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Friday, May 24, 2013

Liking Linux

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Following my years writing for a number of big-circulation computer magazines, I offered tech columns to Metroland for a while. Here’s one of them, and it’s too-techie nature demonstrates why the columns ceased. Red Hat stopped developing the Linux versions I wrote about in 2004, now offering an enterprise edition that’s a much different animal.


IT’S A MORE STABLE operating system than Windows, and for many its appeal is also its ease of customization. Then there are those who simply don’t want to make Microsoft – and Bill Gates – any wealthier. Which is why an operating system called Linux is exploding in popularity.

Derived from UNIX, an OS that predates Microsoft’s DOS (and which forms the foundation of the Internet, Linux (pronounced LINN-uks) was written by University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds, who released his program to the world in 1991. The world, in the form of programming-savvy users, responded enthusiastically. The source code is freely distributed, and has been enhanced and improved over the years, with Torvalds still overseeing its integrity from his home in California.

Is it a viable alternative to DOS and Windows? I looked at the latest offering from Red Hat Software (Linux version 6), which sports a streamlined installation process and an improved graphical (meaning Windows-like) interface that simplifies its use. Its much-vaunted stability was certainly in evidence, although I hardly pushed it to its limits. Its cost – free – is appealing. It’s pretty light on applications – you won’t find a big-time spreadsheet, and the only major word processing program is from WordPerfect. And installation, despite many improvements, requires a better-than-amateur knowledge of computers.

You can download it from the Red Hat website (, but, if you’re using a Windows-based machine, installation is all the trickier as you try to leap from one operating system to the other. Red Hat sells a package that includes two hearty, almost understandable manuals along with a floppy boot disk and three CD-ROMs, also include lots of third-party software. You can also find it in the back of many aftermarket Linux books, among the best of which is Red Hat Linux 6 Unleashed by David Pitts and Billy Ball (Sams Publishing; $40), an encylopedic guide.

If you’re familiar with DOS comand-line functions, you’ll probably do fine. Not that the commands themselves are helpful – Linux has its own set – but at least you’ll know the theory of issuing commands. GNOME, the Linux graphical environment included in the Red Hat package, tries to keep you safe from the command prompt, but in my first stab at an installation, I ran ino a problem that left me marooned until I figured out the right command – a problem I describe below.

What’s Inside?

You need to know what hardware you’ve got. The Linux community is developing an installation routine that identifies what’s in your machine, if possible, but for now you’ll need to have a few pieces of info at hand. To wit:
  • Hard drives: How many are in your computer? What’s the size of each?
  • Memory: How much is installed?
  • CD-ROMs: How many? SCSI or IDE? Make and model of each? If yours is a SCSI drive, make and model of the adapter?
  • Mouse: What type? How many buttons? COM port of a serial mouse?
  • Video adapter: Make and model? Amount of memory?
  • Monitor: Make and model? If an unusual brand, horizontal and vertical refresh rates?
  • Network: Make and model of network adapter?
If you’re running Windows, much of this information already has been collected for you and is available by right-clicking the My Computer icon on the desktop and choosing Properties, then reading from the Device Manager window. Hard disk info you can get from the BIOS setup screen, typically obtained by pressing the Del key as the computer starts up and runs its memory test.

The Partition Part

The worst is first. You need to know about hard drive partitions. Every functioning hard drive is divided into such segments. DOS treats each partition as a separate drive, useful with older DOS versions that simply couldn’t handle extremely large disks. Linux treats partitions differently, treating them more in the way that DOS handles directories, to tremendously oversimplify.

The easiest approach, albeit a destructive one, is to use the DOS fdisk command to re-partition the drive. This erases everything on the disk, and will leave you with one large, empty partition that Linux will be able to work with.

Do you want to hang on to Windows? Unless you’re wallowing in indignation at Microsoft’s greedy excesses, it’s tempting to retain what’s familiar. And it can be done in two ways. Number 1: Backup your drive, check the integrity of the backup, re-partition the drive into two areas, and reinstall your Windows stuff, making sure that it’s bootable. Then run the Linux installation. Number 2: Run a defragmentation program so that all of your existing data is contiguous, then use the non-destructive re-partitioning program called fips that comes with the Red Hat package (it’s on the CD-ROM in the dosutils directory). It can resize a DOS partition so that Linux easily can work with the hard drive, but Red Hat won’t guarantee success. What with so many hardware combinations out there and the delicate nature of the surgery, you’re on your own. I’ve done it; it works. But my hardware array is hardly unusual. You’ll eventually end up with a dual-boot system that allows you to choose between Linux and Windows.

Once you’re partitioned properly, you’ll run a fairly automated installation. Choose a class of installation: “workstation,” “server” and “custom” are the options, and “workstation” probably is your best choice as a newcomer. It automatically sets up your swap partition and, if you’ve got Windows, sets up the dual-boot mode. Have at least 600 MB of disk space available. Server class wipes out everything on your hard drive and gets you ready to be an Internet host machine. You’ll need 1.6 GB of disk space for this one, and ready knowledge about networking. Custom class lets you define swap partition size and other options, and lets you choose the packages that will be installed.

All the info you collected earlier will be applied here, and it was during this configuration process that I ran into trouble. Following my triumphant success at answering all the questions—I had even thought to write down my network card’s interrupt setting—I let the install program choose a video resolution. As I pressed Enter to confirm the choice, I realized that it was setting my screen to 1,280 by 1,024 pixels, which rendered the text in the graphic environment unreadable. It was otherwise a pleasant environment, but it wasn’t until I consulted Red Hat Linux 6 Unleashed that I discovered the use of Xconfigurator, which once again prompted me for monitor specifications and helped me select a resolution.

Since then, the machine has been running very well. The Linux package comes with games, duplicating some Windows items such as Freecell and Minesweeper, and many hundreds of other full-blown or trial-size programs. But you’ve installed Linux not only to enjoy the Microsoft alternative but also to take advantage of a robust networking environment. Unix is the backbone of the Internet; a Linux-based machine enjoys the same multi-user, multitasking versatility.

You’re also now part of the Linux community, which is far more supportive than anything you’ll experience in the commercial world of the PC. Sure, there’s something of the propeller head about it, but these are the people who write (or adapt) the software, keep it friendly and, above all, make it work. Not a bad place to be. Especially after Windows.

Metroland Magazine, 30 September, 1999

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