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GNU/Linux at UNT?

By Duane Gustavus, UNIX Research Analyst

The progress of UNIX at UNT has been of special interest to me because it is the only computing environment I use, and that has been the case for more years than I like to admit now. Observing GNU/Linux growth has been especially entertaining since when I first came to CITC (then called the Computing Center), my boss declared NO LINUX; if folks had to have UNIX, we would buy Solaris for them. 

Despite this inauspicious beginning, my current boss is an ardent Linux supporter, and I have been installing GNU/Linux on research and desktop systems for some time now, indeed the CITC research cluster, which just completed it's third year of operation, has always used GNU/Linux.

Recently, Oracle announced that RedHat Linux would be their preferred development platform (the EIS project to replace the venerable campus mainframe is Oracle based), and Novell purchased Suse (one of the more popular commercial distributions of Linux) announcing that GNU/Linux would be their future development platform as well. Could these corporations whose products comprise the backbone of administrative computing at UNT be on to something? Will we soon be awash in GNU/Linux systems?

Recent developments

Recent events in the Linux world have been changing attitudes, and I don't mean the SCO farce.  Now that companies like Novell and IBM have a Linux strategy in place, they are beginning to wax lyrical about it; I have actually seen prime-time television ads featuring Linux! This is the USA where some argue it is unpatriotic to embrace a technology that is not profiteered by a large corporation, but now there are large corporations selling free software (if the oxymoronic nature of that last bit screams out to you for explication, please see www.fsf.org/philosophy/philosophy.html)!  If you are a UNT GNU/Linux user still hiding in the closet, I think you can come out now.

In contradistinction to standard commercial software practices, there are many distributions of GNU/Linux to choose from, and there always seems to be room for more!  It's sort of like the difference between malls here (where the same stores and merchandise are in pretty much all of them) and markets in  México (which are full of locally produced goods so even small ones are fun to visit because you never know what you will find). 

Some GNU/Linux distributions may have professional support (i.e. people who are paid to help you), while for others you will have to depend on informal help, or maybe go to the Internet. You may even get a locally produced version, in which case you will know the author personally! Community support via the Internet is, of course, in the best tradition of GNU/Linux, but now businesses will be happy to provide you with support if you provide them with money. Here are a few "bocaditos" to give the flavor of current GNU/Linux mercado at UNT.

Debian

Debian is the GNU/Linux distribution with the largest installed base among non-commercial distributions. The Debian community is international in scale, open source by philosophy, and non-profit in orientation. Because Debian has the reputation of being difficult to install, the Unix Services Group of the CITC has developed an installer which makes it easy to build a secure Debian system. In addition, they maintain a mirror for campus access to make it simple for you to keep your Debian system up-to-date; for off-campus update sites, check www.debian.org for a mirror list. For more information on current and upcoming Debian GNU/Linux services available from the Unix Services Group (USG), check at usg.unt.edu.

RedHat

In a previous Benchmarks Online article, I explained how to use a utility named autorpm to keep your RedHat Linux system current in terms of patches. Since that article was published, RedHat has changed license and distribution policies, and by the end of April 2004, there will be no new updates from RedHat which autorpm can access. If you configured your system to take advantage of this service, you should be aware that no future updates will be available. In other words, while autorpm will still run, your system will not get any updates, and will therefore become continually less current and perhaps more vulnerable. The licensing changes by RedHat are incompatible with my use of GNU/Linux on research systems, so I am moving to Debian where updates are free.  If, however, you are interested in staying with RedHat, there is an upgrade path available to you.

CITC resources

CITC has purchased a number of licenses for RedHat Enterprise Linux. The Unix Services Group is managing RedHat licenses and providing a campus update server.  You may request a RedHat license through your Distributed Computing Support Manager (at this time it has not been determined if the license fee will be passed on to users). When your system is converted to the RedHat Enterprise Edition, it will be configured to update using the local RedHat proxy server. You will not be able to use this facility without a license (part of the new RedHat contract).

In addition, the CITC Unix Services Group has taken up the banner of "tier two" support for at least one commercial GNU/Linux distribution (RedHat Enterprise Linux). I believe this means that your Distributed Computing Support Manager can get support for RedHat Enterprise Linux from the USG. Each distributed support area retains the right to make their own decision about GNU/Linux support, of course, so you must petition your Distributed Computing Support Manager for this service instead of going directly to the Unix Services Group yourself.

CSE Resources

If you have or want an older version of RedHat GNU/Linux that predates the license changes and is therefore not constrained in terms of redistribution, Dr. Steve Tate of the new School of Engineering's Computer Science (CSE) department maintains a software server that is just what you are looking for. Dr. Tate, a long time user and contributor to the Linux project, heads up the Computer Privacy and Security Lab in CSE, and provides this software server as a service to the UNT community. There are network installable versions of RedHat from 7.2 through the 9.0, with Fedora coming along soon.  Find out more from http://cops.csci.unt.edu/software/oses.html.

