Monthly Archives: June 2016

A Year without Windows – the hardware

When you sit in an office in Liberia working, you are faced with a multitude of problems, poor power, little or no air conditioning, bad Internet (think 3G… as long as it is not raining and when it rains, there’s no connection), and hot sticky weather mixed with salt-laden air in the capital city of Monrovia.   Perfect setup for IT equipment?

I learned a lesson from the install at the medical school, equipment corrodes here very quickly.  I also learned not to get too attached to your personal workstation.  Two of my coworkers had very expensive MAC’s stolen out of their bedrooms in a guarded apartment while they were sleeping.   One of the thefts was done by a guard.

The last thing I think about is what kind of image I want to portray.  If I show up with a $2,000 laptop what does that mean to the people I am here to help?   Does a $2,000 laptop really get my email any faster?  Do I do some kind of exotic work with super powerful software requiring hyperspeed processing?  The answer is almost always no.  So what kind of equipment do I carry (and it has to run Ubuntu really well).

I ended up picking a low end Acer Aspire V5 – it cost me $259 new.  It’s small, light, uses little power and has a pretty good processor.  What I did next was to ‘enhance’ it a bit.  I replaced the harddrive with a 500GB SSD and upgraded the ram to 16gb.


I decided to leave the WIndow OS on its own partition in case I needed to run Windows (now running Windows 10) and loaded Ubuntu 14.04 LTS.  I added a small external shell to the unit as a bit of protection plus it provides a little bit more venting when on my lap.  It also helped it survived several dops by the TSA when checking through various airports.

The Acer will run for about 8 – 10 hours on battery which is really plenty.  The power supply is pretty small and lightweight and has the added bonus of interchangable plugs so you can go from US to Euro without a separate adapter.  The WiFi chip appears to pickup and hold signals as good as anything else I have ever used.

My total investment on this unit was: $259 + SSD ($139) + ram ($69) = $467.  So I could buy three more of these and give them away to my co-workers in Liberia for the price of one high end laptop.   Yes, it has a small screen but I find that easier than a big screen to handle in a cramped economy class seat flying across the Atlantic for 10 hours.  As for power to run applications, once i replaced the hard drive and added memory, I am able to run everything including VM instances so I can test new software.

A year without MS Windows? The Operating System

Last year as I began my new job with UMass Medical School, I knew I would need to learn Linux better, much better.   To do anything requires a commitment and a lot of practice and patience.  So, I decided I would not use a Mac or Windows machine for my job.   I also decided to see if I could use only Open Source software to complete my work.  This is important given that my ‘clients’ as it were are the people in Liberia, Africa where seemingly every workstation and laptop I encountered has an unlicensed copy of MS Windows and MS Office and is also infected with every kind of virus and malware.

Well, it will be a year on July 7th and so I think a little review of what has worked, what hasn’t, and how I see moving forward.  I am going to go over my experience with each piece of the puzzle (i.e. operating system, software packages, and even hardware) over the next few postings.  I’ll try not to get too techie, but I am an IT guy after all!

OK – let’s staubunutlogort with the basics.   There are all kinds of ‘flavors’ of Linux.  Linux is the operating system.  It is like MS Windows 8,9,10 etc. or MAC’s OSX.  It is what turns the lifeless piece of hardware that is your laptop into a usable computer.  There are a lot fo ‘flavors’ of Linux and like Mac vs. Windows, people have their favorite.  For me, I just wanted something that was well supported, looked good, supported a lot of hardware and had a lot of Open Source software I could run on it.  So I chose Ubuntu Desktop for my little laptop computer.  ( Ubuntu webpage ).

Take a look at this screenshot of a typical Ubuntu Desktop.  It has a sort of familiar feel to MACs and to Windows as well.  I have found that it is not too foreign and that both Windows and MAC users can get comfortable with most of it pretty quickly.

ubuntudesktopI am still running version 14.04 although a new version is now available.  14.04 seems to be pretty stable.  Early last year I had one or two occasions where the laptop just froze.  Not sure why.  I even had a terrible time when it froze, I rebooted and my desktop disappeared.  That brings me to my first overall observation.

Ubuntu is pretty good but it still requires some investment in learning.  I was panicked when I lost the desktop all the icons were gone).  I managed to recover after a lot of Internet searches but it was still one of those “when did I do my last backup?” moments (answer is daily, plug in the USB drive and it runs the backup without me doing anything).

I’ve since tried several other ‘flavors’ of Linux including some really tiny ones for running on really old laptops and I still prefer Ubuntu.

There are also some interesting discoveries about Ubuntu that I am still learning.  Take the example of remote access from another workstation or making it work in a Windows network with shared drives.  A lot of times I had to drop into ‘terminal mode’ to really make things work better.  That’s a window that only has text interfaces, no graphical information at all.   Interesting to not both Windows and MAC have these modes as well.

SO, my summary – I like Ubuntu.  It keeps getting better and better.  It is easy enough even for a novice who want a simple experience but as always, investing a little time educating yourself is worthwhile.