I’ve been using GNU/Linux as my primary operating system for many years. At my last job I used Microsoft Windows as my desktop operating system for about the first year, but was able to gradually convince my boss that I’d be more productive using GNU/Linux. When I started at OSU, I used Microsoft Windows for the first couple of months, because that’s what I was given, before installing GNU/Linux onto my machine. On the whole, I do think I’m more productive using GNU/Linux as my desktop client: it’s been super reliable for me, and largely problem free through all the upgrades I’ve performed.

When I first started using Linux, way back in the mid-1990s, I used Red Hat 5.2. Almost everyone I knew used Red Hat, except for a few show-offs who used Slackware. I dutifully upgraded to 6.0, and then 6.2, and then 7.0 and 8.0. Somewhere right around there, Red Hat decided to focus exclusively on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Like many disgruntled users, I decided that Red Hat was no longer the distribution for me, and I switched almost overnight to Debian. It was a rocky transition – at the time the Debian way and the Red Hat way of doing the same tasks were very different, and I wasn’t exactly an expert user. I managed to muddle through, though, and found myself liking Debian an awful lot. I stuck with Debian until I found Ubuntu.

I’ve been using Ubuntu on my computers exclusively ever since. I really like it. It offers all that I’ve grown to love from Debian with a more aggressive release cycle, so that I get more recent releases of software more often. I haven’t had any real complaints about Ubuntu in all the time that I’ve been using it.

Until today.

At work we have a Microsoft Windows Active Directory. It is possible to join GNU/Linux clients to an Active Directory infrastructure, so that a user can use a single account to log onto both Windows and Linux client machines. This is important at work because we plan to dedicate one of our computing labs to Linux computers, but we don’t want to unduly increase our administrative overhead. Using the Active Directory allows us to have a single user account for all our students, but still allow them to use the platform of their choice.

Until recently, my Linux workstation had been a standalone system to which I logged on using a local user account. After upgrading my workstation to Ubuntu 8.04, I joined it to the Active Directory so that I could log onto it using my domain account. In many ways, I think it’s important that the IT support staff “walk the walk” by using the services they provide. This is an important sentiment that will surface again later in this post. Joining my machine to the domain wasn’t terribly difficult, and I had quickly migrated all my data from my old standalone account to my domain account. Shortly thereafter, the trouble began.

While doing the normal things I do with my computer – launching applications, opening files, browsing directories on my hard drive – my system would spontaneously lose all of the theme configuration I had applied. It’s somewhat of a challenge to accurately describe the problem to someone who hasn’t used Linux. Basically, all the widgets and buttons on my desktop and in my applications would lose their style and revert to the ugly default. Worse, I was unable to change these settings back to the way I wanted them unless I logged out or rebooted the computer. Neither solution is acceptable. I discovered several other problems when this would happen: sometimes I would be unable to see the contents of my home directory! This would happen in the Nautilus graphical file manager, as well as in “File Open” dialog boxes. This was absolutely catastrophic: it meant I couldn’t attach files to emails, or navigate to sub-directories in my home directory. (I could still access things from the command line, which was only a modest relief to the problem.)

I narrowed my problem down to the fact that the gnome-settings-daemon was failing. Searching revealed that a number of other people experienced the same problem, and a variety of solutions and work-arounds were put forward. I tried most of them, but had not lasting success: gnome-settings-daemon kept terminating, resulting in a mostly unusable desktop for me. I found, and commented upon, bug 138277, but no replies have been made. I started a thread on the Ubuntu forums, but it’s seen no action yet. I readily accept that I may have done a poor job describing my problem in a way that folks can understand.

One troubleshooting step would be to perform a complete re-installation of Ubuntu 8.04. I had originally installed 6.10, and then upgraded to 7.04 and then 7.10 before finally upgrading to the latest 8.04. I’m not entirely keen on this, but it would help identify whether the problem is a glitch introduced during my upgrade, or whether it’s a substantive problem with Ubuntu 8.04.

As I said previously, though, I think it’s important for IT folks to walk the walk. In our computer labs, we won’t be running Ubuntu. We’ll be running Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop. Many of the scientific and engineering applications our students use are only available for Red Hat or SuSE. I suppose I could try CentOS, but our college has brokered a deal with Red Hat. We have plenty of available licenses for their offering, so that’s what we’ll use. I am strongly considering taking this opportunity to configure my workstation in an identical fashion as all the lab computers. This would be good practice, and would help me to provide better support to the labs because I’d be clued in to the particular nuances of the distribution. This has its own set of problems, as you might expect.

I admit that I’ve been spoiled by Ubuntu with fresh new versions of most software. Red Hat Enterprise Linux does not offer the same new versions of all software. For example, Red Hat still ships Firefox 1.5, whereas Ubuntu is now shipping Firefox 3 beta 5! This might be a non-issue, though: many of the servers and devices we have in our network (fiber channel switches, Ethernet switches, security cameras, IP KVM, etc) use Java applets served through a web page. Java applets do not run on 64-bit GNU/Linux systems. My system is a 64-bit system. I found it extremely annoying using Ubuntu to have to make a Remote Desktop connection to a Windows computer just to launch Microsoft Internet Explorer in order to execute a Java applet. So, if I install Red Hat, I could install the 32-bit version of a newer Firefox and enjoy native Java applets (and native Flash to boot! YouTube, I’ve missed you!).

The purpose of this post has been, primarily, to get myself to think about the pros and cons of using Ubuntu and Red Hat. Each has definite strengths and weaknesses, and neither is demonstrably superior for this situation. Switching back to Red Hat will invoke a bit of a learning curve, but I think it’s probably the best choice for my work computer. Besides, if I take the time to re-install Ubuntu and the problems with gnome-settings-daemon persist I’ll be installing Red Hat anyway!

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