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VOIP with Linode, Ubuntu, Asterisk and FreePBX

October 29th, 2010 1 comment

Overview and Introduction

I’ve been dabbling with managing a VOIP server for the past year or so, using CentOS, Asterisk and FreePBX on a co-located server. Recently Dave and I needed to move to our own machine, and decided to use TEH CLOUD to reduce management and get a fresh start. There are hundreds of hosts out there offering virtual private servers (VPS’s). We’ve standardized on Linode for our small business for a few reasons. While I don’t want to sound like a complete advertisement, I’ve been incredibly impressed with them:

  • Performance. The host systems at Linode run at least 4-way 2GHz Xeon dual-core CPUs (I’ve seen higher as well) and you’re guaranteed the RAM you pay for. Pricing is generally based on how much memory you need.
  • Pricing. For a 512MB Linode, you pay $19.95 US per month. Slicehost (a part of Rackspace, and a Linode competitor) charges the same amount for a 256MB slice. Generally you want at least 512MB RAM for a Linux machine that’s not a test/development box.
  • Features. If you have multiple VMs in the same datacenter, you can assign them private IPs and internal traffic doesn’t count toward your bandwidth allowance. Likewise, bandwidth is pooled among all your VMs; so buying two VMs with 200GB bandwidth each gives 400GB for all your systems.

With full root access and the Linux distribution of your choice, it’s very easy to set up and tear down VMs.

Why VOIP?
When people hear VOIP, they generally assume either a flaky enterprise system with echoing calls or something like Skype. Properly configured, a VOIP system offers a number of really interesting features:

  • Low-cost long distance and international calling. The provider we use, voip.ms, offers outgoing calls for $0.0052 per minute to Canada and $0.0105/minute to the US on their value route.
  • Cheap phone numbers – direct inward dialing – are available for $0.99 per month in your region. These phone numbers are virtual and can be configured to do nearly anything you want. Incoming calls are $0.01/minute, and calls between voip.ms numbers are free.
  • Want to take advantage of cheap long distance from your cell phone? Set up a Direct Inward System Access path, which gives you a dial tone for making outgoing calls when you call a local number. Put your DID number on your My5 list, and you’re set to reduce bill overages.
  • Voicemail becomes much more useful when the VOIP server sends you an email with a WAV attachment and caller ID information.
  • Want to set up an interactive voice response menu, time conditions, blacklist telemarketers, manage group conferences or have witty hold music? All available with FreePBX and Asterisk.

Continue reading for server setup details and security best practices…

Read more…




I am currently running various *BSD variants for this Experiment.
I currently run a mix of Windows, OS X and Linux systems for both work and personal use.
For Linux, I prefer Ubuntu LTS releases without Unity and still keep Windows 7 around for gaming.
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: Asterisk, FreePBX, Jake B, Ubuntu Tags:

One week, three distributions (Day 7: Conclusions)

October 24th, 2010 No comments

Well it’s been an interesting week. I’ve gotten to try out three new distributions and share my thoughts with everyone here. My original goal was to see which one of these distributions offered the best first impression and declare that one as the ‘winner’. However in actually working my way through these great releases I have changed my mind somewhat.

What makes a great distribution great?

This is a very interesting question that I’m sure would generate a wide array of unique and passionate responses. Some prefer ease of use, while others demand nothing less than complete control over what they can tweak. There are people who swear by using nothing but open source solutions, while others are happy to add proprietary code into the mix as well. This is the great thing about Linux, we get so many choices which means we get to decided what we want.

Unfortunately this has also resulted in a bit of distribution zealotry; like choosing Ubuntu over Fedora, or Arch over OpenSUSE is somehow taking a side in some giant war. Instead of all of the infighting we should be celebrating the fact that when Ubuntu comes out with a new piece of user-friendly software, or Fedora introduces a new awesome technology, we can share and integrate it right into all distributions.

So what makes a great distribution great? A distribution is great because it works for you, it suites your needs, fits your personality and lets you do what you want to do. At the end of the day isn’t that what open source is about?

Final thoughts

OK enough of the preachy writing. I think that all of the distributions I have tested this week were very good. They each embody the spirit of open source in their own little ways.

Kubuntu 10.10

Awards: The most improved release. Most likely to recover lost KDE fans.

