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"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

The Penguin and Me

By PJ Wessel

The first time I booted into Windows 95 to find MS-DOS in My Briefcase and .mid files on the desktop I smelled a future filled with trouble. I wasn't to be disappointed. Although I knew nothing about computers, operating systems or machine language, I knew there had to be a better system. I just needed to find it.

The following years of fustration with Windows was the driving force that compelled me to learn much more about computers than I ever wanted to know. In retrospect I should have bought a word processor. However the entire DOS-Windows chapter of my life was a necessary learning experience as it prepared me for a date with the Penguin and my new operating system.

I'd like to say I'm brilliant and did it on my own. The fact is, I am an average home user with no formal computer training who entered the field later in life; I was over fifty and I needed help. Fortunately I met John during those very early days when I wrote to inquire why I couldn't play the Ragtime music on his site. The chance introduction evolved into an education in Windows plus an enduring friendship.

Fate is indeed a strange bedfellow for a few years later I was introduced to Linux via a rather circuitous route. My local ISP, GCIS, is family owned and operated. Scott is the tech with whom I had the most contact. What began as my grousing about Windows instability and constant crashes ended with Scott introducing me to the server side of FreeBSD. It was an exciting and heady feeling that I never forgot.

We spent months talking about Linux and finally Scott said, "Go do it. Just go do it!" Oh Lord where do I begin? I'm too old to learn a new OS much less the language. Scott interupted my thoughts, " Look, I'll send you some URL's. If you're really serious find a group."

I immediately thought of the age old conundrum: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The modern-day version isn't any more clear. Which comes first, the users group or the Linux distribution?

I was mulling the question over in my mind when I began to surf Linux web sites. I didn't just find Linux, I found Linux distributions too. Good grief! I have to choose a distribution and join a support group. I could just imagine the thrill of driving 300-miles once a week to meet with a group. (The nearest Linux group is in Tulsa,Ok.) How badly do I really want this new operating system? Before I could answer my own question I lost the master drive which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I replaced both the Master and Slave drives to be on the safe side.

Now I had 12 gigabytes of empty space, and a burning desire. The more I toyed with the idea, the more determined I was to create a single drive dual boot system.

In case you are wondering why I didn't use the second hard drive for Linux the answer is somewhat complicated. First, I was asked to beta test W2000. Second, W98 was running well and I didn't want to chance a conflict. Third, I know absolutely nothing about NT aka W2000, so I opted to load it on the second drive. I knew that either Linux would boot or it wouldn't, and even if it didn't, it would not foul my machine-a guarantee I could not make about W2000. If I continued as planned, I would have three fully functional, yet independent, operating systems, residing on two drives in the same computer. The thought was delicious, but would it sorely test the resources of my machine?

I went to a national bookstore chain to search for Linux specific media. I walked through several aisles of unrelated software titles and just when I was ready to conclude Linux media didn't exist I found 8-feet of shelf space devoted to 'other' computer systems. I privately wondered how long it would take this store to eliminate the books. The selection was pathetically limited, but not without virtue. Based on information I previously read about Caldera, Red Hat and KDE I chose Linux Third Edition by Richard Petersen which covers each subject extensively and included CD's for Caldera and Red Hat. Just to be on the safe side I grabbed a copy of Linux For Dummies to get me started and crossed my fingers for luck. As it turns out I needed it.

I was headed for the check out counter when I passed the magazine rack. There I discovered the first release of the Maximum Linux magazine which promised a complete review of the top five Linux distributions plus a step-by-step installation guide to Linux-Mandrake 6.0. A CD with the full-install version of the Mandrake was included. (I learned December 13th that the CD is no longer supported by Maximum Linux.) I ended my buying spree by picking up a systems reference book. I was smug. For the grand total of $50 I had snagged three Linux distributions and enough information to build or up grade to a pure Linux box. That high lasted until the first time I tried to load Linux.

It was a full two months between the time that I purchased the books until I actully tried the installation. I was primed and ready for action, but I still hadn't made a decision about which distribution to load. (We Libra's can't make an important decision without a prolonged and weighty internal debate.)

Armed with a plethora of URL's thougthfully included in the Third Edition, I mounted an assault on the Linux web sites. Each site led to more sites. I started out thinking I knew enough to make an informed decision and finished more confused than ever, but wiser for the experience. I narrowed my choices to Caldera and Mandrake, but did not totally discount SuSE or Debian. After reading about SuSE's monster 1300 packages and being advised by Tom at Motherboard X that Debian was just a bit advanced for a newbie I opted for my original choices.

For the record, my final selections were based on: information posted on each web site; information provided by experienced Linux users and technicians; information provided on the packaged software; manufacturer support and shelf price. Downloading from the web is convenient but I learned from experience that there isn't anything that will replace the real thing in time of crisis.

As each Linux web site offers excellent information, my next search was for the illusive support group. I reasoned it would be foolish to load software that didn't have a good user support system for all levels of experience. I might add that my previous adventures with Windows compliant software taught me to be more than a little wary of promised help, especially when money is involved.

