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To Ubuntu or not to Ubuntu

Why Ubuntu?
One of the less pleasant aspects of my "part time but in reality fully time career" in the not-for-profit sector is to make decisions about things like how long to keep computer equipment. Realistically in an organisation with many computers, you have to have a policy. There was a time when we kept our PCs forever or until they basically packed in – but that time is thankfully long gone. The potential downtime, in an age where people rely utterly on their laptops, makes it essential to have an end-of-life policy.

And so it was that some time ago my IT Committee and I decided that we did not want to be involved in repairs and being saddled with staff or volunteer downtime and set the life of a laptop at 3 years. All laptops were to be purchased with a 3-year on-site warranty and that would be the end of that.

Although in a recession we’re being a little more flexible right now, the fact still remains that we get a constant trickles of laptops coming back in past their end of life – and this is on-going of course.  Ideally they’d all be old and worn away and so no-one would feel guilty about having them smashed up…and data securely wiped in the way a fly’s memory is wiped by your car windscreen. but in practice, some laptops get more use than others… and it has plagued me for years that we simply have a blanket policy to send them all off to be broken up – something agreed upon years ago in a somewhat different financial climate of course. The problem, or one of them – is Windows itself, the other problem is data.

Licensing Models
To explain, our licencing model for the software does not allow giving the computers back to their previous "owners" or indeed anyone else and up to now, though the hobbyist might just put an OEM Windows disk onto machines to resurrect them (usually involving some setup time), that really doesn’t work in a larger organisation or with a large number of machines – there are licencing issues and the slight matter of TIME – and so we’ve been at a loss for a solution as to how to make some use of the better defunct machines, ANYTHING rather than the wasteful process of sending them off for destruction. As well as the operating system there is the issue of confidential information in user files.

If you’ve ever tried erasing this stuff you’ll find it’s often not as simple as it looks and it is time-consuming. What is needed is a complete wipe – which of course makes the computer pretty useless.

And so it was that after some discussion I managed to get other directors to agree that it was not ESSENTIAL to destroy them IF we could find a better solution – and that perhaps, in some cases, people could request to KEEP their old machines. This of course does not get around any business issues of using out of warranty laptops – but I simply felt that it was a crime to smash all of these up when at least some would provide pleasure for their previous owners or find some other non-critical use in the organisation itself… perhaps to drive DASHBOARDS or other scenarios where failure would not bring the house down.

That’s fine – but that didn’t get around the problem of protecting corporate information OR solving the licencing issue – not that is – until now.

Emerging Alternative?
Every now and then I take a look at Linux to see how it’s coming along and I usually end up giving up and promising myself I’ll have another look in a year. Either the installation is simply too time consuming (and that is incredibly important in this case because "someone" has to do the resurrecting and we’re not here for the fun of it) or the end product simply isn’t worth it in a "Windows" world.

Installing Ubuntu
With that background, I recently went off to the Ubuntu website to get their latest creation (Ubuntu 12 is an open source operating system along the lines of Windows but free and not entirely compatible – but in recent years a lot of the Apps available for that operating system have been improving to the point where they can co-exist in a primarily Windows world). I downloaded an ISO file and made myself a DVD.  This was weeks ago and as it happens we had a returned machine come in to play with. I put the laptop into setup and told it to boot from CD, inserted the disk and after maybe 15 minutes I found myself with a working Ubuntu setup complete with Open Office.

I have to say… it really did work well and I promised myself I’d spend some more time on this… and so it was one evening that I found myself in the office with a Dell Latitude XT machine ready to try another install… and that’s where it all went wrong…  the laptop didn’t have a CD/DVD.

At that time I was faced with an unusual situation of being in a 3-day meeting-fest yet being alone at the hotel for the night – I wasn’t particularly hungry and decided that rather than go out eating alone, I’d spend the entire evening getting to grips with this issue of updating old laptops. The session was a complete success and so I’m documenting what I did for anyone who cares to follow.

The Solution
Clearly then a good solution would be to have everything one needs on a USB memory stick to simply plug into an old laptop, press a couple of buttons and hey presto – a sparkly "new" machine free of the original software and so after some research I came up with a solution.

Why a memory stick? Well, they are robust and fast and cheap. a 2Gbyte bottom end stick is fine. I ended up at this site and downloaded the Universal USB Installer. After hunting around for a couple of 2GB USB Memory sticks, I ran the above software on my laptop and I was asked which version of Linux I wanted to install. The first option was a desktop version of Ubuntu I was not even aware was out – version 12.04 – turns out this is new and VERY much improved (though not perfect but read on). A tick-box offered to download the ISO image for me and so I accepted that. A mater of minutes later I was asked which drive my USB memory stick was attached to – and that was it – within a minute I had a working USB Ubuntu installer stick.  I made a few copies.

Speedy Installation
The Dell Inspiron XT in it’s time was quite a machine – with swivel touch-screen – a precursor to the tablets of today this machine was not to be sneezed at – but how would it fare with Ubuntu – I didn’t for a moment imagine the touch-screen would still work – not to mention Bluetooth, WIFI and all the other features the machine provides. Surely this would at the very least take some manual intervention and a time-consuming search for drivers  – which would knock this project on the hear immediately because the whole thing has to be done by predominantly non-technical staff in no time at all, for cost reasons.

