Monday, 30 November 2009

* Photo Sharing with Opera Unite

I have a 0ne year old grandson called Jack. Now Jack, like many of his age in this digital world in which we live, has probably been photographed more times than there are blades of grass on my lawn.  He's been snapped by his mum, his dad, his grandparents, his uncles, his aunts, etc, etc., get the picture.  Excuse the unintended pun.

Of course the whole family wants to see these photos and share them so we don't miss a moment.  So when my daughter had asked me for the latest batch we had taken at his birthday party (yes, he had one complete with balloons, cake, candles, etc., although he would be the only one who didn't realise that it was a birthday party), I thought there must be an easier way than putting them on a flashdrive and passing them to and fro between us as we had done before.  I never seem to know whether my daughter has copied some of them already and there is always stuff on the flashdrive I don't want to delete.  So I thought I would upload the lot onto my largely unused free "Adrive" cloud storage account so she (and others in our extended family) could take what they want when they wanted.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Wrong !.  First it wouldn't accept more than 1000 photos at a time. Ok, I know it's a lot but you get 50GB of storage free and I did tell you there were a lot of photos !. So I cut it down to 700+ and started uploading. Couple of hours later, ....still uploading. After 600+ and nearly 4 hours.......failure.  Some kind of connection problem I think.  Back to square one.

Then I thought of Opera Unite.  Now Opera v10.10 had just been released which was the new Opera Browser which included Opera Unite. I run PCLinuxOS2009 so I checked my repositories and there it was, newly included. A few minutes later and it was installed and running.

Now Opera Unite is a web server that is included with the browser which in effect allows you to host files for sharing through the internet. The bits I like best about it are >

  • You don't need to know anything about setting up a web server at all; zero, zilch.
  • You enable access to only the file areas you choose
  • Access is password protected so if you give the passwords only to those you trust, only they can look at those areas
  • Photos, files and movies each require a separate module to be installed on your computer, each having a separate password
  • You can run the browser with Opera Unite (the server) enabled or disabled. If it's disabled, no-one can access your files
  • It takes only a minute or two to set this up. It's a doddle.

So I set it up so my daughter could access all of 2009 photos and videos.  Now she can pick and choose what she wants, when she wants.  If the PC isn't on or Opera Unite isn't enabled, all she has to do is text me and it's sorted.

My previous post on this blog concerned cloud computing and trusting others with your data. Well my Opera Unite is my family's "cloud", i'm responsible for security and I trust myself to secure my PC and ensure I have back-ups of all my data. 

Opera10.10 the browser is faster in my experience than Firefox 3.5.5 and the "turbo" mode can help greatly with some sluggish sites. The only thing that lets it down is lack of support for extensions and add-ons like Add-Block, LastPass, etc.  Opera Unite however is an excellent application which works faultlessly and makes up for these shortfalls and I can recommend it to anyone who needs to securely share personal files as regularly as I do.  

Saturday, 21 November 2009

* Who do you trust with your data ?!

Well, by now anyone who has an interest in the alternative operating systems to Microsoft Windows will have read the numerous reports relating to the announcement made by Google concerning their development of the "Google Chrome OS".
It seems clear that their intention is to develop an OS that is based around Google services but more importantly where applications and data will be hosted in the "cloud".
Now lets be clear just what we're talking about here.

The operating system will essentially be your Google Chrome browser and little else. Any data you need to save will be held on Google's servers somewhere in the world. Would you be happy with this arrangement ?. I expect that when you first load up the new OS or very soon thereafter, you will be asked to tick a box agreeing to their terms before you can proceed further in setting up your account. This is the bit where you will sign your digital life away to an organisation you will have to place your total trust in.

Now anyone who has any sense these days will make backups of their computer data files of some sort, be it on external hardrive, CD, DVD or flashdrive. Those who don't may pay the consequences when their hardrive crashes or the trojans and viruses wreck their system.
So those that do take the necessary precautions of making backups and running antivirus/anti-malware programs can blame no-one but themselves if things go awry but in effect they have risk assessed their personal set-up and are happy the risk is both minimal and under their control.

However those that delegate all their personal data security to unknown persons and systems elsewhere on the planet are not able to make any reasonable risk assessment of these servers security nor do they exert any control over such risk.