Format was also an issue. I ultimately decided on the e-mail format due to vision problems. The first group I joined was composed of newbies with hot tempers and no manners. I received 200 e-mails the first day-most of which were flames. I unsubscribed and prayed that other groups were not quite as verbose. They aren't.

Several days passed as I examined the user group lists. I was specifically interested in the type of questions posed and the quality of response. I joined a second group, but this time I opted for a level other than a beginner group. For the next few weeks I read the messages and asked questions privately while I continued to examine the individual Linux web sites.

I liked the look of Caldera Open Linux and the installer is reputed to be superb. I was suprised to learn that it supports Partition Magic and Boot Magic which I use. Unfortunately I found it is an add-on purchase for Caldera 2.2. The Caldera support page is awesome, but the bottom line for me is real people supporting real people in a timely manner and I chose Linux-Mandrake

Steve, Benjamin, and Dennis, members of the Mandrake group, were instrumental in getting me past my stage fright and into the actual install process. It was no easy task even though I am a Windows veteran with three multi-partitioned hard drives. I was just plain scared. I knew I could not hurt my machine, but in the back of my mind the idea of a total reformat was very disquieting.

Partition Magic is particularly useful for W95 users as it recognizes hard drives larger than 2GB as well as 26 partitions. (I reclaimed 1.5 GB when I first installed it.) However, Windows names partitions as A,C,D.. whereas Linux does not. Ergo, the concept of Linux partitions were particularly hard for me to understand. (Of course, now that I've seen hda9 (my Linux boot sector) it makes perfect or, uh..better sense.)

/boot Huh?? What goes in which partition? Is Linux smart enough to know where the Kernel resides? What's LILO? Will it work on a dual boot? Is 2 GB enough space? What about /user? Do I create the /? files? Steve fielded the questions and replied in a down-to-earth manner. Detailed, but easy to understand, instructions are critical for the novice as we don't know the jargon. (I still don't, but I'm learning.)

As I was familiar with the Windows version of Partition Magic I was confident I could easily create a Linux partition. The information thoughtfully provided by Power Quest reminded me that once selected, Windows would not recognize the Linux partition. I was also reminded that Linux did not recognize Windows FAT files. Great, the two systems will ignore each other!

When I attempted to install Mandrake, well.. that's when I fell flat on my face. The installation process failed. No available space was the message I read and reread. NO available space!! What went wrong?

"Ah hem..You need to create a boot partition and swap space first," Steve replied. "Make a 10M boot partition in ext2, a swap file of 128M, and leave the balance of the disk in ext2. Be sure to select custom install. Also, install LILO to /boot and NOT in the Master Boot Record."

I later learned that Linux uninstalls like windows but with one caveat. If LILO is installed to the Master Boot Record, it does not automatically uninstall with the Fdisk command. An additional step must be used to remove LILO from the MBR. With the prospect of three operating systems in my future, it was not a risk I wanted to take.

Armed with the new information, I created the three partitions with a minimum of fuss and breathed a sigh of relief. I was ready!

I dropped the CD-ROM in the drive, opened Maximum Linux to page 33, rebooted and expected to see the Linux-Mandrake welcome screen. I painfully watched Windows load. I was frustrated and disgusted.

Fifteen hours later I concluded I have a problem that probably stems from the age/type/drivers/? of the CD unit. I tried various tricks such as downloading the latest drivers, changing the drive letter position in DOS and Windows as well as the position of CD in BIOS. My efforts drew blanks. The bottom line is the auto-install mode of Linux-Mandrake 6.0 doesn't work on my machine. It was 5 a.m., and I went to bed.

Maximum Linux provided one sentence of instructions on how to create a bootable floppy using the rawrite program included on the Mandrake CD. In retrospect I should have done this immediately. The entire process, from formatting the floppy to installing the required utilities and images, took less than 5 minutes.

Everything I've ever read about installing Linux very clearly states you should know your machine intimately from drivers to printer model, RAM, modem, video card, sound card, size of drives, ISP submask, and more. It is no idle request, for Linux probes. When presented with an unrecognized entry you need to provide the correct information. Like a good scout, be prepared. If you happen to have a Linux/Windows conflict you'll need to know IRQ's too.

I shoved the boot floppy into the drive, and prayed while I watched the start-up routine. Since my 8x CD-ROM is slow to engage I used TweakUI, a Microsoft utility, to disable the splash screen and GUI which in turn causes boot to pause at the C:/> prompt in DOS and wait for a command.

Nothing happened. Did Windows crash again? I glanced at the floppy drive, saw a flash of green light and breathed a deep sigh of relief. A few minutes later I saw the promised welcome screen!

