MEPIS Talks 1

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Note: this podcast was created 3/25/2007, and you can download the original audio file here.


Introductions by Warren and Matt

Warren: Okay, I've started recording and I guess this is the first edition of the, yet to be named, MEPIS podcast.

Matt: Yeah, I've put several things out there on my blog to ask for input about what we should call it. Haven't gotten a whole lot that I really think is good yet, even mine I don't think is very good. Hopefully we'll get a name for this thing soon.

Warren: Well, umm, yeah. I guess it doesn't matter all that much. So, we're doing this..umm...,everybody, so that who ever is interested will be able to get some additional information about MEPIS and what's going on at MEPIS and what the plans are for the future and maybe how things work in MEPIS. I'm hoping that over time we'll figure out how to expand this thing so that, for people who really are interested, they can learn in detail how things work in MEPIS and in Linux in general. And what some of the issues are for getting certain things to work and what we really have to consider when we build a new release. And why somethings are possible and other things aren't possible.

I'm hoping that for people that really want to go a long ways with this that there will be an opportunity to learn a lot. And maybe we can eventually even figure how to have this be a bit of an interactive kind of environment.

Matt: Well, I think one of the first things we should really do is actually start with some introductions so that people out there can associate a name with a voice. (laughter)

Warren: Gee, there's a thought! (laughter)

Matt: You can go ahead first.

Warren: Well, I'm Warren Woodford, the one called Warren from time to time. Who started MEPIS partially out of..., I guess a lot of people have heard of this by now, I started partially out of a frustration with the other distros, but I guess also I harbored a desire to do something like this on my own someday. I've been involved with computers for a very, very, very, very, very, very long time and I've done a lot of things. It's not like this was a pet idea or project. It just became an opportunity and looked like it really was a possible thing to do, so I started MEPIS..... Gosh, I guess it was over four years ago now. Originally as an experiment just to see if I could build something on my own. And if I could add some of my own unique ideas to it and make something that other people could be interested in. I guess if nobody had been interested I would have just walked away and done something else.

Matt: Well, there's a lot of people interested in it.

I'll do my introduction now.

My name's Matt Melbert. I got involved with the MEPIS project by going to one and only one MorLUG meeting, which is the Morgantown Linux Users Group. Which is a whole another..., probably, episode in it's self about our beliefs on that. (laughter) But anyway, I met Warren there and I just got so much out of Linux personally that I felt I just needed to contribute something back.

So I met Warren when he was giving a presentation in Morgantown and I really liked what I saw in MEPIS. I knew it had some rough edges and things needed to be ironed out, but I saw the potential there and I really wanted to help out and see what I could do with it. So that's how I got involved, I believe that I got involved in sometime around like in April of 2004 I believe, so I wasn't there quite from the beginning but I was there not to long after. The ???????????????????????? a little less than a year I think, Warren.

Warren: Huh, yeah, actually I know it was May of 2004. I know because it was right after I'd hurt my back...and I remember when that happened. (laughter) So, yeah, MEPIS went public, so to speak, during the summer of 2003 and I'd been working on it since November of 2002. At first just puttering and experimenting and looking at what other people were doing and how they were doing it. I was really happy to have you show up because I was pretty much doing things on my own. I was getting help from people who really liked MEPIS, who were out there in the world but there wasn't anybody local involved. It's really nice to have somebody local to work with.

Matt: It was good to being able to get involved and things like that as well........

What's new in MEPIS 6.5.

Umm..., being our first show we're definitely a little rough around the edges here too. So what do we want to do from here? Do we want to talk about what's coming up with our latest release with 6.5?