So if we wish to move to the computing futureworld of Google Chrome OS we must put our total and absolute trust in the Google organisation. Just as I am doing right now as I post this on the Google Blogger site.
But there is a big difference in trusting a few chosen words of text to the "cloud" and that of trusting the "cloud" to hold our personal digital photos, personal finances, letters, videos, music, etc.

Now this might all be irrelevant if as is suggested the Chrome OS will be free and open source with the code available for developers to contribute changes to. I am sure that if this is the case then someone would soon enable users to save data locally. For now we will have to content ourselves with the snippets of information released by Google and their partners as the OS development progresses.

The development of a truly secure OS free from subversion by malware would be of inestimable benefit to society, particularly if it were based on free and open software. We have only to wait and see what the real cost to our personal data security might be.

Friday, 13 November 2009

* Booting USB drives with PLoP

Very occasionally I come across a utility that I find indispensable and a couple of weeks ago was one such occasion. I was required by a client to clean a particularly bad trojan from her netbook running Windows XP. Only problem was that all attempts to boot into safemode, restore or for that matter to open up Explorer were thwarted by the trojan. This was a really bad mother which had a tight grip on her system and wouldn't let go, clearly running as one of the first processes at boot. Now sometimes it is the case that a bit of malware (lets not be too specific to cover all eventualities........) is so prelavent that only a repair install/new install will suffice. However I wanted to avoid this scenario as I would have to backup all her files externally first.

Now even if I had to do this it would necessitate the use of an external CD/DVDRW and there was no guarantee that the virus would allow this. So what I thought I would to do was create a USB flashdrive install of a LiveCD of a well known Viruschecker and boot from this. So I looked into the bios of the netbook and changed it to boot from the USB drive. But when I re-booted the netbook it just hung every time. I suspected the trojan was doing its dastardly work again !.

So I resorted to a small utility called PLoP Bootmanager v5.0. (
I will simply quote the introduction to this application from the website:

" The PLoP Boot Manager is a small program to boot different operating systems. You can boot the operating systems from harddisk, floppy, CD/DVD or from USB. You can start the boot manager from floppy, CD, network and there are many more ways to start the boot manager. You can install the boot manager on your harddisk. There is no extra partition required for the boot manager.

The PLoP Boot Manager was written by Elmar Hanlhofer. "

I will confine my description of this utility to its use in running it from the Windows Bootmanager.

This is what I did:

Using my notebook PC I downloaded the file to my USB flashdrive. Then I extracted the files plpbt.bin and plpgenbtldr.exe.
  • On the netbook I pressed F2 at start-up and selected to boot to the commandline prompt where I was able to create a folder called c:\plop.

  • Although the netbook wouldn't boot from it, it still recognised the USB drive and again through the commandline I was able to copy plpbt.bin and plpgenbtldr.exe to the c:\plop folder.

  • With the current folder as c:\plop I then then started plpgenbtldr.exe
    This program searched for the file plpbt.bin in the currrent directory and from this it generated the file plpbtldr.bin.

  • The next task was to add the appropriate line to the Windows boot menu. (Bare in mind if you try this, Windows 2000 and XP are different to Windows VISTA).

  • Using the commandline function "edit" I opened up the file c:\boot.ini and added the following to it on a separate line:

  • c:\plop\plpbtldr.bin="PLoP Boot Manager"

Now I re-booted the netbook and this time the Windows bootmanager showed (it didn't previously) with the first line being Windows XP and the second line the PLoP Boot Manager.

I selected the PLoP Boot Manager but this time I received an error message indicating the plpbt.bin file was fragmented. Evidently this file must not be fragmented and a small program contig is provided on the PLoP site to defragment this file. After downloading this file to the flashdrive on my notebook and again re-booting the netbook to a commandline prompt I patiently executed this program to defragment the file.

So now I was ready to try to boot my USB flashdrive complete with Linux based viruschecker. When I re-booted the netbook this time I booted to the PLoP program successfully and it brought up the PLoP bootscreen immediately.

I selected the "USB" option and hey presto, the USB flashdrive was accessed and my my external Linux viruschecker was up and running in a jiffy. Needless to say after an hour or so I had successfully cleared the netbook of the trojan as well as one or two other nasties and it was back to its fully working Windoze order.

My main PC is fairly old with a bios that doesn't support booting from USB so i've tried this little gem here as well now and it works a treat.

