Linux doesn’t seem to live up to the stability hype.

Every time I write about computing on the Windows platform here, particularly when discussing problems, I can be assured that I’ll get at least a dozen comments/emails from folks encouraging me to switch to Linux because it’s the most secure and stable operating system in the universe. I’ve only dabbled in Linux previously, having used it mainly because my webhosts are all Linux based, but since taking on the new job some two months ago I’ve had to become a lot more familiar with it. Specifically I’ve had to get to know Ubuntu Linux rather quickly as it’s the primary distro used here at the office. I’ve mentioned before how one of the tasks assigned to me was to put together a Ubuntu based kiosk for the scanners to use when on break to browse the web. I’ve made a lot of progress since I started on that project, but there’s still a bit to go before it’s completely done. I’m still far from a Linux expert, but I’m much further along than I was when I started two months ago. Installing the OS and various packages is no longer a knuckle biting experience and I’m getting quite comfortable with VIM despite the fact that I hate it.

One of the things I’ve noticed in that time is that the much vaunted stability that Linux is supposed to be known for is largely a myth; or at least it appears to be for me. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have ant least one crash that requires me to completely reboot the laptop to get it working again and there are often several crashes during the day that I manage to recover from. When you consider that I spend around 85% of my time running nothing other than Firefox 3 and Pidgin, that’s an impressive bit of crashing. Just getting a malfunctioning program to close is an annoying process and half the time it doesn’t restore the system to a usable state. Logging out of the system using the CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE key combination and then logging back in will fix things once every six times or so that I try it. Every now and then I’ll get lucky and an application will freeze up, the window turning an ominous gray, and then unfreeze on its own after a couple of moments for no discernible reason.

Now I accept that it’s possible I could just be a dumb fuck who’s doing something wrong and causing his own problems, but I find that difficult to believe because I’m not really doing anything all that advanced. I’m running a web browser and an IM chat client—two things that hardly ever crash on my Windows XP box at home.  I’m sure I’ll get tons of emails about how some folks have had their Linux workstations working non-stop for 10 years with nary a crash in sight, but, based on my own experiences with it, I can only imagine it’s because you never do anything with it. I say this because I have two laptops here, both running Ubuntu, and the one that doesn’t crash at least once a day is the one that I only touch occasionally to check the web based workstation monitor on. It seems as long as I don’t do much with it then it runs along just fine, but if I spend any amount of time using it it gets all pissy. I’ve been good about patching things when the little icon shows up and says there’s important updates to be installed—something which is a near-daily exercise as well—and I’ve been scanning the web looking for info on what may be causing the issues and there’s a whole host ranging from the various hardware drivers in use to issues with some Firefox plugins.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to like about Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular, it’s a shit load easier to install than it used to be for example, but from the standpoint of an every day user I have to say that this crashes at least as often as any Windows installation does and is about ten times harder to diagnose as to why. For as far along as the GUI has come on Linux, it still seems like if you really want to be sure the changes you make take hold and you’re seeing all there is to see that you have to open a command line and wade through endless text based configuration files and logs which, if you’re lucky, might be semi-readable in content. I recognize that my years of using Windows makes it seem easier to use in some respects, but I don’t think it’s all an illusion brought on by familiarity either. I’m sure some of this will become easier to diagnose as I become ever more familiar with Linux in my day to day use, but at the moment I’m less than impressed with its much-vaunted aura of stability.

21 thoughts on “Linux doesn’t seem to live up to the stability hype.

  1. I’m slow to migrate to Linux desktops, but I’ve run servers for the last ten years or so. Two months ago I was pissed off because I had to reboot a box (due to a dist-upgrade) that was up and running continuously for more than two years—which is hardly an uptime record for Linux/Unix boxes. I expect a Unix-based server that’s left alone to do its thing to run until the power or hardware fails.

    I do use Debian desktops (usually Lenny these days) once in a while for a workload similar than yours and they just work. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s the hardware, maybe it’s the plugins you install, maybe it’s Ubuntu.