Warren: Well, I guess that's almost a ????????????? at this point. I mean it's a good subject I guess people are going to be interested that, not just like maybe schedule or anything but also whats different in 6.5........ I suppose some people listening, MEPIS is brand new some have been around for a while. Sort of the history of this is that when I started I built MEPIS on top or or by using the software packages out of a particular source or repository called Debian, where Debian is a project that's been around a very long time, I guess over.... I really don't know exactly how long and I apologize to the Debian people for not knowing their history that well but I'm sure that it's been over ten years that Debian has been around. Debian was one of the first versions of Linux and that the people involved in Debian are pretty idealistic and have high goals but they don't particularly care that much about whether, I think, I don't want to put words into their mouth, but I think their more concerned about technical excellence than they are about broad use of what they've built. They are building things because they're trying to do things the way that they think is right and apply good engineering standards and so on.

And I thought that what they have was absolutely great but that it wasn't necessarily easy for non-technical people to use it, but that it would be great if something could be build using those components that would just be easy for most other people to use. Which is why I did that. So originally MEPIS was based on Debian, but Debian doesn't adhere strongly to a schedule. They're really like and engineering department without any goals in mind other than engineering excellence. They take how ever long they take, they improve things continuously. And I found that it was very difficult to build something using those components because they were always changing.

Matt: Right.

Warren: My favorite metaphor for all of this is that, building a version of Linux they way the we do with MEPIS is like building a custom car, a high performance car like a Lotus or a Shelby or something like that. Where you go into the Ford warehouse and pull out a bunch of parts and that makes up 90% of your really high performance vehicle but your always having to be concerned about, well did somebody over in engineering change this part or that part and does it work with all the other parts the way it used to. And with Debian that was an ongoing problem because they weren't concerned about that kind of compatibility or stability at any moment in time. So we were always spending our time just trying to keep everything fitted together to work.

And other people, I suppose saw that there was a problem with this from the point of view of giving Linux to everybody. So an alternative project was started about two years ago, I guess it was, again I don't know exactly when and I apologize for not knowing the history but the Ubuntu project was started to be closely allied with the Debian project but to take these ever changing components and create more stable versions of them. Versions that you could count on sticking around for a long time. And that would make it possible to build something like a MEPIS. So in that regard you could think of Ubuntu as being like an engineering department on top of and R&D department that was taking these ever changing components and converting them into more standardized type components and building prototypes. From that point of view you could think of Ubuntu as being like a model, a prototype of what something could be, would be like if you built it with all these parts. I'm not meaning to minimize what Ubuntu is because lots of people can just take that and go with it and it will be fine for them. For us, it meant that we could shift over to using the Ubuntu parts and build MEPIS and we didn't have to worry about the parts changing all the time.

Matt: Right, one of our big problems that we had prior to switching to Ubuntu was we would go ahead and put a release out or getting really close to a release and a major component changing with in the Debian pool and there would be no real way for us to work around that except either include it or our users are going to have a tough time actually doing an update soon after they go ahead and install their version of MEPIS. So that was one of our big problems that we had that I remember. Where it would be within like a week or so of release time and a new version of KDE coming out or something to that effect and it just really throwing the whole schedule off.

Actually created a lot of work for you, to ironing out all the bugs in the new application that's in the pool.

So the 6.5 release represents the idea that we had for how to address what everybody wants. The 6 series of releases which was, of course we had 6.0 last summer, you can just run with that. You can use it and it will be stable and things won't get broken, unless you get envious of somebody who's running something newer and you grab that something from some third party source. That kind of adds a problem and again it like, well, the car metaphor. It's like looking at your neighbor, who back in the old days you tinker with cars and they tinkers with cars and they decided to put in a modified carburetor and you don't have one. But his engine isn't quite the same as yours, you put in the modified carburetor and now your engine doesn't work quite right.

Or I guess, these days one of those computer controls for automatically adjusting your fuel mixture control for the carburetor or what ever. You go buy something like that and it not made for your car....,or for MEPIS you get it for MEPIS and it's not made for MEPIS you can start having problems.