So if you haven't got USB booting capability or you run a netbook with no CD/DVDRW available I highly recommend this cracking utility. Install it on your PC and keep a bootable flashdrive with a Linux based viruschecker to hand. You never know when you might need it !.

* On-Line Banking and Linux

I have been banking on-line for a long time now. Indeed I started banking by telephone with the Co-operative Bank when they first introduced it, well before any other bank had done so in the UK. I haven't actually been to my nearest bank (which is 48 miles away) for about 15 years. No machines for cash at no cost, cheque deposits through the Post Office and of course the on-line banking for paying bills and moving money around.

Although I dual Boot PCLinuxOS with WinXP, I never use Windows for financial transactions of any sort, not even as a virtual machine within Sun'sVirtualbox. Even with firewall's up and viruschecker's/antispyware running, I don't trust my financial wellbeing to Microsoft's operating system. Why on earth would I ?. After all, the evidence is there to point to Windows being a very "leaky" system in this regard ............ but I won't labour this well worn argument further here.

What I would point out is that if you visit any high street bank's webpages and review their conditions for on-line banking, they highlight the appropriate operating system of choice to be a Microsoft Windows OS, or occasionally the Mac OS. Rarely is there a mention of Linux anywhere to be found.

Now this I find quite extraordinary in the light of the following statement issued in early October:

"UK online banking fraud losses rose 55 per cent to hit £39m for the first half of 2009, according to banking industry figures published on Tuesday (6/10/09).

The rise in banking fraud was largely blamed on more sophisticated malware-orientated tactics by cybercrooks, according to Financial Fraud Action UK (formerly the anti-fraud unit of banking payments association APACS). "

So at this rate, on-line banking fraud will hit £100m for 2009 total, an astounding figure. And in most cases the banks themselves are footing the bill for this but then of course passing the cost back to the customer with the punitive charges they levy to those who incur them.

Now perhaps I am just being stupid but might not the banks be a potential friend to linux with this much money at stake ?. If there is any group or organisation that could benefit from the adoption of Linux OS's it is surely the banks. I am sure that the likelihood of banks being able to force the use of Linux as the OS for on-line banking is negligable but perhaps more could be done by them to promote the use of Linux, if even only for on-line financial transactions.

I am no Linux expert but how about providing a "barebones" Linux OS which in the form of a LiveCD, configures your internet connection wired or wireless, and provides a basic secure browser to access your on-line banking services. If small enough this could be issued in the form of a "credit card" sized CD you could keep in your wallet along with your other cards.
Or better still, a LiveCD that allows automatic install of such a compact LinuxOS to hardrive, minimally resizing your existing Windows partition to provide room for the new OS and giving you the dual boot grub screen at start-up. When users wished to bank they could simply re-boot temporarily into their Linux partition.

Food for thought .............. what are your opinions on this matter ?.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

* Boot Windows XP in 20 secs !.

One of my greatest niggles as a regular computer user was having to wait 2 minutes or more for my system to boot. It was actually longer than that because the wireless internet connection didn't establish itself for another minute or so. Now being a repair technician I realise that 2 minutes is good compared to many of my clients but it still seems an age. And then of course you never knew whether you would then be delayed as your system applied the usual Microsoft Updates only then to ask you to re-boot to complete the installation a minute or so later !. Wonderful.

This was one of the reasons (amongst many) that pushed me to move to a Linux based operating system. Like most who try this move I was reluctant to entirely abandon Windows, after all i'd paid for it, albeit indirectly when I bought my PC; and of course there were those applications that I couldn't do without that Linux couldn't run despite the availability of Wine ( the environment to run Windows apps under Linux).

So like many I became a "dual booter" with Linux and Windows on my hardrive with the selection done from the menu displayed when turning on the PC.

Then I read about Virtualisation, ie. the ability to create a virtual PC running almost ANY operating system within the Linux host system. Virtualbox was extolled by many as the application of choice for this and so with evidently little to lose and no apparent danger to my existing setup I gave it a bash. (unintended Linux pun there.....).
After a bit of experimentation and learning I now have something I thought i'd never have. The ability to boot into a full WinXP system with two clicks of the mouse. One to run Virtualbox and one to start the WinXP "virtual machine".

How do I get up and running in 20 secs. Simple ..........whenever I close it down I save the machine state instead of powering off or closing down. Then the next time I start the WinXP virtual machine it restores the previously saved state and bingo, i'm up and running.