I was extremely impressed with this release. The folks over at the Kubuntu project deserve a huge round of applause for their continued work on this often forgotten Ubuntu sibling. This release is unlike any other that I’ve tried from Kubuntu, and I hope it marks a turning point in the distribution’s history. If the next release sees anywhere close to the improvement that this release did it may even unseat Ubuntu as the go to Linux release. If you haven’t tried out this release I urge you to give it a shot.

Ubuntu 10.0

Awards: The most refined. Most likely to be installed on a new Linux user’s computer.

Ubuntu makes a return from its last long-term support (LTS) release with this stellar offering. For a release that is meant to experiment with changes, which might eventually be incorporated into a future LTS release, this version feels as polished as ever. The new theme, font, store and integration features make this an absolutely solid release. If you’re an Ubuntu user I’m sure you have already upgraded. If you develop for a different distribution, this might still be worth looking into if only to steal the good parts for your release of choice. Either way I think this release of Ubuntu marks a whole new level of application integration on the Linux desktop and I am excited to see where they go next with it.

Linux Mint Debian Edition

Awards: The most advanced. Most likely to see the fastest improvement.

For people who have been using Debian for a while now this release will feel right at home. It combines the best parts of Debian testing, modern software, stability and thousands of packages, with the Linux Mint team’s renown ability to iron out the kinks in any Linux distribution. I think that this release will see so much improvement in the next couple of months that it has the potential to steal users away from other rolling release distributions with its easy to use desktop. While this current iteration does have some issues I hardly think that they are anything to run away from. For technical users looking for the newest stuff, while hoping avoiding the vast majority of headaches other distributions can cause, this one is for you.

My Choice

For me personally I have been very happy with Linux Mint 9 and look forward to version 10 when it ships later this year. Until then however I think I will be sticking with the one that most closely resembles my current set up. No not Linux Mint Debian Edition, but Ubuntu 10.10. That being said I do look forward to giving Fedora 14 and Linux Mint 10 a ride soon.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

One week, three distributions (Day 6: Linux Mint Debian Edition)

October 23rd, 2010 7 comments

To round out the week I installed the newly released Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE). Like the other posts I have made I will walk you through my first impressions as well as the general overall feel of the distribution.

Install

LMDE’s install is something quite different from the experiences I had with Ubuntu 10.10 and Kubuntu 10.10. While it is still a very polished installer (complete with a single slide slide-show even!) it does lack a couple of features that make it far less user friendly. Where the other installers basically held your hand in every way, LMDE requires at least some technical understanding in order to complete. For instance there is no friendly auto-partition step, instead LMDE leaves the user to do it manually with GParted. While hardly the end of the world it is enough of a challenge that you could no longer just hand this disc to your non-technical friend and let them have at it. However once that step is complete the installer is very straight forward and rips through the installation in a matter of minutes.

First boot and drivers (oh my!)

I have to say that my first impression of LMDE was a mixed one. On one hand it spewed text everywhere as it booted, which I assume came from its Debian heritage. On the other hand the boot was ridiculously fast. I know it’s been one of Canonical’s goals to make Ubuntu the fastest booting Linux distribution but I have to say that a stock install of LMDE (and maybe even Debian Testing) will easily give that claim a run for its money.

Once at my desktop I was presented with a very familiar Linux Mint set up. If you were to place this desktop next to Linux Mint’s Ubuntu derivative (Linux Mint 9 for instance) I would be very hard pressed to spot any differences.

Unfortunately one thing that was glaringly missing was the lack of the Ubuntu automatic driver detection and install system jockey. Without jockey I had to resort to Fedora-esque measures in order to install the correct driver which is necessary for correct display and power management on my laptop. For reference here are the steps I took in order to install the proprietary ATI driver and setup my X configuration:

1) Run the following command in order to make sure you have the most recent package list

$ sudo apt-get update

2) You may want to now install all available updates so that we start with the most recent kernel

$ sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

3) Install the kernel headers so that we can configure it to work with the ATI driver

$ sudo apt-get install linux-headers-2.6-$(uname -r | sed ‘s,.*-,,’)

4) Install the ATI driver and control panel

$ sudo apt-get install fglrx-control fglrx-driver

5) From there just follow the instructions on my post here in order to generate the new X configuration file and maybe even fix your vsync issues at the same time.

I have read that jockey is currently being ported and will appear in the LMDE repositories so hopefully this small issue will be solved quickly.

