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Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows

January 21, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Networking nightmare

With Linux working like a charm on the T41, it was time to get the machine connected to my home network, which uses a Linksys WRT160N wireless router. Connecting to my home network itself, and then the Internet, was exceptionally easy -- there's a bar across the top of the Ubuntu desktop with a wireless icon. I clicked the icon, chose my home network and got in with ease.

That's when my troubles began. I have a half-dozen PCs on my home network, three of them running Vista, one running Windows Home Server, one running XP and one dual-boot Vista/XP machine. I've set up my Windows machines so that I can browse through each machine's hard disk, with password protection. (The exception is the Windows Home Server, which I can only access through the WHS client or via remote access, and which I primarily use for daily backups.)

Because of the vagaries of Windows Vista and Windows XP networking, I have two workgroups on my network -- WORKGROUP for Vista machines and MSHOME for XP machines. The dual-boot Vista/XP machine shows up in WORKGROUP when it boots to Vista, and MSHOME when it boots to XP. In addition, I have a Lexmark E120 network printer, which is connected directly to the network.

Networking with Ubuntu was flaky, to put it mildly. When I browsed the network, it showed only some of the PCs, and those it showed weren't accessible. Worse yet, PCs would sometimes show up and then mysteriously disappear. In addition, my Windows PCs couldn't see my Ubuntu machine, and I couldn't print from the Ubuntu machine to my Lexmark printer; the Ubuntu machine could see it, but not print to it.

For help, I turned to the pros -- Computerworld editor in chief Scot Finnie and Computerworld blogger and Linux guru Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, both of whom have successfully used Linux and Windows machines on the same networks. Their first advice: Install Samba, an open-source application designed to get Linux to work with Windows machines on a network.

Living with Linux
Networking with the Ubuntu system was flaky.
Click to view larger image

Unfortunately, it only partially solved the problem. From my Linux machine, I now could clearly see the two workgroups on my network, and could see each machine within each workgroup. However, when I browsed the Windows Vista machines, I saw nothing -- directories were blank. When I browsed the XP machines, though, I could access their entire hard disks. My Vista machines could see my Ubuntu machine, but couldn't browse through it. And I still couldn't print to my Lexmark printer.

Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols both had plenty of good advice for me, which involved editing the Registry key LmCompatibilityLevel, changing authentication settings, making sure NetBIOS was turned on in the Vista machines and several other actions.

None of them, unfortunately, worked. As of this date, Ubuntu continues to work fine with my XP machines, but can't talk to the Vista ones. And I still can't print to the Lexmark printer. Does this mean that if you try networking a Ubuntu machine on your home network you'll run into the same problems? Not necessarily. Many people, including both Finnie and Vaughan-Nichols, have been able to get Linux machines to work properly with Windows machines on a network. I may well be the exception.

(And by the way, if anyone out there has advice on how to fix my Vista-Ubuntu networking problems, leave a note below, and I'll check it out.)

A first look at the interface

It was time to get to work. I first spent time getting used to the Ubuntu interface. By default, Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop, which at first glance appears spare and bare-bones to old-time Windows users. Where, for example, are all the desktop icons? They were nowhere to be seen, although I could place icons there easily enough.

I didn't need those icons, though, because a very useful taskbar across the top of the screen offered quick access to launching programs, browsing the hard disk and network, and exploring the system and changing system preferences. The top-right part of the taskbar is much like Windows' notification area, and shows the current state of the network connection, the date and time, and has a notification area for alerts about software updates.

The Trash bin, which works like Windows' Recycle Bin, is in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen. And there's a nifty virtual desktops feature built into the interface, so I can create separate desktops -- one for work and one for home, for example -- and then switch between them by clicking the proper icon at the bottom of the screen.

There's no Control Panel, thankfully, and no need for one. The System menu item on the taskbar includes Preferences and Administration submenus, and from each of those, I was able to very quickly change any preferences, and customize and peer into the system.

All in all, I found the desktop familiar, uncluttered and easier to use than the Windows desktop. The interface doesn't feature as much eye-candy as Vista, and is somewhat klunkier-looking. But I got used to that quickly. All in all, it's a very clean, efficient interface. And remember, Ubuntu runs on much sparer hardware than Vista; there's no way Vista could have run well on the T41.



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