Furthermore, all normal Windows applications run smoothly and my Wireless connection is instant as it piggy backs on the already existing Linux host connection. After configuring shared folders (the ability to read/write to existing folders on partitions outside of the virtual machine) and enabling access to my DVDRW drive, the only thing I can't do at present is access USB ports directly.

I understand that you can if you wish similarly run the Mac OS as a virtual machine so you could have Linux, Windows and Mac OS's running alongside each other at the same time.

So if you are a dual booting Linux enthusiast I can recommend giving Virtualbox a try. You never know, you may decide to give up that Windows partition after all and leave more room for your favorite Linux OS and your data.

Friday, 6 November 2009

* How Green is your PC ?

I am naturally inclined to be sceptical, particularly where the subject may concern environmental issues but I sometimes believe a major contributor to global warming may actually be the volume of hot air those in responsible positions often spout about their organisations' environmental credentials. This especially applies to where IT is concerned.

Recently, I visited the Microsoft website and clicking on “Environmental Sustainability Dashboard” thought I was heading for a statement of MS environmental awareness, only to find I was looking at another product they wished to sell !. Quote “the Environmental Sustainability Dashboard for Microsoft Dynamics AX provides information that can help (businesses) identify opportunities for cost savings and mitigation of environmental impact.”

I wondered whether this also included the environmental impact of using their software.

And there is indeed a significant and long term impact that the use of Microsoft Windows Home and Server Editions has had on the environment which is conveniently glossed over by many. Green computing is the environmentally responsible use of computers and related resources. Such practices include the implementation of energy-efficient central processing units (CPUs), servers and peripherals as well as reduced resource consumption and proper disposal of electronic waste (e-waste).

Operating Systems – the main players

Let's examine this situation further.

  • Microsoft is the single purveyor of licenses for the Windows series of operating systems. As of Sept 30, 2008, Microsoft had 94,286 employees. World desktop share estimated 91.11% May 2008.

  • Apple Inc. are the sole developers and marketers of the Macintosh Operating System (Mac OSX) a UNIX based operating system. In Nov 2008, Apple Inc. employed approximately 32,000 people with about 16,000 of these employed in retail stores. It is estimated that approximately 1,000 employees are devoted to development of the Mac OSX alone. Desktop share estimated 4.73% May 2008.

  • (i) Red Hat is the largest contributor to the Open Source Linux operating system Kernel and as of February 29, 2008, Red Hat had more than 2,200 employees worldwide. Fedora is Red Hat's free open source Linux operating system.

(ii) Novell employed approximately 4,200 employees as of Jan 2009. They market SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop/Server and Novell Open Enterprise Server while freely issuing a Linux desktop operating system called openSUSE.

(iii) Mandriva develops a range of Linux enterprise solutions, integrated products and services for private and public-sector companies and by December 2008 had expanded to roughly 200 employees.

In addition to these corporate businesses there are in excess of 100 current distributions (flavours) of the Linux OS, nearly all developed and distributed by volunteers and individuals acting as part of their own communities.

Total desktop share for all combined distributions is estimated at <4%>

  • One further point of note: As of November 2007, Linux powered 85% of the world's most powerful supercomputers compared to Windows' 1.4%.

So much for the numbers, albeit estimated in some cases. Now let's consider the environmental differences in running these different operating systems on our PC's at home and at work.

Microsoft has established a reputation in the IT industry for developing “bloatware”, be it their operating system Windows, or Office applications, etc. It may only be extra lines of code when you get down to it, but more lines of code eventually means the need for a more powerful cpu and more memory resources, and that means more energy consumption and more carbon dioxide emissions. The scene was first set with MSDOS upon which subsequent Windows OS's were built. Too late to change now.

Windows Vista requires a minimum of a 1GHZ processor, 512MB of RAM, 32MB of graphics memory and a 20GB hard drive. Windows 7 upon its eventual release will almost certainly require the same plus a further 512MB of RAM and at least 128MB of graphics memory. The average desktop PC running Windows now requires three fans to keep it cool; one for the power supply, one for the processor and one for the graphics board ! No change here then when many will once again find that unless they want their computer to run slower than before, any upgrade to their Windows version will require an expensive upgrade to their hardware.

Of course this is exacerbated in industry and government when IT departments are told their current version of Windows will no longer be supported. My last employer had to replace over 300 PC's and purchase a similar number of new Windows licenses to cover these. But was this really necessary ?.