Rolling release = LOTS OF UPDATES

One of LMDE’s big selling points is that it is a rolling release, which means that you will continue to get new packages and updates on your system without having to reinstall at 6 month intervals like some other distributions. Strangely though LMDE does not ship with update checking enabled which I found kind of weird. A quick forced check later and I discovered why the team may have made that choice

That’s right, almost 500 updates… Almost every package on my newly installed machine had to be replaced updated. This is definitely a release for people looking for the newest software but could easily lead to update fatigue for everyone else.

32-bit working system vs PAE kernel broken system

One of the unfortunate things about this release is that it only comes in a 32-bit version. As I run a 64-bit processor with 4GB of RAM it irks me to know that I am not using the full potential of my system. I starting looking into Physical Address Extension (PAE) kernels as a solution to this problem. PAE kernels, for those who don’t know, use a system of memory indirection in order to allow a 32-bit processor access to more than 4GB of mappable memory. In the case of Linux the PAE kernel can map up to 64GB of RAM.

After a bit of googling I stumbled upon instructions to install a PAE kernel by simply installing the linux-image-686-bigmem meta-package. Unfortunately this quick fix, as most often is the case, didn’t exactly turn out well and actually broke my GDM system. Without GDM I was unable to log into my desktop and this experiment came to an end. In the interest of time I decided to just reinstall instead of trying to troubleshoot how to fix what I had inadvertently broken.

Software selection

The software selection in LMDE is impressive and in many ways is what Ubuntu’s used to be. Here you will find (pre-installed) Flash, the Java and Mono runtimes, an MP3 codec and even the Gimp. Everything, like the other Linux Mint releases, is designed to make it so that the user does not have to search for solutions to missing functionality.

Because this is a rolling release it doesn’t really make sense for me to review the included software as much as it does to just mention it. For web browsing LMDE, like Ubuntu, ships with Firefox. To send and receive e-mail it calls upon Firefox’s cousin Thunderbird. Instant messaging is handled by Pidgin and your music collection is controlled by Rhythmbox. F-Spot remains as the photo manager, unlike Ubuntu which replaced it with Shotwell, while Gwibber and Totem round out the release.

Conclusion

Currently Linux Mint Debian Edition is somewhat of an enthusiast’s release. It has the potential to be a great rolling release but it’s pretty obvious that right now it needs some work to get there. For instance, why when I updated my software, did my GDM background change to a Debian one? The team over at Linux Mint knows how to polish a distribution and so I’m confident that they will do the same for Debian Edition.

Pros:

  • Rolling release which means you always have the most recent software
  • Still has that Linux Mint charm to it

Cons:

  • The distribution still needs a bit of polish before I could see myself recommending it to all but seasoned Linux users
  • Being a rolling release might result in update fatigue



I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

One week, three distributions (Day 4: Ubuntu 10.10)

October 20th, 2010 3 comments

Continuing where we left off I am now ready to report my first impressions of Ubuntu 10.10. I should start by apologizing a little bit, this post is going up one day late (even though I had already finished writing most of it). With that out of the way let’s begin.

Install

The install, as one would expect, is exactly the same as the one featured in Kubuntu. As noted before I have nothing but praise for this installer and still think it is one of the best, if not the best, installer on any Linux distribution.

‘New’ Theme

The new theme found in this release of Ubuntu is beautiful. It’s hard to place exactly what makes this theme so nice but Canonical has done a wonderful job iterating the old theme from 10.04 and making some subtle changes that have an incredible overall effect.

This level of polish even extends to the new sound menu. Canonical has implemented new sound APIs which allow media players to integrated natively with the sound menu in a way that is just awesome.

Image Shamelessly Stolen Last Minute from Another Website

Heck even the calculator looks better with the new theme!

Software

As with my previous post, I decided to take a look through the default installed software and see how it presents Ubuntu as an all-in-one desktop experience.

Empathy (2.32.0)

The instant messaging client of champions… or at least those who thought Pidgin was too complicated. My understanding for why this client replaced Pidgin was that it was set to offer features (like audio and video calling) that Pidgin was simply too slow at incorporating. Up until this release that reasoning has been nothing more than a pipe dream in my experience. Yes some people have had better luck than others but I have never had it really work all that well. This time however I did get it to work and, after installing the Ubuntu Restricted Extras package, also got it to successfully negotiate a full video call with the proper Windows Live Messenger client.

