’m getting older and lazier, so going back to the Gentoo lifestyle wasn’t interesting to me. Ubuntu continues to be all the rage, so I decided Ubuntu 12.04 was the way to go. And, I turned out to be right… within 4 hours of the MacBook toasting I had installed Ubuntu 12.04, gotten my displays working properly, installed all the software I needed, including Skype and Enlightenment, added ZFS support and mounted my home directory and was looking at my desktop environment as though nothing had happened. It was a wonderful experience.

Getting ZFS Support working with Ubuntu is very simple. Simply install the ZFS for Linux PPA packages and reboot. The only mistake I made was that I initially had installed Ubuntu 32bit, thanks to my outdated Linux knowledge of compatibility issues running a 64bit kernel. On the 32bit kernel ZFS took almost an hour to locate and import the pool… after I reinstalled Ubuntu 12.04 64bit and adding in the ZFS packages again, my Zpool imported just fine. One thing that helped me here was that my pools are very old; in order to provide maximum flexibility in which OpenSolaris release I used, I never allowed my pools to be upgraded, therefore allowing me to run older OS releases if needed, therefore ZFS for Linux had no problems importing my old version pools.

After using ZFS on Linux for some time now I can say that it works very well but the performance is less than stellar. The performance is good enough that I NFS export all my old file systems for use, but bad enough that I created a fresh home directory on ext4.

I did play with Unity a bit before switching back to Enlightenment DR16 (the best window manager ever created). Unity is a really excellent desktop and a first rate contender against Windows 7/8 and even OS X… but ultimately I still prefer the speed and minimalism of an old school window manager. The only thing that actually bugged me about Unity was the way they tried to be very clever about window titles… they sort of blur out from left to right. While I realize its a nifty visual device, to me it looked like a theming mistake and I disliked windows with the title “Firef…”.

One thing that did surprise me about my return to Linux was how little the desktop applications had changed. Finding that Pidgin was still the IM client of choice threw me for a loop. I experimented with Empathy but had horrific stability issues, which is a shame because its a much nicer client than Pidgin. Ultimately I found a theme mix that worked for me and settled on Pidgin was but was sad there weren’t more viable options (yes, there are alternatives, but they sucked more than Pidgin). Getting Skype running easily was a pleasant surprise, no pain not problems and people I called told me it was the best I’d ever sounded on Skype. The other various apps were less exciting than I had hoped, I was sad that Eye of Gnome hadn’t died a long time ago. I think the two high points were realizing that I could use the Arduino IDE on my workstation and looking at Shotwell. Shotwell is an amazing application, but its not enough to convince me to move all my photos out of iPhoto.

In the end, 3 days later I had been issued a replacement MacBook Pro which I got just as Mountain Lion released. Thankfully installing Mountain Lion and then recovering from my TimeMachine backup went well and I was back to my normal workflows. While I’m sad that, at least for me, the era of Solaris as a viable workstation had come to an end, I am glad at all the new life Illumos distros have as first class server OS’s. I may not have the server on my desk any more but the era of the all-things-to-all-people OS is, imho, done.