    Where I strongly disagree with you is that Windows is easier to troubleshoot than Linux/Unix. I used to deal with Windows servers for a significant number of years, but Windows desktops are a closed book to me these days. If something doesn’t work and five minutes worth of googling don’t yield an answer, it’s broken and that’s just the normal Windows experience. Give me text-based logs and config files all the time and none of this event log and registry piling system crap. Text is easy enough to read, but I’ve done this for well in excess of twenty years, so yeah, familiarity is a factor. The very first time I came into contact with Unix was to write a disk driver for a 68020-based server from Integrated Solutions running 4.2BSD. So there wink

    I try to like Ubuntu, I really do, but it’s in vain. I am by no means inexperienced with Linux, but I either can’t get Ubuntu to install, it blows up on me at the next version upgrade, or I run into showstoppers like wubi ceasing to find the boot files after a post-install update. I could probably figure out all of these problems if I invested the time to do so, but why should I bother when either CentOS or Debian just work?

  2. Ubuntu is for the masses, it really doesn’t represent Linux as a whole.  I like ArchLinux or Slackware, or even Gentoo over Ubuntu, but Ubuntu does have the ease of installation going for it.

    One thing about Ubuntu that you need to keep in mind – they only provide free and open source software in their repositories – that means, if you’re running an Nvidia card, it’s using an Nvidia driver developed by an open source community, as opposed to Nvidia directly (which is partially Nvidia’s fault – they refuse to open the code on their drivers).

    Ubuntu also ships with Compiz-fusion as the default Composite window manager (meaning the tech behind some of the effects you see when minimizing or maximizing windows).  Try going to System => Appearance and selecting “None” for the Effects tab.  This turns off Compiz-Fusion completely, which is in a very beta state right now and tends to really fuck up the stability of Linux.

    If you still want the neat effects and such, try installing regular Compiz or Beryl, both of which are older but have stable release versions of the software.

    Not really sure why the Ubuntu community decided to ship Compiz-fusion with 8.04, but it’s their choice, I guess.  Just makes things harder on everyone.

  3. I have the same issue with Mac OS.  I bought a Macbook Pro about a year ago, because I thought I ought to learn about it… and I’ve found that it’s much less stable, for me, than Windows XP was.  Everyone’s going to have a different mix of apps and stuff, and will use their computer in a different way, so everyone’s going to have a different experience.

    Mine is that the “Macs never crash” hype is just that: hype.

  4. EBKAC =p

    Seriously though, why are you using vim instead of nano, or some other not quite PITA text editor?

    And I second Karl’s suggestion for turning off graphical effects. I’ve got Ubuntu 8.04 running on an EeePC, the compiz effects are real overkill and occasionally do really messed up things (like dimming/graying windows for no good reason).

  5. I ignored your last post on Linux but honestly dude I have no idea what is going on with you and Linux. It could very well be the desktop effects. that stuff is buggy. Or it could be the hardware you are running it on. BUT that certainly has not been my experience with linux or ubuntu. When i first installed ubuntu I ran it for 4 months day and night non stop and pushed it to the max and did not crash it once. Now considering windows on the same machine crashed daily (it is an old machine and can barely handle windows) and couldn’t handle firefox with many multiple open tabs before dying i was totally impressed. And i was new to linux and knew nothing but i am a programmer and did know lots about windows having helped people on computer forums for 4 years every day on Windows issues and had been using win since the very beginning of and MS DOS before that. So honestly your experience is not mine nor have any friends of mine had problems when i installed Ubuntu on their machines.

    Overall i think Linux is more stable than windows and your experience is an exception. You have got to remember as a rationalist supposedly your sample size there is rather small. Admittedly all OSes have their problems and hardware itself is sometime flakey but if you ever have a machine that Linux works well on and is properly installed and set up you will certainly be impressed. And btw logging out of the system using the CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE and so on is something I seldom have to do tho yesterday I did have to CTRL ALT F3 and kill swiftweasel as it had my x windows frozen up, but i seldom have to do that. That was the first time in months I’ve had to do that.

