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Exploring Linux - Part 2

by Alan German

In the Part 1 of this article we took a look at using a couple of versions of a Linux-Live CD. This proved to be so easy that now we are fearless Linux explorers and are ready to take on the task of installing a full version of Linux onto our computer's hard drive. We are ready for this, aren't we?

Actually, this is a big step, and a little preparation wouldn't go amiss. We will be installing Linux from the second of the two Ubuntu CD's but, before we dive into the process, we will take some time out to do a little research.

What we need is a text book. Some time ago, from OPCUG's recycling table, I had rescued a boxed set of “The Complete Red Hat Linux Operating System 5.2”. I actually did perform an installation of this software, struggling with things like Disk Druid to format a bunch of Linux partitions. Fortunately, modern installation routines seem to automate this process so we (probably) won't encounter any such difficulties. The good news is that Red Hat's box contained an installation manual that explains quite a bit about drive names, disk partitions – both required and desirable - and dual boot systems. However, since you are unlikely to possess (or even obtain) this book, an alternate source of Linux information might be a good idea.

I would suggest borrowing a copy of “Linux for Dummies” from the local library. This suggestion has a dual purpose. Firstly, the text is a good introduction to Linux, the process of installing the operating system, and how to use various applications. Secondly, the book includes a bootable DVD containing Fedora Core 1 (the free version of the Red Hat Linux distro.)

Assuming that you want to set up a dual-boot, Windows/Linux system (rather than overwriting your Windows' partition with Linux), the sage advice from the text is that you should have a free partition on the main drive of around 3 GB. Linux will run in much smaller space, but a disk of this size gives lots of expansion capability. I happened to have a copy of Partition Magic, so I could easily establish such a free partition. I opted for a 4 GB partition, just to be sure that I had lots of available space. Partition Magic also includes Boot Magic, a dual-boot utility, so I also set this up to be ready, as I initially thought, to handle booting to either the existing Windows' partition or the Linux partition once this was established. It turns out that the Linux installer provides its own dual-boot manager, called GRUB, so my preparation efforts initially seemed futile. But, later – much later - when everything went wrong, Boot Magic came to the rescue!

At this point, let me say that I am no expert on Linux installations, or on dual boot systems, or on booting systems period! Furthermore, please note that, in playing around with various installations of Linux, I managed to overwrite the master boot record on my main hard drive so that it would only boot into Linux. Then, I managed to corrupt the Linux boot loader so my machine wouldn't boot into anything! So, you follow my lead at your peril!

One thing I would note is that, before you do anything, you should ensure that you have a rescue disk from which you can boot your machine should anything untoward transpire. And, don't just assume that the rescue disk will work when things go south. Put the disk in the drive and boot from it! If it works when you don't really need it, chances are it will save your hide when you do.

My problem actually occurred on my very first attempt at installing Linux using the Red Hat Linux Version 5.2 distro. obtained from the club's recycling table. I was a little too anxious to follow the “helpful” default responses to the screen prompts, and agreed to have the Linux boot loader installed in the master boot record, instead of selecting a dual-boot option. This, of course, completely prevented my booting into the Windows' partition. My fix for this was to boot from a Windows 95 startup disk and run Boot Magic's configuration utility to re-enable Boot Magic to load on startup and hence return the option of starting Windows. There might well have been a more elegant solution to the problem but the moral is that, like all boy scouts, you should be prepared, with rescue disks in hand.

Anyway, I'm sure that you already have a number of rescue disks that have been thoroughly tested, and multiple backups of your entire system from which you have recovered both the operating system and all your data. Venturing into the great unknown holds no perils for you, so here we go...

The process of installing Linux started simply enough. I put the Ubuntu install CD into the tray and booted the machine. The initial screen provided an F1 help key that lead to a menu with a series of function keys that, in turn, gave information on the different ways that the installation can proceed. The simple-minded approach (which, as noted above, I invariably take) was to press the Enter key and let things rip. As with the Linux-Live CD that we used previously, the first few prompts in the installation routine set the language, country, and keyboard to which I responded English, Canada, and American-English. This is followed by a series of messages indicating that the installation routine is detecting hardware components and so forth.

