Getting Connected With Ubuntu
Getting a PC running with Linux is only half the challenge, because no computer is an island. For most of us, computing in the 21st century also means communicating with the rest of the networked world. Fortunately, Ubuntu makes it easy to share files and data with other computers and devices.
Getting Onto The Network
If your PC is on a LAN, it will most likely be connected to the network as soon as you boot into Ubuntu. A feature called "roaming mode" automatically selects the most appropriate settings for your network environment. If that fails, you'll have to rely on the usual manual configuration options.
Wireless networking is similarly straightforward, though it may require some additional setup. Depending on your hardware, you may need to install proprietary drivers using the Restricted Drivers Manager from the System > Administration menu. Next, you may need to configure the security options for your wireless network, which are available by right-clicking the icon on the right side of the main menu bar.
That icon is your one-stop access point for Ubuntu's Network Manager software. If you use Synaptic to install the packages "network-manager-vpnc" or "network-manager-openvpn," you will even be able to use Network Manager to configure Cisco or SSL VPN connections, respectively.
Sharing Disks and Files with Windows
The installation process should automatically have granted you read and write access to all of the files on your local Windows hard disk partitions. Be very careful when working with files on your primary Windows drive, because you could easily delete critical files that would be protected when running Windows. If you want to disable write access to your Windows drives, use Synaptic to install the package "ntfs-config," which will add a control panel to the Applications > System Tools menu.
Accessing files and folders on a network is also easy. The Connect to Server option from the Places menu allows you to add network locations as drives on your desktop, including FTP sites and Windows shares. You can then browse these folders just like you would your local hard drive.
If you want to share files on your Ubuntu system with others on the network, you'll need to install more software. Use Synaptic to install the package "samba," then use the Shared Folders control panel from the System > Administration menu to set up your shares.
Ubuntu uses CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) for its printing infrastructure -- incidentally, the same system used under Mac OS X. It supports a wide variety of color and black-and-white printers, but as is typical under Linux, hardware support is not quite as robust as under Windows.
USB printers will be detected and configured automatically. You can locate and connect to networked printers using the Printing control panel, found under the System > Administration menu.
Using Synaptic, you can also install a special driver called "cups-pdf," which allows you to send print jobs directly to PDF files. You can make the PDF device your default printer using the Printing control panel, or else select it from the Print dialog box for single jobs.
Authenticating to an Enterprise Network
If you'll be using your Ubuntu system in a business environment, connecting to the network may require some additional hurdles. It's possible to have a Linux system authenticate to an LDAP or Active Directory environment, but unfortunately, centralized authentication is one of the few things the Ubuntu developers haven't made easy. Configuring the appropriate software requires a fair amount of Linux savvy.
If connecting to Active Directory is a high priority for you -- especially if you intend to set up multiple Linux clients on a Windows network -- for the time being you may want to try one of the other commercial desktop Linux distributions that have developed tools to assist in this process. Hopefully similar tools will be available for future versions of Ubuntu.