Friday, February 02, 2007

Ubuntu Linux vs. Vista

A Vista vs. Linux matchup -- Part 1: Leveling the Playing Field by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 24, 2007)

In this multi-part series, columnist and operating system curmudgeon Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols pits Microsoft's latest wares -- Vista -- against Linux's fair haired boy -- Ubuntu -- to see how the pinnacle of commercial desktop operating systems stacks up against the free, community-developed Linux upstart.

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup

Part 1: Leveling the Playing Field

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

So, which really is better for the desktop: Vista or Linux?

I've been working with Vista since its beta days, and I started using Linux in the mid-90s. There may be other people who have worked with both more than I have, but there can't be many of them. Along the way, I've formed a strong opinion: Linux is the better of the two.

But, now that Vista is on the brink of becoming widely available, I thought it was time to take a comprehensive look at how the two really compare. To do this, I decided to take one machine, install both of them on it, and then see what life was like with both operating systems on a completely even playing field.

My first decision was to acquire a new system. I think almost anyone -- unless they have a loaded gaming system -- will make the same decision. The folks up in Redmond can tell you until they turn blue in the face that Vista Premium Ready needs only a 1 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor, 1 GB of system memory, and a graphic card with support for DirectX 9 graphics, a WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model) driver, and 128 MB of graphics memory. They lie like rugs.

You can no more run Vista, with its pretty Aero interface, on a system like that than you can ride a bicycle on an interstate. Yes, you might get on the road, but you're not going to enjoy it and you'll be in danger of getting over run at any moment.

A modern Linux, like SLED 10 (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) or Ubuntu 6.10, runs well on such a system. Vista with all the trimmings? Forget about it. It's not happening.

So, from the get-go, Vista starts with a knock against it. If you own a PC that's over a year old, and haven't upgraded it, chances are you won't be able to run high-end Vista. Last spring, Gartner, the research house, estimated that only half of the PCs then shipping could support Vista Premium. In other words, if you don't have a shiny new machine, you're not going to be running a shiny new Windows operating system.

That said, you can buy Vista Premium-capable systems now for about a grand without too much looking. I managed, I thought, to do it for only $800.

I went to a local Best Buy store after Christmas and I found an HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC floor model on sale. This high-end, for early 2006, system had originally listed for $1,200. Now, when you can find this one-time PC Magazine Editor's Choice, since it's no longer being made, you can pick up a brand new one for about a $1,000.

The m7360n comes with a hyper-threaded 2.8 GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, 4 MB of L2 cache, an 800 MHz front-side bus, and 2 GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. It also has a 300-GB SATA hard drive, a dual-layer, multi-format LightScribe DVD/CD burner, a DVD-ROM drive.

For peripherals and multimedia, the m7360n has six USB 2.0, two FireWire, one VGA, one S-Video, and one composite AV port. It also comes with a 9-in-1 memory card reader, 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet, 56K V.92 modem, and 802.11g WiFi. For graphics, it has an NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card which takes up 256 MB of the system's main RAM, Intel High Definition audio (aka Azalia) with 5.1-channel surround sound.

Not bad, eh?

I decided to give Vista every chance to strut its stuff, so I decided to install Vista Ultimate -- the top of the Vista line -- on it. For the Linux, I decided to go with SimplyMEPIS 6.01, which is 99 percent Ubuntu 6.06.

I chose MEPIS (the 32-bit version), rather than straight Ubuntu, for several reasons. The first, is that I prefer the KDE interface to GNOME, and I've never developed much affection for Kubuntu, the official KDE version of Ubuntu. Your Linux love affair may vary. The other reason is that the 1 percent that MEPIS adds to Ubuntu includes features that I really like a lot, such as easy interoperability with Windows domain and AD (Active Directory) networks.

You see, I run my computers on a business network that includes the Windows networking infrastructure, as well such old Unix standards as NFS (Network File System) and LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol). So, I prefer operating systems that can plug and play with Windows networks. Home users, who don't need to worry about such issues, will probably find genuine Ubuntu or Kubuntu fine for their purposes.

