Both my desktop and my laptop started working more slowly a few weeks ago. This indicated that something about the operating system (some version of Ubuntu Linux) changed in a bad way. Or, perhaps, since the slowness was mostly noticed in the web browser, the newer version of Firefox was somehow borked. It turns out that the latter is true to some extent because the developers of Firefox left Linux out in the cold with hardware acceleration (and despite the excuses for that I’m still annoyed … had the same issues applied to, say Windows, they would not have left Windows out in the cold). But that is a digression. It turns out that the cause was related to something I had installed that was related to the system. This little problem has been solved, but it brings up another issue, which has also been addressed on the blog Linux in Exile. This is what I wanted to talk about.

First, the small problem: Ubuntu One. If you install Ubuntu One (and with newer versions of Ubunutu, it may be installed for you) you get some nifty features. File storage space in the cloud, access to a music store, and a desktop-level integration with your social networking stuff are among them. However, you also get these processes including Ubuntu One itself and gwibber and something having to do with couches (a bookmark coordination tool). These processes are bullies. They will demand your computer’s attention when you first start using it after the desktop is running to the extent that on a smaller RAM or slower processor device you might as well go get a cup of coffee because you’re not doing squat for several minutes. Later, they will periodically slow down your system and make it freeze for several seconds at a time.

I use my computer for writing in a text editor. That’s right… I said TEXT editor, not word processor. And, I use the web. Yes, of course, I use all sorts of other software now and then, but mostly just these functions. So, I might turn my computer on, open up an instance of emacs, write a few thousand words, save it, and turn the computer off.

When I do that, I do NOT, under ANY circumstances, EVER want my fingers to be typing ahead of the letters appearing on the page. I’ve got over one gigawhatevers of processor power, dual processors many gigabytes of ram, a fast hard drive, and a lean and mean operating system (Linux) and I’m using at TEXT EDITOR. Therefore, if the system chokes and slows down enough when the ONLY thing I’m doing is typing on a text editor with NO OTHER SOFTWARE other than that related to the system running, then a major bad thing has happened. How could it possibly be that this could happen?

And, it started happening.

So, I did a little searching on the web and inspection of running processes using top, and discovered that guibber, the couch thingie, and a Ubuntu One client, all conspiring with each other, had destroyed the functionality of my laptop to the point where it was, well, very frustrating. My desktop was not as badly affected.

So, Ubuntu One got zeroed out, uninstalled, erased. It is now an ex-application.

I’m very happy with Dropbox as a cloudy storage space, though I’d be willing to swap to an equivilant system that was cheaper or dealt better with security. But whatever that system is, it can’t destroy the functionality of my computer. Dropbox does, in fact, bully its way into the process fray and slow things down now and then, yet manages to take its time syncing files at times. Recently, a small file took an entire day to get around to transferring from my laptop to my desktop, using the LAN (which was fully functioning). Nonetheless, it does not do as much damage as the very disappointing Ubuntu One. (If you are reading this even a month or so after I wrote it, do re-investigate Ubuntu One. It HAS to improve. I assume it will.)

But all of that is detail. There is a larger point here, or should I say, a more pragmatic project, more forward looking than mere ranting.

As I had noted, Linux in Exile is addressing this issue. Noting the flexibility of Linux, Linux in Exile addresses the issue of a home-made DIY version of Chromebook. If you don’t know what Chromebook is or get why one would home-make this, check out Linux in Exile’s post on the topic.

Something like this would work very well for my laptop. My ideal system would work like this: A minimal install with a minimalistic window manager creates two workspaces, each with one window filling the screen. No toolbars. One workspaces has a highly flexible functional tabbed browser (like Google Chrome, but may be Firefox) and the other has an instance of window-style emacs (which also has tabs, etc). Emacs has a directory management system built in. A more elaborate system would have a third window with a file manager and a fourth window with a terminal.

So, we have this pair of questions: How much savings does one achieve by eliminating the ability to have arbitrary windows of variable size and mobility (“windowing”), but retaining the ability to make ONE window (Linux in Exile’s solution); and how much savings does one achieve by eliminating windowing but creating, automatically, a fixed, small number of windows with specific processes running in them?

