What I’m doing lately in technology

Real life gets crazy sometimes, and blogging outside of the quick and sometimes poorly-thought-out rant takes time, so I haven’t been updating here anywhere near as often as I’d prefer.

So I thought I’d pound out a few quick paragraphs on what I have going on lately in terms of technology… what I’m running where and why.

Computers and operating systems

Right now in my house I have (not counting my wife’s iMac) two laptops and a desktop machine that are in regular use. All three are running Linux in some fashion, and all three get a different sort of load.

Laptop 1: The Old Toshiba (a.k.a., “Vectra”)

This poor old thing is one I have had for almost six years now, and it’s gone through the wringer at times — it’s the one I was using for much of the testing I was doing to write reviews here.

Well, its hardware specs are still the same as before (Pentium 4 Hyperthreading 3.06 GHz processor, 1.5 GB of RAM), and anymore I’m basically using it like a big, 15″, seven pound netbook.

Since around May I’ve had Peppermint OS on it, and that’s lightweight and speedy enough so that when my wife (who works out of town during the week) uses it on weekends for surfing the web and email, it handles it well enough that its aging hardware doesn’t really matter much.

I also use it as a spare laptop for any time I have any of my tabletop roleplaying game buddies over who didn’t bring one of their own (that particular game in question makes use of a few online tools, so a laptop is pretty handy during play).

This is the other obvious strength of Peppermint in that with a clean, fast, and simple LXDE interface, anyone who sits down at this computer can use it without any real instruction.

Laptop 2: The System76 Darter Ultra (a.k.a., “Thuron”)

My other laptop I bought back in April of this year is pretty much my main computer I use from day to day. It’s beefy compared to my other machines (since it has an Intel Core 2 Duo P9700 2.80 GHz processor and 6 GB of RAM in it), so it runs even a rather heavy-ish Linux Mint 9 without any trouble, but it’s only a 12″ screen, so it’s small and extremely light like a netbook.

It shipped with Ubuntu 9.10, but when Linux Mint 9 came out, I elected to wipe it and start fresh (I prefer to partition things my own way anyway).

It’s a great little laptop, I’m definitely a fan of System76 because they went out of their way to make sure I got what I wanted, and the price was right where I needed it at the time. In fact, I liked the product and my whole experience with them so much that when it came time over the summer for my Aunt Jean to buy a new laptop, I pointed her toward System76, and she got an awesome Pangolin Performance machine that’s so nice it made me jealous!

Desktop/Server: The Home Built Athlon 3500+ Box (a.k.a., “Azalin”)

This machine serves a lot of purposes, but I’ve gotten my money’s worth and then some out of it. I ordered it piece-by-piece back in March of 2005 and built it myself, and that’s mainly why I’ve managed to keep this box useful for this long.

It’s got a 2.8 GHz AMD Athlon-64 3500+ processor in it and earlier this year I bumped it up to 4 GB of RAM.

Like my Old Toshiba Laptop (above), this machine has seen its share of operating systems, from Slackware 10.1 through 12.2, to Linux Mint 7 (Main Edition), Peppermint OS, and now it’s running Linux Mint 9 Fluxbox Edition.

I use “Azalin” as a server and a desktop machine, so it wears a lot of different hats.

As a server, I am hosting my virtual Windows XP machine on it (in VirtualBox) when I need XP for something (which, admittedly, is rare these days), and I also have FreeNX installed on it, so it can act as an easily configured and maintained Linux terminal server of sorts. That way I can log into it graphically from anywhere I have an internet connection (and the NX Client installed/available) and so can anyone for whom I set up an account.

Up until recently I was running Sockso on Azalin as well, with which I was able to stream my entire music collection to any computer in my house, and to any computer I was on outside my home network, as long as I had an internet connection. Since I only recently redid everything on Azalin with Mint 9 Fluxbox Edition, I haven’t gotten around to setting up Sockso again, but I will be doing so shortly, it was just too convenient.

In short, Azalin is sort of my own private cloud.

In addition to all of this stuff, Azalin is still a very usable machine as a desktop workstation, and I’ve always loved Fluxbox, so I find Mint 9 Fluxbox Edition to be perfectly suited to this computer’s multiple and varied roles.

Software

While I’m always tinkering around with alternative browsers (like Midori, for example), I’m still using Firefox as my primary browser. That might change down the road (in part based on how good or bad Firefox 4 turns out), but for now it’s the browser that does most of what I want in the most stable and least annoying fashion.