Evolution (2.30.3)

First off I have to just say “wow”. The first time I used Evolution was back on Ubuntu 8.04 and I absolutely hated it. Now however I’m starting to sing a different tune. Evolution not only looks better but also performs better as well. It includes many features, like calendar and PGP integration, that my favourite e-mail client Thunderbird requires add ons to accomplish.

Furthermore it integrates completely into the Ubuntu message centre which is a nice touch. I can’t even get Thunderbird to minimize to the system tray on Linux. All told I must say that I’m very impressed with with this version of Evolution.

Gwibber (2.32.0.1)

Gwibber is Ubuntu’s answer to all of your social media sources. It has the ability to combine all of your feeds, from Twitter to Facebook, in one convenient location. From there you can easily catch up on what your friends are doing and interact with them, all from one easy to use centralized location.

Unfortunately this universal nature is exactly where the Gwibber experience starts to fail. Because it works with everything it often fails to excel at anything in particular. Because of that I just don’t see myself using this application all that often. It is nice that it integrates into the Ubuntu message centre though.

Firefox (3.6.10)

Ubuntu’s default web browser is Firefox which, let’s be honest, I’m sure you know all about. I will say one thing about this browser though; I hope Firefox 4 improves the speed significantly or I think it will continue to lose users to Chrome.

Transmission (2.04)

For downloading torrents Ubuntu 10.10 continues to ship with the Transmission BitTorrent client. It is a more or less unremarkable client that places a large emphasis on simplicity. It is also the only BitTorrent client I know that warns you not to pirate things.

It also might just be me but for some reason this version of Transmission seems to have more features than I remember.

Rhythmbox (0.13.1)

This version of Rhythmbox contains the Ubuntu One music store which I decided to poke around in for a bit. It seems to be a full capable store with many popular artists.

Unfortunately I did manage to make it crash in a rather hilarious way…

Yes that’s right, the Ubuntu One music store is being run off of a Microsoft IIS web server.

Rythmbox the program also suffers from some annoying issues which were well covered by Jon on one of his previous post. One that particularly annoys me is the encoding options. As long as you stick to the defaults the application is very easy to use, but the second you want to adjust the settings you get stuck trying to decipher GStreamer command line options.

Totem Movie Player (2.32.0)

For video playback we get stuck with Totem. Its not that I think it’s the worst video player in the world, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything particularly well. Back when I was using Kubuntu’s Dragon Player I felt the same way but at least Dragon Player was able to provide video playback devoid of various vsync issues. To be fair though this might be an issue with Compiz vs KWin and not directly related to the video software.

PiTiVi (0.14.5)

PiTiVi, besides having a horrible name, is actually a very good piece of software. It is essentially a Windows Movie Maker clone and makes no excuses for it, which in this case is probably a good thing. Within just a couple of minutes of never using the program before I was able to import the two free clips that come with Ubuntu, one movie and one song, strip the audio from the movie clip and replace it with the song’s audio. One button click later my movie was rendered in glorious 1080p. That’s a lot of p’s!

For those wanting a bit more power, the software also seems capable of rendering to any (logical) combination of containers and codecs you might have installed on your system.

Ubuntu Software Centre (3.0.4)

And finally the big one. This release brings with it the first paid application to the new app store. This has already  been written about quite a lot, and while I think its a good thing, I do have some issues with it. The biggest issue that I have is that with only one application in the store people will probably never check it out again, even if new applications are added later. In my opinion what they should have done was created a beta program that people could opt into and test the store out. That would have given Canonical the feedback they need while still not spoiling the store for potential future users.

Conclusion

This release of Ubuntu is a solid one and deserves much praise. While I could give or take on some of the default included software, but then again who couldn’t, I do think that this release has an overall polish that simply hasn’t been as strong in previous releases. This is what Ubuntu 10.04 should have been from the start and makes me look forward to what is still yet to come.

Pros:

  • An unparalleled polish and sheen that no other distribution has
  • An updated software roster that is showcases some of the best Linux application-desktop integration I have ever seen

Cons:

  • While the polish is nice there really isn’t that much difference from 10.04
  • The Ubuntu Software Centre store release may have been a bit premature



I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: GNOME, Tyler B, Ubuntu Tags: ,

One week, three distributions (Day 2: Kubuntu 10.10)

October 17th, 2010 3 comments

As noted in my previous post I have decided to try out a mini experiment wherein I test out three recently released distributions (Kubuntu 10.10, Ubuntu 10.10 and Linux Mint Debian Edition) giving each 48 hours to leave me with either a brilliant or terrible first impression. First on the docket was Kubuntu 10.10.