I watched as Linux probed and selected the correct options for my machine and when asked I chose the custom install. Mandrake installed 317 software packages in less than 7 minutes-just enough time to grab a cup of mud and find the loo. I was prompted to define passwords. Be careful here. One of the Linux features is it does not print passwords. When entering the password nothing happens. You won't see a thing on the screen. When asked where to install the bootloader, (Warning! If you are installing Linux on a single drive dual-boot system with Windows 9x DO NOT select Master Boot Record. It is possible that if you do, Windows will not start.) I selected /boot, the 10M partition that had been created specifically for my situation.

The rest of the install went smoothly. The defaults selected were perfect except for the monitor. Although it is listed as suported by Linux, it isn't listed on the Mandrake 6.0 CD. I took the default and prayed. At this point I didn't attempt to set up the PPP connection because I did not understand the questions. I skipped it. Windows DUN and Linux PPP Internet connection set up, are about as much alike as a cow and a boat. Don't say you weren't warned.

One of the things that I like very much about Linux is the flexibility. Windows demands that the installation be very orderly: 1,2,3.. or it aborts, whereas once Linux has the basic information it is okay to skip what you don't understand. (Detailed instructions later provided by Steve, John, Benjamin and Civileme helped me to correctly set up KPPP, the Linux version of PPP under KDE, and change the monitor setting.)

I was done. The total install time was less than an hour. I removed the CD and floppy, rebooted and waited to finally greet the Penguin! Instead I sat in stunned silence as I watched Windows boot once more. What the...??

I quickly skimmed through the media to be reminded that I could boot from the rescue floppy. I did and this time my dream came true. I was greeted with the Mandrake login. Fifteen characters later I was looking at my new KDE Desktop.

The Mandrake developers thoughtfully included everything I needed to make the new learning process as painless and as pleasant as possible starting with KDE, a Windows 'look and feel' GUI desktop with icons. The default packages included Netscape, e-mail, word processor and note pad, graphics programs, scientific calculator, wallpaper, dozens of games, and much more.

I only have one real criticism. Nothing I read prior to the installation explained how to select an option. The same infomation seemed to be missing on the CD too. Windows users are accustomed to point and click. Oops! Linux doesn't support this function during intallation.

Use the tab key and up/down keys to move through the options. Don't be in a hurry. Linux is patient. When the preferred option is highlighted hit the SPACE bar. That's right! The space bar will leave the star character inside brackets [*] indicating it is the chosen element to install. Point and click are ignored as are the Y, N, * and X key strokes.

Was it worth it? Every minute! I am now one step closer to running a pure Linux box and I am excited! The days of costly hardware and software upgrades to run bloated and buggy software are quickly and thankfully fading into an unpleasant memory. Once I load Star Office I will be doing exactly what I was doing a year ago except I'll be doing it in a stable and more secure invironment, and without help from the House of Redmond. The bonus is I won't have to worry about Microsoft engineers doctoring Windows code to cause browsing problems or security risks. Trial Finding #172 Size:404K. I can doctor my own system!

Here are a few tips to help make the transition to Linux a little less daunting:


  1. Linux-Mandrake is a true 32 bit multi-tasking operating system. A Pentium processor, or better, is required. It will not install on a 386 or 486 machine.

  2. When it comes to entering a password Linux shoots blanks. You cannot see what you type, and unlike Windows, there are no characters dislayed either.

  3. Not every motherboard supports dual boot systems.

  4. If you intend to install a dual W9x/Linux system- partition, set up your Windows system first and leave space at the end of the drive for Linux-Mandrake; 2 GB is recommended. After W9x is installed and you are satisfied with its functionality, load Linux. Unless you are an experienced Linux user, do not install LILO in the Master Boot Record. I can not stress this enough.

  5. I highly recommend Partition Magic for a dual boot system. It allows the user to merge or convert file types, as well as add, remove or change partition size on-the-fly without losing data, provided you stay within the stated limits. Supported systems include DOS, W9x, NT, W2000, Linux and OS/2.

  6. LOOK before you load! Linux-Mandrake may be the only distribution that currently supports dual systems on a single drive.



My intent is to avoid redundancy by including general information I consider helpful. Every Linux site provides a wealth of subject specific links.

Linux-Mandrake 6.0 was installed on a clone with the following components: Asus Motherboard; Intel MMX200 CPU; 64RAM; Digiview HR70 CRT; Sound Blaster 16AWE; AOPEN video card with 2MG RAM on board; USRobotics Sportster 56.k external modem; HP-600Deskjet printer; 8X Mitsumi ATAPI CD-ROM; WDCaviar 8.4GB, WDCaviar 3.2GB and Seagate .850MB Hard Drives plus Genius ColorPage-EP Scanner.

Partition Magic and Boot Magic are tradmarks of Power Quest Corporation. Windows, MS-DOS, W95, W98, NT and W2000 are trademarks of Microsoft. Metscape is a trademark of AOL. Maximum Linux is a trademark of Imagine Media,Inc. MotherboardX is a trademark of Motherboard Express,Inc. All others products are registered to their respective companies.

Copyright © 2000, P.J. Wessel
Published in Issue 49 of Linux Gazette, January 2000

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