Tuesday, August 25, 2009

First Steps With Ubuntu

As a programmer using squalid decades-old technology at work, I'm looking to delve into something more interesting in my spare time.

First of all I figured I'd look into this new Linux thing that everyone's talking about. The most approachable distribution seems to be Ubuntu so I initially downloaded Ubuntu 9.4 Desktop and tried it out in a virtual machine.

A very slick and easy to use installer let me set up all the essentials and get in to the desktop. I'm impressed that out of the box it has recognised my video card, network card and sound card. Everything is up and running nicely.

Then I took some time out to learn about how the file system is arranged in Linux and a few basic terminal commands. Next I want to get some tools installed so I can start a hobby LAMP project including a webapp, web services and MySQL/PostgreSQL. First of all I installed Eclipse, Subversion and Apache from Synaptic Package Manager. It's a very simple point-and-click GUI to install and update all software on the machine which is fantastic. I really wish Windows had this instead of a mixture of various updating mechanisms which each want to run in their own process. Apparently Windows 7 has this feature for drivers but not for applications.

I shopped around and decided on learning Python to play around with. My initial field of candidates was Perl, PHP and Python. Perl is just too ugly and hacky- so many implicit rules to remember and it's OO syntax is obviously a bolted-on afterthought. I'll definitely use this at work though as there are plenty of times when a quick hacky regex script is just what I need. PHP looks good for hacking together code quickly but feels like a modern day VB6 which quickly turns into spaghetti code. It also shares the bolted-on OO syntax.

A couple of the reasons that I chose Python are:
- Google is using it fairly extensively and has contributed many performance updates to the interpreter. All of these languages are interpreted and therefore are much slower than their compiled counterparts. If some of the smartest programmers in the world (Google) are contributing to speed it up then it has the best chance at good performance.
- Easy syntax, great library support and community
- Google AppEngine can be used with Python which provides a free and highly scalable playground for me to test out my code. The only downside is I'd have to learn about the BigTable storage system which probably doesn't suit my needs right now.

Deciding between Python 2.6 and 3.1 was hard. 3.1 is the latest and greatest but in the real world I think 2.6 and earlier are almost universally used. For my career I think the best option is to go with 2.6 so any skills I learn are transferrable to the real world.

Next up you can see my struggles to get the tools I need working to start on my Python development.

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