    Anyway something is wrong if you are having the problems you describe, I help ppl now on the ubuntu forums and am on the beginners team post there, so post your problems there and try to get it sorted out. Just be aware that you may or may not get help there, we try but I myself only help on issues where I am reasonable sure I know the answer.

    Good luck wink

  6. I don’t know what your problem is either.  I admin 34 Red Hat servers and many of them have uptimes of about a year or more. Most of the Red Hat servers have uptimes that start within a week of when they were first installed.  The pain in the ass that ruins my uptime on a few of the servers is the Oracle clustering software which decides to randomly reboot the servers. 

    I run Kubuntu, currently 8.04, on my workstation, and it doesn’t give me any trouble. 

    At home I run 8.04 on a tower PC and on an Eee; the Kubuntu on my tower is very stable,  I am constantly fucking with my Eee, it is used more as a toy.  I am using nVidia non-free drivers on my tower—after installing Kubuntu, it pops up and asks if you want to install the non-free drivers.

  7. I readily admitted that it could be a PEBKAC issue. I’m only reporting my experiences and I said I was sure I’d get a lot of comments telling me I was nuts. I must be psychic.

  8. Couple ideas.  Run a memory scan on the machine – I think Ubuntu has a boot mode for this.  And borrow a UPS to stabilize your power and see if that makes a difference. (If it does, put on a better power supply, a UPS is generally not needed).

    But you’re not crazy.  I have to be careful how I close anything with Flash in it.  That could be a memory problem if a certain address is being accessed.  Or it could be a sucky video driver.  Or a sucky bit of software that runs Flash.  Unlikely as I am to go back to Windows, it is still annoying.

  9. It could be a number of things, including some device that doesn’t play nice with Linux. 

    The Red Hat servers I use at work are enterprise level HP servers that are designed to be stable and work well with Linux (and Windows).  The version of Red Hat I use (RHEL4) ensures stability by deliberately using older versions of packages that are seldom updated, they are just patched as necessary. 

    This is sort of funny because a Windows person runs a security scanner that checks for open ports using versions of software that are known to have vulnerabilities.  There are a few versions of OpenSSH that have security vulnerabilities, and it just so happens that my servers use a version of OpenSSH that has a vulnerability.  Even though the version of OpenSSH that I am using has a vulnerability, Red Hat has provided a patched executable that does not have the vulnerability.  This Windows person used to freak out every time his scanner reported that my OpenSSH had a vulnerability, and I would tell him that my shit was patched and to ignore the alert.

    I built my home tower using parts that are known to work well with Linux, and even my Eee was designed specifically to work well with Linux.

  10. I’m at almost 2 years running Ubuntu as my sole OS, after being an MS user for almost every OS they released from DOS 3.3 on. I usually build my own box, but in March I bought a Dell laptop with Ubuntu (Hardy) preinstalled. My tower is now in a box in the basement and the Ubuntu laptop is my primary machine. It shipped with Feisty, but I upgraded to Hardy once it came out relatively seamlessly.

    I had been dual-booting Win2K and Ubuntu (Feisty at last boot) on the tower for about a year and found myself in Windows less and less. Like you, I killed Ubuntu repeatedly in the first couple-or-three months. Just like I repeatedly killed the hell out of Windows when I was learning how to do the advanced shit. Actually, I was just killing the XServer/Gnome GUI, the underlying Ubuntu itself worked just fine. It took me forever to figure out that in a “Linux n00b” context, Windows power users and admin types evidently know just enough to make them dangerous.

    Keep Windows around as a fallback position if need be, and install the Lynx text browser ASAP if you haven’t already (sudo apt-get install lynx). Lynx saved my ass on more than one occasion when I had somehow killed (or at least mortally wounded) the GUI and helped me get the info I needed to fix the XServer.

    Also let me add to the chorus of people telling you to disable the evil desktop effects! They look slick and all, but Compiz can fuck up your GUI in a big way. It’s buggier than ice cream on an anthill; lose that shit pronto. NOTE: a full distribution upgrade will re-enable Compiz by default.

