Desktop Linux Opinions?

I’m brainstorming about ways of setting up Linux desktops machines for people used to Window users on a LAN. It could be any size of LAN.

I’d like people to be able to sit down at any Linux machine on the LAN and log in — probably use a LDAP directory for that, and NFS-mounted home directories. I wouldn’t want to NFS-mount the entire thing for performance reasons.

So, some of the things I’m thinking about are:

  • Desktop environment: KDE or Gnome? Which would give Windows users all the tools they’d want? Which would they feel most at home with? I’m thinking it’s KDE, but Gnome has a more polished “feel” too it.
  • Image management. How could the desktops be updated? Just rsync everything except fstab over? Can we actually have a single system image? Is XOrg powerful enough to just recognize hardware at boot and Do The Right Thing? Can we build a unified initrd somehow?
  • Distribution. Debian, Ubuntu, Kubuntu? Do the Ubuntus bring anything to the table, if we take as a given that an experienced Debian admin is managing all this?
  • Laptops. What do we do about the home directories there? Some sort of automated rsync thingy?
  • Installation. FAI? Or some homegrown thing that just boots up, partitions, and runs rsync?

15 thoughts on “Desktop Linux Opinions?

  1. For installation and Image management, look into System Imager…
    I haven’t used it for Desktops, but it works wonders for servers. You set up a system to be a ‘golden client’ to pull images from. You can then install a fresh image to new systems, or pull updates from the latest image taken from the golden client.

    It can take a little work to get set up, but is worth the effort.

  2. Edubuntu is designed for that type of environment, as is the LTSP. Also see the posts from “Dave Richards – City of Largo Work Blog”

  3. I admin a couple hundred Debian workstations and servers on an enterprise LAN. The machines run stable and are installed with a fairly heavily hacked up FAI. The workstations run KDE by default, but users have the option of selecting other sessions when logging in via KDM. Home directories and some other system services are accessed via AFS. Authentication is performed using Kerberos, with directory information provided by some custom scripts that generate local passwd and group files. LDAP would be a reasonable thing to consider in place of these scripts, but we already had a custom user account database when we designed the Debian infrastructure, and switching to LDAP wasn’t in consideration at the time. Kerberos and AFS are great because they are very flexible and you can access your AFS filespace from just about anywhere on the internet. That allows us to pretty much ignore any distinction between “the internet” and “the LAN”. They also integrate with other systems (Windows, Solaris, MacOSX), allowing for a consistent environment on multiple platforms.

    Obviously there are different approaches to many of these problems, and lots of details are left out, but this is one option. It might be a bit “big” for what you’ve got in mind.

  4. Desktop: I’d say Gnome. My own experience moving from Windows to Linux is that KDE is confusing and too “busy” for Windows users. My wife and (five-year old) son also get on very well with Gnome.

    It’s also relevant to note that most of the “enterprise” Linuxen (RHEL, SUSE etc) now tend to favour Gnome.

    But really, this is a decision that geeks are incapable of making. You need to sit some normal people down with each desktop and see which one they get on with better.

    Distro: I can’t see that Ubuntu adds a great deal to Debian if an experienced Debian admin is setting things up. Debian is unquestionably harder for newbies to install/set-up than Ubuntu – not because Debian is still hard to install per se, but because Ubuntu builds in a lot more of the “polishing” that has to be done post-install on Debian.

    But once you have a Debian system up-and-running, there’s very little to choose between them as a desktop experience. (Funnily enough, that view was shared even by people on the Ubuntu Forums when I posed a similar question.)

  5. My experience is that people switching from Windows to Linux are happy with Gnome, because there are not that many options. Many people I talked to don’t like KDE. The main argument against KDE was “there are all these options, programs and context menus I don’t understand”
    (maybe Gnome looks more like Windows?)

    Distro: if a experienced Debian admin will set up all the systems there is only one argument for Ubuntu (IMHO): you get regular updates for your software without backports (or switching to unstable) – in some cases this might be a argument.
    (maybe a second one is that on laptops for example suspend to disk [and many other things] works out of the box and the admin saves time)

  6. Check out cfengine ( for configuration. It lets you set up variations on configurations for different machines, so if you have some wierd graphics card that requires a special xconfig file then you can pick that out as a special case while keeping all the other files the same. It also has (last time I looked, quite some time ago) a scripting language for line-editing files in really hairy cases.

    KDE has a “redmond” theme that is designed to be as Windows-like as possible. I expect Gnome has something similar.