Install

Kubuntu’s installer is absolutely beautiful. It is simple, sleek and gorgeous. As you work your way through the very simple wizard system it begins to copy files in the background which makes the whole install process much faster than in previous iterations. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that this is perhaps the best Linux installer I have ever used.

‘New’ Desktop

When I first booted into the desktop I was very pleasantly surprised. I haven’t used KDE since version 4.3 when I had given up on it because, while beautiful and functional, there were just too many rough edges. It seems to be an Internet cliché at this point but I am going to throw it out there anyway: KDE 4.5 is the KDE release you have been waiting for. Most, if not all, of the rough edges that have plagued the 4.x series in the past have been ironed out and replaced with extremely user friendly, soft and presentable windows and options that just make sense.

For instance the new network connection interface is stupidly simple. If you can’t figure out how to connect to a network (hint: you just click on it) perhaps you shouldn’t be using a computer in the first place.

All of these refinements are accented by the new notification system that not only provides a universal area for all program events, but also fixes almost all of my complaints about the previous versions. You can now scroll through the notifications, instead of watching them grow off-screen, and you can even filter by the individual applications that are generating said notifications. Think of it like a unified e-mail inbox versus individual account inboxes.

Along similar lines the new, subtle, system tray notifications are simply awesome. Take a look at this screen-shot of the animated file copy indicator.

Its a bit hard to see in the screen-shot but the white pie in the upper right is actually the progress indicator. Unlike in GNOME where you get either a file copy dialog, or a motionless tray icon, I now have no clutter and yet full functionality. You couldn’t make a better system for displaying the information needed. “But what if I want to see more information?” Like everything else, this indicator is fully integrated into the notification system and a single click brings up the progress bar and file copy information. I suppose the point that I’m trying to get across is that this KDE release has done a lot of work in doing away with the clutter that you don’t really care to see 9 times out of 10.

Driver installation is once again handled by jockey, just like in Ubuntu. This time however I had absolutely no issues with it crashing or just not working unexpectedly.

‘New’ Software

I also decided to try out the default software selection to see what had changed. Plus I figured this would be a non-bias way to get a real first impression/feel of the distribution.

Software Management

KPackageKit has always been a sore part of (EDIT: the KDE SC) Kubuntu for me. It ‘worked’ but it was far from intuitive, helpful and, sometimes, even useful. The new KPackageKit is an entirely different story. It is far more like a mix between Synaptic and the Ubuntu Software Center and it pulls it off beautifully.

You can now browse by category or search by application (not just package) name. In addition it now also features a list of installed software which is something so painfully obvious that it is hard to believe that this functionality hadn’t existed previously. These three changes alone have completely reinvented KPackageKit in my opinion. I now almost look forward to opening it up to find new software, whereas in previous releases I would go straight to the command line just to avoid it.

Browser

The browser that ships with Kubuntu 10.10 is rekonq 0.6.1, which is essentially a re-spin of Konqueror but instead of using the KHTML rendering engine it uses the faster and more compatible WebKit. While there is nothing overly special about this browser it does feel very Chrome-like and was good enough that I never even bothered to switch to anything else.

One nice thing about it is that it integrates seamlessly into the KWalletManager password store. It also did an excellent job of prompting me to install all of the proprietary codecs so that I could watch YouTube or whatever. The only low point was a lack of a Moonlight plugin but I assume that is probably forthcoming.

Instant Messaging

The default instant messenger is Kopete 1.0.80 which is a fine instant messenger that integrates nicely into the notification system. The real problem with Kopete however is that it simply hasn’t seen nearly as much improvement as the rest of the distribution’s software. If you showed me the Kopete that shipped with KDE 4.3 and the one in KDE 4.5 I couldn’t tell you the difference. From my tests (using the Windows Live Messenger service) I didn’t see anything new. Oddly enough, just like the last time I used Kopete, this version recognizes my laptop’s webcam but there is no option to use it anywhere inside of a chat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of work has been put into Kopete since 4.3 but the problem is I would never know it.

KMail

KMail, now at version 1.13.5, once again takes the e-mail duties for KDE and once again I find it to be far too complicated, cluttered and messy. Sure it is very function and has a boat load of options but at the end of the day I just want to read my e-mail. A good e-mail client should be invisible to the user and KMail is certainly not.