And, would it be possible to have a simple configuration file that allows one to determine how many screens/desktops (one window with one app each) there will be on boot-up and what will be in them?

A second possibility would be to use a terminal without a windows manager for most functions (text editing, file management) but run a browser in a windows manager. This, I think, would limit cross-application functionality (i.e., a clipboard) unless one did some fancy hacking.

So, how do we do this?

Please feel free to discuss this below, but it may be more useful to continue the discussion on LIE, where it has already started, and where we will have the expertise of Mr. Exile himself who has started messing around with this idea.

(And yes, I totally get that the obvious solution is to use emacs as the browser … but for various reasons we will not be doing that.)

Comments

  1. #1 uqbar
    May 21, 2011

    Hmmmm . . . I’m a longtime Ubuntu user. As I write this, I have several windows open, including Firefox, Virtualbox running yet another copy of Ubuntu, etc. I’m also using UbuntuOne. This is all on Ubuntu 10.04. I have not experienced the type of slowdown you are seeing; if it was in fact an UbuntuOne problem, perhaps it has already been fixed, or maybe it was for some reason specific to your installation. Did you consider using “nice” to lower the priority of the processes in question (or increase the priority for EMACS)?

    I have avoided DropBox because of its proprietary nature; the recent DropBox issues with “yes, we can in fact read your encrypted files” gives me pause – not only that they can do it, but also that DropBox was misleading about that fact.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    May 21, 2011

    I know I’m not the only person having this problem, and I know it is current, because the internet told me. The problem is mainly on my laptop. And, it is mainly when first starting up. It takes several minutes before my computer is functional.

    Since I don’t actually use Ubuntu One (I tried it, didn’t like it …. yet) the best way to solve the problem was to eliminate it, though I did consider nicing it’s ass. That probably would have worked.

    I’m not sure why my this affects certain computers more than others. And, according to what I read on the intertubes, it is mainly couchdb with gwibber being the second offender.

  3. #3 Alisdair
    May 21, 2011

    I haven’t run into that particular one, but ….

    After a long time using Ubuntu (since about 2006) next time I upgrade I’m going to switch away to something less annoying. For a while now Ubuntu has gone for style over substance, and accumulated bugs that affect me, faster than the old ones have been fixed. I’d rather just have an operating system that operates.

    (Of course, I may find that it wasn’t Ubuntu’s fault and desktop Linux in general is going downhill ….)

  4. #4 Alisdair
    May 21, 2011

    p.s. I don’t think eliminating windowing as you suggest would save much by way of resources, or at least, not much more than you would save by going from GNOME or KDE to something lightweight (XFCE,IceWM,Sawfish etc.).

    The shortest path from where you are to your concept would be to switch from vanilla Ubuntu to Xubuntu (which uses XFCE), then use startup commands to open the applications you want fullscreen on your virtual desktops.

    You can configure the menu/panel whatevers to hide themselves, and the windows will have minimal chrome in fullscreen mode. Not quite your concept, but probably close enough to see if you’ll be able to live with it ….

    If you want to go further and actually get rid of window decorations etc. entirely, take a look at the Ratpoison window manager:

    http://www.nongnu.org/ratpoison/

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    May 21, 2011

    Alisdair: I’ve actually done that. One of the problems with downgrading to any form of lesser-resource desktop is that you, well, loose all those damn resources! But yes, I’ve set up my laptop to operate that way using XFCE and other systems. You may well be right that there would not be that much of as savings.

    Rat poison is OK but it still breaks the screen up rather than just assuming that every app is maximized (which, on a smallish laptop it generally is)

  6. #6 Kyle Reynolds Conway
    May 21, 2011

    For me the couchdb, gwibber, and UbuntuOne issue made me completely stop using Ubuntu it was so bad. It regularly used 100% of my processor for no benefit I ever saw. I’m pretty sure that this was a year ago (or more) and I’m surprised to find that it still hasn’t been fixed.