Most of the time, at work and at home, we put very little processing demand upon our computers. Our common tasks - writing letters and emails, accounting spreadsheets, surfing the Web, watching videos, playing CD's/DVD's—require very little processing power. Only graphic designers, avid gamers and research scientists, to name a few, may actually need expensive powerful processors and huge memory. In most cases their needs can simply be met by the addition of supplementary graphics cards. For many years now, the PC manufacturing industry has promoted progressively more powerful desktops driven by the necessity to meet the requirements of Microsoft Windows and supported by component and peripheral manufacturers riding the profit bandwagon.

The Green Solution

I am writing this article on a modest 3 year old Celeron desktop computer running a Linux operating system. The operating system and all the software were entirely free to download and install. The computer boots up at least twice as fast as it did with Windows XP and most of the applications run faster. It never crashes, I never get viruses or malware, I don't need to run a virus-checker (although I do run a firewall) and my cpu is rarely pressed.

Linux is the people’s operating system and the Green operating system and nearly all development has taken place in the absence of huge Microsoft-sized marketing budgets. Open source developers consider it a challenge to compile software that runs as efficiently as possible and consequently open source runs cooler and quicker and uses fewer resources.

Companies and individuals get their open source operating system via free download, which means that packaging waste is eliminated. The only material consumed is the CD/DVD used to copy the files to.

Open source software documentation is almost always on-line or distributed inside the program and almost never printed into an actual book. Many distributions have their own detailed Wikipedia entries, regularly updated with comprehensive how-to's. Few trees die and little petroleum by-products are used in getting the desktop Linux OS up and running.

Open source software is developed communally by individuals working in harmony, not by corporate entities, which means the developers are writing software wherever they're located. In their lunch hours, in evenings, weekends, holidays and, for some whose employment may be in the IT field, at work. No special offices are required, no corporate headquarters to maintain, no shareholders to satisfy, no capital and revenue budgets to expense.

Think of the carbon footprint of 94,286 Microsoft employees.

A report from the U.K. Office of Government Commerce in March 2007 about Open Source Software Trials in Government, found that servers running Linux could combat the rising problem of e-waste because they lasted up to twice as long as machines running Windows.

The fact is that if National and local government organisations, education authorities, police, etc., moved to using open source Linux operating systems and software, much of their IT infrastructure would not require changing for some considerable period. When servers needed replacing you could use recycled or resurrected equipment instead of spending large sums on a new proprietary equipment.

In tests run by in September 2008, running multiple power consumption tests using Windows Server 2008 Enterprise Edition, Red Hat's Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5.1 and SUSE Enterprise Linux 10 SP1 on four, popular 1U server machines, testing pointed to Linux as the winner with margins that topped out at over 12% lower. This 12% would go a long way towards the UK governments carbon emission targets for 2020.

The emergence in 2008 of the netbook using the latest Intel Atom/VIA Nano/ARM Sparrow processors, smaller screens and flash storage media has given new impetus to the need for more efficient operating systems such as Linux. Windows XP and Vista simply have the greatest of difficulty in running on these types of machines, although manufacturers and Microsoft are as usual bending over backwards in trying. Netbook manufacturer Acer points out that Linux has a quicker boot time and can extend the battery life of tiny Netbooks like the Aspire One. The most efficient air cooled PC's (excluding screens) running Linux may draw as little as 25 Watts power compared to 400 Watts for the average desktop of 2009.

Could this be the year that Linux breaks into mainstream computing ?. The combined attraction of the latest low cost, low power netbooks, corporate spending constraints in the world recession and the exponential rise in potential virus exposure to Windows users, could well sound the early death knell for Microsoft and a real beginning for “Green Computing” . However, those thinking that environmental concerns will primarily drive the take-up of Linux need to think again. Analysts at the IDC Research firm in Taipei summed it up by stating, “the engineers designing computers understand that if they want to cut costs, the only way to do so is to get rid of Microsoft”.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

* Got Another Virus ?.........There is an alternative

So your PC running Windows is slowing up again, taking ages to start-up and web pages seem to load slowly. Perhaps you've noticed that your hard drive light is flashing a lot, even when you're doing nothing; or that there seems to be a lot of activity with your internet connection even though you're not accessing web pages. Maybe your PC just locks up and needs re-booting or sometimes just turns off and re-boots on its own. Unfortunately these are the classic signs of viral activity.