So, with 6.5 we looked at what could we update from 6.0 to make it more current for people that want the latest and greatest and exciting new technologies that are out there. And we put a lot of those things in, and interestingly we found, once we started doing that there was just more and more that we could do of that sort that would make more and more users happy with the newer stuff. We still have people who use the original 6.0 and are very happy with it. But we have other people that want to experiment or that want to try out that new thing that they heard about like the 3D desktop software called Beryl that allows MEPIS users and other Linux users to have some really good bragging rights compared to people using Vista. We can have that now.

But to do that you have to upgrade. And by upgrading we mean download some new packages from our package pools to bring your system up to the point that it can run that software. You don't have to reinstall MEPIS but you can incrementally add these new things if you want these new things.

So 6.5 provides a number of new things. It does provide the ability to run the 3D desktop. Now that 3D software is experimental so it doesn't work for everybody. You have to have a graphics chip in your computer that is capable of doing true 3D. If your computer can do 3D games then it should be able to do a 3D desktop. I guess you've had some experience, Matt, with what chips work and what ones don't.

Matt: Yeah, I've actually had pretty good experience. I have pretty much all three of the major ones out there. I have a desktop that has an Nvidia card and using the actual proprietary Nvidia driver, I've had very good luck with Beryl on that and I believe you have too. I've also had good luck with..., right now I have my laptop open and this laptop has an ATI chip. I will have to say that ?????????????the proprietary fglrx or ATI driver with it, you actually have to just use the generic ATI driver from Xorg and that works with Beryl just fine. I'm actually running it right now and it look really good.

The third one I have, I have an Intel chip set on my work laptop which I'm actually running...., I'm fortune enough that I can run MEPIS on my work laptop as well. I have had no trouble with it at work...,actually I won't say that. I've had some minor issues but I don't know how much they are related to Beryl or anything else. I think it's...Because we have some other laptops too, they're IBM Thinkpads and when ever you try to bring them out of sleep mode sometimes they just freeze on you. But I've seen that in both Windows and Linux so I don't know if it needs a BIOS update or something like that to help fix that issue.

So I've been running Beryl on all three desktops for... wow. How long ago did we get Beryl in there... about a month ago or so?

Warren: Yeah, it's been running I think for a good month now.

Matt: And I've had good success with it....with all of that for running about a month. I was actually quite surprised with Beryl. I was one of the people in the camp that thought that it was just eye candy and not going to bring much value to your desktop experience. But I actually found that there's a lot of things that I use on a daily basis now that I really don't want to get rid of. One of those things is the..showing all of your applications at the same time. Kind of like the Mac Expose feature were you just go down to a corner and all of your apps can be seen very easily, then you just click on the one that you want to run and it comes to the forefront. I like that one a lot. The Show Desktop feature I like a lot.

And all in all it just makes things look a little bit nicer. You've got drop shadows that look very nice. I'm not crazy in to the transparencies so I don't use that a whole lot. But it is nice having a little bit here and there, it just kind of pretties things up. So ??????? there are some definite productivity things in there that I feel are important. So.....

Warren: Well, I guess my experience has been a little more mixed and more indicative of the kind of things might happen for people. My primary development machine is a Mac Pro which is running a.., for everybody to know this, my Mac Pro is running....Which by the way the Mac Pro is a big server level machine with two Intel Dou Xeon processors for a total of four processors. It has a medium level Nvidia graphics card and I have it triple booting OSX and MEPIS 32 bit and MEPIS 64 bit and I do software development in all three environments. I also have a VMware set up so that I can run Windows sandboxed in VMware but I don't have much occasion to use that at this time. But with that machine...., with it Beryl works flawlessly. That particular combination of hardware, no problems what so ever with Beryl.

On the other hand I have a.... maybe a three year old HP laptop with an Intel chip set, I guess it's like an Intel 865 graphic chip. Beryl runs fine in there as well but it's not very fast. By the way on the Mac Pro well you might think it's going to be fast just because of the processors but like I said it also has just a medium level current generation, like a 7300 level Nvidia graphic card, it runs great. It's just really fast.

