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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Monday, January 19, 2009

January '09 - New Year's Presents!

Originally published  1/19/2009 as
QA Tech Tip - January '09 - New Year's Presents!

This month’s Tech-Tip celebrates the New Year with a couple of New Year’s freebies – they may be free, but they still pack a wallop!

Avira’s AntiVir Personal  (http://www.free-av.com/)
They offer:
  • An absolutely free (personal use) anti-virus solution for your Windows boxes.

  • Absolutely free product and virus definition updates for as long as you have AntiVir installed.

  • A free “Rescue CD” program that will build a rescue CD ISO file and, (optionally), write it to CD if it recognizes your recorder. The Rescue CD is a stand-alone Linux system-on-CD that runs AntiVir on your hard drives while they are “quiet”, (neither mounted nor active under Windows), to make finding – and removing! – bogus programs easier. Both the virus definitions and the rescue CD image creator program are updated daily.
Avira’s AntiVir Personal does everything that the corresponding Norton, McAfee, and other commercial products do, except:
  • AntiVir is NOT a resource hog, and does NOT bring your system to its knees just because you installed it.  The corresponding Norton and McAfee products quickly reduced every machine I installed them on to the performance equivalent of a 66 MHz ‘486 of days gone by.

  • AntiVir doesn’t cost an arm-and-a-leg to purchase.  The comparable commercial products (from Norton and McAfee) would cost something like $60+/seat. If you have more than one or two computers to support – as I do – then this can become a seriously significant expense.

  • AntiVir doesn’t annoy you with a “subscription” based update system.
    (I don’t think this needs elaboration. . . .)

The important question is this:  Does it REALLY do the job?  Or is it just a pseudo-AV wannabe?

I got the answer to that question when I ran Avira’s AntiVir Rescue Disk on my computer.  Despite running several different versions of both Norton and McAfee on my machine at various times – all of which gave it a clean bill of health – Avira’s product found two, count ‘em, TWO root-kit droppers / worms neatly tucked away into a couple of perfectly innocent e-mail attachments.  At that point, it was up to me to go get the e-mails in question and delete them as AntiVir was reluctant to just stir around inside my Outlook mail-files.

To be perfectly fair, Norton found the installed root-kits / worms, but choked on the removal process which I had to complete manually.  It did NOT discover the source of these infections. AntiVir did.

The one “bad” point about the AntiVir program is that every time it updates, (usually once daily), it opens a pretty darn large dialog on your desktop extolling the virtues of their paid products and providing a convenient link to their on-line purchase page.  The good part of this is that it is entirely optional – you can safely dismiss the dialog and get on with your life. And I really can’t blame them for the attempted up-sell.  Even Anti-Virus developers have to eat sometime!

All in all – I rate it, (especially the rescue CD), as a definite “Must Get”.

Ubuntu Linux (http://www.ubuntu.com/)

“Ubuntu” is an ancient African philosophy meaning, (in essence), “Humanity toward humanity” or “Humanity toward others”.  While I won’t get into a philosophical discussion on ubuntu, (though there is an excellent Wikipedia article here), Ubuntu as a Linux/GNU operating system comes very close to this ideal.

They offer:
  • Ubuntu “Desktop” – designed for the “typical” desktop user with Firefox, Eudora Mail, Open Office, etc. pre-installed for you.

  • Ubuntu “Server” (Enterprise, clustering, whatever. . .) – is designed for those who wish a more server-oriented install.  It should be noted that - unlike other Linux distributions - the fancier versions, such as Enterprise, Clustering Server, etc. are - all of them - free for the taking.

    Of course, you can purchase commercial support - which might not be a bad idea in a production or mission-critical environment - but you don't have to.  There are lots of ways to get questions answered and problems solved even if your IT budget is NOT bottomless.
The installer media, (at least for the desktop version), is a “live” CD.  This means you can pop it into your machine's CD tray and run it on your PC without installing it, to see how you like it before you commit precious hard drive space to an install.

(Note that all of my observations below are based on the “desktop” version of Ubuntu.)

Ubuntu Linux has a number of characteristics that I believe make it stand above the crowd:
  • Ubuntu Linux is designed, first and foremost, to be used by people.  Note that I said “people” and not “techies”.  In support of that, Ubuntu has made great strides in the area of user experience and just plain old usability.  If you can use Windows, you can use (and install!) Ubuntu.