So, now it was time to rip out the m7360n's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Update Rollup 2. This was no great loss. But, the story of what happened next will need to wait for Part 2 of my series.

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup - Part 2: Dual-booting Vista and Linux by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 26, 2007)

Foreword: This is Part 2 of a series that pits Microsoft's latest wares -- Vista -- against Linux's fair-haired boy -- Ubuntu. When we last saw our fearless curmudgeon, he was busy preparing a level playing field for Vista and Linux to play -- and work -- together on.

Note: If you missed Part 1, read it here.

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup

Part 2: Dual-Booting Vista and Linux

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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Last time around, I described the HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n that I'm using for my Vista vs. Linux shootout. Getting the PC was the easy part. Getting Linux and Vista to live together on the same machine turned out to be a bit harder.

On XP and earlier Windows PCs, making Windows and Linux live together was almost automatic. Any of the major distributions made it easy. With Vista, things have changed. Microsoft has deep-sixed its old boot.ini bootloader in favor of a new bootloader.

The new bootloader, BCD (Boot Configuration Data), is designed to be firmware-independent. It also comes with a new boot option editing tool, BCDEdit.exe, which isn't so much user-friendly as user-hostile. I'm not, by the way, talking here as someone whose chief concern is dual-booting Linux. BCDEdit is a pain to work with no matter how you're modifying Vista's boot behavior. Unfortunately, though, you're going to have to work with Vista bootloader, because Vista doesn't deal well with being installed on a system that already has an operating system on it that you mean to keep.

In my case, I had already decided to blow away my system's existing Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Update Rollup 2 operating system. I could have "upgraded" this system to Vista, but I really do want to give Vista its best chance to shine, and upgrading an existing Windows system appears to be an almost sure way to find trouble.

Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you don't mind running into incompatibility problems, and you know exactly what you're doing, do not "upgrade" to Vista. Do a clean install, instead.

In the case of a dual-boot system, you're almost certainly going to need to do a clean install, anyway. You see, if you "upgrade" a system, you have to do it from within Windows XP or 2000. And, if you do that, you can't repartition or reformat any of the hard drive. The only way you can work on your drive fundamentals at the start of a Vista install is if you boot from the Vista DVD. So, unless you already have a big enough partition on your drive for another operating system, you're better off with a clean install.

With all that in mind, I did a clean install of Vista Ultimate on my system. I divided my system's 300GB SATA hard drive into two equal partitions. On the Vista side, I had the option of using BitLocker Drive Encryption, but I decided not to use it.

BitLocker actually makes a good deal of sense. In particular, if I was planning to lug around a Vista-only laptop, I'd like knowing that if anyone swiped it, they wouldn't be able to easily get at my data.

For me, though, that has two problems. The first is that it requires a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) 1.1 chip or a USB drive. While the HP doesn't have a TPM chip, it does have six USB 2.0 ports. But, if I use a USB drive to keep my BitLocker encryption key on, isn't it always going to be on my machine anyway? Now, this doesn't really matter with this hefty tower system, but if I were using a notebook, anyone who grabbed my laptop bag would also be likely to get my USB BitLocker key at the same time.

The real problem for dual-booting with BitLocker is that it blocks Linux from accessing any data in that partition. Security guru Bruce Schneier thinks "You could look at BitLocker as anti-Linux because it frustrates dual boot," but I don't think it does. Even with BitLocker installed, Vista still needs an unencrypted partition to boot from, so dual-booting should still work. It's just that getting at data on the BitLocker-protected NTFS partition will be close to impossible for Linux users.

One final thought on BitLocker before I go. Microsoft has only made it available on its Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Enterprise is only available to volume buyers, and Ultimate's the most expensive Vista of them all. I find it more than a little annoying that small business users will have to upgrade to Ultimate to get what I think of as one of Vista's best points for business users.

