My Adventures in Linuxland

My first attempts with Linux began with an enticing book, Using Linux 3rd Edition from Que back in late 1997. The main attraction was that there were three distributions of Linux with the book, Red Hat, Caldera Open and Slackware. From trying out these three major distributions, I expected to be able to home in on the one most appropriate to my needs.

First, I tried to install Red Hat (4.1). To do this, I had to create install disks from the images on the CD. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the exact issue was, but the install flatly refused to work. The problem was resolved eventually by downloading the correct disk images from the web.

My next major problem was caused by my scsi card. It’s an Adaptec AVA 1505, an ISA device, but throughput enough for my Jaz drive and latterly a four speed CD writer. Red Hat told me I didn’t have any scsi devices, though Win 9.x, Win NT 4 and an NT 5 beta had no problem detecting it and installing the appropriate driver. I decided to return to this problem later.

The next issue was my video card, a Matrox Millenium II. This too lacked support and XFree 86 refused to work with it. Time to get some advice. I found a list where newbies could receive appropriate information and asked away. I was told that my video card was too new and my Adaptec scsi controller too old. Support for the Matrox would be forthcoming from the developers of XFree 86 and to pass certain parameters to my scsi card to allow Linux to detect it.

My Matrox was promptly replaced by an antique video card and I tried passing the requisite parameters to the scsi card. No dice. Perhaps Caldera Open Linux would serve me better. Aha! An improvement already. This was a bootable CD; no need for the dreaded floppy disks. This was where my excitement ended. I did eventually get the system up (sans scsi) but KDE was unstable and failed to impress.

A few months later, while commenting on someone’s rather extravagant claims for Linux, I was taken to task. This was on a busy List devoted to NT, so we took the discussion offline. He informed me that I was using a distribution of Linux that was roughly equivalent to Windows 3.x. What I needed was the latest distribution, which was now ahead of NT.

What I really needed, I decided, was a commercial distribution and support. I was slightly more impressed by the Caldera distribution so I bought the latest version of that (1.3). The Matrox Millenium II was at least supported this time (without acceleration), but I still had no success with the scsi controller. Email to Caldera resulted in a flat “Linux does not support the Adaptec 1505”. Great!

At least I had a working Linux (sort of) and set to work on Samba. The main purpose of coming to grips with Linux was to see if it could substitute for Microsoft’s Small Business Server, that being the main network solution used by my small business clients. Samba’s first surprise for me was the documentation saying that the information on how to use it for print services was second hand. The author uses NT for print services. Now that breeds confidence, doesn’t it? It also suggested that print services would not work unless I could successfully print from Linux.

Why would it not want to print, I mused? The installer had detected my parallel port, which was hardly surprising since it’s on the default settings. I had told it I had an HP LaserJet 3, 4 or 5 (it’s actually a 5P). All attempts at printing failed with a “device does not exist” type error. Kind of expected by this stage.

I decided to set up Samba file sharing, even if I couldn’t print. First problem that arises here is no network card. Hot damn, somebody’s stolen it while I wasn’t looking. A bit of research at Deja News elicits the problem and solution. I have an NE2000 compatible that needs certain settings changed with a new piece of (DOS) software and then to compile a new kernel to support the adapter. With some trepidation, I do this and it works. It’s only much later I learn about insertable modules, but if I’d known about them at this stage, I would have missed the thrill of my first kernel compile.

Samba now had a new surprise for me; an error message I’ve forgotten, but not the solution. It turned out that there was a redundant line in the config file left over from a previous version. Deleting the line restored normalcy and lo! It worked fine. I could share Linux directories on my network. I also experience a touch of nostalgia setting up Samba. It reminded me very much of win.ini.

