The Linux Setup – John Goerzen, IT/DevOps

John makes a great case for xmonad. I’ve long thought about moving to a tiling window manager and xmonad might be the one to try. Even more impressively, John’s young kids use it. He’s also a Debian Stable guy because, like myself, as you get older, you really want stability in your setup. The latest and greatest software is neat, but having a worry-free desktop is also pretty awesome.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

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  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I’m John Goerzen, and what I do is hard to summarize, except to say “probably too much.” At work, I lead the IT/DevOps team at efolder.net—a cloud backup and disaster recovery company. We get to solve interesting problems, including some that have never been solved before.

    At home, my family and I live out in the country in Kansas, in the house where my grandparents lived and my dad grew up. We have a quarter-mile walk to get down the driveway from our house to the road, and then about a three-mile drive to reach the nearest paved road. The nearest town, population 600, is another few miles down the road. I love it here; the calm, the beauty of the Kansas prairie, the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets we get, the strong and caring communities (which often neither think nor act like you might think, based on media reports about Kansas.)

    I’m also a dad. I have two sons, ages five and eight. They love playing outdoors with my wife and I, but when indoors, they, incidentally, have a Linux box that they helped build several years ago. I’ve written a lot about my sons and computing here—you can find how my oldest started using the command line when he was three years old, and has thrived on xmonad. Incidentally, after a brief stint of Emacs, my second-grader prefers gVim because it is less likely to do unexpected things if he holds down a key too long while fishing for the next one when holding down Ctrl.

    My hobbies include computers (of course), photography, history, literature, amateur radio, quadcopters, RC airplanes, Arduino, and home automation… Whew! It’s a lot.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I was initially attracted to free operating systems because of the philosophy Richard Stallman wrote about in “Why Software Should Be Free.” I have been a strong believer in that philosophy since. I have been using Linux for nearly 20 years now, and that includes the time when it was not easy, when even things like having a working web browser or a program that could open Word documents were things that were not always possible on all Linux platforms (such as the Alpha I had back then).

    But I also continue to use it because it fits my needs best. Windows simply doesn’t have the feature set or security I want. Mac OS X is too locked-down for my tastes, and also lacks a number of features. Both try to lock me into their own worlds too much. With Debian, I can use my system the way I want to.

    Speaking of personal devices, I run Linux on a workstation, a laptop, two Raspberry Pi devices that are acting as sound players, a diskless MythTV front-end, a NAS/server that is running ZFSOnLinux, and a cheap remote server in a hosting facility. All are running Debian and I’m pleased with them all.

  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    Debian is on everything. I’ve been a Debian developer since 1996 and I have always come back to it. As I get older, I spend more time on family and other activities, and so while once I ran all my systems on Debian Unstable, now I actually have some that run—gasp—Stable! The lure of fully-automatic security updates and things that don’t change and just keep working is powerful now. My workstation and laptop run testing. Most of them are running ZFSOnLinux now.

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    While I technically run a desktop environment, that is sort of an afterthought, because more central to me is my choice of window manager: xmonad. xmonad is a tiling window manager, and the concept basically is, “Gee, we all spend a lot of time fiddling with dragging frame bits of windows around, resizing them, moving them, etc. Shouldn’t a computer be able to automate this for us?”

    I started using it some years ago when I was developing wrist pain linked to mouse use. I have long since adopted ways to reduce my mouse use and use an ergonomic keyboard, which have pretty much eliminated my trouble. xmonad is a key part of it; I can quickly and instantly rearrange windows using the keyboard, and in fact I am more productive this way than I ever was with a mouse. It’s highly configurable, and I’ve used it with good results on everything from a 9″ EeePC to a 27″ monitor.

    I work most of the day at a treadmill desk, and when I pop the laptop off its docking station for break to work while I sit, it is quite nice to have xmonad not miss a beat and not be very encumbered by the TrackPad.

    But to answer the question, I do technically use Xfce with xmonad. That
    is mainly to get the panel tray and a few settings in a convenient way.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    I would have to say xmonad, because it is directly linked to physical health for me.

    I am, incidentally, a big fan of challenging assumptions about what makes software that is easy to use. I initially had not set my kids up with xmonad, but after a spate of them accidentally dragging icons away from their usual locations and the ensuing “support needs,” I threw in the towel and gave them xmonad without any desktop environment at all. They launch all their programs from a shell window (as do I, most of the time.) I do have a launcher bound to dmenu so I can press Mod-p and then start typing and get command auto-completion. I rarely use the panel menu to launch anything because it is simply so much faster to type what I want than to move my hand to the mouse and navigate the menu.

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    My hardware has traditionally been fairly modest, but after some lightning damage last year, I had to rebuild a fair chunk of it, and took the opportunity to upgrade. Nothing is all that fancy. I find most of my peers running far faster hardware than I do.

    My workstation is a homebrew system with a Core i5-4690K CPU and 8GB RAM. The laptop is a Thinkpad X240.

    The server in my basement is also homebrew, running a SuperMicro server-style motherboard in a 4U case (though it sits on a table, not in a rack). It can accommodate 12 drives in the case, but I really have only four 4TB drives there in a raidz1 setup with hot spare. Since I like to run whole-disk encryption wherever I can, I have the operating system on a pair of USB drives that I installed internal to the case using a cheap USB header-to-port adapter.

    The Raspberry Pi machines are the original model B, plus a $10 Edimax WiFi dongle and another $10 audio card. They run squeezebox and not much else. The MythTV box is many years old but is adequate for HDTV.

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

John Goerzen's desktop

Interview conducted March 2, 2015


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

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