Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hidden cost of running Windows

You've probably seen this item mentioned elsewhere, but it bears repeating on "Linux in Exile":

Switching an office to Linux or other free / open source software comes with its own hidden costs - training, conversion, new software, etc. But Microsoft fans often gloss over the costs to run third party tools and anti-virus software, to fill in the gaps in functionality and security missing from Windows.

Those costs only go up when security fails in Windows. As David Ottewell writes in the Manchester Evening News, taxpayers in Manchester £1.5 million to clean up a Cornficker worm that infested Manchester town hall. And the best part? £600,000 of that went towards consultants to help fix the problem, including experts from Microsoft.

Do me a favor: the next time someone tries to sell you the line that "Microsoft has a lower TCO than Linux", please remind them of failures like this one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

But I didn't do anything

As part of my job, I often receive Word documents or Excel spreadsheets for me to review. These could be timesheets from staff, or drafts of project plans, whatever. Since I use a webmail client at work to do all my mail, clicking on an email attachment automatically downloads the document and opens Word, Excel, or whatever appropriate application. Since it's essentially a document downloaded from the web, Office opens the document in "read only "mode. Office even shows "(Read-Only)" in the title of the window, to remind me that the document cannot be changed.

That part works fine, and it's the same behavior under Linux and Windows. But that's to be expected, since that's how a webmail client works.

The confusing part is when I close the document. Since the document is in "read only" mode, I obviously haven't made any edits to it. Yet every time I close one of these "downloaded from the web" documents, Microsoft Office prompts me if I want to save my changes.

But I haven't made any changes. Because it was in "read only" mode.

That doesn't make any sense to me. Maybe it's that I'm too used to the way Linux and OpenOffice managed files like this. If the document is opened in "read only" mode, then I can view the document, and can even copy a selection (to paste into another document.) When I exit OpenOffice, the window just closes with no complaints.

Why can't Microsoft understand that that's the behavior users expect from programs?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

About me

I thought it would be a good idea to describe my technical background a little, in case it helps answer questions about why I'm keeping this blog, and why I keep pointing out these little problems in Windows. In short, I'm not complaining about the broken behavior of Windows because I lack any kind of technical knowledge.

Here's my story.

Like many Linux users, I first "discovered" Linux when I was a student at university, in 1993. Linux was a bit pokey and unstable then, but great for doing certain lab analysis. However, I wasn't an exclusive Linux user yet. I still ran DOS/Windows for certain things, and maintained a Windows system for gaming until sometime in 1998 - replaced by a PlayStation. I've been 100% Linux at home ever since.

My first job (1995) was working as a UNIX systems administrator. Since we were a small company, I also doubled as the PC support tech for the office, often rebuilding broken PCs and troubleshooting DOS/Windows. We had a Novell LAN, so I was a part-time Novell administrator too. I put a few Linux servers on the network to support remote access, but it wasn't a very big deal.

A few years later, I moved on to another small company. Again, I was primarily a UNIX systems administrator, but also did all the Windows support on desktops (W/NT) and laptops (W/95). It was around this time that my employer sent me through A+. Even though most of the UNIX servers ran on IBM or HP, I installed a few "edge" Linux servers, such as an NIS master to help manage the UNIX environment.

In 1998, I joined my current employer. While my role was now "IT Manager", the reality was that I often acted as a backup UNIX/Linux systems administrator. The organization used a distributed desktop support model back then, and I became the go-to PC support guy for our group. My claim to fame: in 1999, I made a compelling case convincing senior management to adopt Linux in the enterprise, running Red Hat Linux. Before that, we only used IBM and Sun UNIX systems to run the major business applications.

Because we ran so many Linux systems, my employer put the team through RHCE. I passed with high scores on my first attempt (RHCE exams are tough.) I re-upped my certification a few years ago.

Having convinced management that Linux could support enterprise servers, I've been fortunate enough to be able to run Linux on my desktop at work since about 2002. My bosses knew about this, and supported it. The important thing was that Linux let me do everything I needed as a manager, and it was an environment I enjoyed.

But a few years ago, we got a new boss who didn't see things exactly that way. So I've moved back to Windows, at least for work. End of story.

The difference between Windows and Linux has been shocking, to say the least. Since I find it interesting when long-time Windows users experiment with Linux for the first time, I thought it might be equally interesting for this long-time Linux user to blog about my first experience running Windows in over 6 or 7 years. When I blog about something being "broken" in Windows, or something in Windows that is confusing, it's because that feature really is broken or confusing in Windows. At least, compared to Linux.

Every few months, you'll see a staff writer for some tech magazine claim he's going to try Linux exclusively for a month or so. When the "experiment" is over, the writer usually has lots to say about how this or that thing doesn't work "right" in Linux, because it doesn't work just like Windows does. If tech writers can do this with Windows-Linux, I think it's fair to do the same with Linux-Windows. I'll post a new blog item about once a week.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Still a minute faster

Back in March, I compared the load times for Windows XP and Fedora 10 on different hardware, and found that Linux booted about a minute faster. The fact that I had to run the test on different hardware was because I have to run Windows on my work laptop, but my wife happily runs Linux on her laptop at home. But it was still interesting that Linux booted faster on much older hardware (2005: IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T43, Intel Centrino CPU @ 1.86 GHz, 512MB memory) compared to the newer laptop running Windows (2008: Dell Latitude D430, Intel Core2 CPU @ 1.20GHz, 2GB memory).