As for Linux and disk encryption, this functionality has been baked into Linux using the CryptoAPI since version 2.6.0 first appeared several years ago. For detailed instructions on how to use CryptoAPI, see, A Structured Approach to Hard Disk Encryption. If you don't want to get your hands dirty with this do-it-yourself approach, you can use a GUI-enabled open-source program, TrueCrypt to get the job done.

Now, I started to install Vista. One of Vista's better points is that it will alert you when it runs into hardware that it hasn't a clue on how to handle. On the down side, it will also, like all operating systems, run hardware that it thinks it knows how to run, but it doesn't really have a clue.

With the m7360n, I quickly found that neither Vista nor Ubuntu nor MEPIS could run all of the system's hardware. I found one component that Vista couldn't deal with at all, and several that required some work with MEPIS before I could get them operational.

I'm going to save those stories for the next installment where I talk about hardware compatibility, so I can continue talking about making Vista and Linux dual-bootable. Before I do this, though, let me make one thing clear. People are always talking about how Linux has problems with devices. And, that's true. Vista, however, at this point in its development anyway, also has a goodly number of hardware problems.

For the most part, both the Vista and MEPIS installations went without any problems. Both operating systems come on DVDs and once you boot the system up and start installing them, your "hardest" job will be setting the proper time.

In the case of Vista, though. I did have one of those "What the heck?" moments. If you look at the Windows setup screen you'll see that it lists both Home and Business as choices, but there's really no difference between them. Or, if there is, you sure can't tell it from this display. I do have to wonder for a moment, too, about anyone who's not sure if they're at home or in the office, but I'll let that pass.

One of those "What the heck?" moments.
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Once both systems are on the machine, though, you're going to quickly find that you can only boot the system into Linux, thanks to the unfriendly Vista BCD.

There are several ways to get around this. For Ubuntu-based systems like MEPIS and Kubuntu, which use the GRUB bootloader, here's how you set it up.

First, you want to switch to root, aka super-user mode. MEPIS enables me to do this with the su command. Most of the Ubuntu family requires you to use the sudo command. For our purposes, changing the bootloader settings in Ubuntu with its sudo settings will work in exactly the same way.

Then, in most of Linuxes, you open up the file /boot/grub/menu.lst with your favorite text editor, not word-processor. In my case, that's vi in a terminal window.

Configuring GRUB to dual-boot Linux and Vista
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Then, you enter the following lines at the bottom of the file...

    title Vista
    rootnoverify (hd0,1)
    chainloader +1

...and then you save and close it.

In my case, Vista is on my first -- and only -- hard drive's second partition, so the root setting is "hd0,1". If it were on my second drive's first partition, it would be "hd1,0".

Now, when you boot your system up, the first thing you'll see is the MEPIS boot screen. If you want to go to Linux, you just leave it alone and off you go. If you want to boot Vista, simply select it, and that will put you into Vista's BCD menu and you'll be on your way to Vista.

If you want to get fancier, say run Vista, XP, Red Hat, Mac OS X, Ubuntu, Solaris, and -- oh, what the heck -- OS/2, on a system, you should get a high-end boot manager editor. At this time, the best I know of, which can also handle Vista's BCD, is EasyBCD 1.52, from NeoSmart Technologies. This is a Windows-only, freeware program.

My Vista desktop
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My MEPIS desktop
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At the end of this, as you can see, I had both Vista Ultimate and SimplyMEPIS 6.01 installed and running successfully on my PC. Well, mostly successfully. For what went right -- and wrong -- with the system's hardware with both operating systems, stay tuned for the next exciting chapter.

Oh, and yes, that is an Internet Explorer icon on the MEPIS window.

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 31, 2007)

Foreword: This is Part 3 of a series that pits Microsoft's new Vista OS against Linux's fair-haired boy, Ubuntu. At the conclusion of Part 2, our fearless curmudgeon had just finished configuring his test system to dual-boot Vista Ultimate and SimplyMEPIS 6.01, an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution with a KDE desktop.

