Editors' Choice 2006
Outside the open-source products that work on Windows as well as Linux, Windows continues to evolve into a Microsoft-only platform, as Microsoft continues to eliminate its commercial competition. But, competition thrives more than ever on Linux. Pick just about any category of software, and you can find at least two or three excellent candidates, often more. And, the available products are so good, it's difficult to claim that there is a hands-down best, such as the definitive word processor or e-mail client. One's choice often boils down to personal taste.
Here's how we approached the task of selecting winners this year. We asked vendors to nominate the products they released this year. We combined their nominations with our own choices, and our editors chose the best of the best for each category. If there's a flaw in our nomination process, it is that it is sometimes impossible for our editors to try out every product or service in the list of nominations. This is especially true of things like hosting and colocation services. In cases like these, personal experience had to trump vendor claims. For example, there may be a better hosting service than the one that earned our award, but we can vouch for our choice from personal experience, which carries more weight.
In the end, the process was fun, despite the challenge. We hope some of your favorites captured top honors, or if not, managed to get an honorable mention. So, on with the show.
It was at once the easiest and most difficult decision to pick the distribution for the Editors' Choice. Ubuntu has a long list of features and design decisions to recommend it for our award. It is easy to install; it has a vast repository of software; it is stable and friendly; it protects users from logging in as root by default and much more. One of the most influential factors in our decision was the fact that Ubuntu has captured and held more popular interest than any other distribution almost since its release. Granted, this isn't a people's choice award, but it's not for nothing that Ubuntu is such a popular distribution. Many of us at Linux Journal run it, or its KDE-based sister Kubuntu, ourselves.
Nevertheless, the competition is so superb that a proper list of honorable mentions would be uncomfortably long. We should consider ourselves blessed that we have such a marvelous variety from which to choose. Although we can't name every distribution we could consider worthy of the Editors' Choice Award, we can't resist giving honorable mention to a few. Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 is arguably the strongest comprehensive commercial distribution available. Linspire could be the ultimate desktop-oriented distribution for new users, although Xandros gives it a run for its money. Gentoo is the definitive compile-it-yourself distribution. Debian deserves a long round of applause, especially since many of the most excellent distributions, including Ubuntu/Kubuntu, Linspire, Xandros, MEPIS, Knoppix and many more are based on Debian. rPath uses Fedora as the foundation for its roll-it-yourself distribution—a perfect choice for those who need to produce custom appliance-like distributions. Even Damn Small Linux deserves a mention for being one of the few distributions that still runs well on older hardware.
As difficult a decision as it was, however, we're more than satisfied with our choice of Ubuntu 6.06 for the Editors' Choice of 2006.
KDE is the desktop with everything. It is friendly, intuitive and simple enough for the casual user who wants to use it as-is, but it also packs nearly unlimited features and configurability for those who want to plumb the depths of its power. For example, click on the default Konqueror button, and it takes you to a default page with links to your home folder, network folders, applications, trash bin and storage media. Click on the home folder link, and you get a simple, intuitive, folder-based file manager.
That would be enough for most people, but power users who want more from Konqueror can open a navigation panel, split windows multiple times, open tabbed panels—there's almost no limit to what you can do. You can use the fish: kio-slave to view and manipulate files on another computer over a secure connection. And, when you're happy with a view into your own filesystem or that of another computer, you can save any combination of URI and window configuration as a profile you can restore instantly.
Or, as another example, you can pop an audio CD into your CD drive, and Konqueror opens a window with virtual folders of your songs in MP3, Ogg Vorbis and other formats (depending on which extensions you have installed). Ripping your songs to MP3 format is as simple as copying and pasting the virtual MP3 files to another folder or to your MP3 player.
According to research organizations such as Evans Data, KDE is the most popular desktop environment. How does that square with the fact that GNOME is the default desktop of one of the most popular distributions (Ubuntu)? We have no idea. Whether or not Ubuntu users are sticking with GNOME or installing KDE, GNOME certainly deserves an honorable mention on its own merits. GNOME has come a long way in recent times, and it is particularly appealing in its default Ubuntu configuration.
GNOME was first to integrate the Beagle search engine into the desktop. Beagle is a Mono-based adaptation of the Java-based Lucene search engine. It is capable of indexing files of a wide variety of formats, so you can search through the contents of those files almost instantly. KDE has a search tool called Kerry, which is the equivalent of the GNOME search tool. Although GNOME should get credit for introducing the feature, KDE's power is made more apparent by how KDE easily integrates Beagle into Konqueror as a kio-slave. Put simply, you can type beagle:ubuntu in the Konqueror location bar (where you might type a file path or Web URL), and Konqueror taps into the Beagle search index to find all files containing the word ubuntu. All the files found will show up in the Konqueror window as icons and previews.