Now you do have a fully effective firewall running don't you ?. And of course your virus-checker is always on and has automatic updates enabled, doesn't it ?. And you never open up emails from those you can't identify with, do you ?. What about that Xmas e-card that was doing the rounds last month ?. What about those music tracks on Limewire the grandson asked to download recently. Of course he knew to scan them with the virus-checker before he played them, ........didn't he ?.

You're starting to worry.

And then your virus-checker flashes up a warning saying you have the “W32.motherofallviruses.trojan” or some such message and that it couldn't delete or quarantine it. So you go to the virus-checker website to read about this particular virus and it tells you that its probably logged all your keystrokes for the last month and sent your banking passwords, social security details, Tesco shopping habits, tax details, etc, to an organised crime syndicate in Lithuania. Your heart races as you imagine your credit card maxed-out and bank accounts drained by some sleaze-ball currently sunning himself on the sandy shores of some Black Sea resort.

Now your r-e-a-l-l-y worried.

Your virus-checker website says they have a “removal” tool” for the “W32.motherofallviruses.trojan” so you download it and run it, reboot and think that's that sorted that. But your machine's still slow, still grinding away and the hard drive light and modem lights still seem to flash a lot. And then your virus-checker flashes a warning telling you that you have been infected with another “W32.motherofallviruses.trojan” and that it couldn't delete or quarantine it !. The real truth is........... it never actually left.

This is the situation being faced by so many people every day. Getting rid of a virus can be akin to trying to remove feathers from hands liberally coated with molasses. The Sophos “a to z of computer security threats” now runs to 53 pages. That's 53 pages on all the potential threats to your computer and how you might avoid them. It doesn't include how to get rid of them.

A retired friend of my wife recently encountered a similar situation to the above scenario and not for the first time. Her security and antivirus software (a mainstream off-the-shelf package which shall remain nameless) pointed her to contact the vendor support service on-line, which duly she did. When they told her that they would remove the virus on-line but the fee would be £69.99 she told them to hold and rang me for advice. I offered to rid her of it for free and a day later she had a clean machine safe to use.

In doing so I removed a further four viruses undetected by her mainstream antivirus program, one of which was active and the other three were hidden within music mp3 files and would have been activated as soon as the files were played !. I will not explain here how I successfully removed these except to say it was time consuming, required considerable technical know-how and did take about four hours overall. An important point to note here is that even if you run an updated security package, this does not guarantee you are safe from viruses, trojans and other malicious content if you are running a Microsoft Windows operating system.

In this technological age we are ever more reliant upon our computers. Many of us bank on-line, buy presents, do our weekly household shopping, read newspapers, listen or watch radio and television programmes, etc, etc. For those of us who are elderly, retired, disabled and otherwise less mobile, home computing can be a great boon, once the fear of technology has been dispelled.

However there is this new and ever increasing fear that what we do on-line might not be secure after all.

But there is a safe alternative out there for those willing to give it a try...........

LINUX – the alternative to Microsoft Windows and the Apple Macintosh

Linux is a desktop computer operating system (OS) developed by Linus Torvaulds from the original UNIX OS that many mainframe computers have utilised for several years. This article is being typed on a computer running a Linux OS. There is almost nothing a Windows OS computer can do that a Linux OS cannot also do. I can surf the net, play music, play DVD's, copy CD's, email, print, scan, download and edit photos from my digital cameras, use a webcam, use Skype for phone and video calls; the list is endless. And all secure in the knowledge that I am extremely unlikely to ever be affected by any malicious viruses, trojans and other malware.

In April 2008, Symantec, vendors of Norton Antivirus, stated that approximately 711,000 viruses had been identified in the previous 12 months alone , an increase of 468% on the previous year !. The fact is that most viruses, worms, trojans and malware are written for Windows, but they can’t even run on Linux. At the last estimate there were fewer than 900 viruses “in the wild” that could effect Linux based systems. Those Linux viruses that exist today are nothing more than technical curiosities; the reality is that there is no real viable Linux virus in the wild. Most Linux users never use an anti-virus program and never get infected.

Trying Linux out

Questions and answers:

So how do I go about trying Linux rather than Windows as my PC operating system ?.