Over the weekend, I installed Fedora 11 on my wife's laptop. As part of the install process, I created a "Fedora 11 Desktop Edition" Live USB - meaning I could now boot a laptop using Fedora 11. So I thought it was important to repeat the head-to-head boot comparison on the same laptop, using both Windows and Linux.

Since my previous test, our desktop support folks upgraded my laptop to Windows Vista. After the initial problems of getting everything installed, I noticed that Vista booted a bit faster than XP. So good on Microsoft for that. But how does it compare to Linux?

Before we begin, a note on the boot media: Windows is installed on the hard drive, but Linux is booting from a Live USB. According to Dell, my Latitude D430 laptop has a 5400 rpm hard drive, typical for most "mobile" hard drives. Tom's Hardware suggests a "maximum sequential read transfer rate of 48 MB/s is an excellent result for a 5400 rpm drive." Wikipedia says that "typical fast USB drives claim to read at up to 30 MB/s." So Windows will have a slight performance advantage here, since its boot media can read data about 18 MB/s faster.

I used a digital stopwatch (on an iPod) to record timings. While this is not exactly scientific, I repeated the tests over several boots and got similar numbers. To remove the question of how long it took the laptop to check memory (POST at boot) I always started the timer when I was inside the BIOS menu that selected my boot device. I'm most interested in how long it takes to boot the system (from BIOS), login, bring up Firefox, and display a web page (Google).

Here are the major milestones for Windows:
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 36 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +42 seconds
  • Desktop to web page (Firefox): +46 seconds
Total: 2 minutes, 4 seconds

And to compare, the same for Linux:
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 40 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +15 seconds
  • Desktop to web page (Firefox): +12 seconds
Total: 1 minute, 7 seconds

Surprisingly, both laptops also prompted for login at about the same time (36-40 seconds.) Yet it takes much less time to present the desktop on Linux, and launching Firefox is much faster.

I have to give Microsoft some credit, here. Remember that Windows XP booted on the same laptop (and displayed a web page) in 3 minutes, 7 seconds. But Windows Vista does it in 2 minutes, 4 seconds - clearly, Microsoft made boot time a priority for the Windows Vista team, and it shows. Good for them!

But a minute faster on slower boot media (USB, versus hard drive) is very impressive. This represents the time spent waiting for Windows to load, when you could be getting to task right away under Linux. In the comparison from March, I commented I was able login to our webmail system at work, read an email, and delete it in that extra minute. That's real work. Linux wins hands-down on this test.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fedora 11 mini-review

As promised, here is my mini-review of Fedora 11:

I'm glad to say that my wife is a huge Linux fan. Originally, my wife was like most PC users, and had been using Windows exclusively - mostly to write her thesis and check email. But by 2000, she had finally become fed up with Microsoft and continual problems with Windows (I spent many sleepless nights doing "tech support" to recover Windows after it crashed, while my wife was writing her Master's thesis.) So decided to give Linux a try. Her first Linux distro was Red Hat 7, and we've upgraded her as each new release has come out. She's been a Linux devotee ever since!

In fact, this is my wife's second Linux laptop. It's a Lenovo ThinkPad T43:
  • Intel Centrino / Intel Pentium M 750 1.86 GHz CPU
  • 512 MB memory
  • 60 GB - 5400 rpm hard drive
  • CD-RW / DVD-ROM combo drive
  • 14.1" TFT active matrix XGA (1024 x 768) - 24-bit (16.7 million colors)
  • Intel GMA 900 graphics
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG network
Usually, I prefer to install using a DVD image that I download and burn to media. But this time, I figured I'd try something different - I turned the "Fedora 11 Desktop Edition" Live CD into a Live USB. There's even a Windows version of the tool that does this for you. With a Live CD (or Live USB) you can boot your system and run programs just like you were in an installed environment, then (if you like what you see) you can install Linux to your hard drive.

Live USB made installation a snap! Simply boot the laptop from USB, and open the "Install to Hard Drive" icon. The install process was easy, and fast!

Once installed, Fedora 11 takes less than a minute to boot on this older Thinkpad. And everything just worked, with no tweaking, including wireless networking and the graphics.

The user environment is great. The web browser is Firefox 3.5 beta4. Yes, it's a beta version, but it seems to be very solid. We hit all the web sites my wife usually visits, and no problems. Actually, it seems a bit faster with the new Firefox, but it's hard to tell.

Thunderbird (email client) isn't installed by default, but I think that's been the base for the last few versions of Fedora. They give you Evolution by default. While I prefer using a webmail interface to access my email, but my wife really likes Thunderbird. A few clicks under "Administration" - "Add/Remove Software" and we were up and running with Thunderbird, no reboots required.