KTorrent

I’ve always liked KTorrent and this release (version 4.0.3) is no different. If you don’t feel like messing around and just want things to work then default settings are perfect. But if you like to tweak your settings at all KTorrent offers every major feature that you’re looking for.

Amarok

I’ll be honest, I don’t really like Amarok and never have. That being said I was determined to give it a fair try and I found it to be a very functional media player. I still do think that it is a bit too complicated for the average person though. What do I mean by this? Well for example why do I have to right click and then choose a menu option to listen to my music? Why doesn’t double click just do it?

One area where Amarok does excel is in its music importing wizard. It is very simple and full of sensible defaults that makes ripping tracks from a CD super simple. Kubuntu ships with Amarok version 2.3.2.

Dragon Player

Like GNOME’s Totem, KDE’s Dragon Player (version 2.0) is a no fuss video playback application. There really isn’t much to say about this as it is a very feature lean and purpose focused player. I do however have to give it a special mention; I never had a single vsync issue while using Dragon Player (even with my troublesome ATI graphics card). Not even VLC can say the same without some fiddling around in the options menu.

Kontact

Kontact 4.4.6 is KDE’s answer to Microsoft Outlook. It provides e-mail, calendar, tasks, RSS and more by basically displaying a single user interface that joins together KMail, Akregator, KOrganizer and more in a single window. While this is an excellent way to achieve the end result it does unfortunately mean that the user experience suffers a bit when each application chooses to do things slightly different from one another. Again this is one area that I didn’t notice much difference from the last time I used it.

Conclusion (Konclusion?)

This Kubuntu release is so much improved its hard to believe it was done by the same people who have worked on the previous iterations (I mean that as a compliment… somehow ;)). If you’ve been put off by KDE in the past or even if you’re just looking for a modern KDE distribution then I highly recommend checking this release out.

Pros:

  • A huge improvement over previous releases
  • Lots of refinements that make using it a pleasure

Cons:

  • Some of the KDE software (not the desktop) could still use some work
  • Plasmas are cool and all but I don’t think they are quite as amazing as the KDE team keeps pushing them to be



I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.
Categories: KDE, Kubuntu, Tyler B Tags: ,

One week, three distributions (Day 0)

October 15th, 2010 No comments

With the recent releases of Linux Mint Debian Edition, Ubuntu and Kubuntu 10.10 I am once again starting to feel that need to hop around and try something new out. That’s not to say that my current distribution of choice (Linux Mint 9) is a bad one, quite the opposite in fact. I am however curious to see what these new releases do, well, new. That being said I’ve set myself up a little experiment of sorts: try each distribution for two days each and on the 7th day choose the best from among the three. Now obviously this isn’t a very fair test, 48 hours is hardly enough to definitely test which of these distributions is truly the best. What it will, hopefully, show though is which distribution gives off the best first impression.

So buckle up and stay tuned, this week should hopefully be an interesting one.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Do something nice for a change

October 6th, 2010 1 comment

Open source software (OSS) is great. It’s powerful, community focused and, lets face it, free. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t use OSS. Between Firefox, Linux Mint, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Pinta, Deluge, FileZilla and many, many more there is hardly ever an occasion where I find myself in a situation where there isn’t an OSS tool for the job. Unfortunately for all of the benefits that OSS brings me in my daily life I find, in reflection, that I hardly ever do anything to contribute back. What’s worse is that I know I am not alone in this. Many OSS users out there just use the software because it happens to be the best for them. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, many of these individuals could be contributing back. Now obviously I don’t expect everyone, or even half for that matter, to contribute back but I honestly do think that the proportion of people who do contribute back could be much higher.

Why should I?

This is perhaps the easiest to answer. While you don’t have to contribute back, you should if you want to personally make the OSS you love even better.

How to I contribute?

Contributing to a project is incredibly easy. In fact in the vast majority of cases you don’t need to write code, debug software or even do much more than simply use the software in question. What do I mean by this? Well the fact that we here on The Linux Experiment write blog posts praising (or tearing to shreds supplying constructive criticism) to various OSS projects is one form of contributing. Did I lose you? Every time you mention an OSS project you bring attention to it. This attention in turn draws more users/developers to the project and grows it larger. Tell your family, write a blog post, digg stories about OSS or just tell your friends about “this cool new program I found”.