Now, on to the Internet. My machine for trialling Linux is connected to a modem that talks to my Small Business Server at the office running Proxy Server and Exchange Server. After a few false starts, I get the connection up and running. I had to haul out the modem manual and change a couple of settings in the dial-up string. Something I remembered having to do with modems back in the dark days before Windows 95. Launched Netscape Navigator and had to fumble around for a while to find the connection settings as I’ve been using Internet Explorer for the last couple of years. I point to the proxy on port 80. Type in a URL and Netscape locks up. Try this several times with the same result.

Getting to this point has taken a serious amount of my time. I decide to await a more mature version of Linux before I make any more forays.

Caldera Open Linux 2.2 is released. I check the distributor for the upgrade price and discover that recent purchasers of 1.3 get 2.2 free, but the bunnies who bought earlier pay full price. Manage to “borrow” a copy before shelling out more money. I also buy O’Reilly’s “The Unix CD Bookshelf” and a P75 with 64 MB RAM for serving on my home network. My main machine is a K6/200 with 128 MB RAM. Funnily enough, Caldera’s Linux told me I only had 64 MB.

On with the saga. On the main machine, Caldera’s new installer decides to hang after 5 minutes, so I make a set of install disks to run the old LISA installer. This appears to be an improvement. It autodetects my Matrox Millenium II, but hangs XFree 86. Ho, hum. Run the new installer on the P75 with much more success. It autodetects my Hercules Stingray, but at the end of the install it produces garbage on the screen. Looks like a video synchronisation problem.

I check out Caldera’s website and download 10 MB of RPMs to patch the system on the main machine. The XFree 86 patch works fine, but the others are “invisible” to RPM and LISA. Successfully get into X and being in a playful mood decide to run a game (I installed everything). X crashes me back to the command prompt. Further trials indicate that there’s something seriously wrong with the game I chose. Perhaps the computer gods want me to do some more serious work. But it was good to see the graphics speed approach that under NT for the first time.

I check out the printing issue first. Still no go. I cannot print from apps (Star Office, Word Perfect) or the command line. The best information I can wring from the system is that the device does not exist.

Time to return to the Internet connectivity issue. The tools in KDE have improved a lot over the last version, so I use KPPP to set up the modem and dial-up settings. This is much easier than manually editing the config files and I am quickly connected to my server at work. Run Netscape, configure it to see the proxy, type in a URL… and wait. Finally, Netscape tells me my proxy is misconfigured. That’s funny, it works fine from NT, Win 95, Win 98 and Win 3.11.

Another hiatus, during which I discover the guy who told me Linux was now better than NT doesn’t actually run Linux on his servers. He uses FreeBSD. Figures.

I see a copy of Red Hat 6.0 and decide to give it a whirl and shell out another $20. To  this point I’ve spent somewhat more than an NT4 ws license would have cost me. The time I’ve spent is worth considerably more than that. Let’s say 150 hrs @ $80/hr, that’s $12,000 and Linux is free. Right! Anyone want to buy a perfectly good Sydney Harbour Bridge? Sorry, no COD.

Red Hat 6.0 installs better than anything I’ve seen yet from Linux. What’s more, it even prints. Yay! Still can’t punch through my proxy to the Web or see my scsi adapter, but what the hell. I’ve had an interesting time, learnt far more about my hardware than I knew before and plenty about the Bourne Again Shell.

I have been a CorelDRAW! licence holder since version 2 and I suspect I was the southernmost on the planet until a friend 20 minutes drive south of me bought DRAW! on my recommendation. So when Corel released their Linux distribution, I plonked down some more cash ($A35) and purchased a copy.

Corel’s Linux was the worst distribution I had come across to this point in time. Accepting the default install, I was presented with a command line prompt that appeared for a second then disappeared for several seconds continually. Logging on as root took several minutes. This occurred on both machines and when using VMWare to create a virtual machine under a Win2k Release Candidate beta. I have lost my notes from this period, so I can’t recall all that I had to do to get X working and finally having a working KDE desktop.

By this time we had killed the “be your own ISP” at the office and I was dialling up to an ordinary ISP. I managed to connect to the ISP, but Netscape flatly refused to connect to anywhere. This wasn’t a nameserver issue as it refused to connect to IPs. I could ping those IPs, so I knew TCP/IP was working.

