Saturday, June 18, 2011

Guest sessions and user management

Has a friend ever asked "Can I borrow your laptop to check my email?" Maybe you're uncomfortable handing over your account to them. There's a simple answer for that: the guest account.

Guest accounts are available in Fedora 15, but are disabled by default. You can activate this feature by installing the xguest package, which is easy enough to do by going to Activities - Applications - Add/Remove Software.

The Guest account doesn't have a password. Also, any files created there (including saved passwords from the browser) are deleted automatically after they logout, so it's great for short-term use like checking email or quickly updating their Facebook.

There's more about guest sessions and user management on Fedora 15, at LinuxBSDos. The article has a lot of information about account management in general. It's pretty straightforward, but screenshots are always good.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Windows killed my laptop, again

I mentioned last week that my office is moving to Active Directory. All our Windows PCs needed to get reconfigured to authenticate through AD. At the same time, I asked that we apply encryption to every desktop.

As the central IT office, my group went first. I'm one of 3 people in our office that dual-boots Windows and Linux, and I was not alone as we witnessed Windows break because it was not the only operating system to control the hard drive.

Here's the process:
  1. We configured TPM in the BIOS, then booted into Windows. As usual to start Windows, I selected "Windows" from the Grub boot loader.
  2. Configured Windows to use the built-in BitLocker disk encryption. Interestingly, Windows doesn't actually complete this step, instead it needs to reboot for the change to take effect. Okay fine, it's a filesystem change.
  3. When I reboot, and  select Windows from the Grub boot loader, Windows complains it cannot find the BOOTMGR. Unable to go on, it only lets me "Ctrl-Alt-Del" to reboot - but after rebooting, selecting Linux from the Grub boot loader still worked fine.
Not sure how Windows kills itself, but Linux continues to work fine. I'm reminded how Windows killed my laptop, under different circumstances.

We mucked with it for a while, trying various Grub boot options, whatever. After about 10 minutes, we gave up, and booted from a Windows 7 recovery bootable CD. That let us run some commands from a terminal window (bootrec /fixmbr, and bootrec /fixboot) in the recovery environment, to reset the boot sector and the master boot record.

Of course, Windows seems to assume that Windows will ever be the only operating system, so the tool doesn't take any precautions for a multi-boot environment. My Linux environment was no longer usable, but at least we got Windows to boot back up.

After letting BitLocker fully encrypt my Windows data, I looked into the damage to my Linux installation. The partitions were still there, but the Grub boot selector was gone. I could have restored my Grub boot selector - I've done that before (thanks again, Windows.) But today, I thought it might be easier to just re-install Fedora 15 on my laptop, and restore my data.

Thank goodness that backup and restore is so easy in Linux. Déjà Dup has been part of Fedora for about a year. Installing Fedora 15 took about 15 minutes, then I just needed restore my data. It was easy!

And yes, re-installing Fedora also put Grub back as the boot selector. And Grub now lets me dual-boot (again) into Windows + AD + BitLocker, or into Linux.

I lost my morning to a mess caused by Windows, but regained my afternoon thanks to Linux!

But I guess my "lesson learned" is that Windows really wants to be the only operating system on the computer. Be warned.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Multiple reboots

I am always amused by the need for Windows to reboot after making a run-time change. Or what should be a run-time change.

My office is starting our migration to Active Director, so today I booted into Windows to let our PC support folks do their thing to hook up my laptop. I just sat back and watched. It took two reboots to configure Windows to use Active Directory for login. Apparently this is the standard "Windows way" to do it - one reboot to reset the "hostname" (to a standardized name) and another reboot to connect it to the AD domain.

And given how much longer it takes Windows to boot, compared to Linux, it felt like I was waiting around a long time just waiting for Windows to come up, only to watch them reboot again.

I'm shocked by Windows' design. Okay, I can understand how Windows would need to reboot to get the network and all the services configured for a new "hostname". And I can (sort of) see why Windows might need to reboot to change the authentication service to AD.

But why can't these changes be wrapped together into one reboot? Why does Windows always assume a reboot is the right way to apply a change?

(There's more drama with configuring this laptop for Active Directory. But I'll save that for next week.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fedora 15 impressions

Back in April, I installed the Fedora 15 Beta release. My quick review at that time: it took a little time to get used to Gnome 3, but I liked it.

Last week, Fedora 15 was officially released. I installed a copy on my laptop, and quickly got back to work. The install process was the fastest I've seen for any Linux distro - about 15 minutes to install the complete operating system from the LiveCD installer.

The big, new feature in Fedora 15 is the Gnome 3 desktop. Read my preview of Fedora 15 for screenshots. Gnome 3 takes a different view on the desktop, based on user experience and feedback. The default Gnome Shell has a single menu bar, which lets you launch programs and quickly access settings.

The "Activities" menu helps organize everything. To start an application, click "Activities" and you can select from a "Favorites" list, or a full list of installed programs. Applications are sorted by category, or you can scroll through "All".

Instead of a separate panel to show your available applications, you click "Activities" to see what's going on, even if you have programs running on a virtual desktop. I suppose Mac users will find this "Activities" view similar to that of Exposé.

I guess Gnome 3, and specifically the Gnome Shell, is something you either love, or something you hate. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

Gnome 3 is a change, for sure. But I quickly got over it, and after a few minutes the Gnome Shell felt quite natural.

I helped my wife install Fedora 15 over the weekend. She's not really a "techie" user, but my wife has been a big Linux fan for many years now, having dropped Windows. She has moved from Gnome 1 to Gnome 2, without much trouble. But now that her laptop is running Gnome 3, she's not so much in love with the new interface.

As I said, you either love it or hate it.

I can see why: Gnome 1 was a big step forward for the Linux desktop. Gnome 2 made major improvements on the desktop, making everything easier and more integrated. The user interface was fairly similar to Windows, making it a little easier for Windows users to switch to Linux. But Gnome always took its own spin on the "Windows" interface, moving to the "two-panel" approach: one to show things you can do, another that shows things you are doing.

Gnome 3 is a deviation from that progression. The Gnome Shell looks more like Mac OS X than Windows. That's fine if you're a Mac user looking to move to Linux, but it requires some re-learning of the user interface. Mac OS X is quite different from Windows, and a desktop environment that takes cues from Mac will operate differently than one that borrows from Windows.

I like the new interface. I guess my only complaint is that I don't like the wide title bars on Windows, and that everything looks sort of grey. I understand you can customize the Gnome 3 shell, but the process to do that requires some manual editing. I'm sure this will get easier in later releases, and Fedora is supposed to be a "cutting edge" distro. (If you are looking for long-term stability, I point you to Red Hat Linux - Fedora is generally considered to be the "testing ground" for new features in Red Hat.)

If anyone has suggestions for how to add themes to Gnome 3, specifically how to set the appearance to look more like the Bluecurve interface from Fedora 14 and previous releases, please let me know in the comments.