There are many other very easy ways to help out as well. For instance if you notice the program is doing something funky then file a bug. It’s a short process that is usually very painless and quickly brings real world results. I have found that it is also a very therapeutic way to get back at that application that just crashed and lost all of your data. Sometimes you don’t even have to be the one to file it, simply bringing it up in a discussion, such as a forum post, can be enough for others to look into it for you.

Speaking of forum posts, answering new users’ questions about OSS projects can be an excellent way to both spread use of the project and identify problems that new users are facing. The latter could in turn be corrected through subsequent bug or feature requests. Along the same lines, documentation is something that some OSS projects are sorely missing. While it is not the most glamorous job, documentation is key to providing an excellent experience to a first time user. If you know more than one language I can’t think of a single OSS project that couldn’t use your help making translations so that people all over the world can begin to use the software.

For the artists among us there are many OSS projects that could benefit from a complete artwork makeover. As a programmer myself I know all to well the horrors of developer artwork. Creating some awesome graphics, icons, etc. for a project can make a world of difference. Or if you are more interested in user experience and interface design there are many projects that could also benefit from your unique skills. Tools like Glade can even allow individuals to create whole user interfaces without writing a single line of code.

Are you a web developer? Do you like making pretty websites with fancy AJAX fluff? Offer to help the project by designing an attractive website that lures visitors to try the software. You could be the difference between this and this (no offense to the former).

If you’ve been using a particular piece of software for a while, and feel comfortable trying to help others, hop on over to the project’s IRC channel. Help new users troubleshoot their problems and offer suggestions of solutions that have work for you. Just remember: nothing turns off a new user like an angry IRC asshat.

Finally if you are a developer take a look at the software you use on a daily basis. Can you see anything in it that you could help change? Peruse their bug tracker and start picking off the low priority or trivial bugs. These are often issues that get overlooked while the ‘full time’ developers tackle the larger problems. Squashing these small bugs can help to alleviate the 100 paper cuts syndrome many users experience while using some OSS.

Where to start

Depending on how you would like to contribute your starting point could be pretty much anywhere. I would suggest however that you check out your favourite OSS project’s website. Alternatively jump over to an intermediary like OpenHatch that aggregates all of the help postings from a variety of projects. OpenHatch actually has a whole community dedicated to matching people who want to contribute with people who need their help.

I don’t expect anyone, and certainly not myself, to contribute back on a daily basis. I will however personally start by setting a recurring event in my calendar that reminds me to contribute, in some way or another, every week or month. If we all did something similar imagine the rapid improvements we could see in a short time.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

My Search for the Best Audio Editing Software

October 6th, 2010 7 comments

Lately, I’ve been doing some audio recording. In addition to a couple of podcasts that I work on, I occasionally like to record my own musical compositions. While there seems to be no shortage of high-end audio editing applications on either Windows or Mac, the situation on Linux is a bit more sparse. Faced with some frustration, I went out and downloaded a number of linux-based audio editors. I used Wikipedia to find the software in the tests below, and following are my totally subjective and highly biased reviews of each.

Each piece of software was used to edit some raw recordings from a podcast that I have been involved with lately. This source material is almost 100% spoken word, with some music and sound effects sprinkled throughout. It’s important to note these details, as your needs may vary drastically depending on the type of audio project that you’re working on.

Audacity:

The Audacity Project is kind of the Linux standard for non-professional audio editing. It was the first application that I tried to use, mainly because I was familiar with earlier versions of the program that I had once used back in my Windows days. Audacity includes a great number of features that make it ideal for post-processing of any audio project, including a wide array of effects, some great noise generators, and a few analysis tools that make it perfect for cleaning up your finished file before publication.

Audacity audio editor with a demo project loaded

Audacity audio editor with a demo project loaded

Unfortunately, I found that it lacked a usable GUI for editing podcast material. In particular, it seems to be missing the ability to edit a single track in a multi-track project without unduly affecting the other tracks.By default, if you use the selection tool to grab a portion of audio that ought to be deleted from one track in the project, it seems to delete that portion of audio from all tracks in the project.

I found this out the hard way when I played back the master track that I had assembled my finished podcast on, only to find out that significant portions of the audio had mysteriously gone missing at some point during the editing process.

To make matters worse, I closed the application, lost the undo record for the project, and had to start the editing process from the beginning.