I have a laptop, a Lenovo top end ThinkPad. I guess mine was still when they called then an IBM. It's a Lenovo ThinkPad but with the IBM name on it, a Z60M. That has an ATI graphics, I find that on that one sometimes it will freeze. That machine works just great except with Beryl. With Beryl it runs most of the time but if I'm doing a lot of multimedia tests in particular, going around to different sites with videos and trying different types of video media playing in Firefox under MEPIS, eventually I'll run it to something that will cause Firefox to freeze.

Matt: Yeah, Ive actually noticed that too, where Firefox will freeze occasionally on my ATI chip set as well.

Warren: Yeah, okay. Other than that I have about a four year old Toshiba laptop with a really old Nvidia 3D graphics chip in it, I think it's an MX440.

Matt: ??????????? or something like that.

Warren: Yeah, that's it. That one Beryl works but it doesn't display the wallpaper, (laughter) it displays black where the wallpaper is supposed to be. Otherwise it works fine. From what I can tell the older Nvidia chips, some of them just have little oddities about them. Some little thing about the 3D won't work but everything else will be fine.

But anyway, that's a long time talking about one thing that we've done for 6.5. I consider Beryl to be experimental, it's something you can play with. If it works for you, more power to you. If you can then go impress all your friends who are trying to use the latest hardware that they paid a fortune for with Vista to get good 3D performance. You can show off and maybe show them the error of their ways a little bit. But it's not going to work for everybody so don't get your hopes too too high about whether you'll be able to run Beryl or not. I think maybe for 60, 70, or 80% of people it's working fine for right now. But for other people there's still problems with it. It's a new technology, it's still an experimental technology.

WPA and Wireless in general

Now, otherwise, new for 6.5. We've done a lot of work on wireless compatibility. Working with the latest chip sets. In particular, being able to support WPA wireless encryption out of the box. I'm guessing, Matt, you would have somethings to say about that from a security point of view.

Matt: Oh yes. definitely. WEP is probably one of the easiest things to crack so I would recommend, anybody out there who's still running WEP to reconsider and start running WPA. It's still not the absolute best but it's still going to be a whole lot more secure than trying to run WEP.

Actually you have WPA working in the MEPIS Networking Assistant now as well, which is nice that we have that option. It's also working in the Knetwork Manager if you decide to select the automatic discovery for your wireless, which is the way I prefer to run things since I'm constantly going back and forth between three or four different access points. For me using Knetwork Manager just makes sense. But for people who just use their laptop at home or something like that, I think that the actual MEPIS Network Assistant is a little bit more stable than Knetwork Manager is for that type of set up. It seems to connect a little bit quicker using it.

Warren: Is Knetwork Manager working fine at the office?

Matt: Yes it is, it's works fine at my office using WPA. I also have it running..... I will tell you this about Knetwork Manager. For some reason it seems that when I have an Atheros wireless chip set, it seems like the signal is not quite as strong at some other locations. So in my office where I set pretty close to the network adapter I have no trouble with it at all. It's solid all day. But when I use it at home and things like that, when I'm further away and there are more walls in between me and the access point I find that using WPA there is something in it that's degrading the signal. It tends to drop out a little bit more than just regular WEP does unfortunately. Other than that, I think it works fine. You'll find that happening though too in Windows or anything, that type of thing will happen.

Warren: Now are you using that Intel 3945 chip?

Matt: Yes, I am. I'm using the Intel 3945 chip. We had some trouble getting that working for this beta series. Working with me and some other people I know you were able to, we figure out what was going on. We were able to include and updated driver for.... actually we pulled, you pulled all of the Intel drivers out of the kernel and you're now compiling all of those by hand, correct?