    Don’t make up your mind on Ubuntu yet. I think you’re better off killing it and then having to figure out WTF you did a few times. You learn more about the OS that way, no?

  11. Goodness me. It’s been years since I last thought about Lynx. Used to use it all the time back in the day when I first started using the Internet prior to it becoming a common thing.

    OK, so I’ve turned off the Compiz-Fusion desktop effects (didn’t realize they were on to begin with) to start and we’ll go from there. If I can just make it through the day without the browser crapping the whole system out on me I’ll be a happy camper.

    Don’t make up your mind on Ubuntu yet. I think you’re better off killing it and then having to figure out WTF you did a few times. You learn more about the OS that way, no?

    I don’t have a choice in the matter. It’s what we use here so I’m going to have to learn to live with it. But yes, that is the best way to learn about the OS. And, yes, that is how I learned to work with Windows.

  12. Not really sure why the Ubuntu community decided to ship Compiz-fusion with 8.04

    They actually released it with 7.04, IIRC. I know it was in 7.10. And yes, it was a stupid move.

    In 8.04 they also introduced Pulse Audio – great in concept, and a technology I’d like to see develop. Not a technology I want to use, yet. The only way for me to get sound working in flash was to purge Pulse Audio entirely.

    DOF:

    When it comes to Flash, I can’t even remember what the problem was, but I know that in beta versions of Firefox 3, flash instability was a huge, huge issue. I poured for hours trying to fix sound in flash, and, in the process, put a lot of work into all other sorts of instabilities.

    Elwed:

    Upgrades have always been an issue, with me. They were an issue on Windows, too, but much, much moreso with Ubuntu Linux. I’ve yet to have an upgrade that didn’t break almost everything. I do a backup and a clean install every 6 months; that’s not counting all the kernel updates that require a reboot. Ubuntu uptime, in my personal experience, is quite poor compared to other distros.

  13. Patness: We’ve had very good success with straight-up Debian. In fact, a few weeks ago we replaced a box that we shipped with woody and updated remotely to sarge and then etch. The only time I ever ran into annoying, but solvable problems was when running a dist-upgrade from stable to testing or unstable.

    My understanding is that rather than evolving their versions like Debian does, Ubuntu picks a snapshot of Debian’s testing and unstable packages, makes them work more or less, and adds their own stuff. If that’s indeed the case, then each and every version of Ubuntu is a new and untried distribution rather than a simple version update—and this would also explain why some Ubuntu versions are turkeys.

    Like I said, I really try to like Ubuntu, but it just ain’t happening.

  14. I was inclined to chime in saying that crashing and other serious problems are rare on Linux, but then yesterday I installed Ubuntu 8.04.

    The 3D effects in Compiz are neat, but when the screen occasionally gets completely fucked up, I kind of prefer going back to the old way of doing things. Also had problems running MythTV, but that was fixed once I found a web forum that said that upgrading the video driver by downloading it directly from ATI fixes the problem.

    After toying with the system for a while, I upgraded the kernel, which switched hard disk drivers or something. This apparently in turn fucked up my /home partition causing me to completely lose my home directory (fortunately I didn’t have anything of importance there). Fsck is still showing errors on the partition and the kernel is throwing inexplicable error messages every now and then. (Windows is working fine on the same drive so I don’t think it’s a hardware failure.)

  15. DOF and Patness:

    I don’t know if this is necessarily related, but I’ve had Flash issues in Hardy-8.04 too. It’s a known bug that’s got something to do with Pulseaudio and an alleged bug in Flash, according to the forums.

    The equation seemed to run like this:
    Firefox + Flash audio (esp. YouTube) + |any other audio app| = audio broken (ELSE + Firefox crash)

    When it happened, nothing short of CTL-ALT-BKSP to restart X would bring back sound. The Firefox process could be killed in the background, but that wouldn’t fix the audio, it only fixed Firefox.

