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Ubuntu (Linux) and Debian

This is more of a blog on how I got my Linux server to work. Basically I started with Ubuntu, and after a lot of struggle, I switched to Debian. I eventually learned that stable (i.e Debian) is a lot more important than new (i.e. Ubuntu).

Ubuntu -- so what is it ?

Ubuntu is one of the zillions of "flavors" of Linux. It is pretty, sometimes useful, and constantly changing (fickle ?). It changes so fast, it is a mistake to buy a "manual" for Ubuntu -- because it will be out of date in a few months. Even the online documentation is worthless after about 3 months.

Well anyway, Ubuntu does successfully host a few software packages that are not as unstable as it is --- Apache server, Mysql, and PHP. These three packages are maintained by other groups than the Ubuntu volunteers, and in fact these packages work on other Linux distributions. This is probably why they are not so broken and unstable as Ubuntu. PHP is the least stable of the three.

It also seems that the Ubuntu folks are tired of working for free (who can blame them), and are constantly trying to sell you stuff that "fixes" their software. All sorts of commercial activities -- asking for donations, asking for licensing fees, etc. The latest version of Ubuntu has "integrated in" this commercial activity, sort of like the "apps" on Apple and Android. Seems a little odd for "open software" to be running advertisements for proprietory software. One might even wonder if there might be an advantage for the open software folks to perpetuate "broken software" that needs to be fixed by paying. I guess, not that different than "trial ware", but without an explicit mention that things are not intended to work. Explicit is good.

The trick seems to be identifying the (few) applications on Ubuntu that do work, and then ignoring the rest of it. Ubuntu is certainly not a viable replacement for Windows (sadly).

Issues with Ubuntu

I put my Ubuntu distribution on a somewhat used Pentium 4 PC, and stuck it in the bedroom, a year ago. Then the fun began. I tried several Ubuntu distributions - -they all were useless. The most recent one, wouldn't even install. I foolishly installed it on top of a 10.X distribution that was half-way working. Bad idea. Never assume Linux will work. Always have a plan B.

Debian -- security through obscurity

After several days of fighting with Ubuntu, and deciding that it was far more broken than I could ever fix, I switched to the Debian. Debian is supposedly more "stable", which I supposed means that it might work. Debian installed without crashing (:

Debian comes "broken out of the box". In other words, it is so secure that nothing works. It takes a windows' person anywhere between 8 hours and forever to get it to work.

There are many useful configuration examples at http://www.server-world.info/en/note?os=Debian_6.0

The "security through obscurity" situation is that key files for Debian are scattered all over the place, and are moved randomly from distribution to distribution. While in the end, most linux distributions look pretty similar to the consumer of services, the path to get there is very idiosyncratic. The new user must spend hours searching around for mysterious lines to add to configuration files to get nearly anything to work. This is an obvious problem with Linux -- obscurity is not real security, but it makes the software useless to casual (i.e. non sysadmin) people.

Debian -- installation

One must install putty (locally -- i.e. on Windows in most people's case) to have an interface to your new system. There are a number of other options to putty-- all very limited "terminal" type interfaces with obscure or no documentation.

Because Debian comes totally"crippled" -- and is without root access or a root login (for security I suppose), one cannot easily use a remote editor, as to edit, one must "exert" root privleges using the "sudo" command. In other words, the built in text editor that comes with, lets say, notepad++, won't edit system files. There is no way to get going without putty, so might as well just start there.

On a Debian system intended as a server, you must install the programs below -- In my case, the installer (apt-get) was also missing. As in Linux, procedures to do anything change every few months, in essence, for each program to install, you have to google the program name, and then try out several suggestions online till you find one that works - -a trial/error process.

Debian Browser was broken:

This Debian came with a strangely named browser -- ice-weasel, that is broken. Most pages would not load. Odd that they would distribute a distribution with broken browser. After a few hours, I managed to install Chrome, which worked. I have no interest in installing some strange browser anyway. As Linux is an awful desktop replacement anyway, who needs a browser.

Debian FTP -- pretty fast

Then it took me only 30 minutes to install proftp the first time, and only 5 minutes the second time. Strangely, the thing does not come with a shell file to configure itself. It boils down to turn off a few options and go. Ignore everything that has to do with tightening up security. First get it to work, then add the security. Wish it had come ready to go out of the box, but again not bad.

FTP is configured to be crippled on Debian. The best way around this is to use WinSCP, and set up a root login on your server (of course this is dangerous, but so is fire).

Debian MYSQL and PHPMYadmin

It is not too hard to install Mysql from the command line.

