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Tangling with Linux - My Learning Experience (AKA First Steps in the Samba)

Written and copyright John Oliver December 2002, updated December 2003

The reason for the title is simple, if you have not had any experience of anything other than the warm, comfortable, cushioned environment of Microsoft and Windows, be prepared for a shock. Linux will lead you a merry dance.

The conclusion that I have come to is that although Microsoft's days are numbered as far as its virtual monopoly is concerned, the numbers are probably in the thousands, Linux is not quite ready - yet. If you want to know more, read on.....

After having read many articles recently that were promoting the Linux environment, I decided to try Linux out and perhaps learn something new in the process. I have experimented with Linux before, back in its infancy, when it was little more than a "super DOS" text based system, so I was not a complete "newbie". Little did I know at the outset how much time and effort would be needed, however, it has been a worthwhile experience. I think that I can safely say that I am beginning to 
understand how Linux works and how to install and use it. I also now know why Linux is not considered commercially viable in the office workstation environment - it still needs a lot of support and even more education of the user.

During the exercise, I encountered three flavours of this operating system:

1) Corel Linux - No Longer available
2) Turbo Linux
3) Red Hat Linux

I will be trying Mandrake Linux at some time (I recently downloaded the three CD's required, it took 3 days), just to be able to make a balanced judgement as to which edition suits any particular purpose.

Early in the exercise I set myself six targets, which, if achieved, would mean that I had installed a viable system:
1) Connect to the Internet and be able to use email and the Web.
2) Set up my own outgoing smtp email server and make it secure.
3) Set up my own Web server and make it secure.
4) Set up a useable firewall for the machine.
5) Share resources with other PC's on the home network of 4 PC's including the Linux box.
6) Be able to use applications that are similar to the MS Office environment (Word, Excel etc.)

Several of the above are more like a server environment rather than a workstation, I hope eventually to be able to install a fully fledged domain server running Linux.

Initially, I tried to install Linux from various distributors on an existing dual boot system. I thought, in my naivety that everything I had read was true, Linux/Lilo takes care of everything. Having already set up an NT4/Windows 98 dual boot PC, adding another operating system (OS) should be a piece of cake. No chance, but that is another story. I eventually gave up and tried installing on another, older, PC. This system is based on a Pentium II 166MHz with 64MByte of RAM and a 2.5GByte 
hard disc drive.

As Linux is free, you often receive editions free on the CD's that accompany magazines, this is where I started.

Corel Linux

The CD that I tried to install was given away free late in 2001 with Personal Computer World (or PCW as it is now called). Corel is a well respected software vendor that has been around a long time. The process involves ensuring that the CDROM drive is enabled at start up, either using DOS drivers, or, if it is possible, setting the boot device to be the CDROM. In my case it was the former. The steps were:

1) Boot the machine from a DOS disc with CD drivers available. You can make a DOS startup disc with most versions of Windows. In W98 the emergency recovery disc will work (you did make one didn't you ?)

2) Make the Linux installation boot floppy disc using a utility on the CD. The instructions for doing this are in a readme file on the CD.

3) Restart the PC using the Linux boot disc and installing Linux from the CD

I tried this procedure four or five times, each time everything seemed to be going perfectly until about 10 minutes into the CD part of the process. At this point the installation programme just looped back, started again, went for 10 minutes, then restarted again. Eventually, I decided that either the CD was corrupted or my hardware was incompatible in some way. I could find no help file on the CD to assist me in my diagnosis, I was on my own. I gave up on Corel at this point.

Turbo Linux

After having wasted several hours on Corel without any tangible result, I decided that I should have another try to prove my diagnosis if nothing else. One of the things that Linux is reputedly good for is support for legacy hardware, in my case, the legacy is long, as the machine is about five years old. Surely, I thought, I should be able to get something working, even if not a graphical installation. The Turbo Linux CD that I had is about 14 months old and came with a motherboard purchased for some other purpose. So began my second adventure into Linux land. The procedure (gleaned from a text help file on the CD) to install Turbo is exactly the same as that for Corel as outlined above.

After a first attempt, during which I was sorely tempted to give up again immediately, the installation appeared to proceed smoothly. I was asked several questions about the hardware like what type of keyboard I have, what kind of mouse etc., then the installer correctly detected my graphics card. I thought that I was on a winner. After about an hour of clunking and grinding, much disc activity and millions of messages (most of which passed by much too fast), the system appeared to be ready to start.

With a great deal of anticipation the machine restarted, millions more text messages, then it seemed to start the graphical interface. I waited. And waited. And waited. Five minutes later I decided that it had indeed started and was waiting for me to do something. I pressed the return key, just for fun. The background colour of the screen stayed black but a tiny icon appeared dead centre. The mouse worked and a pointer appeared. That was it. I could not move the icon, clicking on it made parts of it bigger but not enough to see what it was or what to do with it. Moving the mouse away made it shrink. After playing for an hour or so and looking at the CD on a Windows machine for help (none available), I gave up again. Diagnosis number two was that the Corel CD was corrupted and that the Turbo version did not know how to talk to my video adapter despite detecting it correctly.

Red Hat Linux

Red Hat are one of the four or five major distributors of Linux, the others being Debian, (Corel now not supplied/supported), Suse and Mandrake. Some might consider that I am a glutton for punishment, but I just could not believe that all the hype was false so, during a shopping trip to PC World, I purchased a book "The Red Hat Bible" that had a lesser (3 CD) distribution of Red Hat Linux included. I followed the instructions in the book to the letter, they were very similar to the procedures given for the earlier 
attempts. Three times I got as far as CD number three (about 2 hours into the install), before the system reported that it could not continue. The cause of the error was not reported exactly but it seemed that a required file was not available. I assumed that this could mean that it was corrupted as I would guess that the authors would have made sure that it was present. Before this point I had received no error messages. I was left with a non-working system that just consumed disc space - and a lot of it. I returned the CD's to PC World, and, to their credit, they exchanged them instantly without any question. Perhaps they had come across this problem before ?

At the second attempt with the new CD's, the installation proceeded more or less how I had anticipated, given my previous experiences with turbo Linux. The essential steps being:

1) Making a boot disc, this had to be performed on another, Windows machine as the CDROM drive does not allow booting on the ancient PC with which I was experimenting.
2) Boot the bare system using the boot disc and allowing it to install the Cd's.
3) Answering questions about the hardware. NOTE: it is very important that you know what type of Video adapter you have, to a lesser extent details of the keyboard and mouse are useful as well, particularly if the devices you use are unusual.

This time the installation proceeded smoothly until nearly the end. After answering the questions about the hardware, the graphical environment started (XWindows). There then started a series of questions about how I wanted the hard disc drive set up. As this was my first attempt, I let the system install the default configuration and do the formatting.

After the system had completed copying all the files (a couple of hours on my slow machine), the system rebooted. There then started a question and answer session relating to:

Keyboard type, layout and country
Mouse type and connection point (serial or PS/2)
Location and Time Zone
Type of Installation - Server, Desktop Workstation or Custom.