Warren: Ummm. Well, yeah, actually what I did was for wireless not just for Intel but primarily for Intel. The way the kernel gets built, if you just grab kernel source from somewhere all the drivers are already there and you can choose whether you want them to be prebuilt into the kernel or whether you want them to load as needed, but they all come out of the source code that came with that kernel. The problem with that over time for MEPIS, and for any other distro, is that new versions of chips come out and those new versions are not necessarily compatible with the older drivers. So for the MEPIS kernel we've taken the Intel drivers, primarily, out of the original kernel source and get the driver source directly from Intel and build compatible Debian kernel driver packages for those drivers....and.....umm,.....well actually, is that the way I did those drivers or did I....No, actually for those drivers. Some drivers I do that. I take them out and make them into separate packages but because of the way the Intel drivers integrate in the kernel I simply updated the kernel drivers in the kernel source. So there still in they're but it's much newer versions and versions that are much better tested and that actually are certified by Intel as being what they call stable versions as opposed to experimental versions. The versions that we originally got with the kernel source from Ubuntu Dapper were experimental versions of some of those drivers.

Now, in doing that it also meant that we needed to update a couple external packages including that manages WPA access. At the same time I updated the external Atheros driver to the new generation Atheros driver which works much better as well. So we have a coordinated set of wireless drivers that all work with each....It's not that the drivers need to work together but they need to work with the wireless tools. So the wireless tools have been updated and the drivers have been updated to match. So the matched set works pretty well. And that's what made it possible for the Intel 3945 to work with WPA but at the same time updating the WPA supplicant package, we were able to get the latest Atheros driver to work with well with WPA also.

Matt: Right, you also did some work as well to with....sorry, drawing a blank here....umm.. with ndiswrapper, I know, for a particular chip set of ???????? as well and you introduced actually here in RC3 for MEPIS too.

Warren: Actually I think it was in RC2....1 or 2 but, yeah. What came up at the last minute was that... There are wireless chips out there for which there are either no drivers in Linux or the Linux drivers are playing catch up trying to be up to date because there isn't any documentation available from the original manufacturer about these chips and people are having to figure out what to do by trial and error and so on and so forth. One of the big changes that happened this past summer was that Broadcom, a major manufacturer of wireless chips, came out with a new series of chips that conform to a newer standard that's called version4 that effects the Windows drivers. And I suppose but I don't know but I'm guessing that this was related to getting those drivers ready for Vista. So those newer drivers were incompatible with a program called ndiswrapper which is available in Linux and which makes it possible to use Microsoft drivers, I don't mean Microsoft like from Microsoft but drivers that were originally made for Windows by the chip manufactures. It enables those drivers to be used with Linux and that way you don't have to wait until a driver is ready on the Linux side.

Matt: Just to clarify, this is only for wireless as well. This won't work for any driver, this is just wireless card drivers.

Warren: Right, right. It primarily applies to Broadcom because Broadcom has been one of the companies that has, basically, shunned Linux. So eventually a number of developers got together, I guess, I don't know maybe it started with one person but there are developers who are creating a driver for Broadcom chips, unofficially. And they are doing a darn good job of it but their driver doesn't work with the chips that require a version4 type driver. So all of the new Broadcom cards, primarily for laptops, that were manufactured using these new, what are called Broadcom Airforce chips, that were released during the summer and started showing up in laptops this winter. Those chips and those cards can not be supported by the released version of the Linux driver. So until a new version of that driver is available, which is being worked on, and there are experimental versions of that driver that exist for the very newest software that being developed in the Linux world. Until that's ready the only way you can use the newer Broadcom chips with Linux is with the ndiswrapper and a new version of the Broadcom driver.

