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Saturday, 25 August, 2001, 07:15 GMT 08:15 UK
Linux: An installer's tale
Screenshot: SuSE Linux 7.2 running Sun's StarOffice 5.2
Familiar features? Sun's StarOffice running on Linux
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

Just how hard is it to kit out your PC with Linux, the free software operating system which was first announced 10 years ago on Saturday?

The answer is: It depends.

If you have enough technical confidence to install a new hard drive or graphics card in your system, you are probably easily capable of dealing with Linux.

And if your machine is reasonably modern and does not have too many unusual add-ons, Linux will probably run without too many hitches.

Side by side?

The installation is more complicated if you want to hang on to an existing Microsoft Windows set-up and install Linux alongside it, so that you decide whether you want Windows or Linux each time you boot the machine.

Linux distributions tested
SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional
Caldera OpenLinux 3.1 Workstation
And if, like many Linux users, you are installing it on an older machine, perhaps to lend new life to a PC which would otherwise be given away, you may have to live with a very basic set-up.

Microsoft is criticised by many people for releasing software which takes up acres of hard disk space, but the software installed by default in modern Linux distributions can easily take up more than a gigabyte of disk space.

Click here to read your experiences of Linux.

Though Linux is available for free, organisations like Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE and Mandrake charge money for creating and selling distributions.

Smoothing the way?

These are packaged versions of Linux with set-up tools designed to make installation easier.

But when these tools run into a situation their designers were not expecting, users end up having to wield a fair bit of technical expertise to get things back on track.

Test machines
Four-year-old Toshiba laptop with Pentium 133MMX, 48MB RAM
Two-year-old Dell desktop with Pentium II 550, 128MB RAM
SuSE Linux installed first time on our laptop, but we couldn't get it to recognise the machine's sound chip, leaving our machine mute.

An e-mail to SuSE's support service received a swift reply, but the answer did not help and we were left trawling Linux websites for suggestions.

Learning curve

Many would say this is all part of the Linux experience. Installing Linux does demand more of you, but by way of reward you end up with a much better understanding of how your computer works.

Screenshot: StarOffice on a KDE desktop
Up and running
We found a solution by trial and error, using a text editor to change the set-up files, but once we had made it work, we forgot what we'd done and could not replicate our success - another learning experience, one might argue.

The first book I ever read about Linux advised keeping a notebook and writing down every change as it was made.

We had even less luck with Caldera's distribution.

It did leave us with more space on our disk: the laptop had a 1.4GB drive and SuSE's basic installation left us with less than 100MB free, while Caldera left us twice as much.

Trouble with X

But Caldera's installation tool didn't have much luck with the graphics chip in our laptop and failed to set up X Window properly.

X Window is the display system running on top of Linux's Unix-like text-only guts.

It is highly configurable, allowing users to customise the appearance of their machines, but if the set-up routine fails, you need some detailed knowledge of the specifications of both your graphics chip and monitor to get things going.

Both distributions had far more success on our desktop machine, which, with 128MB RAM and a 4GB hard disk, had enough space and power to cope.

And if you reach the happy stage of having a working system, both provide tools to make connecting to the internet as easy as it is under Windows.

Ten years on, installing Linux is well within the capabilities of the kind of user who likes a bit of tinkering.

Taking precautions

But take it from someone who has made all the mistakes already:

  • Learn how to make a full disk image back-up of your system which will restore your system and data even if you wipe the entire hard disk
  • Learn how to back up and restore the partition table which stores details of how your hard disk is divided up between different file systems
  • Having learnt how to do this, don't just pat yourself on the back for being geek of the week, go ahead and make the back-ups
  • Lay your hands on a copy of Linux and, before you start, gather together as much technical information about the electronic guts of your PC as you can: model numbers, interrupt request numbers and memory addresses of things like sound cards and network cards
  • Read as much as you can bear of the manual and, unless you are 100% confident about your back ups, try the whole thing on an old machine first.

One final top tip. Install Linux on your own PC, not your employer's or your friend's. No-one likes a tinkerer who leaves them a PC which does not boot.

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Your verdict on 10 years of Linux
24 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Happy birthday Linux
14 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
To upgrade or not to upgrade
14 May 01 | Business
Nokia chooses Linux
25 Mar 01 | Business
Life gets serious for Linux
22 Mar 01 | Business
Runic Blip to build wireless future
18 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Linux virus infection fears
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