The first hurdle that you will probably encounter is a message to the effect that the network configuration failed. Pressing the Continue button took me to the next screen that allowed me to select “Do not configure the network at this time”. Since I wasn't sure what network we were talking about, this seemed like a safe bet. Now, I had to select a host name for my Linux system – the default “ubuntu” seemed as good as any.

Now things got interesting. The next prompt asked me to partition disks – with the default being - “Erase entire disk – IDE1 master (hda)”. I don't think so!!! At this point you have to recall the warning on the inside cover of the two-CD envelope that “...the default installation will erase all existing software and data...” But, also recall that there is an expert installation mode that will avoid this. The “expert” mode is to choose another option from the menu – “Use the largest continuous free space”. Now, the reason for creating that empty 3 (or 4) GB partition becomes apparent. A table was now displayed showing that the installation routine was going to set up a main Linux (ext 3) partition and a Linux swap partition. Since these looked OK to me (what do I know?), I was reasonably happy to say yes to the final “Write changes to disk” query.

Completing the remaining installation prompts was a piece of cake. I set the time to Eastern, gave my full name, established a username and an associated password (for logging onto Linux later). Next, the
GRUB boot loader detected I had Windows 2000 on another disk partition and asked if I wished to install GRUB as the master boot record. Simple-minded me took the default option of Yes, and the installer said it was now time to reboot.

Having rebooted the machine, GRUB indeed loaded and provided a boot menu that included options to load the Ubuntu kernel (default), a recovery mode, a memory test and, finally, Windows 2000. And, yes, the first thing I did was to check that Windows would still load! This was successful and so, second time through GRUB, I selected Ubuntu kernel and sat back to watch Linux in action.

Actually booting into Linux took forever – with lots of stuff – such as Firefox, various fonts, a game control centre, and OpenOffice being set up. One of the messages indicated that 57,707 files and directories had been processed so it's no wonder that it took a while! The good news is that this is an initial set up process. Booting into Linux a second time proved to be much faster.

I have heard it said that Linux is a much more secure operating system than Windows. This seems to be the case right off the bat since the first order of business is to enter the username and password (that were set up during the installation process) in order to gain access to the Linux desktop. Yes, I know that you can do this in Windows but, be honest, have you ever used this facility? In Linux, there is no choice - no username, no password - no entry! Fortunately, I had written my username and password down (on a very secure piece of paper) and so was able to logon to my brand new Linux system without difficulty.

If you tried the Ubuntu-Live CD described in Part 1, you will know exactly what my Linux desktop looked like, and will have a feel for the range of applications that were instantly available. The major difference is now that I have a real (4 GB) hard disk to work with instead of being limited to temporary space, or having to resort to removable media such as floppies or USB keys. Now, all I have to do is figure out how the Linux file system really works. Oh yes, and you remember that little problem with a network configuration. I'm not sure if this means I can't use a local area network (that I don't have), or if it means I won't be able to access the Internet. Time, and a lot more exploring Linux, will tell!

In the interim, you may also recall that “Linux for Dummies” included a DVD-ROM with Fedora Core 1, a free Linux distro from Red Hat. It seems a pity to waste the opportunity to give this version of Linux a whirl. But, this will have to wait for Part 3...

Tux Bottom Line:

Ubuntu – Linux for human beings (Open-source software)
Version 5.04 for Intel x86
To request free Ubuntu CD's, visit
Current Version: Ubuntu 5.10

Linux for Dummies
Dee-Ann LeBlanc
5th Edition, Wiley, 2004
ISBN 0-7645-4310-5
(Ottawa Public Library Call No. 005.546 L445)

Originally published: June, 2006

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