Note: If you missed the previous installments of this series, read them here:

A Vista vs. Linux Matchup

Part 3: Hardware Wars

by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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When last we left my exploration of Vista vs. Ubuntu/MEPIS Linux, I had the system up and running in a dual-boot environment.

Now, came the interesting part: seeing how each operating system would work, or not, with the hardware on my HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC. When it was first built, in early 2006, this was a high-end system. Today, in early 2007, it's still a powerful system; but, it's in no way, shape, or form a cutting-edge PC. In other words, neither Vista nor MEPIS should have too much trouble with the hardware. Right?

Well, I was half-right.

To start with the very basics, neither operating system had any trouble using the PC's hyper-threaded 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, 4MB of L2 cache, 800MHz front-side bus, and 2GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. Both recognized and appropriately used those system resources.

MEPIS provides a detailed look at what's what in memory, and that's not much at all with the Linux in a resting state.
(Click to enlarge)

With both systems completely idle except for their memory map programs and the screenshot program, MEPIS has a memory footprint of less than 100MB, while Vista is pounding down its foot with over half-a-gigabyte of RAM.
(Click to enlarge)

For the purposes of my evaluation, I didn't make the best possible theoretical use of the hardware, however, because, on this 64-bit system, I used 32-bit versions of both OSes. I did this because both Vista and Linux still have teething pains on 64-bit systems. They'll run just fine, but there are nowhere near enough 64-bit hardware drivers or applications for either one.

Actually, Vista has far more trouble than Linux does with the 64-bit environment. Microsoft decided, in the interests of security, to require 64-bit Vista drivers to be digitally signed. If they're not signed, they don't load, they don't run, and that's the end of the story. That actually does make some sense. For example, it will stop some rootkit attacks cold. On the other hand, it also means that there are darn few digitally signed drivers available.

Therefore, since I was interested in seeing how Linux did against Vista on a level playing field, I decided not to go 64-bit. When it comes to 64-bits, Linux has a clear advantage in hardware compatibility. You could argue it does that by being less secure, but consider the track record: Windows, as secure as the web built by the itsy-bitsy spider in the rain spout; versus Linux, no known significant viruses or rootkits. All things considered, I'm not worried about Linux's lack of digitally signed drivers.

Both operating systems ran flawlessly with the Maxtor 300GB, 7200rpm SATA hard drive. And, both of them were able to recognize and use the system's dual-layer, multi-format LightScribe DVD/CD burner drive and the DVD-ROM drive. Vista was also able to use LightScribe, which enables you to burn gray-scale graphics and lettering onto special DVDs and CDs, whereas MEPIS doesn't have this functionality built-in.

LightScribe recently released its own driver and software for RPM-based Linux systems such as Fedora and openSUSE. The drive vendor Lacie, however, has also released software -- 4L: LaCie LightScribe Labeler for Linux -- that enables any Linux, including Debian-based ones such as MEPIS and its parent Ubuntu, to use LightScribe.

The usual array of memory card reader ports -- CompactFlash I and II, SmartMedia, Memory Stick and MS Pro, Secure Digital (SD) and MMC MicroDrive, and XD Picture Card -- worked well. The USB 2.0 and FireWire ports also ran without a hitch for both OSes.

Moving right along, while installing the operating systems, I ran into a complete failure of an operating system to recognize an integral component of the system. The naughty operating system? Vista.

Yes, I know you've been taught to think that Windows runs everything, and that Linux is the one with hardware driver problems. Well, yes, Linux does have some shortcomings with drivers thanks to proprietary drivers, but Vista has its troubles, too.

Vista's problem child surprised me though: it was the audio. I can't recall the last time any operating system I worked with had trouble working with a motherboard's onboard audio. While Vista had no trouble finding and activating the Intel High Definition audio chip (aka Azalia), what it couldn't work with at all was the common-as-dirt RealTek ALC 882 audio chipset.