This lack of GUI polish also exhibits itself in the way that you can interact with the audio tracks themselves. Unlike in most DAW solutions, a portion of audio that has been clipped out of a larger track cannot seemingly be moved around in the project by clicking on it and dragging it across the stage with the mouse. At least I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and ended up relying heavily on my cut, copy, and paste functions to edit my project. This is a poor way to work on a project of any kind of complexity, and makes projects that rely on audio loops a pain to assemble.

Ardour:

Where Audacity is suited more towards hobbyist recording setups, Ardour aims to be a professional audio solution that is capable of competing with mainstream software like ProTools. It is a fully featured audio suite that can allegedly do most everything that you may require, but as such, can also confuse the hell out of first-time users with its complicated GUI and lengthy manual.

Granted, this is hardly a slight to the project, because it really isn’t suited to my needs. It is a pro-level audio environment that can be used as the centrepiece to a full recording studio or stage

Ardour wants sole control of my audio interface

Ardour wants sole control of my audio interface

show. If you just want to edit a podcast, it may not be the tool for you. As such, if the GUI seems challenging and you find the documentation to be long-winded, you may just be using the wrong tool for the job.

The biggest issue that I had with this piece of software was getting it to run at all on my machine. It uses JACK to attach itself to your audio interfaces in the name of providing a perfect sampling environment that doesn’t get slowed down by having to share the interface with other pieces of software.

Unfortunately, this means that in order to use it, I had to quit all other processes that are capable of generating sound, including this web browser. This is a pain if you are trying to run Ardour in a multi-application environment, or need to reference the internet for anything while working.

After reading the introductory documentation and adjusting the settings in the startup dialog for about 15 minutes, I simply gave up on Ardour without ever managing to get into a workspace. It seems to be far too complicated for my needs, and doesn’t seem worth my time. Your mileage may vary.

Jokosher:

From the moment that I started reading about this project, I like the sound of it. Jokosher is a multi-track recoding and editing environment built on top of Python and GStreamer that was

Jokosher may look cartoony, but it may be exactly what you need for small projects

Jokosher may look cartoony, but it may be exactly what you need for small projects

created by a podcaster who was unsatisfied with the audio editing tools that were available on Linux. The application focuses on being easy enough to use that non-technical people like musicians can pick it up and get their ideas down with minimal hassle. Think of it as Garage Band for Linux.

Indeed, just as the website promised, I was able to get a working environment set up in a matter of minutes. The editing tools allow for splitting the audio, grabbing it and moving it around, and non-destructively editing multiple tracks at the same time (I’m looking at you, Audacity). The GUI also has a beautiful polish to it that, although a tad cartoony, really makes the program look and feel simple. For editing something like a podcast, I’m not sure that this application can be beat.

The only issue that I encountered in my short time using Jokosher was with its support of LADSPA plugins. These are free audio plugins that can be used to apply effects to the different tracks of your audio project. When I tried to use them from within the application, it instructed me to download some from my repositories. Upon checking Synaptic, I saw that I already had a number of them downloaded. Even after installing more, the program did not seem to pick them up.

All in all, this project lived up to its hype, and I will most certainly take some time to break it in, and may write a more in-depth review once I get used to it. If you’re doing podcasting, you owe it to yourself to check this app out.

In Conclusion:

Each of the three applications that I tried to work with while writing this piece deserve your respect. The underlying audio framework of most Linux systems is a veritable rats’ nest of subsystems, platforms, daemons, plugins and helper applications. I would wager a significant amount of money on this situation as the reason that we don’t have ProTools and its ilk on our platform of choice. I’ve done a little bit of work with GStreamer, and even it, as perhaps the prettiest and best supported of all audio libraries on the platform, left me scratching my head at times.

When choosing audio software, it’s important to keep in mind that you need a tool that’s uniquely suited to your project. Since I’m editing podcasts and fooling around with drum loops and samples of my guitars, Jokosher does just about everything that I need and more. I may use Audacity for post-production, or to record my source audio (simply because I haven’t tried recording in Jokosher yet – I know that Audacity works), because it falls somewhere in between a simple editing tool and an advanced platform. Ardour, meanwhile, is probably suited towards the more hard-core audio engineer slash system administrator types who are so fanatic about recording quality that they are willing to sacrifice an entire box for running their DAW software. It’s simply more power than the majority of hobbyist enthusiasts really needs.




On my Laptop, I am running Linux Mint 12.
On my home media server, I am running Ubuntu 12.04
Check out my profile for more information.