64-Bit Upgrade by Way of Open Source Isn't Bump-Free

In the wake of analyst Andrew Garcia's Windows 7 64-bit migration woes, Labs' Jason Brooks considers the bumps he's encountered on his own journey to 64-bit on the Ubuntu Linux machines he runs at home and work.

My fellow Labs analyst Andrew Garcia has chronicled his Windows 7 64-bit migration woes-a tale that led me to consider the bumps I've encountered on my own road to 64-bit on the Ubuntu Linux machines I run at home and work.

The issues that bedeviled Andrew-missing drivers and a 32-bit-only Cisco VPN client-weren't a problem for me, due largely to the fact that Linux-based operating systems tend to insulate users from a lot of the OS, driver and application integration work required to run a Windows machine.

All of the drivers I need for my machines either come bundled with the Ubuntu install disk or sit waiting to be fetched and installed from Ubuntu's networked software repositories. Most of these drivers are maintained within the Linux kernel project-an organizational structure that's helped to smooth the 64-bit migration path.

What's more, Linux has a rather long history with the x86-64 architecture. The first x86-64 OS that I reviewed was SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 8, which hit the streets in the first half of 2003, some two years before Microsoft took up the platform.

As for Andrew's issues with access to our company's Cisco VPN, a Cisco VPN client, courtesy of the open-source vpnc project and the TUN driver that ships as part of the Linux kernel, has been available to me-out of the box, and complete with a GUI configuration interface-for the past few years.

Now, before this column turns into an unadulterated Linux-on-x86-64 love fest, I must say that my experience moving to 64-bit hasn't been trouble-free. The integration work that Linux distributors and upstream projects take on helps to smooth the path, but those integration efforts are largely limited to the open source code on my machines.

While open-source applications satisfy most of my computing needs, there's one proprietary piece of code that I can't manage to do without: Adobe's Flash player. Adobe doesn't yet offer a stable 64-bit Flash plug-in, and 64-bit browsers expect to interface with 64-bit plug-ins. Microsoft works around this architecture mismatch by presenting Windows x64 users with a 32-bit version of Internet Explorer.

The 64-bit version of Ubuntu 9.04 takes a different route, offering up a 64-bit version of Firefox along with an unseen helper application that papers over the architecture mismatch. In the months I've spent using this cross-architecture combo, however, I've experienced frequent Flash outages that occur when that little helper app silently crashes in the background.

Adobe has a 64-bit version of the Flash plug-in in development, and an alpha version of the plug-in is even available for Linux (and, for now, only Linux), but installing the plug-in means stepping outside of the packaging system that keeps Linux system administration easy and automated. What's more, the time I've spent with the alpha version of Adobe's plug-in has convinced me that the alpha label is warranted.

Eventually, Adobe will ship a stable version of its 64-bit Flash plug-in, and the Ubuntu team will drop its flaky helper application. Then, my Flash experience should improve-that is, with the exception of the weekly zero-day vulnerabilities that seem to plague the plug-in.

A more satisfying solution, both from a system maintenance and a security standpoint, would require the rise of an open-source Flash plug-in. I hope that the work Adobe has begun around its Open Screen project will eventually mean a Flash plug-in that's just as well-integrated and up-to-date as the rest of my desktop.

Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at jbrooks@eweek.com.