The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Rediscovering the Linux Desktop

December 13, 2012

Here at the day job, we are slowly moving our (production) systems away from Windows and toward (Ubuntu LTS) Linux. The company has always been Windows-oriented, mostly due to the decisions of its President when it was founded, subsequent inertia, and the skillsets of the infrastructure teams. Now, though, we have an increased Linux knowledgebase in-house, we’ve started this reorientation toward PHP and other open-source products, and Linux just makes more sense.

To help “grease the wheels” in the development process, we started toying with Vagrant and Chef to spin up local development instances, which has been a really interesting and satisfying endeavor. This whole Vagrant/VirtualBox thing is opening up new ideas about how to develop efficiently and about the malleability of server configurations that we’d never have considered up till now.

I even started to use Vagrant myself, for freelance projects, which I found to be gratifying. Gone are the days of guarding your VMware image with a pitchfork against the specter of data loss or corruption; with only your Vagrantfile in hand (and at least knowing which base image you used, which is important only to a point), you can spin up a replica of the system in moments.

But this isn’t meant to be a 500-word essay on how great Vagrant is. Dipping back into the Linux world made me yearn for some of the things that Windows (no offense to Cygwin) just can’t do. For example, I really love tmux, the terminal multiplexer. I have finally left GNU screen behind on my Mac, but alas, tmux doesn’t run in Cygwin because of the way the signals are passed through pipes or sockets or something that Cygwin can’t do.

This is a shame, because tmux increases my productivity, and I want my productivity to increase. So what to do? The obvious answer (to me, anyway) was to dust off this copy of VMware Workstation that they got for me and just run Ubuntu as an actual desktop. With a GUI. Give it the old college try once again. So I did that.

After running a large terminal window with tmux in it and feeling the joy of Firefox and Google Chrome acting, essentially, identically to how they do in Windows, and apt-getting basically the whole world at once, a thought came to me.

Window managers. Remember window managers?

If you’re reading this in Linux, the chances are pretty high that you fall into one of two groups:

  • You’re using Gnome or KDE as your default window manager because it was installed with your distribution (like Ubuntu), or
  • You’re using your own window manager because hot damn there are so many to choose from.

What the hell is a window manager, you might be asking, if you are a member of the former group? A window manager is a piece of software that manages your windows; their locations, sizes, behaviors, and so forth. Every GUI OS has some kind of a window manager, but it so happens that in Linux (as with most things in Linux), the window manager is not actually inextricably tied to the desktop or the launcher bar (“taskbar,” if you will), or any other aspect of the GUI experience.

Everything is separated out. Separation of responsibility. Like a good, organized OS should be.

So, which window manager to choose? I decided to give xmonad a try. Xmonad is a window manager written in Haskell that tiles your windows automatically. Windows can’t float (unless you force them to), and they self-organize using predefined patterns, which you can change. You also get virtual desktops as well, so you can have several screens of tiled windows and switch between them quickly.

So far, this is the best computing experience I’ve probably ever had. Everything is at my fingertips; I barely use the mouse. Xmonad is so fast, even in this virtual machine running inside of my Windows 7 desktop. I borrowed some configuration from folks on the Googlewebs to get things pointed in the right direction, but it was really not too hard to set up.

Here are some references:

I lifted most of the config from those guys and followed their instructions.

I also wanted to do more in terminal windows, because terminals are badass, and when you’re doing everything with the keyboard you really don’t want to fiddle with GUI widgets (except for web browsing, and for that there’s Chrome Vimium, of course).

  • For the tweeting: TTYtter (so cool!)
  • For Gtalk: IRSSI & the irssi-xmpp plugin (the most stable console XMPP client I have tried!)
  • For music: cmus (really nice once you figure out how it works. RTFM.)