As of about 8 or 9 months ago, I decided to just ditch mail clients entirely, instead relying on Mozilla Prism apps to be a portal into my webmail accounts. This has actually been a big step forward for me, I think, namely because I don’t have a cumbersome, flaky, and frustrating fight on my hands on every machine I typically use when it comes to configuring and struggling with one mail client or another. I finally just had enough of that, and since then I’ve not missed any mail client one bit. If you haven’t checked out Prism yet, you should, it’s very handy.

Because my wife is away during the week, we keep in touch with Skype, which works on her Apple MacBook Pro she keeps with her as well as on my Linux Mint 9 installation on my System76 laptop.

For music I’ve mostly been using Clementine, which I still love, but recently I’ve also discovered (thanks to my getting caught up on my issues of Linux Journal that had piled up a bit) a nifty and robust command line based player called “MOC – Music on Console“. Fast, lightweight, intuitive (for a command line based app), I think I’m going to give this a try on my older machines and see how well it performs. If you like nerdy CLI-only apps and are a music lover, don’t skip this one, it’s worth a look!

For office type apps, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve moved on from OpenOffice.org and instead have embraced LibreOffice. While right now it’s nothing functionally that OpenOffice.org wasn’t, it’s got one thing going for it that Oracle couldn’t quite manage with OpenOffice.org: A bright, exciting future. I’m pretty stoked to see what the new Document Foundation has in store for LibreOffice, and with the grand plans they’ve already announced, I’m sure we’re going to see some good strides forward in the next few years.

One of the biggest discoveries I’ve made over the past several months has been Dropbox. Since it’s cross-platform, my wife (on her Mac and on my Old Toshiba Laptop running Peppermint) and I (on my other Linux boxes) use it frequently to handle our budget spreadsheet and other files, no matter where she is, at home or out of town like she normally is during the week (so I don’t end up spending my entire paycheck on juice and candy).

In fact, I found that Dropbox was working so well for me as a backup/synchronization system, I upgraded a few weeks ago to their $99.00 per year 50 GB “Dropbox Pro 50″ plan, which I think is a bargain. With that, gone are my struggles to keep files synchronized across all of my machines, and I feel a lot less worried about my data in case anything were to happen that would lead to my local computers being lost or damaged beyond repair.

Plus, since I can log into Dropbox from my phone as well, if I need to check out “grocery_list.txt” (a file my wife and I keep in one of our shared folders… yes, seriously), I can pull up that file while I’m in the store if I forgot to print it out while I was at work or at home. Life in the cloud, indeed!

Dropbox is one of those beautifully implemented, simple solutions to a lot of problems I didn’t fully realize I even had. This is another one of those things that falls into the “if you haven’t already, be sure you check this out” category.

Looking forward and wrapping up

Ahead of me I’m planning on finally getting a new machine to replace Azalin as my primary desktop machine, though I’m somewhat undecided as to what I’m going to do there. While I can happily build another desktop, I’m thinking I can do just as well (without really paying that much more) by buying one of the nicer machines System76 sells. I figure I can be quite happy with their hardware, and I like the thought of supporting a Linux based OEM that really seems to know what they’re doing.

At any rate, my new desktop is probably going to be a quad-core CPU, and I’m looking at 8 GB of RAM minimum with plenty of room for upgrading down the road. I figure I’ve gotten five and a half years of use out of my last desktop machine, so I’d like to get at least that much out of the new one, and I know that’s possible, technically.

At that point, I figure I still can get some use out of Azalin for some things… it will still make a decent file server, FTP server, ssh and FreeNX box going forward, and I think it can still act as a virtual host for at least one VM depending on my needs.

So that’s what I’ve got going on where technology is concerned these days. I just figured I’d do a “touch base” kind of post like this, just because I do always have something going on tech-wise, even if I don’t always have the time or energy to yammer about it here from week to week. ;)

– Trent

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12 thoughts on “What I’m doing lately in technology

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What I’m doing lately in technology « The Linux Critic -- Topsy.com
  2. What’s the steady-state wattage for Azalin, the machine you have up 24/7? Do you really need a hotter server-class box?

    Lately, after going around the house with a Kill-A-Watt meter, I’m thinking of heading the other way and seeing how much of my LAN-local server needs might be satisfied by a Pogo-style plug computer or nettop. Currently I get by with old-and-slow equipment with moderate power appetites, maybe 35 watts apiece, but the idea of replacing most of that with one modern under-ten-watt box has a certain appeal when I’m eyeing the monthly power bill.

    Unless you get your power for free, you might want to put some thought into that direction. Who knows, you might develop another revenue stream built on helping clients “go green” or “go QRPp” themselves. Azalin already shows off a strength of Linux, the fact that it’s robust enough to have a bunch of services run on one box, which saves the watts over Windows where one box per service is the rule; here’s another Linux value-adder, the fact that it can run on such power-misers.


