Friday, June 23, 2006

The Great Linux Adventure or I Love Debian

I've wanted to learn about Linux for years but I was afraid I'd wind up out on a limb unable to do the things I needed to do. Then, shortly after switching from slow dial-up service to relatively fast DSL, I lucked into a 1.7 GHz, HP, Pavilion (less monitor, mouse and keyboard) that had a completely trashed operating system. At a meeting of the local computer club I'd heard mention of a gadget called a KVM switch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KVM_switch
that lets two computers share a keyboard, monitor and mouse. I bought a KVM switch in a local computer shop, brought it home, hooked it up and set the Pavilion next to my unbranded (white box) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_box_(computer_hardware)
Windows machine. Then I started downloading ISO files http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iso_file
for Linux distros, burning CDs and having a wonderful time. Because there are so many choices and they're easy to use, I started with live CDs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LiveCD
of Beatrix http://www.watsky.net/
DSL http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/
Kubuntu http://www.kubuntu.org/
Puppy http://www.puppylinux.org/
Slax http://www.slax.org/ and
Ubuntu http://www.ubuntu.com/
My enthusiasm may have been infectious because my wife got interested once she saw me using them and spent a lot of time sampling live CDs. I liked the KDE desktop http://www.kde.org/
so I finally installed Kubuntu on the Pavilion but in support of my wife's growing interest I continued downloading ISO files and burning CDs. She tried PCLinuxOS
http://www.pclinuxos.com/news.php
and liked it a great deal. I tried it and agreed with her so we replaced Kubuntu with PCLinuxOS in the Pavilion.

Soon after I acquired the Pavilion I found an affordable 266MHz IBM Aptiva tower (without monitor, mouse or keyboard) in a small computer shop . This venerable old Pentium workhorse ran like a young colt on DSL and, after a few false starts, it was relatively easy to install.
A few days later I found a 333 MHz Dell OptiPlex G1, with monitor, mouse and keyboard, for $10 in a flea market. By this time I'd discovered DSL-N
http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/dsl-n/
and that looked like the best choice until someone in my Linux Users Group mentioned Xubuntu
http://www.xubuntu.org/
Man oh man, Xubuntu is fast on old computers and loaded with software. I figured this was one more old box with a new life ahead of it.

I was on a roll.

I was feeling my oats enough to bid ninety nine cents on a 500 MHz Pentium white box at eBay. I wasn't even shook up when I got the bid and discovered that the freight was $31. I felt it was still a bargain but after it was delivered and I found out the hard drive was shot and the darn thing wouldn't boot from the CD-ROM drive under any circumstances I lost a little of my enthusiasm.

I spent a few weeks tinkering with the computers and making cautious bids on eBay until I'd acquired a 4.3 GB hard drive, some extra RAM http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAM
and I used pricewatch.com http://www.pricewatch.com/ to buy another KVM switch, mouse and keyboard.

During the same few weeks I tried installing STX http://stibs.cc/stx/ on my Aptiva and downloaded a few more Linux distros but I kept thinking about Debian http://www.debian.org/
My reading told me that Debian was difficult to install and at two hours apiece I couldn't bring myself to start downloading fourteen CDs but I kept reading about Debian and hanging out on the website until I read about the net install CD. This is a single CD that's about 112 MB in size which installs a basic Linux system and the Debian installer which will then build an operating system from the online repositories in real time, over the internet. This was just too much for me to resist. I downloaded the Debian, 3.1, i386, stable, net install ISO file and burned a CD. Then I had to decide which computer to use for the trial run. DSL-N was wonderfully fast on the Aptiva but limited in software while STX had ample software but had an erratic sort of "beta" feel to the way it ran. I decided that if Debian didn't suit me on the Aptiva I'd reinstall DSL-N and be done with it. I am so glad I made that decision.

Two hours later I was completely knocked out by the most incredible Linux distro I'd seen to date. The install wasn't particularly easy and it's way too easy to wind up with a less than perfect install if you make a wrong choice along the way. In my personal experience this means you'll have to do a lot of reading and be prepared to start over once or twice before you're happy with it but the payoff is an awesome Linux distribution and Debian ran beautifully on my Aptiva. The completed Debian install has the Gnome desktop environment http://www.gnome.org/about/ which, based on my previous experience I expected would run poorly on the Aptiva because it has only 128 MB of RAM. So much for my previous experience. The Aptiva ran very nicely and I had no idea that so incredibly much software would fit in less than two GB of hard drive space. No, I'm not kidding, the 4.3 GB hard drive is less than half full and this thing is loaded up ya'll. If that's not cool enough for you how about this?

The basic install comes with several nice browsers but Firefox http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/ isn't one of them so I turned on the package manager (Synaptic http://wiki.linuxquestions.org/wiki/Synaptic ); a few mouse clicks and several minutes later I had Firefox. Installing any of an enormous number of additional software packages can be done just as easily. Don't take my word for the software either. Check out this list: http://packages.debian.org/stable/

The more I used Debian the better it looked so I bid a fond farewell to Xubuntu and installed Debian on the Dell Optiplex. I've asked several people about this and nobody's been able to explain it but when the net install was completed, the OptiPlex booted into the KDE desktop. Not that I'm complaining mind you, I love KDE, but the desktop environment isn't one of the user choices in the Debian net install. Maybe the Shadow knows *shrug*. As might be expected, because the Optiplex is a newer, better computer than the Aptiva, Debian runs very nicely on this computer and, once again, because the computer has only 192 MB of RAM, I would have predicted otherwise.

On and off, for several weeks, I spent time with google looking for a clue as to why my 500 MHz white box wouldn't boot from a CD and why it could no longer see the hard drive when I swapped out the defective 8 GB drive for a 4.3 GB drive. I never did get it to boot from the CD but I did finally get the bios http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BIOS to see the hard drive so I took the drive out, temporarily connected it to the OptiPlex, ran the net install CD and when the system shut down, ejecting the CD and expecting to reboot into the net installer, I shut it down, unplugged the hard drive and reinstalled it in the white box. I hooked up the monitor, mouse, keyboard and DSL internet connection http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DSL (which goes to the ethernet jack) and booted it up. It came up just fine and about two hours later it rebooted into Debian with a Gnome desktop environment and that was fine with me because the white box may be technically faster than the OptiPlex but I'm guessing it's motherboard is the economy model because the OptiPlex clearly outperforms it.

My wife has cabbaged onto the Pavilion and while she likes Debian almost as well as I do she's still very happy with PCLinuxOS and wants to stay with it for a while. I don't mind giving up the Pavilion and have become quite fond of the OptiPlex so that will hold me for now and I noticed that Xfce http://www.xfce.org/index.php is in the Debian stable repository. I'll bet the Aptiva would zip right along if I can just figure out how to turn on Xfce once it's installed. After that, well who know? This is one of those stories that ends with the words "to be continued".
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