So, this was added into 6.5 very late in the game so to speak and I'm very sorry to say that it caused some disruption for people who already had Broadcom working the old way with the older drivers. But it was really necessary so that people buying new Dell's and HP's and Acer laptops that use this new Broadcom chip, now they can be supported and buy MEPIS and they can use MEPIS and have their wireless work. And for me personally it means that the Broadcom wireless in my Airport 2 Extreme card in my MacPro works. Which means that is will also work in any other Mac laptop, Win-tel type laptop that's using the Airport Extreme 2 card. And I get confused about which laptops, now with Apple going with Intel hardware now it's like a miniature version of the whole hardware issue of the PC world. You have Apple computers that are using pure Intel Centrino chip sets. You have others that are using Intel processors but they're using ATI or Nvidia graphics instead of Intel graphics. You have computers that using Intel wireless, you have some that are using Atheros wireless and you have some that are still using Broadcom wireless. So, now it's just like everybody else, you've got some of everything and we have to support it all. (laughter) And in fact we do support all of those things.

So, anyway, yeah at this point in time. If you have a Broadcom wireless, if you have one of the newer generation. I think it's somewhere a round a bcm4318 chip or newer, somewhere along about there, you absolutely positively have to have a version4 type driver and for now that means using the latest version of ndiswrapper, which we have in 6.5. Along with the latest version of the Broadcom Windows driver. If you have an older Broadcom chip you can use the Linux driver that's being done by the Linux side team, the unofficial driver that doesn't require the ndiswrapper. So that was a big change at the last minute. As far as I can tell it works fine, it certainly works with my Broadcom. And I'm using the same driver that is used by Dell which should be the same driver that would work absolutely perfect with HP or Acer.

Matt: Yeah, that's great. Unfortunately we don't have hardware also to test all of this stuff. We have hardware to test a good bit of stuff, we do run the gambit with the type of hardware we have but obliviously we can't test everything in house. And so a lot of the stuff we do is on pace of, well, this is supposed to work this way.

Warren: Yeah, over time I have bought a lot of hardware because I need to keep up to date and I keep the old hardware around often. But I think what people really don't understand is the variety of hardware that one really needs to have to do thorough testing or particularly testing when someone has a problem. So, yeah, we can only do a certain amount of testing with the hardware that we have. It would be nice if people gave us hardware, the manufactures don't do that. I've at time enjoyed a fairly good relationship with Intel but Intel still won't give me any hardware to test with. That led to a problem that went on for six months for us. Where MEPIS would not boot with an Asus P5 type motherboard because it had a new Intel chip set and they had chosen to add a compatibility chip from a company called JMicron for the cdrom and we didn't work with that CD-ROM simply because we couldn't get a hold of the hardware and I didn't want to spend $1000.00 for the hardware to test that. And the people who wanted it to work, nobody would send us any hardware. Eventually the cost of the hardware went down and in preparation for 6.5, I was able to buy a, actually, a returned motherboard from Newegg, one that had been an open box returned by somebody, for $80.00, and stick it in one of the machines here that we already had. I actually ended up spending about $400.00 to do this but I was able to set up a test environment and in half an hour I had the problem solved. I guess this is one of those things where I just wish we could get some more cooperation out of hardware vendors. Or even if we have people out there using MEPIS and depending on it but not paying for it, that maybe they would consider sending us some hardware once in a while when we need hardware to test these things.

Matt: That is one thing we could always use more of, is some hardware to do some more testing.

Warren: Anyway, to try to bring an end to all of this. 6.5 has support for 3D, the Beryl desktop. Along the way we updated the windowing system, which is called Xwindows to the latest release or a least a newer release version called 7.1, I don't thing 7.2 is final yet. Which meant that we also got better basic graphic support for Intel in particular and maybe for some of the other types of graphics chips. We also put a lot of work into improving wireless support and WPA security in wireless. So that's a lot better than it was. We updated........

MEPIS Assistants

Matt: Yeah, I was going to say that the whole MEPIS, MEPIS Assistants have evolved and updated and changed as well. That they're not all in one big......they weren't really one big item before but they're kind of broken out into their own section now.

Contributing to MEPIS

To Be Continued:

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