Since this is the "Live CD" edition (key phrase being "CD", about 700MB) you don't have OpenOffice installed by default. Instead, they give you AbiWord, which is a much smaller Word-like program. I asked my wife if she wanted me to install OpenOffice for her, but she had already opened up her old thesis documents (as a test) and said that was working fine, and more than enough for her. She is not a "power user" so I doubt my wife notices the difference between AbiWord and OpenOffice Writer.

All in all, Fedora 11 is a great upgrade. There are lots of changes "under the hood" for those (like me) who are interested in such things. General users will notice a few cosmetic changes going from Fedora 10 to Fedora 11, especially when booting. For example: Under Fedora 10, graphical boot had just been re-written and didn't work everywhere, so most systems booted in a sort of text-mode interface. But with Fedora 11, graphical boot now supports almost all video cards, so looks much better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's called multitasking, people

Multitasking means running multiple tasks at the same time. Or at least, that should be the standard definition. But I'm starting to think Windows Vista doesn't believe in that.

I'm a manager, and I write a lot of documents. Often, I'll need to print a copy of a document so I can make edits, or bring a copy to a meeting. It's not hard - click on the MS Office icon, then click Print. I usually send documents to the laser printer right outside my office. Since I don't want to watch Office print, I immediately Alt-Tab back to another application (usually Firefox) and work on something else until the document has been printed.

But Windows doesn't always print. At least, not unattended.

Imagine my surprise when I try to print a document, and nothing comes out of the printer. The printer isn't claiming it's processing the document - and in one instance, while waiting for my document, I saw the printer fire up and spit out someone else's document. On these occasions, if I go back to my desk and flip back to the Office application that was trying to print, only then does the document print. In fact, I can see Word finally display the status message "Printing page 1 of ..." at the bottom of the window.

If this had happened only once, then I'd be willing to think it was an anomaly, and forget about it. Likewise, I'd assume it was "workload" if the problem only occurred when printing long documents with lots of diagrams. But I've experienced this at least 8 times in the last 2 weeks, and almost all have been fairly short, simple documents: no diagrams, only bold/italics/indenting, less than 10 pages long, the only image is a banner graphic we use at work.

So there's definitely something going on. I don't think I'm taxing my system. If I'm referring to other materials while writing a document (typical for me) I may have a dozen Word and Excel documents open at one time. I usually also have a Firefox window open to check webmail and browse the web.

I think it's a design problem. Under Linux (and any UNIX-based system, even Mac OS X), programs rarely manage printing by themselves; instead, print data is sent to a "spooler" which actually manages the print queue (that's what "lpd" does, by the way.) Maybe that's how Windows manages printing, I don't know. But if Windows does this, then why does printing from MS Office take a back seat the instant I switch to another application?

This "Windows" thing doesn't seem like it's ready for prime time in an office environment.

Fedora 11 is out

For those of you who didn't see the announcement, Fedora 11 was released yesterday. Since my wife runs Linux on her laptop at home, I'll probably install it for her this weekend. Expect a mini-review around that time.

I may also compare Fedora 11 with features in Windows Vista, so look for that in future posts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bookmarks and favorites

The file managers in Linux and Windows Vista both understand the concept of "bookmarks" - saving a reference to a particular folder. This is a very useful feature, so you can come back to an often-used folder later without having to navigate to find it again. Here are some screenshots to demonstrate, courtesy of Wikipedia: (click to view full-size)

"Shared", "Documents", "Music", "Pictures" and "Videos" are bookmarked locations under Linux*

bookmarks are called "Favorite Links" under Windows Vista*

At work, we store our files on a LAN drive, like most offices. Since part of my job requires managing projects, I have a lot of project plans, design documents, and other files that I need to access frequently. I organize everything into its own folder, so I can find my files more easily. But it was always a hassle to have to navigate down the same directory tree every time I needed to open a project file.

After our desktop support folks installed Vista on my laptop, I was happy to see that the file Explorer supported bookmarks (called "Favorite Links.") So I set up a bookmark to my project folder, making it easier to access my project stuff.

But there is a tradeoff: it seems that whenever I log in to Windows, Vista checks that my bookmarks are accessible. That's okay when I'm at work and logged into the network. But if I'm working from home, or doing work remotely, it takes approximately another 2 minutes for me to log in.

I assume that Windows is checking the bookmarks for a reason. I have no idea why it does this, however, as the behavior of the operating system doesn't change. My bookmarks are still there when I'm working remotely; I just can't use them.

To compare: under Linux, the bookmarks are not checked until you try to use them. When I ran Linux at work, I had to map my network locations by myself. Since this was protected by a separate authentication system (AD), I wasn't prompted for a password until I tried to access the folder on the network. That seems like the right way to do things. It's not necessary to check the network bookmarks until I try to access them. Heck, on certain days I may not access the LAN at all.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who can explain the Windows Vista behavior. I have exactly one bookmark to a location on our LAN - specifically, a folder nested on my H: ("home") drive. We use Active Directory for authentication. The H: drive is mapped for me through AD, by our central Windows network administrators.

Why does Windows insist on checking if the bookmarks are valid before letting me login? This seems like broken behavior to me.