    If the Flash version is 9.x: try installing the libflashsupport package (either from within Synaptic or with an apt-get command line). It fixed the problem for me. I can now have multiple audio-enabled programs simultaneously using the sound system without anything breaking. I can just pause my MP3 while I watch a YouTube clip, someone can pop in via Pidgin (triggering messaging sound events), and I can unpause the tunes without anything fucking up. I could listen to it all at once, but I’m not a fan of cacaphony.

    Fucked-up multimedia support is a deal-breaker for a lot of people, so it’s weird that this is still considered a Low-priority bug. Lots of blame shifting and finger pointing going on, of course.

    Hardy is plenty stable, but they definitely left in a few bugs and other craptacular features that weren’t ready for prime time at the arbitrarily-set release date. Of course Microsoft would never do such a thing.

  16. Len:

    I totally get that – the reason libflashsupport was removed was because it was causing crashes in FF3bx, which came with Ubuntu. It is still potentially useful, however. You could also add older config files from Firefox 2 and try to configure their audio to use ALSA, or rebuild the packages with different specifications.

    None of these worked for me. The only solution that worked (8.04 on x64), was to remove pulse-audio entirely. Then everything was fine.

  17. Late to the Linux party…

    Les, I agree with other readers that it is prolly Desktop Effects or a beta version of FF 3. Make sure you have the newest version of FF. Also it could be a hardware issue. Unfortunately Ubuntu can be bad at times for informing users of hardware issues. You have to find a log to get info. Which I guess is better than Windows just giving random nonsensical alphanumeric characters.

    DOF might be right with memory, might want to run the memory test.

    I have used all the big OS’s at some point in my life and they all have their quirks and issues. What I have found to be true is that the OS works great and without issues for those that know how to use it, or have figured out tweaks and feel very comfortable using it. Then those users start assuming that since it works great for them it should for everyone else. Their monkeysphere‘s must be really small.

    And in many ways it a shame the power users do not open themselves up to the newbies a lot more because they could learn a lot. If you want your piece of software to take off you better be able to have newbie use it with ease, otherwise it aint gettin far.

    But really Les, I don’t think any less of you because you have trouble with Linux nor will I ever think your issues come from lack of knowledge so please don’t ever place me in that crowd. On Linux posts I am here to help, not berate someone because they badmouth a product. I’m an IT person too, when I get pissed because something doesn’t work like it should I cuss and swear till I figure it out. I can’t get mad at someone doing the same thing.

    People need to learn to relax and realize their favorite software needs constructive criticism. Without it will never go forward and progress to something better.

  18. People need to learn to relax and realize their favorite software needs constructive criticism. Without it will never go forward and progress to something better.

    That should be written over the door of every software development department. I do software testing, and between the two companies I’ve done it at, I can say that it is much better when the people doing the actual coding have the “well, guess I made a mistake, thanks testers for finding it, I’ll fix it.” attitude, over the “What the hell! You broke my perfectly written piece of code!?! Why did you do it that way?!?! Don’t you know it’s supposed to work this way?  Dumb testers…”. And I mean much better for the flow of software dev and release, not just to make my job less nerve wracking (though not having to walk on tip toes around some hotshot code monkey’s ego is definitely a bonus).

  19. not having to walk on tip toes around some hotshot code monkey’s ego is definitely a bonus).

    I’ve always been rather surprised that the hotshot code monkeys are so easy to give into this habit when, in reality, their ego should be challenging them to write bulletproof code and/or idiotproof code. I’ve known some damn amazing coders, and thankfully, they aren’t constantly patting themselves on the back. I can those guys are in the minority, though.

  20. This was a big argument with my techs when I was service manager for a chain of computer stores. They were trading ‘dumb customer’ stories, which I hated, and one of them dramatized how a customer tried to send a fax using WinFax Pro and holding a paper document up to the screen.  I got the WinFax Pro manual and showed them where it said “fax any document right off the screen!”

    Look, they don’t know how the hell a CRT works, why would they?  For all they know it works both ways somehow and there it says in the manual…

    The customer in question was a grade-school principal.  I’d like to see the techs do her job for a day.

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