The result was that while Vista could push Dolby 5-1 media audio to my media speakers, it actually couldn't use my plain-old vanilla speakers. I checked into this further, and quickly discovered that I was far from the first person to run into this problem. At this time, there also doesn't appear to be a solution.

Vista found the high-end audio, but it couldn't find the basic audio.
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MEPIS, on the other hand, immediately recognized and put all the system's audio to work. At this very moment, I'm listening to the Dropkick Murphys' Boston-branded Celtic-Punk off the system using my favorite Linux music player, Banshee.

No trouble with the audio hardware in MEPIS.
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Not long after my musical interlude, I switched back to Vista... and found that Vista has other audio problems.

My test system's high-end audio outputs are S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) compliant. S/PDIF is probably the most common high-end audio port around for PCs today. It also has no built-in DRM (digital rights management) capability, and that turned out to be an important matter.

When I switched back to Vista, I tried to play Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD. Whoops! Not a single sound emerged from my speakers. After a little investigation, I found that Vista disables media outputs that don't incorporate DRM, when you try to play DRM protected media through them.

My test system's high-end S/PDIF audio port lacks built-in DRM. Without that functionality, Vista won't play music through the PC's speakers with Windows Media Player 11. MEPIS, on the other hand, has no trouble playing online music. In this case, I'm using Streamtuner.
(Click to enlarge)

That was a kick in the head. I have a fully legal CD in my hand. Any other version of Windows will play it, Linux will play it, Mac OS will play it, and my CD player will play it, but if you're using S/PDIF for your computer-driven audio and Vista, you're out of luck. If you have a card with a Toslink optical digital audio port, you will be able to play it.

One of the ironies of the situation was that this very album had been first released on the Web without any DRM, in part as a protest against DRM. Ah well, that was yesterday.

There's a very detailed report on just how Vista goes wrong with DRM, which I recommend to you. I'll just content myself by saying an operating system -- any operating system -- is not the place for DRM.

Next up, I came to the system's Agere Systems PCI K56flex data/fax modem. It was, of course, a WinModem. These accursed modems consist of a bit of hardware and a lot of Windows code. Vista has no problems with it, but MEPIS was unable to work with it.

Now, most people assume that Linux, by and large, can't work with WinModems at all. That's not true. Many WinModems will work with Linux. The trick is to find the right driver for your modem. The motherlode of Linux and WinModem information is at Linmodems. An extremely useful site for Ubuntu Linux family users is the Dial Up Modem section of Ubuntu's online documentation. Alas, in my case, I'm stuck with a WinModem I can't get to work.

Since the chances of me using a modem on a desktop system is somewhere between slim and none, I don't regard this as a major failure.

Things, however, did go much better with my PC's networking systems. Unlike any other tower PC I've ever met, this HP system comes with both an Intel Pro/100 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet port and 802.11g WiFi. As you would expect, both Vista and MEPIS took to the Ethernet like ducks to water. What might surprise you, though, is that MEPIS had no trouble swimming away with WiFi as well.

While Linux often has trouble with WiFi, thanks again to proprietary drivers, the WiFi system on the m7360n uses an Atheros Communications chipset and Linux can work with most, albeit not all, Atheros-based WiFi devices. This works thanks to the Madwifi project, which has worked for years on enabling Atheros equipment to work with Linux. While not all Linux distributions include Madwifi, MEPIS, fortunately for me, does.

If you're stuck with a laptop that doesn't use Atheros WiFi hardware, there are also many other Linux WiFi drivers. And, if worse comes to worse, you can always try using a Windows WiFi driver in Linux by installing NDISWrapper. This project implements a Windows driver API and the NDIS (Network Driver Interface Specification) API within the Linux kernel. You then take a working Windows wireless network driver, say the one with Vista, and use it to connect to WiFi networks. For the best reference to Linux and WiFi, visit Hewlett-Packard and Jean Tourrilhes's Wireless LAN resources for Linux site.

Again, in my case, though, there was no fuss or muss. Both OSes just worked with both network interfaces.