There's a joke among musicians that Beethoven wrote only three symphonies: the third, the fifth and the ninth. These three eclipse the rest in terms of popularity such that most people are unaware the other symphonies exist. So it is with OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org is so popular, it eclipses the competition to the point that many people are unaware there is competition.
For example, Evermore Software's EIOffice suite has superior live links and duplicates the Microsoft Office interface almost exactly, but it is not open source, and it isn't marketed aggressively enough such that many people know it exists. KDE's KOffice suite is a powerful suite of productivity applications, but it is often overlooked because it doesn't attempt to mimic Microsoft Office.
OpenOffice.org delivers just the right combination of openness, power and similarity to Microsoft Office that it provides the features and familiarity people want in an office suite without the drawbacks of proprietary document format or proprietary code. It may not always import Microsoft Office files perfectly, but it does so without the crashes that sometimes plague suites like EIOffice when importing large, complex Microsoft Office files. Overall, OpenOffice.org has a way to go before it reaches its potential, but it still provides the best combination of features and compatibility, along with the distinct advantage of being an open-source project.
OpenOffice.org 2.0.3 Calc
OpenOffice.org Calc makes good on the same formula that has made the entire suite so successful. It is an excellent blend of power and compatibility with Microsoft Office, and it has the added bonus of being based on open source and open document formats. Gnumeric and KSpread deserve honorable mentions, but if you're really serious about doing spreadsheet work, your best bet is with OpenOffice.org Calc.
Here is where we break tradition and give the Editors' Choice Award to a productivity application that doesn't appear in the OpenOffice.org suite. Some of us just want to do word processing. We don't use spreadsheets or create presentations, so it isn't important to have a full office suite. We want a word processor that is lean and mean, starts up faster than OpenOffice.org Writer, imports Microsoft Word files adequately and offers all the features we need.
Two word processors fit the bill nicely: KWord and AbiWord. We could justify giving either of these the Editors' Choice Award. We went with AbiWord 2.4.4 primarily because it has a slightly more familiar look and feel for Microsoft Word users, and because it sports a number of very useful plugins. For example, one plugin allows you to place the cursor on a word and run a Google search on that word. Another lets you look up the word in Wikipedia. Still another is supposed to translate selected text via Babel Fish, although that plugin wasn't fully automated in our experiment. Still other plugins add the ability to read and write various document formats, including OpenOffice.org Writer files and Microsoft Word.
AbiWord has all of what most people will need in a word processor and then some, without the bloat and long load times of OpenOffice.org Writer.
OpenOffice.org 2.0.3 Impress
We came back to OpenOffice.org for our choice of presentation software. As with the spreadsheet and the entire suite, it offers that optimal balance of features, power and familiarity for those who want to migrate from Microsoft Office. And, of course, it has the oh-so-important benefit of being open source and supporting an open document format. KPresenter deserves an honorable mention, as does the presentation module in EIOffice.
Is there really any other choice but Firefox? Actually, there are good alternatives. Konqueror is reportedly faster than Firefox. Opera is no slouch in terms of speed and features either. But, after all is said and done, Firefox is the clear winner, and one of the easiest decisions we had to make for Editors' Choice. How do you beat a browser that can please virtually everyone? Choose your favorite theme and add a few extensions, and you can make it look exactly the way you want it to look and do just about anything a browser can do.
It may be a no-brainer to pick Firefox for Editors' Choice, but the decision to elect its sister mail program, Thunderbird, was far more difficult. There's no lack of good e-mail clients for Linux. Evolution and Kontact are not only excellent e-mail clients, they include calendars and other nice features—not that features make the e-mail client. Heck, some of us at Linux Journal still think the character-based Mutt is the bee's knees.
We ended up choosing Thunderbird for some of the same reasons we picked Firefox—extensibility. You may be satisfied with Thunderbird right “out of the box”. But are you frustrated when you get an e-mail with a URL that is broken into several lines so that you can't just click on it to bring up the Web page? Install the URL Link Thunderbird extension—problem solved. Is the default spam filter for Thunderbird failing to catch all your spam? Install the Spamato4Thunderbird extension—problem solved. Although there aren't as many extensions for Thunderbird as there are for Firefox, and the best expansion is yet to come (the Lightning calendar extension is still in the works). There's enough flexibility in what you can do with Thunderbird to make it suit almost any taste.
Nevertheless, we gladly award honorable mentions to Evolution, Kontact and, yes, even Mutt.