On to Corel Word Perfect. Double-clicking the installer from KDE’s file manager did nothing, so I read the readme and discovered I had to open a console to execute the command. I did so, but Word Perfect flatly refused to install. At this time I was subscribing to a Corel Linux list and vented my frustration in a somewhat intemperate manner. I had on this list just discovered the ./ trick. Over the two years I had been experimenting with Linux and not getting very far, I had frequently had problems with being able to execute commands. Nobody had responded to any of my posts with the ./ solution telling Linux that the command is in the current directory. Unlike MS DOS, if you don’t tell Linux where the command is residing, it’s incapable of finding the command! God Bless you Phillip Deakes, wherever you are.

Well, that plus the inability of Corel Word Perfect to install on Corel’s own distribution of Linux made me lose it. I made a scathing post to the Corel Linux list and was accused of being a Microsoft mole and was barred from being able to post to the list. Small loss, thought I. The Linuxen were only pretending to help if they were going to keep ./ a secret for so long.

Hardware at this point:

Mother boards: A-Open, Asus
CPUs: AMD K6 200, Intel P75
Graphics: Matrox Millennium II 4 MB, Hercules Stingray 2 MB
Hard disks: Quantum 4.3 GB
CD ROM: A-Open IDE 24x
SCSI Adapter: Adaptec AVA 1505
SCSI Devices: Panasonic 4x CD writer, 8x read, 1 GB Jaz removable HD
Monitor: Philips 17B
Modem: Banksia Wave SP56

I listed the hardware because so many Linux problems are hardware related. On several occasions during this adventure, I was told to "Buy some decent hardware and your problems will go away." One such told me he had never heard of Matrox! I am very particular about my hardware and prefer to spend on quality parts.

Well, once the Linux bug has bitten you, it seems to persist. I purchased a new machine in April, a 700 MHz Athlon, ASUS K7V MoBo, 256 MB RAM, 17 GB hard drive, Matrox G400, a Sony 19” G400 monitor and 3COM/USR modem. I never bought that close to the bleeding edge before. As usual with a new computer, it’s only fast for the first two weeks.

I also had a new ISP that is flat rate, 24 hours a day and no download limit. Caldera had released a new distribution of Open Linux (2.4), so I downloaded it. Well, apart from blowing up my speakers and nearly deafening me, it is the best OS install I have ever come across. Be warned, have your speakers turned off until after the stage where you have the chance to turn down the volume!

In less than half an hour of finishing the install, I was browsing the Internet, printing out of Word Perfect and downloading email. Sadly, KMail is not Outlook and Word Perfect is not Word. So I downloaded the latest Star Office and installed that. It hadn’t improved much over the version I got with Caldera Open Linux 1.3. It has a terrible interface and managed to create a “Word-compatible” document that neither it, nor Word 2000 will open!

Still, Linux gets better with time. I haven’t seen much of the vaunted Linux stability over the last two years or so. I have managed to crash X any number of times and on two occasions managed to get some sort of endless loop going in a console. Hardware resets result in a very long hard disk check due to the lack of a modern journaling filesystem. Nor can disks be combined into a logical volume. I can now get RedHat 6.2 to see my scsi card, but I don’t particularly want to run one version of Linux on my server and a different one on my workstation.

My son Thomas has started to take an interest in Linux. He wants to use my old 100 MHz 486 to set up a router to the Internet, so there's likely to be more to report here later. 

20 September 2000

Well, the old 486's power switch failed, so until I get a replacement the router project is on hold. Thomas is experimenting with Mandrake and I am experimenting to get some semblance of decent font handling for screen and printing under Caldera Open Linux 2.4. The following 40+ pages "may, or may not", to quote one of the authors, help. My initial skimming of these pages remind me of how truly awful life was before Windows 3.1 when decent printing and screen displays required the building of separate screen and printer fonts in all the resolutions you would need. It was slow and ugly. If anything, getting decent screen and printer output under Linux looks worse! Definitely not for the faint of heart, but then I always was a sucker for punishment.

