For the first time in a while I actually had some fun on the job. It involved the smallest full-featured PC I've ever worked with and the Ubuntu Linux package that came with it.
We've had a number of older dedicated compact PC systems fail recently due to age, more than anything. I'd been looking for replacement solutions… something that is very small and only needs to do one job: serve up Web pages from our online library catalog system. I'd thought about Mac Mini and heard good things about their use. Still, I really wanted something less expensive that could run Windows. I know, "Windoze." We have certain tools that make configuring a Windows box easy so I was leaning in that direction. Then I read about the fit-PC. When the machines were first offered for sale they were so popular amongst enthusiasts and tinkerers that they were immediately sold out of stock! Recently, however, our need became urgent and the fit-PCs became available.
Ubuntu Linux comes pre-installed on these little machines but Windows XP can be installed by the end-user if desired. This was a perfect opportunity to see just how good Ubuntu is and, if it didn't fit our needs, I could always dump it and trudge back to the familiar territory of Redmond.
It turns out I didn't need to change a thing. Ubuntu with its expert user community provided nearly everything I needed. To create a secure browser kiosk I needed only to do a few "Linux things" and install and set up Opera's browser in its kiosk mode! It works great.
The fit-PC uses only 5 watts of electrical power (monitor not included) whereas the machine it replaced ran on 75 to 100 watts. The Fit is installed in a bracket within the base of the carrel that supports the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Users don't notice any difference — they're still looking at our catalog Web pages — and the system has the added benefit of being practically silent. Fit-PC is air-cooled (no fans) and its internal notebook hard drive contains the only moving parts. It runs using free, open-source software bringing the CPU system price in at about $300 compared with more than twice that price for the system it replaces.
I've also become very enthusiastic about Ubuntu. I'd played with Red Had Linux a couple of times over the years. I have also installed and used Solaris. They seemed very difficult to install, required payments and registrations for basic OS updating, and never seemed to have the kind of polish necessary to make a good system for desktop users. Servers are another matter and another story though, as I've said before, Sun's update process is weak. Ubuntu is beautiful. Installed in half an hour on an old PC in my shop, another 15 minutes for initial automatic updating, and shows great promise for special applications around the home and office.
Fun at work returns –for a while anyway– at last!