All Change on the Desktop (Again)

My ThinkPad and What I Do With It

By way of preamble, the computer I use on a daily basis is a Lenovo ThinkPad Z61m 9451NTM. Whilst this is not the computer that I hoped it would be when I bought it – it has serious overheating issues and seems to have drifted away from the quality of IBM ThinkPads since going over to the new manufacturer – it is quite a powerful machine better considered as a desktop replacement rather than something that one can use on one’s lap. (If the weight doesn’t crush your knees, the overheating will burn them. And other bits.)

At the moment, this machine is running Gentoo Linux with my own customised LAMP stack and the fast, minimal, Fluxbox as my desktop environment. This machine runs all the services that my web servers run plus the GUI desktop environment.

I am not the most demanding user in that I do not deal with graphics, games or anything that requires much in the way of computing power. However, as a developer I run VMware Workstation so that I can test with web user agents running on Windows XP (not to mention running iTunes.) This machine came as standard with 0.5Gb of RAM; I bought an extra 1.0Gb when I got it but had to upgrade to 3Gb to be able to run VMWare guest operating systems reliably and without dragging down performance.

The ThinkPad is normally run dual-screen with xinerama using an Asus VW223U 22″ widescreen monitor as my primary, with the laptop display as the secondary. Input is via a Microsoft (a company I usually avoid!) Natural (ergonomic/split) keyboard and a Logitech TrackMan Marble optical trackball. It should be noted that I actually have to have 2 config files for the X server – one for single and one for dual monitor. Running without the external monitor in dual mode makes the keyboard/internal monitor unusable; I now have a special startx script to ask which configuration I am running before starting the X server.

The supplied 80Gb hard disc proved to be inadequate for my demands (virtual machines can take up a lot of room) after about 6 months. The 160Gb 5400rpm disc I put in as a replacement – copying the old disc straight over – was not the wisest of investments as I have now, a further 18 months down the track, had to acquire a 320Gb 7200rpm disc for my next move. (Note that both replacement discs are Hitachi TravelStars as per the original equipment, to provide design continuity.)

This machine is my “everything” machine. It is the machine I work with, the machine I use for electronic design and would also be the machine I use as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) were it not for serious limitations of the Gentoo Linux distribution currently installed.

Greetings to Deb and Ian

Having used Unix-derived operating systems for some 22 years, when I first started working for myself in 2001, I was very quick to dump Windows as my desktop operating system and move to Linux. The distribution in question was SuSE as I had experience with this from my previous life, using it on test servers based on 486DX4-100 machines. For a while I was satisified with SuSE but every upgrade caused more problems and, back in 2006, with my old Toshiba was suffering from loss of a memory socket, became totally unusable. It was then that I migrated to Gentoo Linux.

Gentoo has served me well over the last two-and-a-bit years, both on the desktop and on my web servers. However, it appears that the AMD64 version of Gentoo is far less well maintained than it could be and the maintenance burden of running ebuilds on 3 servers plus the laptop has become unviable. In addition to that, I am unable to run and/or build various audio applications such as Rosegarden, Qtractor, Audacity and others. With the restriction in working (or able to use computer) hours that my health situation enforces on me, I have decided that it is time to go back to binary Linux distributions. I have sworn off RPM-based for life (I ran a RedHat web server once as well as my SuSE boxes) – never, ever, again. Whilst the popular choice of Linux distribution (other than RedHat and the now Novell SuSE) would appear to be Ubuntu, this distribution does not appeal to me as it appears to be aimed (and good on ’em for doing it) at the non-technical market.

My next move will be to Debian, an old, established distribution and that from which the popular Ubuntu is derived.

How to Migrate Without Inconvenience

Many of the tools that I use I wrote are one-offs. They were never designed to work on other machines or outside of my current working environment. My LAMP stack is customised, but I have few scripts (especially for the Perl part) that would enable me to re-install it quickly on a new machine or hard disc.

Migration from Gentoo to Debian by starting with a clean disc could take upwards of a week – time I cannot afford.

My solution, that which I have just started within the last couple of weeks, is to do the migration in stages. This is possible due to the fact that my ThinkPad is able to boot from an external, USB-connected, hard disc. The vendor from whom I obtained the new 320Gb disc happened to be clearing external USB to SATA disc enclosures for $5 AUD a piece. My new disc is mounted in one of these so I am able to dual-boot between my day-to-day environment and the fledgling Debian environment. I even have an entry in the Grub menu of my internal disc to allow me to boot the external one.

Issues So Far

I have only encountered three issues so far with the migration progress:

  1. If I boot from the external disc, I can’t get Grub to boot anything – either the internal or external disc. I can only guess that for some reason the disc IDs are different when booting thus.
  2. Time. I simply don’t have enough at the moment to devote to this work. However, because I can do it bit-by-bit, this is not a significant issue.
  3. Last but not least, the afore-mentioned over-heating issue is the main problem. The only way to get this machine to work – other than in the depths of Winter – is to use a kernel that has the IBM ACPI module and tools and to start the fan running at full speed as soon as boot is complete. As things stand, I think I will have to build an appropriate kernel whilst booted into my regular environment, copy it to the new disc and try from there. Either that or pull the thing apart and hard-wire the fan.

The Future

Once I have a working system and have copied everything across, I will move the external hard disc into the laptop. I will then build myself a realtime kernel and see if I can’t get those audio applications working.

Due to the lack of portability of the this ThinkPad – or at least the inconvenience of portability – I have decided to move to a Netbook for use elsewhere in the house. This will not be an Eeeeeeeeeeeeee or any such beast but an elderly and very slimline ThinkPad (a real one, from IBM.) Lacking any removable media devices or even USB, this machine does have a PCMCIA slot so that I can have WIFI access. I plan to replace the 4Gb hard disc with an adapter and a Compact Flash device (might have to get the soldering iron out if I can’t buy a suitable adapter) and re-stuff the battery.

This little wonder will probably be running the Slackware Linux distribution as I have had success with this before on old hardware. It is a really nice (and light) machine – I look forward to its rejuvanation.

Note: if anyone can suggest a light-weight web browser (user agent) that runs well on a low-resourced system (Flash and other plugins NOT required), please let me know.

Update 1

I have attempted to install my Gentoo kernel onto the Debian disc, but it won’t boot properly.  Now installing the “official” way but booted into Gentoo and then chroot’ed to the mounted Debian disc.  This allows me to apt-get everything I want without having to actually boot into Debian.