CSE is also the home of the Network Research Lab (NRL) headed by Dr. Armin Mikler. The NRL built and maintains a Debian GNU/Linux cluster both for research projects and to provide experience in this form of computing environment to CSE students. Recent and current NRL projects cover computing in areas as diverse as forest modeling, mobile agents and epidemiological models.

United/Suse/Novell GNU/Linux

We are just beginning to hear about United/Suse/Novell GNU/Linux. Evaluation copies are being distributed, but it is not yet clear if there is a role for this distribution as a supported Novell product on the UNT campus. Only time and Novell will determine the potential here. If you are currently a Suse GNU/Linux user, this may bear watching.

"Live CD" versions of GNU/Linux

There are several "Live CD" versions of GNU/Linux now available. The best known is named KNOPPIX. A live CD version means that it runs entirely from CD (i.e. no hard disk is required, though if one is available it can optionally be used).

The value of a GNU/Linux CD is that you can pop it in any PC that will boot from CD, and be running in a few minutes without installing anything. This is a great way to play with GNU/Linux on a computer that has a different operating system on the hard disk. 

There are also disadvantages to a CD-based installation. The most obvious is that you are limited in terms of saving work (if there is a floppy or hard disk, you can use them, but if not, you have to copy work you want to save to some other place on the net). Performance also suffers because CDs are much slower than hard disks, but you might be surprised at how useful it can be for web surfing, exploring the beguiling world of free software or as a rescue tool when you have hard disk problems.

Another interesting use for a live CD is to "remaster" it. Because the software is free, you can remove some of the content and replace it with your own!  Not only is this legal, sites like knoppix.org include instructions on how to do this and even collections of interesting remasters. For instance, if you have a class or research project with both compute and documentation components, you could put them on a remaster which could then be booted almost anyplace, and would contain the code, documentation and all the tools to demonstrate your work. Furthermore, because it is free software, you can copy and distribute as many of your remasters as you like.

In ACS, we have experimented with remastering KNOPPIX to create a custom CD for our short course on learning LaTeX. Even if you don't have LaTeX on your PC at home, you can reproduce the environment used in the mini-course by simply rebooting with this CD. Our initial results are very encouraging, and we plan to experiment more with this technology.

UNT faculty projects

Dr. Angela Wilson, Chemistry

If GNU/Linux Beowulf clusters (a group of systems organized for compute intensive processing) seem intriguing to you, the work of Dr. Angela Wilson's chemistry research group will be of interest. Two students in Dr. Wilson's group built a cluster from surplus PCs during the winter break of the 2002/2003 academic year as a learning exercise. They started with six compute nodes and have added more as funds and/or surplus equipment became available. Their cluster is now up to twenty nodes, and is used regularly for both class and research work. In the summer, they use the cluster for a "hands-on seminar" where other chemistry students can gain experience in cluster building and computing. Dr. Wilson considers this invaluable experience for students poised to enter a career in computational chemistry.

Dr. Patrick Brandt, Political Science

Dr. Patrick Brandt of the Political Science department is presenting a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference this month on the use of Monte Carlo simulation to examine the properties of hypothesis tests in model selection.  The Monte Carlo experiment work was done in the R language (open source of course) on the CITC GNU/Linux research cluster last summer and fall. This summer's computing program will be to estimate Bayesian time series models for the forecasting of international conflicts, an NSF sponsored project. Dr. Brandt also uses GNU/Linux for his personal desktop.

Dr. William E. Moen, School of Library and Information Sciences

Dr. William E. Moen of the School of Library and Information Sciences is directing projects to maximize the usefulness of resources provided by the Library of Texas initiative. Dr. Moen and his research team are using the MySQL database engine on GNU/Linux systems to support the metasearch application for searching library catalogs and commercial databases, and to analyze transaction log files associated with the metasearch application.

A Texas Library Directory Database in MySQL allows customization and personalization of the metasearch interface by providing information to the application about geographic locations of libraries and collection strengths of those libraries. A PHP-based log analysis tool enables automatic reporting of usage of the metasearch application and interacts with the directory database to indicate individual library usage of resources. These open source applications provide cost-efficient and effective approaches for data management and reporting requirements.

UNT Institute of Applied Sciences

We must all be concerned about our environment and the long-term effects of some of our short-term decisions. A joint project between the UNT Institute of Applied Sciences and the City of Denton provides near real-time data collection and publication of local water and air quality as well as ultra-violet radiation. The data is gathered from remote sensors and stored in a database on a Debian GNU/Linux server. The software for collecting and publishing the data was developed primarily by graduate students under the direction of UNT faculty researchers. The results can be seen at http://www.ecoplex.unt.edu (yes, that's another GNU/Linux system). Informed decisions demand access to real data, and this site provides data about your corner of our world.

In conclusion

These items are far from comprehensive in terms of identifying GNU/Linux users and projects at UNT. The bias towards reporting faculty research projects simply reflects my job responsibilities (faculty research computing support). Administrative computing applications such as the Internet email gateway, spam filtering, EagleMail, ftp services and student Web pages are also provided by GNU/Linux systems.  Desktop GNU/Linux systems are becoming more common and should benefit greatly from organized professional support. In sum, there has never been a better time to check out GNU/Linux at UNT!