A Windows user takes the plunge with Linux

Arise, brothers and sisters, and shake off the yoke of oppression! It is our inalienable right to choose our operating system. Install Linux (pronounced "Linnocks" with an accent on the first syllable and a slight Finnish accent.)You have to be in the grip of revolutionary fervour to contemplate changing something as basic as your operating system. Most of us first made the acquaintance of our PC with a version of Microsoft Windows already installed.

The operating system is a more or less accepted fact of life. Since Windows 95 arrived it has even been more or less stable. You may only have to reboot once a day, and -- if you are careful not to overburden your system by trying to run several complex applications simultaneously and switching rapidly between them -- you may never see the dreaded blue screen of death. Maybe clicking OK often fails to adequately express your feelings, but at least you know your way around.

Your system is more or less working. Why destroy it? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the winds of change which have swept over the computer landscape ever since the sharing and caring community ethos of the Internet entered our lives and reminded us that the sixties and seventies are not dead.

The Internet is a lot of things, and one of those is a system for distributed development and dissemination of free software. This is an extraordinary social, cultural and technical experiment, and Linux is one of its finest expressions. This is your chance to become a part of it. And if that's not a big enough incentive, when was the last time you did something really, really silly?

Linux is totally free and in the public domain, as is a large part of the software that has been written for it. However, if you just download it in bits and pieces, you are asking for it. Having installed a number of operating systems claiming to be an integrated package, and suffered something close to a stroke dealing with the infuriating frustrations of hardware without drivers and inadequate documentation, I thought I'd make it easy on myself.

I bought a packaged version of Red Hat Linux version 5.1. Harris Technology (http://www.ht.com.au) ordered it in for me, and it cost $79. Red Hat Linux comes with an installation system called the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), and a 300-page manual. You can buy various Linux books that explain the process and include Linux on a CD-ROM, but often these bundle an older version of the software.

I installed Linux on a home system. I had already installed Windows NT on this box, and the plan was to make it a dual-boot machine that used the NT boot loader to load a choice of NT or Linux. To cut a long story short, this worked, but the devil is in the detail.

The Red Hat Linux manual is well written, and comprehensive on the subject of installation. It cautions you to perform various tasks before you start. Believe it.

As admonished, I carefully noted everything I could about my hardware configuration: the make and model of the Ethernet network adapter, the video adapter, the monitor, the hard disk drives and types (IDE or SCSI), the soundcard, the memory specifications, the type of CD-ROM drive (ATAPI/IDE or SCSI), as well as its make and model. On a Windows 95 machine, this information is available in the Control Panel (run the System applet and select the Device Manager tab. In Windows NT, it is scattered among the various Control Panel modules, including Network, SCSI Adapters, and Display. You can also refer to the carefully-preserved documentation that came with your system, and of course there's always the option of looking under the bonnet. It should be a matter of pride to know these things anyway. You know how many cylinders your car has, don't you? Write all these details down on clean, durable paper -- remember you are going to trash your machine and may never be able to get it working again.

Once I had satisfied the demands of the manual, I booted from the installation diskette and up came a windowed character-based installation program which led me through various tasks.

The first of these is repartitioning the hard disk (or disks) to create native Linux partitions, and perhaps some FAT partitions that can be read by Linux, Windows 95 and Windows NT. This need not blow away your existing partitions and disappear your data, but things can go wrong. Nothing went wrong for me. I created a Swap partition of 127MB, a Root partition of 100MB, a /usr partition of 700MB and a /boot partition of 5MB. These are pretty generous sizes and you can make do with less. I had two drives, and created all but the boot partition on the second 1GB drive. The /boot partition had to be on the Primary Master disk, and the installation program ensured this by ignoring my attempts to create it elsewhere. Fortunately, I had over 5MB of unused free space on the Primary Master disk. You may have a spare partition on your existing hard disk, or you can purchase another disk for a couple of hundred dollars. Red Hat Linux 5.1 comes with partitioning software called Disk Druid, which worked well. The installation program recognised my ATAPI CD-ROM drive, allowing the installation to continue. It also picked both IDE hard disk drives, my Ethernet network card, and my display adapter. I never had to refer to the details I had noted so carefully.

The network installation section asks tricky questions about IP addresses and domains, but fortunately I had an answer ready. Next it's time to select the packages you want to install. The RPM system checks for dependencies, and tries to prevent you installing an item without another piece it requires. You can install other software packages later, using the same system.

The installation system also managed to find my mouse. Next comes the X-Windows graphical user interface setup. Here is your chance to explode your monitor. I was able to configure it to show 800 by 600 pixels on my old S3-compatible adapter, and, with some trepidation, guessed monitor vertical and horizontal refresh frequencies that have so far not resulted in a nasty burning smell. No luck with the printer, but my biro still works. I set a root password, which is well worth remembering because you need to log in as root to manage your system.

I created a boot floppy, and the system faithfully booted Linux. Up it came in all its command line glory. I logged on as root, and eventually found that you start the X-Windows system by typing startx. In seconds, an interface bearing a superficial resemblance to the Windows 95 desktop leapt into view. It even has a Start button in the lower left corner.

Now what? This, to many beginning Linux users, is the fundamental question. Where is the word processor? It's called Emacs, and it's like Notepad on steroids, with a powerful whiff of Wordstar version 1. Corel, in an optimistic attempt to topple the Microsoft desktop monopoly, has created a WordPerfect for Linux, and it's included on one of the Red Hat Linux CDs. These contain a number of applications including spreadsheets, database systems, and more. Installing them is less than intuitive if you are used to running setup.exe or install.exe.

What about file management? For total Unix power, you will have to learn all the Unix commands, and enter them in a terminal window, but to begin you can use Midnight Commander or XFM, which lack some of the drag and drop features of Windows.

Where's the Internet browser? It's Netscape, and it works exactly like the Windows version.

But what do you want with all that dreary productivity software? You have the Apache Web server, which came up immediately I typed the server's IP address in my browser address field. You have an Internet mail server. You have everything you could possibly need to run Linux. But if you do run out, you can look on the Internet for more software, and you can find abundant answers to your Linux questions on the Web. I'm not saying you'll understand the answers, but you'll find them.

The CD-ROM and online documentation is in the form of How-Tos -- rather technical documents with no obvious starting point. Is it worth it? Define your terms. I have struck a blow for freedom, I have seen my computer do things it has never done before, and I have killed a good many hours without listening to low-level coarse language, other than my own.

If you need a cheap, reliable Internet server, with access to all the source code, Linux is a good choice. As a desktop system? Well, it's not for everyone, but dedicated revolutionaries will have a ball.

[Editor's note: The latest version of Red Hat Linux (5.2) will be included on one of our March cover CDs.]

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Neale Morison

PC World
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