  • Ubuntu expands on the concept of “usability by non-techies” with a well thought-out installation process.

    In a word it is “slick” – even more so than Windows.  There are five-or-six dialogs in the installation process that basically ask you “who you are” (along with “what do you want to name your computer”), and “where to put it” on your hard drive.  The defaults offered are all reasonable and sane, choices are clearly shown, and if you really want to go behind the scenes and diddle, you can do that too.

    Starting with a stone-cold system, it takes less time to complete the Ubuntu installation dialogs, (and start the install running!), than it takes for Vista’s installer to boot and load.  This is made even sweeter because Ubuntu’s ability to correctly detect – and configure – a machine’s hardware configuration is as good as, or maybe even a tad better than, anything I’ve seen up to this point.  Unlike many other Linux installers, Ubuntu’s installer is truly “plug and play”.  You pop-in the CD, answer a few simple questions and you are on your way.

  • More important than that, Ubuntu doesn’t arrogantly assume that you want to throw away all the other operating systems on the machine.  If there’s another operating system present, Ubuntu will work hard to make itself fit in without disrupting the other system – and the Grub boot manager provides a clean boot process for all of the operating systems installed.

  • Ubuntu strives to be as completely Open Source as possible – but does not become religious or pedantic about it.  Ubuntu will cheerfully make non-open-source drivers or applications available to you – after telling you that there are either licensing restrictions that prevent it from being purely open source, or other issues that you may need to be aware of.

    Example:  Both ATI and NVIDIA have released a number of their video drivers to the Linux community – as binaries – but still retain copyright and ownership.  Ubuntu makes them available to you, but tells you that they’re not “pure” open source.  Other Linux versions, Fedora chief among them, go to great lengths to “forbid” (or even obstruct) the use of non-open-source drivers or software - despite the potential consequences to their users.

  • Because Ubuntu is based on the Tried-And-True Open Source Linux platform – it has available for quick download a HUGE library of free applications and utilities – from the simple, (roving eyeballs for your task-bar), to the complex, (Scribus, the open source replacement for Quark), to the more esoteric, (Q-draw, an open source AutoCAD replacement); it’s all there, waiting for you to find a need for it.  Since it is based on Debian and uses the equally tried-and-true “.deb” package installation process, adding applications or features is as painless as anything I’ve seen.

  • Ubuntu is about giving the user choices.  You can go this way, or that way, and both ways are just fine by them.  If you like things nice-and-simple, that’s perfectly OK.  If you want to play uber-geek and mess with the more technical aspects of Linux, that’s all there too.
The Ubuntu interface (desktop) is clean and uncluttered, with just about everything you need to get productive one or two mouse clicks away.

Their user security model is very similar to Vista’s (or is it vice-versa? ;-) ), where Ubuntu will let you do whatever you wish – until it would affect the system as a whole – then it asks you to confirm by typing in your own password.

I, for one, think that’s a great idea – rather than the classic Windows’ “everyone is Admin/root/God”, model which has been the bane of Windows users, and a boon for malware writers.  Or their “Restricted User” model, which is nearly useless.  Though Ubuntu’s system is far from bullet-proof, it goes a long way toward making it darn difficult to “accidentally” pooch your system beyond repair.

You can even run Windows apps on it, (at least in theory, I have not tried it yet), by running them inside a “Windows emulator” called Wine.

The real telling characteristic is this:  Ubuntu is the first Linux system that I would seriously consider putting on my wife’s computer, or even my mother’s, (a lady of nearly 80 years), confident that they would be able to use Ubuntu with an absolute minimum of difficulty.

Are there issues?  Of course there are.  Some portions of Ubuntu are less forgiving than others, (God help you if you accidentally set your monitor resolution or refresh rate wrong!), but this is true for any operating system out there – especially the various ‘nix systems and their near brethren.  (And I won’t even discuss the headaches Windows or Vista have given me!)

My bottom line is this: If you’ve been thinking of trying out Linux, but were afraid of all the “techie” aspects of it; go ahead, take the plunge and give Ubuntu a try.

That’s it! Now go give these a try and have a wonderful New Year!