    • What’s the steady-state wattage for Azalin, the machine you have up 24/7?

      You know, I have no idea.

      I’ve been pondering looking at a Pogo type device, particularly after reading a couple of writeups regarding it in Linux Journal in recent issues.

      To me, however, longevity, expandability, modularity, and reliabilty are more important, otherwise a smaller, lighter, lower power machine would do. I think I’d find such a machine to be sharply limiting in those respects.

      I’ve managed to make do with Azalin for quite a long time, and that’s largely due to how easy it is to find components that work with it, and how easy it is to scale things up as needed and as my technology demands of it have changed over time.

      That said, power consumption is one of the things at which I’ll be looking closely when I finally start my search for an Azalin replacement, because these days there’s really no excuse not to… one doesn’t always have to sacrifice performance for efficiency anymore. :)

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. My situation and configuration is very much like yours. Our environment is one that does not get much attention. It is too much like and office+server for the personal end-user crowd to take interest. Likewise, it is not enterprise enough for the server crowd. I’ve seen one writer call it “server lite” but even that doesn’t quite do justice to things.

    I’m actively seeking software that will let me do something similar to Dropbox(R) in house between my workstations and my server. I would then use a combination of external drives and cloud service to capture server contents.

    I also want a family groupware environment that my server could then sync to the public web somehow.

    Cheers,
    ~~~ 0;-Dan

  4. All this fuss about machines from mid-decade, as though they were ancient kit from the horse-and-buggy days. Sorry folks, but with the current economy, my Athlon64 from Dec2004 is going to be my top-end desktop hardware for another few years to come. My wife’s laptop is a T23, pushed to it’s maximum 1G memory. And since the PCMCIA wireless card broke, it’s stuck using a USB wireless adapter over USB 1.1. Not everyone is fortunate as you lot to spend thousands a year on hardware. Whatever I get is what I can scavenge that people have thrown away.

    So consider that whatever I do with Linux is going to have to run on those configurations.

    • I know the feeling. I don’t actually know when I’ll be replacing Azalin, because no matter how I run the numbers, I can’t afford to yet. However, I am planning for it so I can have some idea what I’m doing once I can.

      So in the mean time, I’m probably going to drop $80 or so for a new hard drive for Azalin and drag this out a little longer.

      But “making do on old hardware” is something Linux can definitely do. Have you ever read http://kmandla.wordpress.com? He’s got lots of really great ways of making obscenely old computers still functional with Linux. :)

  5. @JohnGalt: The firewall/gateway box here is a 1995 P100 IBM desktopper. I was just doing some work on the network-status summary it serves as index.cgi to get rid of response lag, and what was slowing it down wasn’t the Perl at all, it was having netstat doing reverse-dns-lookups. The old stuff still runs just fine if you treat it right. That one was a surplus-store find; other boxen here were found on the roadside on trash day.

    @Trent: In my house, there are two classes of machines — server-class, which are up 24/7; and workstation-class, which are brought up to do a job, even if that job is to sit there and be a person’s thought-work-amplifier all day, and then shut down. People here can run whatever they like, however new and power-mad, as a workstation, but no server here has a heatsink on the graphics card, much less a fan. I try to make sure that the servers are just enough to do the job, even if it takes load-shifting using cron to reliably get all those jobs done. That saves a few bucks on power, though, like I said, pushing most or all of the server jobs onto one of the new misers can save even more if I can find the bucks for it. The USB ports offer enough expandability for my needs; ymmv.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if, by holding onto Azalin and pushing it down to workstation-class, you saved enough on the power bill to afford its replacement…


    • Wouldn’t it be funny if, by holding onto Azalin and pushing it down to workstation-class, you saved enough on the power bill to afford its replacement

      Actually, what would make even more sense would be to have Azalin continue to perform its modest server duties — a role for which, once I put another hard drive into it, it’s more than adequate, and make my new machine a higher powered workstation that’s only on when I need it.

      I could even downgrade Azalin’s video card to something less powerful (since it arguably won’t need it if all it does is server stuff).

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Mr. Layton! Thanks for the comment! I’ve been enjoying your blog for some time now.


      go with AMD for the processor and avoid Ati like the plague for the video

      Well, clearly we’re on the same page here. :D

      • I had always hoped AMD would do something fabulous with Ati once they acquired it. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. A recent experience with a Radeon card on the laptop I just acquired reinforced that bad taste in my mouth. Now their micros… TOP SHELF!

        You’ve been enjoying my blog? You poor sick bast… er, heh… thanks! :)

        Later…

        ~Eric

  6. Pingback: Rethinking my next desktop computer « The Linux Critic

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