Time to put on our flame-retardant suits. How could we pick any database other than MySQL? MySQL is the M in the LAMP stack. Much of the Web practically runs on MySQL. But, we continue to be most impressed by the open-source PostgreSQL. It handles everything we throw at it and just keeps working, flawlessly. It's almost invisible from an administrative perspective. It handles huge quantities of data, and it has all of the goodies that we expect in a relational database (such as referential integrity, column-level constraints and checks, server-side functions, subselects and unions). The original 8.1 release, which came out in November 2005, included a number of new features, such as two-phase commits. We can't recommend PostgreSQL highly enough.
Having said all that, MySQL certainly deserves an honorable mention at the very least. It is a staple and deservedly so.
This AAA (top-tier) game title offers a native Linux client with no compromises from the Windows version, so Linux users aren't getting a second-class product. id Software has released Linux versions for all versions of Quake and later versions of Doom, which will hopefully catch the attention of other major game publishers.
TransGaming Software gets an honorable mention for its work in allowing Linux users to play popular, non-Linux AAA titles, such as World of Warcraft on Linux without having to dual boot.
AppArmor strikes a reasonable balance between the complexity and power of SELinux and Linux's default “winner/root takes all” security model. With its wizard-based setup tools (integrated into SUSE's YaST system administration GUI), AppArmor makes it easy even for nonsecurity geeks to strengthen their mission-critical applications with kernel-level mandatory access controls.
AppArmor is included in recent versions of SUSE Linux, including the free OpenSUSE distribution. Although at present AppArmor runs only on SUSE, Novell has released AppArmor's source code (which it acquired from Immunix) licensed under the GPL. Efforts are underway to port it to Ubuntu (and therefore also Debian); other ports should follow.
PacketFence deserves a mention here too. Finally, we have a well-structured tool that combines the power of many open-source components to do network policy enforcement.
Not since Python has any language captured the imagination of so many eager programmers. Ruby is an object-oriented scripting language that is natural, easy to work with and, well, fun. Ruby on Rails expanded the awareness of Ruby as a language, and now Sun has blessed JRuby (Ruby implemented in Java) by hiring two JRuby developers to work on it full-time. The bottom line is: Ruby is going places, and it is likely to be headed for explosive popularity. People who want in on the fun should grab a copy and start learning it, lest they get left behind when the revolution comes.
Some of our editors would stage a revolt if we didn't give honorable mentions to Objective-C, Perl and Python.
Are there really any other serious contenders for Editors' Choice of Web server for Linux systems? There are other open-source alternatives, such as the AOL server, but Apache still enjoys the most language and module support. It may be the extensions and add-ons that make Apache interesting as a Web development platform, but as Apache is the de facto standard engine of choice, it would be hard to justify giving any other Web server the Editors' Choice Award. Lighttpd deserves an honorable mention. It is becoming popular for its good FCGI support, which is used in Ruby on Rails.
Ruby on Rails 1.1.6
Not only has Ruby on Rails skyrocketed in its acceptance during the last few years, but people who use it generally fall head over heels in love with it. Some developers say they look at old Web applications they wrote using other frameworks and almost start crying when they discover that Rails could have eliminated 50–70% of the code that went into those projects.
Eclipse is a Java-based extensible integrated development environment (IDE). According to several Evans Data Corporation surveys, it is the most popular development environment among professional Linux developers. To say that Eclipse is extensible is almost an understatement. There are plugins to make Eclipse do just about everything except groom your dog (although we hear that plugin is in the works).
Another honorable mention goes to VMware Workstation 5.5. Virtualization has revolutionized the way we test and provision operating systems, and VMware is still the most mature, versatile and easy-to-use cross-platform virtualization environment. VMware has a long history of working as well or better on Linux hosts as on Windows. And, nowadays it's free too. VMware has made VMware Server (though not VMware Workstation) a free download.
Asterisk is an open-source, complete Private Branch Exchange (PBX) with a list of features that won't quit. It is currently maintained by the Debian VoIP Team and sponsored by hardware vendor Digium. Digium makes hardware that works with Asterisk, but Asterisk works with hardware other than Digium's product line. Asterisk is a no-brainer for Editors' Choice if there ever was one. Features out the wazoo, completely open source, free to use—what more could one hope for in a VoIP solution?
Ajax Design Patterns by Michael Mahemoff
Ajax Design Patterns, published by O'Reilly, assumes that you have a good idea of how HTTP, HTML, the DOM and CSS work (although it does help you brush up as necessary), and it shows you how to combine the basics into sophisticated applications. You can almost think of it as an Ajax cookbook, but with the underlying theory and advice that you need to make interesting applications.
Beginning Ubuntu Linux: From Novice to Professional by Keir Thomas
What better complement to the Editors' Choice for Linux distribution than a book on how to use that distribution? This book by Keir Thomas, published by Apress, is such a handy resource that we published a sample chapter in our October 2006 issue.
