At Work with Linux: Linux Mint 9 Gnome and KDE

Linux Virtual Machines
RHEL 5 VM running on RHEL 5 host.
One of the nicer features about the office lab is the fact we have a number of still-powerful workstations on which to run various operating systems. We've chosen to run Redhat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) as the primary host operating system on every machine we have, which consists predominantly of Dell Precision 690's outfitted with a single quad-core Xeon (2.4GHz E5345) processor and 32GB system memory.

These are not exactly what you would call "home systems". A current home system might have half the memory these workstations have, although 4GB is still considered the norm. And the Xeon E5354, while somewhat "out of date", can nevertheless support a more-than-decent computational load when called upon.

One of the benefits of all this horsepower coupled with all this memory is the ability to run virtual machines on the workstations. For that, we've chosen to install Oracle/Sun's VirtualBox (currently at version 3.6.8), and using that, I've installed a variety of Linux distributions for testing. In this post I'll be talking about Linux Mint 9, both Gnome-based and KDE-based. But before I mention Mint let me make a few comments about VirtualBox.

VirtualBox is probably the easiest VM manager I've used to date. It has reached a level of commercial polish where it is easy to install, setup, and operate. Although I've used it primarily on Linux, it is also installable on Windows and Apple OS X. I've performed some limited use of VirtualBox on Windows, hosting a Linux distribution for parallel development and testing, and it's equally easy on Windows as on Linux.

Under RHEL 5.5 as the host, everything in VirtualBox works as described, and pretty much out of the box, except USB device sharing. The virtual machines will list every available USB device on the host system, but won't allow you to mount any of them. This in spite of following all the directions in the manual, as well as certain suggestions on the support forums. The workaround for this is to just ignore it, using the shared folders to move files around.

As you can see from the VirtualBox control screen below, I've created a number of virtual machines, running five different distributions: CentOS 5.4, Fedora 13, Mint 9 (KDE 4.4.5 and Gnome 2.30.2), RHEL Workstation 5.5, and Ubuntu 10.04. Many of those distributions are deployed across four separate virtual machines (in this case VM136 to VM139). That's to support various configurations of application software that many be running at any given time.

Linux Mint 9 KDE was actually the second Mint 9 distribution installed; the first was Linux Mint 9 Gnome. This gave me an opportunity to figure out and solve little gotchas with the Gnome version that were applicable to the KDE version.

In both these screen shots, I've brought up the distributions respective file explorers; KDE's Dolphin and Gnomes Nautilus. I bring them up for a reason, looking at VirtualBox's VBOXADDITIONS virtual ISO. And that's to illustrate what I consider a 'bug' in the way CD/DVDs and other mountable devices (such as USB thumb drives) are automatically mounted. You can't just drop them in and expect to have the desktop automatically mount the device and then start Dolphin/Nautilus. You have to deliberately bring up either one on their respective desktop before the device is even mounted (in this case under /media). This can get quite annoying when, especially when you are at a shell prompt on the desktop, you drop in a DVD, and then expect to navigate in the shell to the DVD. No, I have to bring up a graphical file explorer and then select the removable device before it shows up mounted under /media in the shell. This is a definite change from older releases, and not necessarily a change for the better.

As far as general looks and behavior are concerned the KDE desktop as supplied in Mint 9 is reasonably polished. Unfortunately, it's been so long since I ran the older KDE 3 desktop that I can't say with certainty which one is better, but I will say that I didn't care for the Oxygen window decorations, and changed it to Plastik.

One big quirk with Mint 9 KDE was in trying to upgrade the VirtualBox Additions to the latest release. Mint 9 appears to ship with version 3.2.6, while I upgraded to VirtualBox 3.2.8. Normally when that occurs I install the latest guest additions, which requires that gcc and kernel packages be installed before hand. Installing VirtualBox guest additions is as simple as running the script as root; every module is built and properly installed. Unfortunately I couldn't get the proper kernel packages installed in Mint 9 KDE. This was not a problem with Mint 9 Gnome.

For general use I consider Mint 9 Gnome to be the better distribution, especially for getting inside and tinkering about. It's also better to just stick with the Gnome desktop throughout, even if the Mint 9 Gnome desktop is using the slab-style mintMenu. At least if folks get annoyed with the pretty Mint Gnome menu, they can install the more conventional Gnome menu bar.

I feel that the Mint 9 Gnome desktop is snappier than Mint 9 KDE in operation. This is purely subjective, and it may be due to the fact that the VirtualBox additions in Mint 9 KDE are not aligned with the latest version of VirtualBox.

Some of the minor nits with Mint 9 Gnome include the fact I don't like the elaborate fortune cookie spewage that greats one when a shell is launched. I reached a point where I'd had enough and hunted down where it was invoked, in /etc/bash.bashrc. Comment the last line and you're greated with a clean shell prompt. This, by the way, is different than Mint 9 KDE; it was located in the login home's .bashrc, where, frankly, it belongs. Having to touch a system file to get rid of an annoyance for a login is in itself annoying.

Another nit has to do with defining proxies. The lab lives behind heavy firewalls and uses a proxy server to reach certain parts of the net. You can't just define the proxy via System | Preferences | Network Proxy. You have to also define it application by application. For example, I've had to define the proxy for Firefox, Eclipse, and Mint's Update Manager. And what makes the Update Manager worse is I have to define the full proxy URL; forget to explicitly add "http://" in front of your proxy's URL, and you're left scratching your head as to why you can't get updates. Why is this significant? Because every other application that needs it doesn't require it. But the bigger issue, not just with Linux Mint, but with every other Linux desktop distribution, is why we can't have a centralized proxy management system. In the second decade of the 21st century there's no reason for this type of issue to exist.

From a "big picture" desktop perspective, both distributions are surprisingly complete. Audio and video work on the Dell 690, even through the virtual machine. For example, Mint 9 Gnome, which comes with Google Chrome, is able to play back Flash video from sites such as CNN. I would believe that if you installed it directly on hardware that it will work as advertised. it's only in oddball environments such as the lab where you'll run into issues, and then those can be worked around.

I wanted to bring this up because it's quite fashionable these days to bash Linux incessantly at sites such as LinuxHaters and TMRepository. I can assure the critics that if Linux were as bad as they would try to lead the world to believe, then we wouldn't be running it here. But for real, non-trivial work loads, it works quite well, and we'll continue to use it and recommend it for tasks where it makes the best sense to use it.


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