On Computers

My Recent Linux Adventures

Jack "daWabbit" Imsdahl , jack@oncomputers.info

25 January 2004

Okay, this isn't really tips like we usually do. But I have recently had a bunch of new Linux experiences and I wanted to share them in the hope some of you will see fit to give them a whirl, too.

Libranet Linux 2.7 “Classic”


I've said over and over that I'm a fan of Debian GNU/Linux and Debian-based distributions and not much on distributions based on Red Hat. The reason is the package management systems. Red Hat's RPM simply isn't reliable enough for me, compared to Debian's apt-get. On a complete installation, I can't see any difference between the two. Both do a reliable job of installing from scratch or upgrading. But single packages added, upgraded or removed after the original installation seem to go much, much better with apt-get than with RPM. Apt-get has never stuck me in “dependency hell” as RPM has occasionally done.

Libranet is a Debian-based distro. Getting the current version, 2.8, costs money, but they allow a stripped-down version, one number behind the current one for sale, to be downloaded for free. That's what I tested because it's the one most everyone can get. I'm too poor right now to be splurging on a distro set and I didn't think far enough ahead to ask for an evaluation copy.

Libranet 2.7 is based on Debian's “Woody” release, the current stable version, and includes the entire Debian base, with Libranet's package selections, albeit a pretty slim set. The whole thing fits on one CD. With the addition/exception of a few nice splash and title screens, it consists of Woody, through and through.

The installer is text-based and identical to Woody, right down to the credits. This is not a bad thing. Yes, it is a bit plainer than a gui installer. And you do have to make a few more decisions than you would with, say, Red Hat's Fedora. Hardware detection is good, though, even picking up on my old Sound Blaster sound card and configuring for it with very little help from me. The only problem I had with hardware was with the floppy drive. It worked fine, but the kernel evidently saw it as a 2.88 MB unit, where it's a plain vanilla 1.44. I fixed that in /etc/fstab after the installation was committed.

For some reason, my network interface card provided a little bit of excitement. On the first boot after configuration, it wasn't initialized correctly. A reboot fixed that and there have been no problems since.

I am comfortable with the Debian installer, but I've tried guiding friends through it's use and had problems. Ask Joe for details. I failed miserably in getting him up and running with Debian. It's a much, much more “geeky” looking installer than some others, though not all that much different in actual use.

One difference I found in installing with the Libranet version of Debian's installer instead of Debian's is that in certain configurations of X and some window managers, I was unable to run at my selected display resolution. I have no idea why this happened. KDE and Gnome absolutely refused to run at 1024x768, staying at 800x600 and refusing to start if set to other resolutions, no matter what I did (whether I edited the relevant files by hand or ran xf86config). Other window managers didn't have this problem and ran at my selected resolution from the original configuration.

Obviously; the package selection in Libranet is limited, as it fits on only one CD. That one CD will provide you with a good running basic system, though, if you let it. KDE and Gnome are available, as are a host of smaller, more compact window managers. Open Office is there, as are several browsers, a good selection of games and toys, scientific and mathematical tools, audio applications, development tools and editors. Should you want things that are not on the CD, apt-get as installed accesses the complete Debian Woody archives, giving you over 8000 packages to choose from.

I can't recommend Libranet as a beginner's distribution. Then again; it's not just for geeks in the way Slackware is. You can install and run this distro. Trust me on this. But it is simply not as easy as using SuSE or Red Hat's installer (or some others). You have to know a little bit more about your hardware and installing to use Libranet/Debian, and probably refer to the manual a bit more. As if to reinforce my notions in this; Debian's newest unstable release is using Red Hat's anaconda installer. I've tried it and recommend it as a way to get the best of both distros. I'm sure Libranet will follow suit in this at the first opportunity.

Even with my reservations, Libranet yielded a good running and stable system. I probably won't get hooked on it, but there's good enough reasons to use it. My wife is asking for a Linux box of her own and I'm going to give her Libranet and see what she thinks.

A 2.6.1 Linux Kernel Grafted Into Red Hat 9

I must admit to not having any real need or reason for upgrading my old Compaq Proliant 800 running Red Hat 9 to the newest stable kernel. I did it out of curiosity, plain and simple. Well, and to be an early adopter, for once in my life.

Machine specs are not impressive, being sadly out of date. (Did you expect anything different from me; the old hardware guy?) It's a dual processor box, but with only two Pentium 2 CPUs running at 450 MHz, 128 MB of registered RAM, one 4 GB SCSI drive and 4 60 GB ATA-100 disks in a software RAID configuration. There's only 1 MB video memory on the ATI Rage Pro video built into the mainboard. I once had it set up as a workstation, but now have dispensed with the gui for the most part due to that lack, though X is still installed. I have no sound card installed, either.

Compiling a kernel is not really as hard to do as it sounds, though I must confess I still refer to the man pages and how-tos a lot, in order to keep from making silly mistakes. There are a lot of opportunities to go wrong, but if one collects accurate information on the hardware involved and takes the time to consider every decision, it's entirely doable by all but the most casual of users. I am not going into the details of rolling your own kernel here. I'll stick to my experiences with it.

When RH 9 was installed on this machine (during one episode of the show, if you'll recall) the box was equipped with only a single CPU. Shortly thereafter, I acquired a compatible second unit and installed it. Then I rolled my own 2.4.18 kernel for it. That was not the most recent kernel at the time, but I already had the source code on hand and wasn't willing to download more source right then. I compiled a kernel for SMP (Symmetrical Multi-Processing) and had at it. Worked right the first time, too.

I basically followed the exact same procedure when I did the 2.6.1 kernel and it didn't work. The second CPU was not enabled. On the off chance I had made a mistake, I recompiled after checking that I had the right settings and that kernel didn't work, either.

My source code files were okay. I verified them with the checksums provided. I didn't understand where I went wrong and I still don't because, after checking the source, I repeated the make from A to Z and after installation, the kernel booted, utilizing both CPUs. Obviously, I did something different, but I cannot pinpoint what it is.

It works fine, but I must honestly say I can think of no good reason for switching from 2.4 to 2.6 on older hardware. I found absolutely no change in processing speed, reliability or anything else. Until there is some compelling reason for going up to the newer kernel, I recommend you don't bother. Eventually, there will be new hardware that isn't supported on the older kernels or security vulnerabilities that can't be patched, or something on that order, and that's the time to upgrade.

Add to that the fact that upgrading the kernel to 2.6 will upset some X Windows installations, requiring reconfiguring or upgrading to a newer version, as well as some peripheral drivers which will need the same (printers and scanners, mostly, judging from what I've heard) and I have to say I'd wait unless, like me, your curiosity drives you to injudicious acts.

Now that I've done it, I judge it a relative waste of time. Still, it was a learning experience. I'll be building a Linux installation on an Athlon 64 based machine next week, if all goes as planned. That will use the 2.6 kernel and because it has SATA drives, fast memory and all sorts of modern stuff, I suspect will make much better use of it than my old machine can. This will also be my first real experience with 64 bit computing. I'll let you know how it goes.


© 2004 Jack Imsdahl

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