Linux: Everything but the kitchen sink

Taking Linux and installing it on an alternative hardware platform may not be easy, but you can learn a lot from the experience.

When Linus Torvalds first started writing the code that would become Linux, he did so on an Intel 386. Ever since, the x86 platform - which includes processors such as the Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon - has been the foundation for Linux development. But just as Windows isn't the only OS, x86 is not the only hardware platform, and Linux currently supports around twenty hardware architectures, and many more sub-architectures.

Alternative platforms

Linux was first ported to the Digital (now Compaq/HP) Alpha platform, mostly by Linus, in 1994-5. Ever since, hundreds of hackers have spent uncountable sleepless nights porting Linux to a huge range of hardware platforms. So why would you want to run Linux on another platform? Well, for starters there's the geek value in knowing that Linux can, and will, run on your PDA or iMac. There are also political and legal reasons for running an Open Source operating system on a closed, proprietary platform. Installing Linux on another, less supported platform, can also be a great learning experience.

Some of the more interesting Linux ports are:

  • PowerPC: One of the first ports of Linux and one of the best maintained (http://penguinppc.org).
  • SPARC: The SPARC port of Linux is one of the few ports that directly competes with a major com­mercial Unix (Solaris) ( www.ultralinux.org).
  • MIPS: A popular workstation plat­form in the mid 90s, widely used by Silicon Graphics, this port does not seem to be well maintained anymore (www.linux-mips.org).
  • Xbox: Yes, you can run Linux on your Xbox. Doing so may void your warranty, but there's a large community dedicated to the Linux Xbox project (www.xbox-linux.org).
  • iPod: If it proves anything, iPod Linux shows Linux can run on the biggest servers to the smallest appliances (http://ipodlinux.sourceforge.net).

Linux on a Mac

Yellowdog Linux has long been the standard Linux distribution for PowerPC (PPC) computers, most notably Apple Macs. Yellow Dog is very similar to Fedora Linux. The installer is identical, and much of the default desktop configuration will be familiar to anyone who has used Red Hat or Fedora. Yellow Dog Linux is 4 CDs and can be downloaded or purchased from www.yellowdog.com.

Installing a Linux distribution on a Mac is no harder than on a PC. Place the first CD of your distribution in the drive and turn on your Mac. Immediately press and hold down the >C< key and your computer will boot from the CD.

Hopefully, you'll have a similar experience to mine. After a familiar install process and a reboot, my Mac came up running Yellow Dog Linux without any extra configuration. The desktop is zippy, and all of the standard applications - like OpenOffice.org, Ximian Evolution and Mozilla - worked flawlessly. Yellow Dog supported the ATi video card in my G4 properly and autodetected all of my hardware correctly. I had heard horror stories about running Linux on the PowerPC and was pleasantly surprised at how easy the experience was.

Yellow Dog includes Mac-on-Linux (www.maconlinux.org), a virtual machine for PowerPC Linux. Mac-on-Linux is similar to VMWare (www.vmware.com) for the PC. It allows you to run an emulated Mac in a window on your PPC Linux desktop with all of the hardware emulated in software. You can install your own operating system on this emulated computer, be it MacOS or another copy of Linux, and run both operating systems at once.

As an aside, if you don't have access to a Mac but all of this sounds interesting, PearPC (http://pearpc.sourceforge.net) is an open source PowerPC emulator for x86 Linux. Right now, PearPC can run some versions of MacOS and many Linux distributions, however the performance of PearPC is extremely slow. It can take several hours to install an operating system and performing anything but the most basic tasks is not advisable. PearPC is a great toy to show off with, but needs more time and development if it's to become more useful.

SPARCs fly

Now, as PowerPC isn't the only alternate platform supported by Linux, I thought I'd try another. SPARC is still widely deployed as a platform for big servers, but several years ago SPARC workstations were also a common sight. These workstations are now being replaced by cheaper, more powerful x86 computers so it's pretty easy to pick up a late 90s 64bit UltraSPARC for a couple of hundred dollars on ebay.

On my SPARC I tried Gentoo Linux. To get a feel for the Gentoo ex­perience, take a look at the detailed installations at: www.gentoo.org. Gentoo is a real hacker distribution. Depending on your confidence level, you're able to build the entire system yourself, by hand. Installing Gentoo was straightforward following the online guide, but I wouldn't attempt it if you're new to Linux or looking for a streamlined installation. It's a great way to learn about Linux, but it is extremely involved.

After installation, everything worked well. But, as I was running a modern Linux distribution on a 300MHz processor (albeit a once very expensive one), the desktop experience was not very impressive. This system would make for an excellent firewall and/or testing environment, and it certainly was an entertaining afternoon installing Gentoo.

ilinux?

iPods are the pinnacle of techno-chic, so why should Mac and Windows users have all the fun? It may surprise you that you can do more with your iPod under Linux than you can using iTunes under Mac or Windows.

The most important function of an iPod, is well supported by GTKPod. You can and remove songs from your iPod and, as a bonus not included in iTunes, export songs from your iPod to your computer. Address books and contact information can also be synchronised with KOrganizer/addressbook and an interface is available to write scripts to synchronise with other organisers.

There are two utilities for accessing your iPod under Linux.

GNUpod (www.gnu.org/software/gnupod), a command line based interface and GTKpod (http://gtkpod.sourceforge.net), a GUI interface.

To install these utilities, untar each on your hard disk use the standard three commands to compile and install each program as shown:

$ ./configure
$ make
$ make install
$ mkdir /mnt/ipod

After compiling, connect your iPod to your computer and type the following command to connect your iPod:

$ mount /dev/sda2 /mnt/ipod

Before disconnecting your iPod type:

$ umount /mnt/ipod

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Alastair Cousins

PC World

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