The reality was very different to what I was expecting… here, step by step is what happened…

  • Time 00:00 – Rebooted the laptop, pressed F" for setup and selected BOOT FROM USB.
  • Time 00:01 – Plugged in the USB stick, rebooted.
  • Time 00:02 – I was asked (in a graphical interface) if I was in the UK and would I like to download FLASH – I said yes.
  • Time 00:03 – the laptop amazingly knew all about the WIFI and asked me for the password for our network.
  • Time 00:05 – Did I want to install Ubuntu alongside Windows or overwrite – I chose the latter and the software indicated it would wipe the existing partitions,start from scratch, format the disk and install Ubuntu – I would lose all data… I said yes.
  • Time 00:07 – I was shown a map with London preselected – I confirmed UK keyboard
  • Time 00:08 – Would I supply a user name, PC name and password and did I want to auto boot. I supplied the details and confirmed.

Office Software
At that point the laptop amazingly went off and got all the software it needed from the web. I went off to answer some emails and by the time I’d done that, I had a complete, working laptop – including the touch-screen, WIFI, Bluetooth – in face everything just WORKED. The installation included replacements for Microsoft WORK and POWERPOINT and more called Libre Office.  But what about media?

I plugged in one of my USB PC pocket drive containing my movies, music and pictures – Ubuntu read this no problem but when I tried to run a movie I was warned about missing codecs… was this going to be the first problem?

Multimedia
At home, rather than Microsoft Media Centre, I use a popular and free media centre called XBMC – a really powerful spin-off from what was originally "X-BOX Media Centre" available for Windows, Apple TV and… as it turns out, Linux.  The software installation pack on Ubuntu is REALLY easy to use so off I went to install (from a menu) XBMS and VLC (another favourite media player which I recommend to everyone to use).

5 minutes later I had a complete working XBMC that ran all of my media flawlessly. The new ribbon interface on Ubuntu 12.04 works a treat and after a little exploration I realised I had a complete working computer even including an Internet Radio program (RythmBox Music Player) capable of satisfying the need for a basic work machine AND home media system.

Fluke Installation?
Wary that this might have been just a fluke I then took an even older Dell computer, a really clapped-out old rattler and repeated the same procedure. Although this took longer, the installation went just as well and again, everything just “worked” – this was a completely different model and by this time I’d gotten it down to just a couple of minutes of my actual time involved. This really does look like a nice solution for re-use of old machines without breaching copyright or letting confidential materials loose. Of course one could argue that a good engineer might resurrect the original information, just as they do on CSI – the reality – highly unlikely as much of it as much of it will have been over-written by the new software and the operating systems are just not compatible at that level. Unless the information is of such a nature as to be highly sensitive, worth investigating a lot of time and effort to recover, I don’t believe this method of re-using old kit represents a corporate threat.

Corporate Email
One of my big gripes about Linux has always been it’s main email reader, Thunderbird. It’s inability to handle email systems such as Microsoft Exchange has always been a deal-breaker for me. All change… a little background program (free) called DAVMAIL allows Thunderbird to handle corporate email, calendars and contacts. I’m not yet convinced it works as well as Outlook – but like Firefox there are many plug-ins and I’m just waiting for a weekend to try out things like scheduled email and even mail-merge email.

Other Goodies
Up to now, most of the utilities I’ve installed via the “Apple App Store” type installation have been winners, there’s a simple video editor (sadly with no sound editing), Gimp (superb image editor), Blogilo (blog writer) and of course VLC, DropBox and other essentials I use every day in Windows – all of these are available in Ubuntu.

Overall impression
I’m impressed. Make no mistake this is NOT Windows 7 with Microsoft Office-  but as an alternative to binning half-decent laptops because they are out of date this seems to me to be a wonderful solution requiring (once you have the USB sticks) no technical expertise and very little time – just WIFI and a bench to leave the laptop to update itself. I could see a line of these quietly sitting being resurrected – at virtually no cost.

Next stop
A tin of compressed air to blow out the fan (old laptops tend to get clogged with dust helping them heat up and lowering reliability) and to clean up the keyboard. One laptop better off… for now. If someone gets a year or two good use out of this I’ll be more than happy.

Caveats
I tested several machines and in no case would external monitors work properly – either the resolution was wrong or some issue – so some work is needed there but by now someone will be onto this.

Summary
This blog provides the link to get the free software to resurrect old computers. There’s no guarantee that any of this works (and I’m not an advice service). Armed with nothing more than a USB memory stick, old laptop and Internet connection, if you’re lucky within half an hour you could have a sparkly new installation of Ubuntu on what might otherwise have been a fairly useless old machine. No guarantees – from here you’re on your own. I certainly intend to develop this further to make best use of older tech rather than simply consign it all to the bin. Though some old laptops are simply not worth it and will rightly be scrapped, every now and then someone’s machine that has been looked after is worthy and by the look of it capable of giving the world another few years of service thanks to open-source (and generally but not always free) software.

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