    I like your DIY idea (though I’m probably not tech-skilled enough to help). I’d be interested if and when it’s implemented as I’ve been wanting a lightweight install for an old laptop that basically functions as a web-backed up typewriter.

    One last point of interest: I just found your “Linux in Exile” blog today (this post popped up in my RSS while I was reading one of your posts from 2009). I’ve been happily remembering why I switched to (and stuck with) linux.

  7. #7 gmasterboots
    May 21, 2011

    I second the ratpoison suggestion. You can specify up to 9 virtual desktops for ratpoison to create on startx and switch between them with Alt+F? or Ctrl+Alt+RightArrow/LeftArrow. Then each application can be fullscreen.

  8. #8 informania
    May 22, 2011

    Ah yes, the joys of nepomuk/strigi..
    I identify with your frustration, as windows bloatware was the reason I installed linux in the first place.
    Seriously thinking about going back to windows though, especially since Open Office also keeps losing information on my documents -in progress.

  9. #9 Roland
    May 22, 2011

    This is why I abandoned KDE and switched to XFCE. It’s my computer, I should be able to controlit and use it my way. It isn’t KDE’s or Gnome’s computer, but they seem to think they know what’s best for me. They don’t, and even if they did, that doesn’t justify their taking control of my machine. Fooey on both of them!

  10. #10 mike b.y
    May 22, 2011

    I would like to know what version of Ubuntu you’re using. If it’s 11.04 I understand the gripe. I can’t even get it running Unity in VirtualBox (VM software). And yes, I know that’s because Unity doesn’t handle the generic drivers in VirtualBox; Unity wants specific drivers.

    As for the Dropbox privacy issue, you can always encrypt your files before setting them in the Dropbox folder.

    But, if you are using the LTS 10.04 version of Ubuntu, I haven’t noticed any issues. I have an Asus laptop with 4G Ram, 500 gig HD, and dual core processors. Right Now, I have 10 tabs in Firefox and gedit opened: My load is between 2% and 8% and the high end and that is probably because I alt-tab-right arrowed to flip desktops. I don’t use gwibber or Ubuntu One.

    You can always go to System>Preferences>Startup-Applications and
    stop or even add start up applications and services. Terminator is my favorite terminal program because I can split windows inside the terminal and monitor different things, using ctrl-shift-i and ctrl-shift-o.

    So the question here is what are you running? Ubuntu X.X and what kind of laptop are you using?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    May 22, 2011

    Speaking of 11.04, I had a similar experience with Unity, installing it on an old desktop. The installation program told me no way. It’s running fine with Gnormal Gnome, however.

    The laptop is running 10.04. It’s a dell Intel core duo T7500 2.2GHz. 2 gigabytes of ram.

  12. #12 bob mccarty
    May 22, 2011

    linux mint 9 with fluxbox. you’ll love it.

  13. #13 twitter
    May 22, 2011

    Move to Debian and install the light weight window manager of your choice manually. One way to do this is by doing a net install, using the ordinary install rather than using the GUI installer. When it asks you what components to install, do not select a desktop GUI. Once the basic system is installed, log in as root and select Window Maker, E16, TWM, XFCE4 or similar window managers. You might also want to install Midori, Iceweasel or some other browser, xemacs etc. You system should be lightning fast.

    OpenSSH server is a good replacement for Dropbox. Run it on the system you use as your NAT box and you should be able to see it anywhere on your lan or the rest of the world by the IP address your ISP gives you. Dyndns will give your box a name, but your ISP might mess with that.

  14. #14 Techslave
    May 23, 2011

    Been using CrunchBang as a fast-boot lightweight Ubuntu-alternate for my laptop. It’s Debian based, OpenBox. So far pretty awesome, especially when I don’t want to wait for Ubuntu to get itself figured out and started up. It’s not as lightweight as what you propose, but I find it meets my needs quite nicely without ‘cruft’.

    Moved to Linux Mint Debian Edition for my desktop too – so far so good, it’s got everything I want and somewhat less pain than Ubuntu in regard to keeping up to date since it’s a rolling release.

  15. #15 Alan
    May 28, 2011

    For some reason your yelling about free software reminds me of horse’s mouths.