Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Exploring Linux - Part 10
by Alan German

As I write this, it's almost the end of April, 2008. April being the 4th month in 2008, means that Ubuntu 8.04 is available (since, as you know, the version numbering scheme uses 8 for the year and 04 for the month.) So, of course, we need to drop everything and give the new version a try.

Now, obtaining the new version should be simplicity itself. Point Firefox at the Ubuntu web site, hit download, select a mirror, and wait patiently while the 699 MB ISO file is transferred. But, of course, in my Linux world, nothing is ever simple.

However, this time, it's not Linux that's the problem, nor even Windows Vista. No, it's my so-called high-speed Internet connection that's flaky. Sure, it starts off well, downloading the file at 250 KB/s plus. But, eventually, either the transmission speed slows to a crawl (below 56 KB/s), or the modem drops the connection entirely. Neither situation is terribly useful. In the first case, I would like to cut the connection and re-connect to obtain a higher transfer rate, while in the second case I have no other option but to do so. Of course, the problem is that Firefox doesn't have the facility to resume the download so, with the connection constantly being dropped, it's almost impossible to capture the entire (huge) ISO file.

Browsing the web for possible solutions to my dilemma suggested that (a) I could wait for Firefox 3 to be released which will support resuming downloads, (b) I could try a BitTorrent client to capture the file in multiple bits, or (c) I could use the wget command which includes a continue-download feature.

Discounting the future option for Firefox as much too time-consuming, my first attempt was to download the file using Azureus, a BitTorrent client for Linux, even though I had only a vague idea of what BitTorrent does. In fact, the process seems to be that you browse the web (using Firefox) for a .torrent file that is associated with the Ubuntu 8.04 ISO file. The .torrent file is then loaded into Azureus and the latter takes care of locating sources for the actual ISO file on the web, and downloading pieces of the file using multiple connections (so-called seeds and peers). At some point, your machine too becomes a peer, and starts to share pieces of the file with other users in the “swarm”. You are now part of a file-sharing network (need any MP3 files anyone?!)

My problem with the process turned out to be the connection speed. Having multiple connections to different pieces of the download didn't help very much since my modem refused to maintain a high transfer rate. But, by just letting the thing run, I eventually downloaded the entire ISO file. In fact, I let it run for an entire evening while I wasn't at home. It completed in 2-3 hours, and “seeded” itself to share my download with other users, so improving my download/upload ratio which, apparently, is a good thing in terms of BitTorrent etiquette.

Finally, I investigated the wget command (man wget) and found that this process is better still. Wget is designed to obtain files using the http (or ftp) protocol and, according to one web site, it “works particularly well with slow or unstable connections”. All I needed was the URL of a source for the required ISO file. This was easily obtained by starting up the download process at ubuntu.com. I chose the mirror at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and the Ubuntu download page displayed the file name and full path of the ISO file that had been selected. Downloading the file with wget was then as simple as running a Terminal window (Applications – Accessories – Terminal) and issuing the command: wget http://mirrors.rit.edu/ubuntu-releases/hardy/ubuntu-8.04-desktop-i386.iso

After starting wget, the resulting display indicates the progress of the download, both as a percentage and as the actual number of megabytes, and gives the current speed of the transfer. But, the really useful feature for my system is that, if the transfer speed becomes unacceptably slow, I can cancel the transmission with Ctrl-C, reset my modem, and then resume the download by issuing the same wget command but using the -c (continue) option. In fact, this proved to be a really useful feature since, as I was trying the process late at night, I opted to resume my download the next day and so didn't have to sit up until the early hours, or have to leave my machine running all night. (Remember that, for me, leaving the machine running is no guarantee of eventual success since the modem will undoubtedly drop the connection at some point - and it won't automatically restart!)

That's a long, sad story on how I finally obtained an ISO file with which to burn a bootable Ubuntu 8.04 CD. But, now that we have the beast in hand, what's new, and was it worth all the effort?

Well, the live CD works just fine. The screen has the usual default orange colours, but features a really cool stylized heron (the distro is “Hardy Heron”). A few new things are fairly obvious. Under the Applications' menu, the Internet tab now includes “Transmission” (another BitTorrent client), while the Office tab gives access to the Writer, Calc and Impress modules from OpenOffice.org 2.4, the current version of this office suite.

On my system, the Places menu shows that I can access a "Data Disk". This is in fact my Windows' data drive so, evidently, access to Windows' drives is now included by default. But, such access is not entirely straightforward. Clicking on Places – Data Disk brings up an Authenticate (Vista users - can you say User Account Control?) dialogue box requiring a system password. Apparently, the “System policy prevents mounting internal media”. But, fortunately, there is an option to “Remember authorization” which, if left checked, avoids this complication in the future.

Ubuntu 8.04 is an “LTS” (long term support) release which means that this version will be fully supported for at least the next three years. However, for those of you who like new toys, don't despair, updated versions will continue to be provided on the usual six-monthly release cycle. New features of 8.04 include the latest (Beta 5) version of Firefox 3; enhancements to F-Spot, the default photo-manager; many improvements to music and video file handling; and a whole raft of good stuff buried somewhere in the Linux kernel and the Gnome desktop manager.

One of the other new features of this Ubuntu distro is the inclusion of wubi.exe on the CD-ROM. As Peter Hawkins relates in a separate newsletter article, Wubi lets you install Ubuntu to your hard disk, effectively as a folder in Windows and, at the same time, provides a dual-boot environment for either Windows or Ubuntu. If you aren't sure about stuff like creating new disk partitions for Linux, Wubi will let you install Ubuntu without the need for such major surgery. And, if you subsequently find that you don't like Linux (but, how could you?!!), you can uninstall the entire system just as if it were a Windows' application.

I opted to install Ubuntu 8.04 directly to my hard drive. Since I already had Ubuntu 7.10 installed, the partitioner suggested that I should use guided partitioning to resize the ext3 partition, leaving 9.5GB for 7.10, and assigning 25.7GB for 8.04. The installation process worked flawlessly, and GRUB provided a triple-boot option for Ubuntu 8.04, Ubuntu 7.10 and Vista.

Now, I just have to ensure that Ubuntu 8.04 will do everything I need and then I can think about how to remove the earlier version and free up the disk space.


Bottom Line:

Ubuntu 8.04 (Open Source)
http://www.ubuntu.com

Azureus 3.0 (Open Source)
http://azureus.sourceforge.net/

GNU Wget 1.10.2 (Open Source)
http://www.gnu.org/software/wget/

Wubi (Open Source)
http://wubi-installer.org/


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