XFree86 Font Deuglification Mini HOWTO

Corel Word Perfect for Linux Fonts and Printers

If you're thinking of trying Linux, keep in mind the following:

  1. What the Mac makes easy, Windows makes possible, Linux makes insanely difficult.

  2. Linux is only free if your time is worth nothing. You may choose to think of it as an investment against when Linux makes prime time as a rival to Windows. It's still a long way out, but "long" in the computer industry is relative.

  3. Get Matt Welsh's book "Running Linux" published by O'Reilly. Accept no substitutes. Until O'Reilly publishes Tom Syroid's book about Caldera Open Linux.

  4. Yes, there is a plethora of free documentation out there, but you need to understand Klingon to understand a lot of it. Note the "Font Deuglification" document above. I've searched on font + display and font + screen many times without finding it. I eventually found it by chance. This is the first and only time I have come across the word "deuglification". I fervently hope it's the last!

  5. Which brings me to searching newsgroups. Rather than hanging out in newsgroups and being treated like shite for being a newbie, learn how to search them for relevant information at DejaNews.

  6. If you do join a newsgroup or listserv to get help, avoid at all costs suggesting that you ever get anything useful done with Windows. This will immediately make you subject to flames and cut you off from any help you might have received. 

  7. Make sure your hardware is supported by checking the Hardware Compatibility Lists for the distribution of Linux you intend to use. Be warned that this does not mean that you will necessarily get that distribution to see that hardware. It just means that someone, somewhere, sometime managed to do so and they ain't necessarily telling how. 

  8. And make sure you have the manuals for your hardware before installing so that when you are asked for critical information, you have it to hand. It doesn't hurt to use Windows Device manager beforehand to check interrupt and port settings for your devices.

  9. Do not buy a Linux distribution expecting to get support. You are better off downloading your choice(s) from the Internet. If that's not viable, there are places that sell the "free" distributions for a nominal fee.

  10. When installing, do a kitchen-sink install and remove what you don't need afterward. The installers don't seem able to ensure that dependent libraries are installed when you customise.

  11. While rebooting often solves problems on the Mac or Windows, it generally achieves nothing at best under Linux and often makes things worse. Learn how to list running processes and kill the offenders with the GUI tool or shell of your choice.

  12. Learn how to use a text editor. vi and Emacs are both popular and I have settled on the former. You need a tool other than a GUI to edit configuration files when X Windows won't run. 

  13. Don't believe the hype that you're going to run Linux on a 386 with 4 MB of RAM. If you want to run a modern desktop environment with productivity tools such as StarOffice or Perfect Office you need minimally a decent Pentium and 128 MB of RAM. Unless you like the sound of the hard disk whirring as data is swapped between RAM and the hard disk.

  14. Make regular incremental backups of your documents. If the power goes out, or you failed to hold your mouth the right way, you may not be able to open that document again.

  15. Editing configuration files often requires extra steps for them to "take". Restarting a process, or rebooting isn't necessarily enough. You must sacrifice the requisite number of chickens on the altar of the Penguin God, or read the requisite HOW-TO. Or both.

That's a far from complete list, but includes some of the most critical stuff. Feel free to email me if you think I could add or modify any of it for the betterment of computing with Linux. 

Thought for the day:

"One of the problems with our current system is that men want women in general to be whores but their own wives to be chaste, or, put another way, men want to be able to buy a wife, but not to have her bought by anyone else. Another problem is that women want men in general to treat women equally but the particular man they marry to support them, or, put another way, women want to be able to be bought by a man, who will then not buy anyone else. While women don't want to be dependent on men, considered as a group, most women feel that it's sexy to be dependent on the particular man they have chosen. They are feminists -- except when it comes to how they live."

Ann Marlowe in Salon

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