PHPMYadmin was not too difficult either, but there is a tricky step where you have to configure apache. Again, wish there was a script for this. What you do is to add a line to the end of /etc/apache2/apache2.conf

Include /etc/phpmyadmin/apache.conf

Then you restart apache2

sudo service apache2 restart

General problems:

Lots of questions came up right away. Here are my main problems and solutions.:

1. How do you connect to your computer from your windows PC ?

I have no intention of physically logging into this thing every time. My vision of it is that it is a little box that I can use as a FTP server, database server, and to test out web stuff. In other words, a server model. In the end, the best strategy seems to be to avoid the GUI.

Consistent with this, the attitude of the Linux community seems to be that the GUI is for sissys, and is just there to look pretty. If you have to do any real work, you almost always do it through the command line. Still if you have a need to see a GUI (perhaps as a container for the "real" command line editor) it can be done.

Ubuntu:

It turns out that it is nearly impossible to interact with a Ubuntu machine from a windows desktop. There are lots of supposed solutions, VNC for example, but none of them work on a windows 7 system with Ubuntu. The one closest to working is remote desktop. It is largely broken. No clipboard copy, it fails constantly and kicks one out.

Debian

One can connect through VNC using Debian. Follow the instructions here : http://www.server-world.info/en/note?os=Debian_6.0&p=x&f=2, There is some funny stuff with the realvnc download, but in the end, things seem to work.

2. How do you set up the services that actually work without spending 2 months studying the documentation ? Adobe, Mysql and PHP ?

Ubuntu:

This actually isn't too bad -- you can install "packages" such as XAMPP. Once you do this, you still have the problem of configuring it to do what you want. This usually boils down to reading a lot of arcane documentation, written by people in whom English is not their first language, and lots of trial and error. Mostly error.

Debian

Debian server edition (the more stable one) needs lots of installation stuff - -see above.

3. How do you keep up with this ever changing thing ?

Basically, ignore it. Don't install any new distributions. If something works, it isn't broken and doesn't need to be fixed. Of course, with this strategy, you should not use Linux for anything very important that might be hacked. In other words, don't use Linux for anything having to do with money (e.g. shopping cart software), unless you have lots of free time and can constantly apply patches and troubleshoot broken software.

If someone can make money by hacking your site, they will. This means that you can't ignore security patches if your site has anything valuable on it.

Ubuntu:

Before I gave up on Ubuntu, I subscribed to Safari books. This gives you the ability to read any one of about 25,000 books online. You can nearly always find a new book that goes with whatever new variant of Ubuntu or PHP or whatever is out there. The subscription is expensive though.

Debian

Does not seem to be so much of a challenge, perhaps because it is somewhat stable. Seems to work fairly well without hair tearing out.

4. Office applications

Yes, Windows office is too expensive, but on the other hand, it is pretty stable. It does not generally stop working after 5 years.

The "open office" apps that come preinstalled on Ubuntu/Debian are just too risky. One "gotcha" -- can't export to PDF or whatever, means many many days of work down the tubes.

5. Desktop

Ubuntu

Linux distributions, and Ubunutu in particular, have all of these different desktops, that are vaguely similar to Windows or Mac desktops. Every distribution, something changes. Sort of like new models of cars -- a different color, different shape, same old engine. It is disturbing to have to learn a new interface. Something like new versions of the Windows desktop.

Debian

The Gnome desktop seems somewhat stable, although the "help" is abysmal. If you poke around long enough, or use google, you can usually find your answer.

6. Hardware support

Linux does not play well with hardware. Getting Linux to print takes hours (or if ever).

7. Webdav

Webdav is basically a Linux cloud. You set up webdav on your Linux server running Apache, buy a 2T hard drive, and you have your own cloud, without the fees (or backup for that matter).

Oddly, it is very difficult to find much about webdav. The single book on webdav on Amazon, is basically an interesting history of webdav. Nobody has a "webdav manual - -how to set it up". The online documents are pretty useless -- there are four things you need to do:

1. Load the apache webdav module - -this is very easy.
2. Get HTTPS working on your apache server - -as this has to do with security, it is nearly impossible (like all security related Linux stuff).
3. Set up a virtual host -- somewhat difficult.
4. Set up a windows webdav client on your host machine-- difficult.

Turns out that you can do this using VBS -- but nobody tells you how to do this.

In the end --

Apache/PHP/Mysql are wonderful, and worth setting up whatever type of Linux you prefer. Linux is basically unstable though, and cannot be relied upon for anything other than these core services. Stable is more important than "new".

© Copyright June 13, 2015 , Timothy C. Hain, M.D. All rights reserved.
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