Autodesk Maya 8
Autodesk Maya is an integrated 3-D modeling, animation and rendering solution. It rendered the animation and special effects for movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Version 8 is the first full release of Maya that runs on 64-bit Linux, a milestone that makes the software even more compelling. If Maya 8 is out of reach of your budget and/or ambitions, Toon Boom Animation, Inc. (www.toonboom.com) sells a wide variety of 2-D and 3-D animation software, with packages for home users to studio professionals. The Toon Boom products are all available for Linux. Any of these could have been our second choice.
Our Editor has used Johncompanies for years and testifies that they're wonderful. No technical question is too hard for them. It's a bit creepy that you don't know much about the company other than the name of the head honcho (John) and the Linux technical support person (Dave). Even the sales staff goes by JC Sales. And, instead of a Web or e-mail ticketing system, they simply answer e-mail, which seems like it shouldn't work. But in the time that our editor has been using Johncompanies, it has been competent, friendly and helpful, surpassing other hosting services by a very large degree.
Mantis Bug Tracking System 1.0.5
When thinking of management or administration software, bug tracking might not immediately pop into mind. But the Mantis Bug Tracking system can be invaluable in a corporate environment where much of the company relies on in-house development to keep the business afloat. Mantis is a PHP Web-based tool that is easy to install, intuitive to use and handles multiple projects.
Funambol isn't actually a mobile device, but we chose to give it the Editors' Choice if for no other reason than to avoid plugging the Nokia 770 yet again. Funambol is an open-source SyncML server that acts as a middleware between groupware servers and mobile devices. It supports the most popular PDAs and commodity mobile phones. It's great, and the community is finally coming up with a solution that rivals the best commercial competition. Check out the Web site for more information.
Lenovo ThinkPad T Series
The Lenovo ThinkPad models from the T series are relatively inexpensive, durably built, and the driver support in Linux is very good. Wireless and wired network support, video and sound work well with most recent distributions out there. These laptops run solidly for years and perform very well.
CommuniGate Pro 5.1
CommuniGate Pro 5.1 is a comprehensive Internet communications system that encompasses IMAP, POP, SMTP, groupware and even includes a VoIP PBX. CommuniGate Pro always has been one of the easiest servers to manage, and that ease of use has been extended to its new VoIP capabilities. It is a cinch to create outgoing messages, voice menu systems, call conferencing, caller-ID blocking and much more. It is outrageously simple to set up CommuniGate Pro clusters, making it one of easiest solutions for situations where scalability is important. Of course, it supports the gamut of e-mail features, including LDAP directories, Web mail, hooks into antivirus software and spam blockers, and an easily configurable set of filters. If you're allergic to proprietary commercial software, you'll want to avoid this one, but you'll have to put in a lot of time and effort to duplicate with open source what you can get so easily with CommuniGate Pro.
The Gordano Messaging Suite (www.gordano.com) is a commercial Exchange replacement alternative that features instant messaging, collaboration, mobile gateway and archive/recovery. If you want an open-source solution, Open-Xchange Server 5 (www.open-xchange.com) deserves the honorable mention. Open-Xchange server is a terrific open-source drop-in replacement for Microsoft Exchange. It's a classy product for what it delivers. Although it is open source, it is not free. In fact, a year's subscription to the maintenence portal for 25 users, at $1,095 US, is more expensive than the more feature-rich and scalable 25-user CommuniGate Pro server, which sells for $699 US.
Yahoo UI (YUI) Library
Under normal circumstances, Qt 4 would be a shoe-in for Editors' Choice in this category. Considering how important Ajax has become to development, we chose the rich library released to open source by Yahoo. It is a comprehensive library of components, utilities, controls and CSS resources for the Ajax and Web services developer.
The Google Web Toolkit (code.google.com/webtoolkit) was a close second. Google released a lot of its resources under open source, although a few goodies are still missing. For example, the hooks are there to create something like the drag-and-drop gadgets you can assemble on your personal Google page, but we suspect Google has some unreleased code to make this much easier than what you have to do to make it work with the currently released GWT.
LPI Linux Certification in a Nutshell, Second Edition, by Steven Pritchard, Bruno Gomes Pessanha, Nicolai Langfeldt, Jeffrey Dean and James Stanger
This O'Reilly book can help you pass your LPI exams or just assist your progress toward being a better Linux system administrator. We'd love to give honorable mention to two other O'Reilly books: Linux Server Security, Second Edition, by our own Michael D. Bauer, and Linux Server Hacks, Volume Two, by William von Hagen and Brian K. Jones, but both books were released in 2005.