I was also pleased to find that MEPIS, as well as Vista, could work with the TV tuner and video capture chipset -- the Conexant Falcon II NTSC. Between it, and the GeForce 6200SE graphics card, it boasts S-Video and composite inputs and outputs, coaxial cable TV, and FM antenna ports.

Neither operating system had any trouble turning the PC into a TV. Here, we see a shot from a recent episode of Ugly Betty being rendered by VLC media player on MEPIS.
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While it's enjoyable to watch TV with both operating systems, I won't go into anymore detail on it since (1) the Conexant only has a single-tuner, and (2) it doesn't support HDTV. If you want to get serious about a 2007 "media center" using either Vista or Linux, you'll want a much more recent and capable TV video card.

Finally, I come to graphics. Here, I have to report that while both operating systems worked with the NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card, neither worked with it as well as I had hoped. Of the two, I was most disappointed with Vista.

Now, the GeForce 6200SE is no speed demon. Instead of having its own video RAM, it cannibalizes 256MB of the system's main RAM. No one expects to get any kind of WOW experience from this card.

What I did expect, though, was, given the rest of the system, to be able to at least run Vista's fancy-pants new GUI, Aero, decently. Wrong.

While I was installing Vista, it told me that my "Windows Experience Index" was going to be 2.4. Let me translate that for you: my graphics quality was going to be mediocre. A 3.0 is considered adequate for Aero.

A Vista experience of 2.4 isn't a good experience. Time to go out and buy a graphics card with its own dedicated 256MB of RAM -- or should that be 512MB?
(Click to enlarge)

Things were better on MEPIS, but its 3D graphics, using both Beryl and Compviz were, well, OK. While working with these, Linux finally lived up to its reputation as being difficult to install.

Other Linuxes, such as openSUSE with Compviz and Foresight with Beryl, already incorporate the 3D, special-effect windows managers. On those systems, installing a fancy graphics manager goes much easier.

That said, I installed both Beryl and Compiz. Most Linux users probably could install them. But, Mr. Joe Windows? Forget about it. He'll never get it done. That said, I got more eye-candy goodness from MEPIS than I ever did with Vista.

Along the way, I might add, I updated the graphics drivers in both operating systems. In the case of MEPIS, it made a real difference. With Vista, well, if the new driver improved things, I couldn't tell.

Don't get me wrong. Both operating systems did well at showing videos and snapping 2D applications in and out of focus. It's just that if you wanted to have a spectacular graphics experience, you were at the wrong PC.

What I learned from this experience is that Microsoft has low-balled Vista's requirements even more than I had thought they had. Seriously, if you're going to run Vista and you want Aero, get a high-end video card with 256MB of dedicated memory -- 512MB would be even better. I have to say that my last thought on both Vista and Linux is that if you really, really want the best possible graphics... get a Mac.

Putting aside Apple hardware, where all the software works with all the hardware so long as it's all up to the minute, I found that MEPIS actually has better hardware support for this PC than Vista.

Now, that may change as Microsoft puts dollars into hardware vendors' hands to support Vista. But, for now, if you're going to upgrade your operating system on an existing PC, Linux gives you the better shot of everything working correctly.

On the other hand, if you're planning on viewing or listening to DRM-protected media of any sort, Linux is clearly going to give you better hardware support. By incorporating DRM into the operating system, Microsoft is going to make it very difficult for everyone from PC DVR (digital video recorder) users to just a guy who wants to play a DRM-crippled CD to be certain that everything will work properly.

Adding insult to injury, since DRM protection schemes must evolve constantly, to stay ahead of hackers tearing them down, I have little doubt that one day you'll come home to find that a Vista update to DRM-protection has just locked you out of your media collection. You know, the same collection, which had worked just fine the day before. Repeat after me: DRM does not belong in operating systems.

Next up, I'll start looking at what both Vista and MEPIS have to offer with their basic, built-in software. See you then.

To be continued . . .

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