  7. For LTSP: use edubuntu, its meant to do just that.

    GNOME/KDE: KDE is for tweakers and geeks. Nerds either use console or Gnome. KDE has more options, but they suck. Who cares about the text-alignment in a chat window. That’s the kind of nonsense KDE does. Is this flawed logic:

    More buttons == more functionality == better application

    Gnome is the exact opposite. Less buttons, sane defaults and optional plugins to specific needs.

    Ubuntu or debian?
    Debian has no direction, which is good. All packages are equal. Ubuntu sets explicit goals and makes them happen. Its more about making everything integrate out of the box ,rather than being everything to everybody after a whole lot of setup. Package maintainers for Ubuntu do not have the authority and independe of debian package managers.

    Ubuntu’s kernels are also much better: they include all kinds of hacks for specific laptops, wifi-cards, etc. They tend to favor desktops and have a seperate server-kernel.

    So all in all use Edubuntu. However, depending on the agegroup and all, you might want to change the default wallpaper and themes. (not that hard to automate with a small script). Since Edubuntu is very kids-friendly, it might be a bit to childish for teenagers. To switch theme and desktop launch gconf-editor and find the keys. They use a

    gconftool-2 /path/key “value” -t string

    To set the key in a script.
    You can also create a custimized live/install cd using Reconstructor. This will allow you to tweak the artwork and package selection and setup-scripts to your situation and organization. Then you can use the cd to install your mix of applications, artwork and settings to all PC’s without having to redo all tweaks for every system..

    (has a nice gui interface as well, although you can in the middle of it, using the console to tweak futher, the iso is just mounted and chrooted at that point: you can apt-get, install schema’s, alter /etc/ files, etc.)

    When I think about it now, depending on the numer of systems you want to setup, Reconstructor might be the perfect way for a debian-maintainer. Edubuntu is better for a zero-knowledge people who just want to have something that works out of the box for a school. A debian maintainer might want to tweak a number of things and Reconstructor will allow him to do that nicely and cleanly and then roll-it-out easily….

    Good Luck!

    1. Side note:

      Reconstructor works best with Dapper (6.06) the long-term-support version

      Although Edgy boots faster and is quite stable, Dapper seems to be the more stable, secure choice.

      Don’t worry about the fact that it’s not the latest version. Ubuntu releases a new version every 6 months, based on Debian Unstable + 6 months of bug fixing (which is a lot easier when you don’t support as many platforms as debian does).

      So even Dapper contains very up to date packages. It’s not debian stable which always ancient.

  8. I forget to mention:

    Long Term Support for Dapper (Ubuntu 6.06) means it will receive security updates until July 2009. (three years from launch)

    Edgy (Ubuntu 6.10) on the other hand will receive security updates until December 2007 (18 months from launch)

    On the other hand Edgy has Xorg 7.1 and therefor supports AIGLX. So if you got Intel-built-in-3d-card or Nvidia hardware and want bling bling (3d desktop, flubby windows) you are much better off with Edgy. It doesn’t require a very fast computer, but it does require good direct-rendering and open-gl support, although most 3-4 year olds NVidia card and most recent onboard intel-graphics chips will do just fine.

    You can forget about these kind of things with Debian unless you want to run unstable. Similarly you will need backports to even run a recent Firefox version or OpenOffice 2.0 on Debian Stable.

  9. Instead of NFS-root a better option might be ATAoE. AoE should be able to give better performance than NFS-root in some situations as the workstation will be able to cache data without restriction.

    The HP Pavilion results in the above URL suggest that 80G IDE disks take about 6W each (in the future I will do some tests to see home much power is consumed by adding a single IDE disk to a machine). This means that running a disk-less network can save 6W per machine (giving a cooler office among other benefits) as well as some noise.

    When using AoE installing a new machine is simply a matter of copying the block device and setting a new hostname. You could even use LVM on the server and have LVM snapshots for each workstation (thus sharing disk cache on the server for files that don’t change on the workstations).

  10. Regarding desktop environments, I’d recommend GNOME for use in a public place such as a library or university computer lab where accessibility for users with disabilities is concerned. GNOME comes with a screen reader, a screen magnifier, and on-screen keyboard. I don’t believe KDE supports these types of tools yet. And if I remember correctly, GDM provides a way to start them on the login screen if needed.

    BTW, can you provide some alternative to visual verification for spam prevention?

  11. Recently, I asked for opinions on desktop Linux. Thanks very much to those that replied. I’ve set up an old laptop as an experiment. I’m using Debian, Gnome, and Systemimager. It’s been an interesting project (especially getting SystemImager and a spl

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