Well, for a start, unlike Windows, with many Linux distributions (distros) available you can try them out without changing anything on your existing set-up by using what is called a “LiveCD”. You simply pop the CD into your CD/DVDROM, re-boot the computer, and if it is configured to boot from CD/DVDROM before hard-drive, the entire Linux operating system is copied into the computer's memory and runs from there. Granted, this is usually slower than it would be if it were installed on hard-drive but otherwise everything functions as it would do normally. Most LiveCD's then subsequently allow you to fully install to your hard-drive if you wish from within the LiveCD system. This way you know what to expect from Linux and know it works on your computer before you install.

But is it similar to Windows ?.

The desktop is fully configurable and some distros have “schemes” that enable the user, with a couple of clicks on a menu, to be able to set up a Windows like look and feel.

Where do I get a LiveCD from and how much does it cost ?.

There are many distros of Linux because of the free and open nature of the software source code. Communities of developers from all works of life have got together to build their own versions of the Linux OS, each group developing their own “flavour” with its own identity and target user group. However, there are a leading group of about a dozen distros of which two or three can be recommended for ease of use to the new user who is trying out for the first time. CD's can normally be purchased for a nominal sum, usually under £5 from the particular distribution's website. However, most people with a broadband internet connection prefer to download the LiveCD.ISO file for free from the same website and burn it to a CD/DVD with their current Windows computer and software. Comprehensive instructions are usually available on the website. Yes, it really is totally free but if you like it and stay with it, most distro communities readily accept donations towards their website running costs.

What if I install to hard-drive and then change my mind and wish to go back to Windows ?.

If you do a full Linux install to hard-drive then you will lose Windows and all existing applications and data as you will be creating a new and different fully formatted filesystem.

When changing operating systems the golden rule should always be:

  1. Back up all your data files to CD's, DVD's or another separate hard-drive. Don't forget your emails which may be in a different area.

  2. Make sure you have your original Windows installation disk so you can re-install Windows from scratch if you need to.

If you take these steps you will be able to go back to what you had before.

An alternative for those who are more technically competent with computers is to dual boot Windows and Linux on the same hard-drive. This then gives the best of both worlds where upon at boot-up, you are presented with a short menu allowing you to select which operating system you want at that time. This can be very useful for those who have software that has no alternative in Linux, although these are few and far between.

For those who have such an issue, there is also a Linux application called WINE that will allow the running of many Windows programs from within Linux. I use this for five such applications and they run perfectly normally.

What support is there if something goes wrong ?

The Linux community is enormous. Distribution websites each have their own support forums in which enthusiasts can pose and answer questions. It is most unusual for those who post issues not to have a reply from someone within the community very quickly, particularly if it is one of the more popular distros. Many of those who respond are system specialists, code writers and employees in the IT industry who enjoy helping those who wish to use their particular distro. Again, the popular distros have documentation on-line and available for download to read at leisure.

Some final tips for those thinking of taking the plunge and trying Linux out:

  1. Google Linux and read up about it. Visit some of the main distro help forums.

  2. If you're not brave enough to install Linux onto your shiny expensive PC but have an old computer lying in that box room somewhere, dig it out, plug in your screen, mouse and keyboard and install it on that. Don't be surprised if it turns out to run faster and smoother than your main box as Linux is far more efficient in CPU and memory usage than Windows and doesn't need fast processors or huge memory to run well. You'll always have a virus free internet capable PC to rely upon for when your Windows PC crashes or is ridden with viruses !.

  3. Get your Linux PC set up just as you like it. If you don't like the set up as it comes from the LiveCD, configure the background, screen-saver, colour scheme, fonts, cursor, menus, panels, icons, etc., until it is just like you want it. The choices are huge compared to Windows. If the distro has available a MakeLiveCD application (and most do) run this and produce your own LiveCD. If ever you spoil your system in some way and can't get it back to how it was, run your personal LiveCD and install to hard-drive and hey presto, within 20 – 25 minutes you're back just as you were including all and every application you had ever installed. Try doing that in Windows !.

Recommended Linux Distributions for “newbies”:

  • PCLinuxOS2009 – my personal choice, easy to set up, very like Windows in look and feel.

  • Ubuntu 9.10 - the most mainstream and popular of all Linux OS's

  • Linux Mint 7.0

Recommended start point Websites: Categorises, ranks and reviews all known Linux distributions. Lists all Linux distros with the LiveCD function.

Copyright 5th November, 2009, Phil Wadsworth